Thursday, June 12, 2008

Classic Values ~Kouros by YSL: fragrance review

Kouros : how misrepresented you are. I almost feel pity... Or perhaps not. Because it has been over applied and misused by many, it earned a reputation of no less than "piss" (enter the comment of a character in the indie film “The locals” who says so, when the other guy slips a bottle of Kouros out of the glove compartment saying girls at work like it). Yet I still love it in small doses!

Someone I know who actually did work for Yves Saint Laurent back in his heyday had a little anecdote on its creation to share: when Yves visited Greece in the 1970s he made a stop at Sounion/Sunium, that cape at the edge of Attica with the famous Poseidon temple {click to see an atmospheric photo and here for a more classical one}. This temple is situated at an advantageous point for surveillance of the Aegean in case of a potential enemy fleet and formed part of the Holy Triangle, marked by three major temples (Aegina island – Athens – Sounion cape). The day was bright, the sea ahead was azure blue, the columns of the temple stood imposingly solid. The only etchings on the marble then were those of Lord Byron who obviously felt the need to leave his name on a piece of antiquity: see, vandalism was not unknown even back then, even if Byron assisted the country’s National Revolution. It must have made an impression: he quoted Sounion in Don Juan ~
"Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where the waves and I can only
Our mutual murmurs sweep
There, swanlike, let me sing and die."

But I digress... Yves contemplated the view and was inspired to recreate the feeling in a perfume. The progressive sketches he made were of stylized columns that little by little became the austere white image of the bottle we know today. "Living Gods have their perfume: Kouros", ran the advertising campaign.

Kouros the name was in keeping with the Greek theme: Kouros (plural kouroi) is an iconographic type of the archaic Greek sculpture of 6th century BC that featured the famous archaic smile. A statue of a young man, in the nude, with one leg slightly protruding before the other, it gives the impression of motion that is about to happen any minute now.
Kouros, the fragrance, composed by the great Pierre Bourdon (Iris Poudre, Ferre by Ferre, Dolce Vita, Cool Water) launched in 1981 and became iconic of that period winning a FiFi award the next year and holding a place in bestsellers for years to come. With its intense, pungent almost orangey blast of the coriander opening it segues on to warm clove, sensual oakmoss and a touch of ambergris (that infamous whale byproduct that is so hard to come by) and infamously civet, managing to smell both sweet and bitter at the same time, urinous with sage, quite powdery which is unusual for men’s scents; insolent, animalic, audacious, almost Gordon Gekko! The drydown is like freshly washed hair on a sweaty body.

It is usually recommended to all ages, but frankly I can not picture it on the very, very young, nor the old. It's best in between: a little experience is necessary, but not that much! To be rediscovered by a new generation pretty soon. I just wish they came up with a feminine version of this one : if it’s so common to do so with women’s perfumes, then why not with men’s?

The Flanker Fragrances of Kouros

The original Kouros is one of the fragrances with the most "flankers" over the years (flankers are new, often wildly different fragrances coat-tailing on the success of a best-seller using the name and bottle design in new twists, as devised by the company). These tried to lighten up the load of the odoriferous original. The experiment started with Kouros Eau de Sport in 1986 (now discontinued) and Kouros Fraîcher in 1993 which added bergamot, orange blossom and pineapple, while still remaining the closest to the original.
From 2000 onwards, interest picked up, a comparable case as with Opium, and parfums YSL launched Body Kouros composed by Annick Menardo (of Bulgari Black fame) in a black bottle goving a twist through vibrant eucalyptus on the top notes and adding Camphor-wood and Benzoin to the drydown, the latter's sweet caramel vibe clashing with the mentholated notes of the former.
Kouros Eau d'Ete in 2002 plays on blue-mint, rosemary and cedarwood and comes in a clear ice-blue bottle. Kouros Cologne Sport came out in 2003 and relied on cedrat, bergamot and tangerine for the top with the florancy of jasmine and cyclamen in the heart. Neither of those really resembles the original ~which is either good or bad according to your reaction on the latter.

Kouros Cologne Sport Eau d'Éte sounds a little like they ran out of words (cologne, sport and summery!): it launched in 2004 as a limited edition in a gradient blue bottle (predictably). Yet another limited edition Kouros Eau d'Ete launched in 2005, with just a marginal play on the box.
The latest was the Kouros Tattoo Collector (2007), another limited edition: lighter and with a peppery accent it comes in an Eau Tonique concentration which fits somewhere between Eau de Toilette and Apres-Rasage/aftershave. And what about the tattoo? Well, it came along with two temporary tattoos in the box. Booh, if you're going to be serious about anything, get a real one, please!
This year sees a gradient bottle of blue (again!) with the tag Kouros Energising. Ooouff! Enough!

So, what do you think of Kouros? Love it or hate it?

Image of Archaic kouros from Getty museum, pics of ads by Parfumdepub


  1. Anonymous09:38

    Lovely review and interesting anecdotes. I have always loved the Body Kouros from 1999/2000 and it was only today that I got the chance to smell Kouros and I love it! Very distinctive and I am sure it will remain a classic in male fragrances ever created.

  2. Hi there dear T!

    I can see how it might have flewn under the radar even for a seasone perfumista such as yourself: it had such a reputation!

    It is very distinctive and it has a quality that is controversial: it does smell urinous. No joke!
    But then some of us can take a little of that.
    It definitely is considered a classic.

  3. Anonymous13:41

    I detested Kouros when my father wore it, back in the day. That was a long time ago, when I didn't like perfume at all! He went through three bottles of the stuff until one day he opened a new bottle, took a sniff, declared it smelled like «piss» and took it back to the perfumery claiming it was damaged. Reading, many years later, about the infamous reputation of Kouros and the civet note, I can't help but wonder: could that bottle indeed have come from a lot gone bad, or did his odorous cells simply choose that day to become more attuned to certain facets of the perfume? I'll never know...

  4. Anonymous17:41

    I've been DYING to try it, but am having a hard time finding the original on ebay

  5. LOl, Sylvia, what a funny and thought provoking story!

    What happened out of the two possibilities?

    Maybe we'll never know, but thanks for letting me know. It confirms the rumour wanting this to be urinous, it's not just us perfumephiles, then! :-)

  6. Rachel,

    really? Odd, one would think that all those who sprayed and found it "piss-like" would then sell it.
    You should definitely try it!

    I found these for you:

    (the following is in AUS dollars):

    Good luck!

  7. Anonymous18:47

    Kouros smells like urine, period and this is the absolute truth. Not that I am looking down on you but this is how I feel about it and ain't gonna change now.


  8. No arguing with that :-)
    Not everyone is expected to like it so it's refreshing to hear you say so.

  9. I really wanted to love it, and actually did on first sniff. Unfortunately, I could never re-create that first impression with subsequent encounters. It was always standing-over-a-subway-grate-on-a-hot-night, every time. So I gave my bottle away to a devoted fan. I hope he's enjoying it.

  10. Great description, M! So, it was love at first sniff to be later replaced by broken expectations...Story of a perfumista's life? LOL

    It's definitely polarising!

  11. Anonymous08:56

    Have to try it yet!

  12. Hurry thee to an YSL counter and do! I am looking forward to your impressions :-)

  13. A scent that exudes manliness and confidence. My signature scent and the one that consistently gets me compliments. I can't imagine my collection without this gem. Unfortunately, it has been reformulated so it is not as dense and long lasting, but it is still King Kouros!

  14. Long live King Kouros, sacredsystem (and welcome to PerfumeShrine!)
    Love this one :-) Confidence and manliness: what's not to like? ;-)

    1. Anonymous02:46

      I'm a 28 year old male from Perth, Western Australia, & it was only after discovering Basenotes & all the notorious Kouros threads that I came to make a blind purchase.

      Funnily enough I had a memory at the time of smelling a YSL fragrance at a department store some years back, remembering it as rather pungent. I assumed it was Kouros after reading the litany of controversial aspersions cast on it, & just had to buy it! The one I had smelled sole time ago turned out to be Rive Gauche pour Homme, but it didn't matter, because now I own both!

      I think Kouros is just brilliant stuff! It will always be a leading contender, & for me is almost a past-life regression. To me it speaks of a specific time & place: Greece - and I've never even been there! That, to me, is a dynamo fusion of an inspired fragrance backstory with the scent in question.

      I find it incredibly louche & European, & so unique/unusual/distinctive that it transcends the perceptions I may otherwise have had about it being typically butch or "power scented". Whereas Antaeus & Jules come across as very French, Kouros strikes me as sublimely Mediterranean, and I feel absolutely honoured to be able to wear & enjoy it with as much reckless, feckless pleasure as I like!

      Kouros does something to me that few others do - it hits that pheromonal pleasure centre in my brain. It's macho as hell, but also very elegant, very passionate, & very romantic. Nan loves it on me too, she knows where it's at!

  15. Michael,

    that's such a compelling elegy to Kouros. I bow in silent assent and I'm Mediterranean myself.

    Wear it in good health!! (and hope that others revisit this marvel prompted by your eloquent comment)

  16. To be brief, I've taught on the subject of the Kouros as sculpture.

    At issue is your inability to type a more intelligent diatribe on your assertions regarding the perfume. You write well, so it's something of a pity.

    The Kouros would have been the supreme example of youth, structural soundness and integrity. While angular and not yet representing the classic changes to come, he seems nevertheless ready, unfazed, and has the unmistakable sense of the eyes looking beyond the present and into the future (it's noteworthy that the Kouros was taller than the person carving it, but not much taller. So, a certain, if distant that into a campaign.)

    I'm more troubled by YSL's lack of research and coming up with a massively popular AD campaign (sometimes things sell because of the AD)than I am by what they produced. One man's garbage is another man's...oh, you know what I mean.

    Have a great day,

    George V Richards

  17. Walter/George,

    thanks for chiming in. I had to read your comment twice, but I'm still rather confused with it.

    The problem with it is threefold IMO:

    1.It's not clear whether you like or dislike the perfume, so one can't make out the disappointment about the scent description.

    2.You then embark on telling me things about the kouros statue which I very well know already, since I'm an archeologist & historian and hailing from the place where they actually originated, so have had first hand experience with them. (I even taught about them a bit too in the context of a broader context, LOL)

    3. You attempt to make an interconnection of the ad campaign to the statue, which is non sensical because ad designers aren't classical scholars to stick to a strict scientific standards, and people buying the perfumes aren't either.
    So the (alluded? I couldn't really be sure) discrepancy of archaic (the statue reflected in the name) and classical (the Poseidon temple itself) comes through a bit anal retentive, if you ask me. And since you put a comment here I suppose you did ask me.
    Furthermore I assume that YSL fully well knew about the time periods and that Kouroi are not gods. All educated men of a certain standing are aware of these things and he had a Greek consulting him at the time in his team (this is a fact).

    Advertising (successful advertising, that is) works on associations and making interconnections where none were given in the first place. The silhouette of the column is reflected in the man standing next to it on the right, the lean lines and the solidity (solidity being a prime aspect of the fragrance itself) become the silhouette of an immobile fixture (denoting the durability of classic values). This immobility invested with the promise of future mobility, combined with the gaze into eternity and the future that comes so naturally at this particular spot on god's green earth (as you describe so well in your kouros analysis) brings to mind a…kouros. The youth full of promise, full of "distant intimacy", to use your words!
    The masculine ideal in western civilization is very much Greek-originating and since the ideal identifies with the gods ("you're a god!!!, "you look like a goddess!!") and Greek gods are markedly human like in contrast to every other religion of the times, therefore the result of this train of thought amounts to the slogan of the campaign: "living gods have their perfume: Kouros". I think it makes perfect sense, don't you?

    Do I have to spell out everything? :-D ;-)

    1. Anonymous16:41

      Perhaps. English is a second language for me so it may he that some of the finer points of my comments may havw been lost in translation, so to speak. So my apologies. However, I don't miss the finer points of your crass response coming, as from someone at a cocktail party who is surrounded by a crowd of parasitic sycophants hanging on to your every word as if spoken by the gods themselves.

      But I do know something of the kouros. And the connection between it and the gods of the Greeks could not be more distant. So in effect the YSL slogan is neither perceptive nor clever. Not surprisingly, not so far removed from your own novella.

    2. We may have started on the wrong foot, as the saying goes. English is a second language for me as well.
      Maybe the comment about my perceived "inability to type a more intelligent diatribe on your assertions regarding the perfume" provoked a more assertive response in the first place. But George, really, you give it as well as you get it, in your response here, many many months later too.

      HOWEVER, and to make a long story short, the point of contention was the discrepancy between man-status of a kouros and the mention of a Greek god in the perfume ad, correct? And what I'm essentially saying is that while that might be true from a technical sculptural/archaeological point (we don't disagree on the veracity of that discrepancy), it has no practical bearing on the subliminal references it makes; and advertising relies on subliminal references first and foremost. If you have ever been interested in advertising and its history you well know that already.

      After all it is just my personal opinion that the slogan is clever, for the reasons I described; you're not obliged to take my word for it, it isn't gospel, you're not indulging in hubris. Constitutionally, I'm still allowed to voice opinions, I believe.

  18. KOUROS is possibly in my Top 10 alltime fave scents. I glommed onto it the moment it came out in 1981, and felt that no other men's number smelled more like "me" than this one. (I was later pleased when an astrologer said that KOUROS vibrated to the sign Aquarius... my own sun-sign). I always thought KOUROS smelled like a men's locker-room: sweat, urine, freshly-washed hair, crushed turf, urinal cakes, and the rubber of well-used running shoes.

    When I finally got to smell some vintage Schiaparelli SHOCKING! I felt it had a kinship with KOUROS. And of course, KOUROS's relationship to BRUT cannot be denied. So... is KOUROS a fougere? A chypre? Something else?

  19. R,

    so nice to see you here! How are you? :-)

    I love your description and had no idea about the astrological, if any, connection, but that's interesting to think about.
    I'd peg it as "animalic fougere". ;-)
    It's great! (I love Antaeus too)

  20. Anonymous13:27

    Dear Elena,

    I have just revisited your review of Kouros and thought I should drop a line. I have been fortunate enough to find and purchase two vintage bottles, both testers at almost 90% full. Found them in a humdrum god-forsaken little shop on the outskirts of Athens. Along with a vintage M7 (found in the northern town of Naoussa) and a vintage Opium from the mid-80s, they make up the most cherised part of my collection. One is divided, though, whether to wear these gems or just keep them and preserve them for posterity.
    Kouros in its current L'Oreal formulation is a mere shadow of its former self (ah! les cochons at L'Oreal!). What I have come to understand, though, is that there seem to be more or less subtle differences depending on the particular batch. There seems to be a gamut that ranges from stuff tolerably reminiscent of the former glory to simply watered-down, standardised unacceptable concoctions.
    Kouros is history, albeit past, out-of-reach history, in a bottle. What I wish to tell you here, now, is that I believe it takes a special kind of man to bring forth its provocative and daring classicism. Kouros should be worn as part of a broader aesthetic that accomodates extreme sartorial sophistication with subtle eccentric dissonances that nevertheless don't disrupt the undergirding classical ideal. And the wearer should ascribe to an extremely rigorous hygienic regime so as to give the fragrance a neutral physical backdrop to shine with its faecal / urinous tones. One must find a way to wear this perfume rather than "be worn" by it.
    I won't say more so as not to tire you and your readers. For me personally there are moving cultural connotations in Kouros, as well, since I am Greek, and the Hellenic subtext behind the fragrance never fails to move me.....

    1. Thank you for the wonderful and insightful comment! Και καλό Πάσχα!!

      Hold on to your bottles (what great finds!!!), but wear the stuff. It might go bad if let too long (it's already what, 3 decades?)
      I think we've come to a point that the "dupes" for famous modern classics smell more "authentic" than the real stuff. (This has happened to me with 2 scents lately. Very surprising) Les cochons chez L'oreal, alas, are counting the beans like there's no tomorrow, alienating true lovers and old customers. But it's all about the new, right? :-/

      Kouros is a milestone and its memory of it, having lived with people who wore it, will be indelible.

  21. Anonymous17:05

    Dear Elena, a few thoughts on your comment: "I think we've come to a point that the "dupes" for famous modern classics smell more "authentic" than the real stuff." I've had the same experience recently with a replica of Tom Ford's Tobacco Vanilla, an arguably difficult perfume to wear due to its boozy, quite cloying character. Now, believe me when I say that the particular (I emphasise the particular) "dupe" and the original are virtually indistinguishable! The experience has been both exhilarating and frustrating. The former because I have realised that with a mere 10 euros you can smell like you wear 150 quid! The latter because I feel I've been repeatedly duped having paid a small fortune for eponymous products that don't hold up to their reputation (esp. reformulations of classics).
    The key element, of course, is to find the right place to get this stuff because Athens, for example, has been flooded with similar shops selling coloured water or miasmatic concoctions. The place I am talking about is in Halandri and the guy who owns it is a chemist and knows his business ( At my instigation he has now brought more "Tom Ford," such as Tobacco Oud, which I will try shortly, and let you know, if you are interested.
    Obviously, the "dupes"phenomenon is something that needs to be addressed by fragrance aficionados / commentators. One can't just bypass it pretending it's not there, or just be dismissive. Much as it may hurt niche sensibilities. You are a rare case of a specialist who has dared to poach the issue.

  22. Dimitri,

    it's heartening to see that there are people who do know their business and care about delivering a good product, even if it is a dupe and not the original product. I didn't know about this chemist, so thank you for providing the info. It's of course unfortunate that I learn of this after I have *already* bought a load of TV myself! :-( Wish I knew this beforehand. As you say it's a perfume that wears thick and rich and I wonder how I will ever finish it, I use a couple of drops each time, LOL! Thanks for offering an opinion on TO to follow, interested in hearing what you say, especially since oud is such a controversial topic (and I know TF uses the Givaudan "base").

    I think the niche phenomenon has capitalized on the need to smell different, especially since the reformulation of the classics, which left many disillusioned, exactly as you say, but in a way it's also its own illusion because it gave the overwhelming sense that the difference was in the ingredients while in fact the differences lie elsewhere. So perfume aficionados need to recalibrate the POV and examine everything on its own merits. Which is true for ANY perfume really. I truly hope that the tide will ebb eventually and the best will be left standing, while the miasmata (urgh! as you say!!) will be gone. At least this is the reality of all businesses, right?


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