Friday, September 5, 2008

Sycomore by Chanel: fragrance review

"Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss, Beauty?
Your gaze, divine and infernal,
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime,
And one may for that, compare you to wine ...
From God or Satan, who cares? Angel or Siren,
Who cares, if you make— fay with the velvet eyes,

Rhythm, perfume, glimmer; my one and only queen!
The world less hideous, the minutes less leaden?"
~Hymn to Beauty, Charles Baudelaire

In 1930, Coco Chanel had a dream: she envisioned the perfect, most beautiful woody perfume that was baroque in feeling, yet bore no frills. The result, Sycomore, a 'woody scent with balsamic notes' composed by her Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux, was not appreciated in its time and soon disappeared. Just shy of 80 years in the making, Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake, resident noses at Chanel, recomposed the woody vision of mademoiselle Coco and the finished fragrance forms part of Les Exclusifs ~Chanel's prestige line. The two however do not bear any similarity: The vintage Sycomore had "a distinct tobacco-violet note and all the other elements (few) built to enhance this idea" according to Octavian Coifan while in comparison the new version is very much centered around true vetiver; and a smokey one at that.
In many ways it is a departure from the other iris-ladden Les Exclusifs which affirm their Chanel pedigree by use of costly raw materials evoking segments of previous successes of the brand. Sycomore does not.

Sycomore instead emphasizes its aristocratic dryness of humble origin with a tangy grapefruit opening and subtly cooling, clean muguet notes that complement the Haitian vetiver variety, also used in Guerlain Vétiver, so well. Almost simultaneously it allows soft impressions of a warm incense cloud slowly setting upon evergreen needles and rooty dirt (a la Route de Vétiver by Maître Parfumeur et Gantier) to uplift you into a wistful and introspective contemplation of life and mortality. And if you lower your head and pay attention to its murmur, a resinous, only marginally sweet touch of the licorice note that naturally arises in several distillations of the material itself, slightly reminiscent of Dior's Eau Noire drydown, vibrates at a low frequency, along with woodfire smoke.

Officially marketed as feminine for women who do not like flowery compositions, yet cunningly poised between the two sexes, it has an hermaphrodite side that whispers of something mysteriously chic, chastetly beautiful and utterly unattainable; like Björn Andrésen, the youth Tadzio in Luchino Visconti's 1971 "Death in Venice" (the film adaptation of Thomas Mann's masterful novel).
His remarkable androgynous beauty prompted feminist Germaine Greer to use a photograph of Andrésen on the cover of her book "The Beautiful Boy" (2003). She would have approved of a scent strip of Sycomore tucked in there too.

The musical score is Gustav Mahler's "Adagietto" from his 5th Symphony.

Notes for Sycomore (2008) by Chanel: Vetiver, cypress, juniper, pink pepper, smoke, burning woods.

Sycomore is available at $190 for 200ml Eau de Toilette exclusively at Chanel boutiques. Considering it uncharacteristically lasts quite well, it is an investement.

Andrésen pic via Bottle pic via
Clip originally uploaded by AssimQuePuderes on Youtube.


  1. OOOOH !
    Death in Venice- I LOVED that scene...

    I adored this release, when I first smelled it in Feb. of last year; it is a glorious work, imminently Chanel-worthy.

  2. Anonymous13:33

    Great post! I just wore this yesterday. I'm only just beginning to appreciate Vetiver. My appreciation started with detecting it in No. 19, and before I knew it I was enjoying Sycomore.

  3. I need to go back and revisit Sycomore. I sniffed it in a marathon session with all of the other Les Exclusifs, and wasn't able to get a good take on it.

    That Adagietto from Mahler 5 was gorgeous.

  4. Anonymous15:37

    So what is the point of Death in Venice young hunk? That the scent is a little gay-ish? I haven't smelled it and is not something I would expect out of Chanel, but then again you never know and I believe the majority of men who buy fragrance themselves are gay anyway so they could borrow this or buy it themselves, so it makes sense to have it work both ways.

  5. Naughty Aline !!!

    Not gay, my sweet- just good for both genders.
    Gay is good, though.
    I'll go with gay, LOL.....
    MWAH !

  6. Anonymous17:00

    Chayaruchama, I didn't mean that gay is a bad thing, but that young boy in there is not very masculine-looking and there were some rumors about his sexuality too, so I thought that Helg mentioned it to draw attention to the fact and describe the fragrance as fit for someone who is searching something that's out of the usual categories, just like a gay person is positioning himself.

  7. In my opinion, the modern Sycomore reflects perfectly the philosophy of Hedi Slimane about boys and girls sharing the same wardrobe (this idea is explained by the fashion designer in some interviews published early this year). It can be worn by both sexes because it lacks the elements that would turn a vetiver into a masculine or a feminine scent according to modern perception.
    For me it's a fragrance that lacks sexual connotation or definition. :) Like the picture, is an age without definition and it can be both in the same time.
    Of course there is space for many interpretations but in my humble opinion there can be a parallel with Chanel style in mid 20's and the young french boys/girls listening to modern rock music (I hope it doesn't sound fantasy but it's a type of fashion I see in Paris, see pictures from Rock en Seine festival).

  8. Aline...I was only trying to nudge you gently.
    NO offense meant...

  9. Add this to my long list of scents of that I need to smell. Seems that Sycamore shares that beautiful androgyny that Angelique Encens has.

  10. Anonymous19:14

    I love the scent but it has absolutely zero lasting power on me.

  11. Anonymous19:15

    Get it now, Chayaruchama, none taken.

  12. Dear I,

    yeah, wsn't it the most poetic thing?
    I think it's a very chic fragrance. And oddly, not rehashing previous olfactory themes.

  13. Lindsey,

    No.19 is a wonderful introduction to vetiver: the EDT especially is full of its green coolness.
    It's an exciting road, to be sure, and Sycomore is a prominent signpost.

  14. J,

    that Mahler piece is soooo romantic, so wistful, it summarises so many things.

    Yes, definitely do try Sycomore again. I am interested in your opinion on it.

  15. Aline,

    I believe Chanel didn't market something for the gay market, but they wanted something with a broader appeal, that could be shared, yet wasn't labelled as "unisex" (a term I find rather displeasing, eunich-like).

    That youth in Death in Venice is meant to represent the sadness and beauty that an unatainable ideal is producing in us and yes, a bit of an ambivalence in gender. Hence the inclusion.

  16. I,

    thanks for replying to Aline directly.

  17. Aline,

    I had read someplace that this young actor abandonded acting altogether after some rumours about his preferences (perhaps we might have had the same sources?) and it's rather sad if so.
    But, to clarify, I wasn't implying that Sycomore is destined for those who want to position themselves a certain way. Just that it might interest anyone because of its ambivalence.

  18. Dear Octavian,

    agree with your assesment in it not being tied to any particular sexual orientation.

    Good point about the 20s fashions: the flappers and their androgynous physique with the long waists and the flat chests.
    The sub-cultures of music genres are very into a certain look and there is a trend of pop-rock (esp.Brit pop a few years ago, but also current electronica) which mixes the fashion to the point of appearing very androgynous indeed (and might I say more on the effeminate side rather than the opposite).
    Might that be an unconsious influence in the minds of artists such as perfumers? Possibly.

  19. Jen,

    it's worth checking out next time you're outside a Chanel boutique. It's not sweet in any way, nor is it especially sensual, but it has an austere elegance that grows on you.

  20. Anon,

    that's a pity. I imagine you must have even greater trouble with the rest of the exclusive line by Chanel right? Only Coromandel out of those lasts well.

    >>Btw, and irrelevant to your comment, but had to say it: shouldn't it be Les Exclsuives in proper French? I had to "correct" it into Les Exclusifs like anyone else in order for it to get legible by Google :-(

  21. Ehhh..Les Exclusives, I meant of course. Typos, bane of my existence.

  22. Anonymous00:13

    Wonderful review as usual, but I was so very disappointed in this one as I love vetiver. I use the e.o. quite frequently in massage and energy work, and a vetiver, lavender and rosemary bath is heaven! Unfortunately for me, I got a LOT of the note that I think they are calling "burning woods"; I called it dirty ashtray! It then turned into rotten flowers, left dying in a vase of fetid water, before going back to dirty ashtray. On my skin (extremely fair, strawberry blonde) the lasting power was relentless - I dabbed a tiny bit on (from a sample vial) in the early afternoon and the dying floral woke me in the middle of the night! I still smelled the ashtray in the morning. UGH! Back to Guerlain for me.

  23. Anonymous00:17

    P. S. Mahler's beautiful music sounds more like Vol de Nuit to me!

  24. I have to second that, rappleyea. Death in Venice and Mahler are the last things that come to mind when I think of Sycomore. Aschenbach, poor aesthetized mess that he is, would be wearing something like Czech & Speake No.88. Sycomore is cut from the same cloth as the "classic" vetivers that came out in the 60s ... and while I don't want to assign an orientation to it ... is more "straight-acting" in its character. And what's more, it allows women to--once again--gently cross the (evaporating) gender divide in perfumery.

  25. R,

    thank you and sorry it disappointed; well, no harm in that, the market is full of vetiver fragrances. It is indeed quite smoky, I agree with you. Luckily I didn't make the connection with the dirty ashtay; I wonder whether it does have something to do with Ph acidity?
    Vol de Nuit has other specific connotations to me personally, perhaps will reveal when I review it in full. ;-)

  26. C,

    hi! Nice to see you.
    I thought it was clear that I wasn't assigning Sycomore to Aschenbach. It was the androgynous beauty of Tadzio that I got reminded of, hence the top pic: a boy with the softer beauty of a girl. No sexual orientation in this, just outward appearence. Maybe it's more obvious in the comments above.
    Like Guerlain's Vetiver, S can be worn by both sexes, but -unlike it- it is officially marketed to women, not men. Therefore, there is this delicious ambiguity, which I like a lot. (Perhaps the most "straight-shooting" vetivers to me are VE by Malle or the Givenchy)
    It is indeed lovely when women are allowed to cross the gender divide, I agree with you.

  27. The marvelous thing about Tadzio is that, truly, he doesn't have to wear anything at all.

  28. C,

    you're absolutely right, perfectly put. :-)

  29. pragmatic09:59

    I really like this one. Just like you when i wear it, i feel good, the most therapeutic perfume ever.

    This vetiver is amazing and though adulterated by tobacco smoke and a hint of warm aromatic spice, it still retains the grassy, green, refreshing properties. A little bit airy, smoked out, gently diffusing away

    I love the easy, non plussed, calm sophisticated aura it lends. I feel capable and well.

    I think the ingredients are really masculine on paper but on skin, it is really genderless. The perfect his/hers perfume on the dressing table

  30. Pragmatic,

    it's absolutely perfect for lovers to share, isn't it? Beautiful beyond words.

  31. David M05:08


    Here are some of the reasons why your comments are offensive. When you say "That (sic) the scent is a little gay-ish?", you're appealing to stereotypes that straight people have about gays. You're assuming there is a peticular way to be gay, and you’re posturing as a straight person who thinks they are addressing a 100% straight audience about ‘what gay people do’. This may surprise you; gay people are different just like straight people are different. For your information, there are gay men who may be so hung-up on ideas about masculinity that they wouldn’t touch a fragrance marketed to women, or consume fragrance at all, just like there are straight men who wouldn’t care about using a fragrance marketed to women exclusively.
    You reply to chayaruchama that you don’t “mean that gay (sic) is a bad thing”, but you dive right back into appealing to stereotypes and say that the “young boy in there is not very masculine-looking”. You may not realize this but there are gay men who are quite macho and straight men who are positively femmy.
    You also invoke “rumors about his sexuality” as one of the reasons why you wonder if Chanel used the model deliberately for the purpose of attracting gays. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t need gay men to market to gay men, and you don’t necessarily need straight men to market to straight men. Saying “I din’t mean that gay (sic) is a bad thing” doesn’t make sense when you just finished articulating what you think is “gay-ish” and “not something I would expect out of Chanel…”
    Finally, you make the generalized assumption that ‘a gay person is positioning himself’ ‘out of the usual categories’. Well I don’t appreciate you insinuating that straight people are “the usual categories” and gays are on the outside, ‘positioning ourselves’ on the outside looking in. Guess what, gays aren’t an outgroup unless there are straight people saying we are and posturing themselves as ingroup. Gays are not an outgroup or a sub-culture or an alternative lifestyle. There are gays who want nothing more than assimilation and to be part of “the usual categories” as you put it, and there are straight people who fancy themselves rebels and ‘position’ themselves outside the ‘usual categories’.
    Please stop the madness Aline!

  32. David,

    your commentary is well taken and you make some excellent points. It's very hard to "judge" who does what and who thinks what and who are we to judge anyway? There's as much variety among gays as there is among straights and both groups reserve the right to position themselves how they choose.

    One note of importance though: the choice of Tazzio was all mine (as I noted above to Aline too), Chanel had nothing to do with it. They didn't put a face to the scent. Therefore I might have kickstarted a discussion that was perhaps peripheral and unintentional. I'm sorry that you have felt uncomfortable due to some generalizations going on because of it; I hope you continue to pose such interesting counter-discourse.

  33. About the link with Death in Venice, it's funny because there's something unattainable in Sycomore for me, yes, Sycomore doesn't last on my skin at all, and it's my current favorite fragrance, which makes me very, very frustrated. The weird thing is I don't have this problem with Bois des Iles, Coromandel or Beige, the other Les Exclusifs I won. I tried everything, I super moisturized my skin with lotions, oils, lotions + oil, etc, etc. It doesn't work.... I wonder if there is something like a "defective" perfume batch?

  34. S,

    ah, that is such a glorious unexpected correlation between art and perfume, eh? But I bet it's disappointing.

    *ssssh* One tip: spray your clothes. Sycomore doesn't stain in my experience and lasts quite a bit that way.
    (I don't think there's a defective perfume batch and these are not really likely to be faked)


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