Wednesday, January 14, 2009

La Petite Robe Noire by Guerlain: Say What? (New Fragrance Musings)

Some time ago, last August to be exact, Perfume Shrine had speculated that Guerlain would be issuing new perfumes soon with city/travel names etc. (you can read that article here) Among the already registered, copyrighted names was Habit Noir (=black dress). The name was eerily reminiscent of the classic masculine in the Guerlain range, Habit Rouge. It was perhaps the stroke of unoriginality to name something "noir" amidst a plethora of products on the market termed Black-this and Noir-that. Even Guerlain themselves had recently issued the limited edition bottle Black Mystery for their iconic Shalimar! It took a reader of mine to point out that Aromamundi had been privy to interesting facts:
"This sweet gentleman had access to the new Guerlain Homme quite some time ago, and talks about new Guerlain releases for 2009, including ("including", goodness gracious!), I quote, a "Voyages à ..." series (might be the capitals you spotted?), "Une Petite Robe Noire" centered around a candied cherry note*, and the "Habit Noir" you talked about".
To which I had replied:
"Voyages must be the line with the capital cities, Habit Noir must indeed be another Habit Rouge flanker and the Petite Robe Noire (sounds like an Frenchified Avon that one!! LOL) must be a new feminine limited edition, perhaps".
Une Petite Robe Noire has materialized and is set to go it seems, according to this press release appearing on, hence the picture:

The fragrance, a fruity gourmand, starts on notes of Sicilian citron, licorice and almond*, over a heart of rose and smoky tea to finish on a musky and vanillic background ~translation by Helg

*{NB: Please remember how often the cherry-pie note and almond are referenced in heliotropin-based fragrances, which is one of the key ingredients in Guerlain fragrances}.
The bottle is the classic Mitsouko and L'Heure Bleue design with a sketch of a negligée-looking black dress on it that reminds me of several things: for starters Plum Syke's heroines of the chic-lit novel "Bergdorf Blondes" (English mid-maintenance girl goes to NYC and conforms to high-maintenance lifestyle aiding her "catch" the perfect romantic suitor where she leasts expect it); then the illustrations by Ruben Toledo in Laren Stover's delightfully light and fun "The Bombshell Manual of Style" (a beauty boards' afficionados best-seller); and finally the "girly" stationnery that looks like something coming out of a Sex & the City old filofax.
If I judge by comparable "guides" to looking elegant or looking French (tongue-in cheek or not) or even more weirdly living a la Francaise there is a wide market for that sort of thing! (I urge you to click on the links and see for yourself; one of the basic taglines for the book is "perfect black dress". Come to think of it, it's interesting to search "little black dress" on Amazon by itself!). And no nation wants to be Frencher than the North-Americans (the love-and-hate between those two cultures is well-documented). It's interesting to note that all those guides are written by English-speaking individuals with various degrees of competency or indeed fashion sense/knowledge (this one commits the grave faux pas of attributing an emblematic Givenchy dress worn by Audrey Hepburn to Coco Chanel for instance!)

The above observations are completely my own and Guerlain is not corroborating (nor refuting yet) any of the above. Yet, they're there! A direction towards the American market seems Guerlain's latest strategy it seems, as discussed in detail in The Guerlain Conundrum article here. But more importantly I sense a further disorientation in strategic mapping out: As succinctly our guest writer AlbertCan noted on Now Smell This :
"The little black dress? How is this referencing the Guerlain heritage?(Getting into Chanel marketing territory--yet again)".
Another reader comments on the heels of that:
"As for the "invention" of the black dress which has become a classic, I think this is now in the public domain. Most designers put them out and black is worn ubiquitously outside of funerals."
and another
"there is some book cover with a little dress... and it's a white dress, but it reminds me of that bottle"
and yet another
"Is it just me or did Guerlain just scoop up a name that would have been perfect for a new Chanel perfume instead?"
Aside from the well-known fact that Avon already has a fragrance exploiting the concept of the "little black dress" since 2001 in -you guessed it!- Little Black Dress by Avon, the name alludes clearly to what is considered a "chic" French classic. presents the new Guerlain fragrance with the tagline "un parfum déjà culte" (an already cult perfume). Clearly the "cult" is the harvesting of the iconic status of the little black dress, a concept synonymous with images from another era.

But the thing is, the little black dress matched with the set of pearls and the red lipstick is such a cliché now that no truly chic woman in French-inspired Europe (or at least in the circles I move in!) readily chooses to wear it any more. I am not disputing the ease, comfort and elegance of the little black dress idea. I even have several in my own wardrobe. It is a landmark in the history of fashion for a reason! I am merely commenting on the over-analysed, over-simplified "trickling down" of its appeal which has conspired to ultimately cheapen it ("wear this and feel like Audrey Hepburn" proclaim all the rock-bottom and mid-price lines ~sorry, that ain't gonna happen that easily..). Personally, Hepburn physique non-conforming aside, I would never pick a little black dress for a semi-formal/formal occasion now exactly because it's so expected, nor would I pick a fragrance "to go with it" as a result.

But here is the really interesting part and pay attention, dear readers: One of the quite frequent questions appearing on fragrance-discussing fora on the Internet is about what fragrance to match with a certain "look". There was this example on a very popular forum a while ago, which I am linking here for your perusal and no doubt interesting deductions. The question was paused by a lovely American lady from New Jersey:
"This Saturday I will be attending a pretty swanky wedding. Guests have been asked to wear black and white attire. A friend gave me a gorgeous designer cocktail dress which I had fitted perfectly. It's very Audrey Hepburn and I can't wait to wear it. My mother had vintage heels and a bag which are the perfect compliment to the dress. I have not been this excited to dress up since my own wedding. Now that my clothing and jewelery are selected I've turned my attention to fragrance. What shall I wear? So, dear POL members, what fragrance would you wear with your "Little black dress"? I hope to be inspired by some of your suggestions."
I will save you the trouble of wading through the thread if you lack the time. I did it for you: The resounding answer is "something from Chanel" amidst other recs, very few of which happen to be Guerlains.
Something tells me headquarters are paying very, very close attention to what is being discussed online (the new marketing is taking note of online communities) and trying to come up with the tricky part of reconciliating the appeasal of the core fans of the Guerlain brand with the commercial potential of their new products. The task is Herculean, it's easy to lapse, alas and I am not unsympathetic: We LOVE Guerlain around here, if you've been reading Perfume Shrine regularly. And until I get my own share of juice to judge I cannot proclaim whether it is good or bad naturally.
But the news of the launch do give pause for thought, so I decided it's interesting to bring it into the open discussion arena and therefore I would be genuinely interested in your opinion, dear readers; here in the comments or privately if you prefer. As always rest assured that Perfume Shrine is respectful of every range of opinion.

Oh, and I almost forgot: of course La Petite Robe Noire is going to be an exclusive at Guerlain boutiques starting February at 100 euros for 50ml., which I have to admit is not unreasonable (Should you be concerned for Habit Rouge, there is a Sport version out shortly, see our previous news)


  1. Ah, pffffff (adding Gallic shrug here). La Petite Robe Noire, and what else is new under Ze Soleil? You're spot on: the only person I've seen in an LBD and pearls here in Paris is the artist Sophie Calle, at a fellow artist's funeral, and I'm not sure whether she was being ironic (it didn't show enough to show, you know what I mean?).
    Back to Guerlain: you're surely right, they're targeting Les Américaines in a very chick-lit, shopping-novel, SaTC sort of a way.
    And right again: the PRN (LBD) *is* Chanel territory though now ubiquitous, and you won't catch Chanel going there...
    Chuckles on the "candied cherry note" -- why not Play-Doh?

  2. Thanks D for corroborating my thoughts by providing an actual Parisian testimony to back up my arguments.
    "Ubiquitous" is what I was too hazy and tongue-tied to say myself.

    Ah, ze "Play-Doh"! La reference des gens parfum-maniacs!
    I will perhaps tackle this complicated subject in my usual style on another day. ;-)

  3. Anonymous14:47 in the American South, the LBD isn't as ubiquitous as in Paris or NY; there are still a lot of pastels and jewel-tones here, believe it or not. So I do wear one sometimes, because here it still looks good. But never with pearls! I put both on awhile back, looked at myself in the mirror, and thought "you look like a Republican." Off came the pearls.

    As for Guerlain, it would seem as though they're still dithering a bit; the LBD imagery is clearly a positioning move, IMHO. For the American market, surely.

  4. Very interesting observation, P!
    I guess it's exactly the rarity vs. frequency of what has been spotted fashion-wise that makes it or not seem "ordinary", no matter how well-made it might be in itself.
    The Republican image is especially "emblematic" too (this is a very interesting phenomenon to a foreigner like myself)

    A positioning move; that's what I thought.

  5. Anonymous15:36

    Thank you for this E - I think. As a die-hard Guerlain fan I don't know whether to laugh or cry; oh for the days when a new Guerlain scent was released about every five years and you knew it was going to be perfect even before you had the chance to sniff. Le sigh.

    The description actually sound like the antithesis of chic LBDness, but who knows? Perhaps it will be love at first sniff!

  6. D,

    thanks for commenting honey :-)

    Well, in all honesty (and humility)I am perfectly willing to give them the benefit of a doubt and come back later and say "OK, I was wrong". (I have been known to do this with the Chanel Coco Mademoiselle campaign so it's not like it's an alien concept for me to admit that). I want to be proven wrong!

  7. Ugh, does that mean my screen name is passe, E, lol?

    Guerlain's marketing direction is baffling, isn't it? For a company steeped in 180 years of history, which is no small feat, you would think they would have a better marketing strategy. They seem to have forgotten who they are, and their core values have been misplaced or put aside as they try to look "hip," "chic" or whatever image they are tying to project.

    Well, at least the bottle is classic (save for that LBD graphic which looks so out of place), the notes seem interesting, and the price is more "reasonable." Maybe they are slowly inching back to the high standards that made them an icon in the perfume world. Let's hope for the best.


  8. Helg you really hit it on the head, I saw the bottle yesterday on Now Smell This, and I immediately thought: that dress looks like an illustration from the cover of a chick lit/fashion book.

  9. Anonymous21:23


    This makes me sad. The name and bottle seem tacky to me. The notes, well, doesn't Guerlain already have a Cherry fragrance. I'm sorry a Cherry fragrance with several flankers. The sweet almond theme has also been used in L'Instant Magic.
    It is a Guerlain and I will try to find a sample of this, but nothing about it seems appealing right now.


  10. Anonymous23:20

    Dear Helg:

    IMHO, i think that Guerlain has lost a lot of cachet without a Guerlain as head nose. This latest release seems evidence of that. And personally, licorice/anise/fennel are deal breakers for me. I'm an ardent Guerlain lover and wearer EXCEPT L'Heure Bleu.

    Oh well... I'll stock up on their classics and call it a day.

    Sorry too that I've been MIA the last couple of weeks - I've had the dreaded flu that has been making the rounds around here.


  11. I guess I can really only comment on the bottle and the name of the perfume, and neither are compelling to me. I don't understand the demographic they are trying to appeal to, but I think they might have missed the boat entirely on this one.

  12. Well, this gave me a laugh Helg and god knows I need one !
    That is not a little black dress - thats a bloody nightie!

    Oh my lord, they have gone insane!

    *Makes a change from me! LOL

  13. ...I'll stop weeping for a few moments to add this, from Cosmo's site:

    C'est la nouvelle cible Guerlain : une fille qui assortit sa petite robe noire à des bottes de motarde, et qui sent bon le macaron framboise avec juste une pointe de réglisse.

    À croquer.

    ...yup, raspberry macaron with liquorice.

    ...within that bottle.

    ...I... OK, I can't judge before I even have smelled it, but the whole deal (bottle + cartoon + name + gourmand fruity) makes me want to kick something. Or someone.

    Oh well, it will probably sell like hot, er, macarons. All the more power to them, and I'll just keep my fingers crossed that maybe, one day, the Il était une fois line will finally have an addition. We non olfactory-candy cravers need a little fix, too.

  14. My dear R,

    usernames are not commercial products! Therefore one can choose whatever one pleases no matter what. :-))

    I hope for the best, but something doesn't click. Actually that design on that bottle rather annoys me, personally. I realise that the specific bottle design has been chosen as the emblem of the new "limited editions" and special things to give coherence and the sense of tradition. But that tradition does not get reflected into either the dress choice (for the sartorial reasons hinted at above) or the vibe of the scent (at least from what I am starting to imagine through the info, since I haven't smelled it yet! I could be totally wrong!)

  15. J,

    deson't it? It was the first thing that popped into my mind. I think I got sent a notecard (stationery) with something similar once.

  16. D,

    oh dear, I hope you're feeling better now! Best wishes for full recovery.

    You bring a point which I hadn't really elaborated on. There is some loss of what we thought as tradition with the change of guard (at least the guard that gets communicated to the outside, as we knew there were lots of people involved in the projects, which is not a bad thing in itself).
    I would have liked to believe that the in-house nose is a step in the good direction. But he has to be helped in his task, not hindered, by the actual marketing and PR sectors...

  17. T,

    the demographic seems to be aspirational 20somethings reading chic-lit who have some fragrance budget for something "luxe".
    Not that I have anything against 20somethings ;-)

  18. No one says it with more phlegm than you, dear M! LOL!

    I do hope you're slowly starting to feel a little better.

  19. My dearest S!!! Where have you been!! I missed you :-)

    Thank you ever so much for providing the extra info on the actual scent.
    "raspberry macaron with liquorice": I am not too thrilled, myself, agreed. I'd rather eat it than wear it!

  20. I thought I commented yesterday. I hate what they have done to my beloved bottle! That isn't a dress it's a sack.

  21. The bottle needs serious rethinking...

  22. There was also the rumor of a Guerlain Fashion House - as it appeared in an interview given last year by Hedi Slimane (he was speaking about a proposal/conversation with B.A. - LVMH). Little black dress is less a fact and more a myth today - if you believe what Vogue and Harpers tell since 2 years it's still a trend. But despite all promotion in the fashion area as a "still fashionable item" - I do not remember to see women in Paris wearing what is presented in magazines.
    Like the Avon product - a fragrance to be used in any circumstances (like a passepartout) this concept is very close to their airport products - easy mixtures sold in l'heure bleue-like standard bottles, with a pink/lilac reflection.

  23. Octavian,

    if the idea of a fashion house materializes (brrrr....) then it would make sense they're bringing this out as an hors d'oeuvre.
    I am glad that I get more corroboration on my fashion observations regarding the LBD.

  24. Anonymous09:10

    It doesn't sound like the reviewer has actually smelled the fragrance because there is no comment on the fragrance its self, just the packaging, names and history were analyzed. This is nothing like any chanel I have ever tried and must admit it is complex, beautiful, interesting and sophisticated. I think I will purchase a couple more bottles before they stop making it because i truly adore this fragrance. I have about 100 fumes in my collection and this is an absolute stand out.

  25. Hi Anon!

    This isn't a review, nor is it tagged as one. So it's definitely not focusing on the smell itself, you're right. At the time of writing, indeed I had not smelled the fragrance, I only had received the news on it, which I admit had baffled me quite a bit. Guerlain used to stand for tradition, sophistication, a certain old--money-chivalry and all the cues hinted at by packaging, name and design suggested a fragrance of un-Guerlain cloth, so to speak! I then came to smell the fragrance and it bored me with its sweet fruitiness, so no actual review ensued.
    By all means, if it rocks your world, nevertheless, the most intelligent thing is indeed to stock up, so good move! It's doubtful that it will go down in history as the next Shalimar re: longevity or classic status, so grabbing it while it's hot is the best policy. I find this is wise with all perfumes we like, really.

    Last clarification: The comparison with Chanel is certainly (and only) made vis-a-vis the "trademarking" of Little Black Dress by the Chanel brand, to which the commenters above are responding to themselves. Not about the smell. I thought it was perfectly clear. Maybe it was not. At any rate, now it is, I guess :-)

  26. Elaine Reisman19:19

    I guess I'm a little behind the times since I just recently found a place to buy, and try La Petite Robe Noire. I'm in love with it. I don't think enough people have given this scent a chance to settle and become its true essence. Yes, it starts off as cherry, but it later becomes something mysterious and sultry, almost smoky. Men have commented about it whenever I have worn it. In fact, I haven't gotten as many compliments since I last wore Bal a Versailles. Men love that scent too since it strikes something very basic in their repitiore.

  27. Anonymous17:34

    I tried it yesterday and don't like it. I got a sample yesteday when I bought my Shalimar. I feel its lacking something. Geurlain fragrances, to me, have a special 'something' that attracts me to them and this does not have it. It does not have the depth and warmth of the other Guerlain fragrances I have tried.

  28. Elaine,

    hmm, it's youthful I guess and "on trend" and men are creatures of sameness sometimes and in with the times. Then again if it suits you and you're in love with it, it must do wonders for you and on your skin so don't let anyone stop you!!

  29. Anon,

    certainly not a typical Guerlain by any stretch of the imagination (not excited either). Then again, not all people are into Guerlain like we -obviously- are. It takes all kinds.


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