Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lament for a Fragrance in Sepia ~Cabochard by Gres: fragrance review

“Headstrong” or “stubborn” is not the first thing that comes to mind when I contemplate on my mother’s personality. Yet it was the formidable, petulant perfume thus named, Cabochard, that had won her heart and ~along with Dioressence~ became her insignia. The Grecian-inspired fluted designs of Madame Grès which were cut directly on the body would have suited the Dorian drama of her beauty. Her dreamy flair for romanticism however betrayed appearences and made a fascinating juxtaposition with her bombshell fragrances. Thus the merest whiff out of her now almost empty bottle never fails to bring back poignant memories of my childhood with a Proustian rush. Talking about it dews my eyes like writing the obituary on an era: trying to recapture those sepia memories like a faded vignette is doomed to fail due to the fragrance being irrecovably changed.

Cabochard comes from the old French word “caboche”, meaning "headstrong" or "self-willed", according to the Petit Robert dictionary. It was Alix Grès, neé Germaine Emilie Krebs and formally trained as a sculptress, who opted for it, to accompany the independent nature of her couture. Alix Barton was her first business pseydonum. But she later took her husband’s ~Serge Czerefkov, a Russian painter ~ first name and with a partial anagram settled on Grès, opening la maison Grès in 1942, amidst the German occupation of Paris. Soon she was dressing everyone, from the Dutchess of Windsor to Marlen Dietrich and Greta Garbo.

The story of creating Cabochard
The credit into making Cabochard a success is attributed to Guy Leyssène, who met Madame Grès at a dinner part two years prior to the perfume’s launch, per Michael Edwards. It was Guy's suggestion that she should issue one because it was a profitable enterprise which all the other fashion designers of the times had embarked on. It took only a month for Grès to ask him to help her create her own perfume. {interestingly, according to history of the first perfume was called Muse in 1946}. However, nothing is as simple as it might look. "Cabochard is a miracle of complexity […] the secret life of a Parisian woman with no age and no illusions" wrote Luca Turin about its scent in 1994 and its story is just as complex.

The perfume that was in works was a composition by legendary perfumer Guy Robert, called Chouda. Robert was young and under the guidance of mentor Andrée Castanié, then editor of L'Officiel de la Mode et de la Couture, had been introduced to Mme Grès in 1956. But it took a trip to India, the land of exoticism, which prompted Alix Grès to further her plans on the house’s fragrance. The visit had begun innocuously, invited by the Ford Foundation to assess Indian brocades. It was there that Alix Grès discovered water hyacinth: a flower she became enraptured with. It has a sweet odour, rich like tuberose, yet with a fresher top and slightly warmer. The experimentation of Guy Robert yeilded rich fruits: Alix loved it, however Chouda was almost exclusively used by her (only five litres of Chouda were ever made) as it was too flowery for the tastes of the 50s which veered towards classic chypres. She launched another fragrance under the pressure of public input: the mod of what was to become Cabochard, made by Bernand Chant of IFF, was received much more favourably and thus the plan to push Chouda was ultimately abandoned, although the two were issued almost simultaneously in 1959. It comes as a surprise that there were focus groups even back then, but it is a fact that puts things into perspective: public reception is (and will always be) the moniker of how things work in a sector that, although hinges on art, is also largely a business.

The story of the bottle for Cabochard, as well as Chouda, is also extraordinary in that it was the already made and discarded stock of Guighard, a small glass manufacturer later acquired by Pochet. They had made the bottles for another company who never bought them and in order to save costs, Grès bought all 500 of them for both perfumes. The difference was the little bow that adorned the pharmaceutical stopper: grey for Cabochard, green for Chouda. The Cabochard success (it sold 250 bottles in the first week of its launch alone!) secured numerous backorders to the glass manufacturer. In a way, the commercial success owed to the enthusiasm with which it was promoted by a commission salesman formerly working for Piguet (whose biggest seller at the time was Bandit). According to Leyssène the demand was so pressing the sales were doubled each year for the following ten years!

Scent Considerations: A Leathery Chypre Marvel
Cabochard utilised the same aromachemical with Bandit: isobutyl quinoline, a harsh green and pungent, dry leather aroma, yet fanning expensive, precious, sweet flowers over it. Inspired by the archetype it muted the smokiness until the drydown. Cabochard offers a capricious bitter orange opening instead, with the illusion of wading through wild bracken catching a distant whiff of clove and hairspray. The crackling leather, powdery afterfeel of face cosmetics was sustained for hours on skin, emitting grace and confidence in a similar manner to Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, although with rather more sweetness and less birch. To Gres it recalled a walk along a deserted Indian beach:
“the crispness of the early morning air, the warmth of sandalwood, a hint of far-off flowers, and the dry caress of sea breezes”.

The parfum sitting on the dresser of my mother ever since I can remember was so warm and rich than mere drops were enough to scent her hair and garments, retaining the essence of who she was into my heart of hearts. The eau de parfum in older versions is also exceptionally good, while the eau de toilette has a lighter but sharper quality.

The difference between the vintage and the recent re-editions can be traced back to 1984 when Beecham Cosmetics acquired British American Cosmetics, who had bought the Grès brand in the interim after Alix closed the couture house. To celebrate Cabochard's twenty-fifth anniversary, they changed the grey velvet bow into frosted glass, encased the bottle in a black instead of a black-and-white one and brightened the citrus top while also restraining the animalic accord. The 40th anniversary of Cabochard was celebrated in 1999 with a Bacarrat crystal flacon, designed by Serge Mansau and what seems yet another re-formulation which finally put the tombstone on one of the best in my opinion perfumes of the 20th century.

Official notes for Madame Gres Cabochard:
Top: aldehydes, bergamot, mandarin, galbanum, spice
Heart: jasmine, rosa damscena, geranium, ylang-ylang, iris
Base: patchouli, leather, vetiver, castoreum, oakmoss, tobacco, musk, labdanum, sandalwood

Pic of bottle from official Gres site


  1. How I've loved this.
    Along with Mitsouko, Femme, Jolie Madame, it was one of my first perfumed loves and purchases.

    For me, so easy to wear, and so very expressively green, sumptuous, earthy.
    How wonderful, to associate your mother with this...
    [the more I hear snippets about her, the more I feel I would cherish her- how fortunate you are !]

    Beautiful sentiments.

  2. I wish I could have smelled the original - I've only ever smelled the modern reformulation. Perhaps though, it is for the best... I can appreciate the modern version without being haunted by the beautiful memory of what the scent once was. There are such chimeras, lost in time my heart still chases after. The longing tends to be painful.

  3. Dear I,

    I am sure that you would! I have been very fortunate in my life, I have no doubt about that.
    I was sure that you would love Cabo, she's such a beauty. It breaks my heart not to be able to find her in the current jus.

  4. Dear D,

    in a way, you're lucky indeed. When something is thus imbued with memories, it is very sad when it's gone...

    PS. can't argue with that

  5. There were 2 periods in the fashion house history - The Alix house in the 30's and later the Grès house. There are very famous pictures of Alix dresses in Vogue 30's featured near Vionnet - in the neoclassical greek inspired mood.

  6. You're right Octavian, thank you for your comment: it's a fascinating maison de couture, isn't it? I was especially amazed at her claiming of pret-a-porter to be a sort of "prostitution".

    I recall the Nan Kempner dresses from the exhibition of the MET: but those are from 1969-1970. Still, the pleating and draping is unmistakeable.

  7. Wonderful, touching post. I have been lucky enough to sample the vintage, thanks to a generous friend, and I understand why you mourn its loss. The current Cabochard is really a very different animal, although I have to admit that I like it pretty well--forgive me. :-)

    I had never heard the story of Chouda before. It sounds exquisite, just the sort of thing I would love. And of course, it's completely unobtainable. I don't know whether to thank you for the story or not!

  8. Anonymous18:18

    I'm sad with you on the demise of this beautiful perfume. I've had the fortune to own that beautiful bottle with the grey bow. It was the first perfume I fell in love with at the tender age of 16, and what a disappointment it is now. I'd love to revisit many of the perfumes I've loved when I was younger, but I'm afraid to be disappointed.

  9. Thank you M for your lovely compliment. Regarding the story of Chouda, well...the chronicler couldn't resist and the crazy sampler had to be held in check, lest wandering fingertips searched the net for impossible prizes.

    I know you would understand the degree of the loss: If I hadn't such a finite point of reference the matter would not have stung as much :-(
    But I forgive you ;-)

  10. Sabina: you feel my pain!

    One day when I will be in really self-punishing mode I will take my list of reformulated glamazons to the store and stare at their meagre skinny modern legs in earnest.

  11. Chaya, I love this too. I wore (and wear) the original vintage parfum. It has such a lovely dry down.

    I love the bottle.

  12. Let's form a little Cabo appreciation club! We can sign a petition for getting back the old formula!
    No, seriously.

  13. Anonymous09:36

    What a beautiful and heartfelt post, E.! I only know the modern formulation but it leaves me "incomplete" reading how you describe the original.

  14. Thank you dear N. :-)

    The original was quite something *sigh* One cannot really forgive this or Dioressence, I'm afraid...

  15. Anonymous14:33

    Your reviews are so informative without being in the least bit dry, thank you so much! As I think I said, I have a bottle of probably the latest reform and I like it well enough though I always sensed "something" was missing especially after I read the chapter devoted to it in Michael Edwards book and now this. And so imagine my delight when I found one of my favourite ebay sellers had a minature of vintage parfum for sale. I'm holding my breath until it arrives...

  16. Dear N,

    thank you for your profuse praise, you make me blush. I enjoy thinking that these musing provide pleasure.
    You're correct in thinking that something was "missing" because it was. There has been serious cheapening of the floral part and the warmth and depth are not there any more.

    You're very fortunate in securing parfum for that one: I am crossing my fingers that it will arrive in pristine condition and are looking forward to your impressions! :-)

  17. I smelled Chouda - a very unusual perfume. Hard to say if beautiful or not but original for sure! A hyacinth not fresh but balmy-oriental-deep with a milky gardenia note. It's hard to get inside this fragrance (I'm still puzzled)!

  18. If anyone should and would have, it was bound to be you, dear Octavian! I appreciate your impressions of it very much.

    I am looking forward to your unravelling its secrets and sharing them with us :-)

  19. Anonymous22:57

    Well dammit. I just received a new bottle of "Cabochard" in the post. I've been ordering it online for the past 10 years since it's fallen off the store shelves here in NYC and I can't buy it locally now.

    What I received today doesn't even resemble the fragrance I've been using for almost 30 years. What I received today smells like a cheap fragrance purchased from my father's drug store back in the 60's. I am quite disappointed.

  20. Anonymous14:22

    As I approach 60, still wearing Cabochard, I am touched and saddened by your lovely piece. It was a gift to me at 16, the gently pinched bottle and grey velvet bow.I adored the bath oil even more. One touch of it is all that I need to carry through my day (and night). Is there nothing to be done about bringing the original (and the bath oil) back?

  21. Anonymous22:00

    When my mother died ten years ago, I went to Great Lakes Crossing Mall to buy a bottle (Not exactly cheap at $35.29!) of the cologne: It was not as I remembered it when I was little, and went to the Vogue in Flint, Mi. to smell the stuff that wafted there: Crepe de Chine (Millot) was another that I loved. I felt that with her passing , I was finally old enough to wear the stuff. I wish that I could get a vintage bottle of the REAL one...I'd wear it until my last days, if someone could properly reconstitute it!

  22. I smelled it when I was a kid. I loved it. I still use the new one, but I remember the intricate scent that filled the room and changed on my skin. The reformulation isn't a patch on the old.


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