Family: oriental, woody
Notes: sweet lime, bitter orange, bergamot, neroli, lavender, cinnamon, pimento, basil, carnation, rose, rosewood, cedarwood, sandalwood, patchouli, vanilla, leather accord, benzoin, labdanum, frankincense
The scent of expensive new cars
Period: The love years
Habit Rouge collection
It's with good reason that Habit Rouge remains Guerlain’s proudest work in the men’s department: it strikes the rare balance of being utterly unique, all the while oozing the traditional Guerlinade signature. We regard it as a classic and mature fragrance, however it is the work of a very young perfumer. Jean-Paul Guerlain was only 28 years old when he created it. He has since been quoted as saying that "perfume is the most intense form of memory," and he proved this and the extent of his talent when he brought Habit Rouge onto the world market in 1965. Smell it once, and it will be filed directly in your olfactive long-term memory.
The name Habit Rouge refers to the traditional scarlet coat worn by fox hunters. Like his ancestors, Jean-Paul Guerlain was an excellent equestrian himself (he was nominated for the French Olympic dressage team in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal), and this woody, citrusy and leathery fragrance is often described as a vivid reminder of all things associated with high-society horsemanship. In reality, though, Habit Rouge had more to do with riding cars than horses, with its sharp, plasticky styrene note known from the leather upholstery of expensive new cars, which may explain its popularity among men in the seventies. The ad, on the other hand, stated that "everything Guerlain has learned about women went into this cologne."
It's really no surprise that Guerlain should create what passes for the world's first masculine oriental. "There is seldom a good perfume without vanilla," Jean-Paul Guerlain observed. Unaffected by the widely-held assumption that vanilla is feminine, he wanted men to explore the delicious Guerlinade signature. Most Habit Rouge lovers think of it as a male complement to Shalimar. The bergamot-leather-amber harmony indeed seemed inspired by Shalimar, but Habit Rouge was really something of its own. In technical terms, Guerlain describes the keystone of Habit Rouge as a rose-leather accord, more specifically the powerful, fresh-floral scent of citronellol which occurs in rose and geranium, combined with a tannic leather note. (To get an idea of just how powerful citronellol smells, consider the fact that it's used in insect repellents as well!) It seems that whenever these two materials are present, no matter what surrounds them, we can't help thinking of Habit Rouge, which is also why Habit Rouge is so easily recognizable when a passer-by wears it. The rest of the composition consisted of a citrus-neroli-lavender cologne mixture, together with warm spices, woody notes, musk, and sweet balsams redolent of cinnamon and port wine. Unique too was the remarkable balance of all this, today still esteemed as one of the most perfect and pleasing fragrance formulas to be found on men's grooming shelves. Whether you ride horses or in cars, it smells literally like a well-dressed excursion into the crisp air of an autumn scene, awash with fall colours.
With Habit Rouge, Jean-Paul Guerlain initiated the liberation of masculine perfumery: finally men had a license to use for themselves something as elegant and stately as what women had been wearing for decades. "To all the secret followers of Guerlain perfumes," said the ad, "you can come out in the open with Habit Rouge for men." It introduced an obvious "dandy" vibe, very distinct and immediately recognizable, that vivacious, fresh-sweet and talc-like effect of orange blossom on benzoin which potentially could scare away its target audience. However, with its herbaceous, rooty undercurrent, at once raspy and refined, it had all the manly gallantry of a patrician at his mahogany-panelled country club. With its unusual character, many men report it as their very first cologne or at least the one they remember. Today you will still be able to overhear senior customers at Maison Guerlain declaring their lifelong devotion to Habit Rouge. When asked if it will ever be discontinued, Guerlain replies, "Non, Habit Rouge c'est comme les petits pains," — a French institution as constant as croissants.
But actually for Jean-Paul Guerlain himself, Habit Rouge has a lot of bad memories attached to it, recounts Sylvaine Delacourte. "It was the first oriental for men and when he launched it, his uncle, the boss, said to him, 'What have you done? What you've created is a fragrance for women, not for men! Men don't wear perfumes like Habit Rouge.' So Jean-Paul Guerlain was obliged to make something less sweet: Habit Rouge Dry. According to Delacourte, Habit Rouge didn't do well at the beginning. There was no marketing at the time, but Guerlain kept trying to convince men to wear it. "Little by little, it became successful. But at the beginning, he had so many complaints from his uncle that for him, 'Habit Rouge' equals 'problems'. He used to wear Vetiver, which is the opposite of Habit Rouge. If you wear Vetiver, then you don't wear Habit Rouge. It's rare to wear both."
Bottle. The bottle for Habit Rouge followed the Vetiver model until 2000 when the latter veered off with a completely new look. Hence, Habit Rouge began its life inside the simple travel container and red-capped sixties' style atomizers before moving over to Robert Granai's noble Eau de Toilette bottle in 1988. It has stayed there ever since, although its red label is now streamlined in accordance with contemporary aesthetics. Like Shalimar, over the years Habit Rouge has been sold in a myriad of special-edition bottles. As a consequence, many people believe that an endless number of Habit Rouge variants do exist, even if the fragrance was unaltered. In 2016, the metal cap of the Habit Rouge bottle is replaced by a coloured design that matches the exclusive Parisien line.
EdT, EdP, Parfum. When Habit Rouge was released in 1965, it was classified as an Eau de Cologne, albeit with a higher scent percentage than even an Eau de Toilette contains today. Thierry Wasser has explained that one way of making a fragrance comply with IFRA's safety norms is by lowering the overall scent concentration, which is why perfumes used to be much stronger and more tenacious than they are nowadays. Still, the EdC version had a certain aromatic softness and delicacy, which the EdT lacked. The EdT came out in 1988, and it adjusted the balance to make the effect of citronellol scratching against leather appear even more striking. For those who preferred the former, Habit Rouge Eau de Cologne stayed in production right up to 2007. The EdT emerged with the eighties' demand for more powerful scents — a trend which also gave birth to more intense Eau de Parfum (or, in Guerlain's terms back then, Parfum de Toilette) versions of Shalimar, Jicky, Mitsouko, L'Heure Bleue and Chamade in 1986-1987. Habit Rouge fans generally view the EdT as the most classic version.
Considering that in 1992 Guerlain had introduced the Eau de Parfum format to men with Héritage, the EdP version of Habit Rouge came rather late, namely in 2003. Though being the unmistakable scent of Habit Rouge, it was more a reformulation than a mere concentrated variant: extra formal, firmly woody and suave. It gave a new creaminess to the Habit Rouge accord, with the biting citrus top toned down, and an addition of jasmine and a golden, slightly fruity oud note. Oud can be a difficult note in perfumery, as its characteristic scent immediately affects the expression with a Middle Eastern vibe, but in Habit Rouge EdP it was well integrated and subtle, just enough to add a becoming warmth and smoothness to the accord.
In 2008 Guerlain presented Habit Rouge L’Extrait, a novel category in men’s scents and at first only a one-off production. In the good old days when Jacques Guerlain was at the helm, the Parfum version was always the point of departure and therefore the most authentic representation of the scent, but nowadays it's usually a whole new composition, tweaked to get a deeper and darker feel. Ironically, Habit Rouge L’Extrait was the farthest departure from the original, turning Habit Rouge into a modern woody niche scent. The bright, singing signature of citronellol and aromatics was almost absent and replaced with a long-lasting super-cedarwood backbone, and a rich, cashmere-fine patchouli with earthy facets of bitter chocolate, coffee and camphor. Despite its extravagant price, it fared well enough to be granted tenure, but was discontinued in 2016.
Reformulation. In the same vein as the new Mouchoir de Monsieur, Habit Rouge has been tidied up. Thierry Wasser, who is very outspoken about reformulations, explains that apart from the usual adjustments imposed by IFRA, the formula has not deliberately been changed, but that some of the perfume bases that go into Habit Rouge are bought from external suppliers and may have been altered, which is out of Guerlain’s control. Now Habit Rouge is all straight lines from start to finish, lighter, drier and leaner, and without the heavy musk. As for the EdP version, it seems to have given up on some of the melodious roundness for which agarwood is well-known. Habit Rouge is still elegant but less of a bon vivant, tiptoeing cleverly between the old and the young generations.
Variations. Guerlain attests that the idea of perfume flankers isn't new. Habit Rouge's citrus-leather-vanilla arrangement allows for many different calibrations, and back in 1967 Jean-Paul Guerlain did develop Habit Rouge Dry (long-ago discontinued) for those men who liked the astringency of the original, but not its flamboyance. In 2005, the citrus top note was further highlighted in Eau de Toilette Légère ("Light"), which was surely an attempt to copy the success of Shalimar Light from two years before. Just like Shalimar Light, it didn't smell exactly "light", though, using lemon and neroli to modulate the whole Habit Rouge "tune" into a blindingly bright, gleeful and slightly metallic key. With its base accord of fresh cedarwood, white musk and amber, it was aimed at gaining the interest of younger men in Habit Rouge, but it somehow took out the classic elegance of the scent, and it was discontinued after a few years.
Then, almost inevitably, in 2009 Guerlain released Habit Rouge Sport. Nowadays, nearly all men’s scents eventually come in a “Sport” version, meant to make you feel fresh, clean, young and masculine after the shower in the gym. Just like intellectuals are often disparaging of sports, most perfume aficionados dismiss sport fragrances as being generic and inartistic. It can't be denied that the entire idea of an “Habit Rouge Sport” feels wrong. First of all, there’s nothing even remotely in the dandy-like scent of Habit Rouge that could be tweaked into a sport fragrance. Guerlain wisely chose to create a whole new fragrance instead. Thank goodness it smelled refreshingly stylish for the sport fragrance genre, with a spiffy green accord of bamboo, pink pepper, jasmine and white musk.
Second, it reminds you that Habit Rouge was named after a sport in the first place, namely that of fox hunting. With its chasing and killing of a fox, and strong links to social class, we would rather forget what inspired Jean-Paul Guerlain back in 1965. Since then fox hunting has been prohibited by law. Maybe that's why any equestrian references were avoided in the presentation of Habit Rouge Sport, which was instead marketed with a racing red coloured bottle, suggestive of sports cars. It briefly appeared in a limited edition called "Gentleman Driver", with the fragrance unchanged. The association to sports car racing actually wasn’t that inappropriate, given that the styrene note in classic Habit Rouge evokes the scent of leather car upholstery. Habit Rouge Sport was discontinued by the end of 2014.
Thierry Wasser put his fragrant touch on Habit Rouge in 2011 with a L’Eau version. Around that time, all Guerlain’s fresh flankers were called “L’Eau”. Unlike Habit Rouge Sport, it smelled like a variant of Habit Rouge, easy-to-wear and less leathery than the classic version, and therefore probably too simplistic for a real Habit Rouge lover. It came with a refined, airy citrus top note, brittle like lemon drops, and a hazel note in the vegetal style Wasser loves so much. It seems clear he created it while working on Cologne du Parfumeur.
While the 50th anniversary of Jean-Paul Guerlain’s Vetiver six years ago went unnoticed, Thierry Wasser has insisted that the same oversight should not happen to Habit Rouge. Guerlain’s gentleman's fragrance turns fifty this year, and to commemorate the occasion, Wasser has created a special anniversary version, called Habit Rouge Dress Code. Since Habit Rouge is named after a piece of clothing, specifically the red riding jacket of fox hunters, the subtitle “Dress Code” doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Guerlain wants to state that if Habit Rouge is for gentlemen, this new scent is designed for those men for whom dressing with style is de rigueur.
Habit Rouge Dress Code does make a statement indeed. Habit Rouge was already an unusual men’s scent when it debuted in 1965, combining feminine fresh rose with masculine leather. It took years for it to become popular, and then only mainly in France. Dress Code retains the signature rose-leather accord of the original, at once aesthetic and tough, but turns it even more flamboyant by incorporating two modern trends in men’s perfumery that seem to correspond well with the Habit Rouge scheme: the gourmand trend (praline and chocolate), and the super-woody trend (powerful woody and leathery aroma chemicals). It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Dress Code is Habit Rouge with a bit of L’Homme Idéal mixed in, and that this pairing brings unexpected thrills to our nostrils.
Upon first spritz, we just know immediately that Dress Code is an offshoot of Habit Rouge. It seems that whenever the cool-rosy insect repellent scent of citronellol appears concurrently with the plasticky leather note of styrene, all we can think of is Habit Rouge. The only Habit Rouge versions that veered away from the original concept were L’Extrait, which felt like only a drop of Habit Rouge in an ocean of patchouli and dry woody aroma chemicals, and Sport, which was a completely different fragrance but sold under the Habit Rouge name.
On the other hand, Dress Code is Habit Rouge without the cologne opening. Gone are the lime, bitter orange and lavender, and instead the leather is significantly reinforced to appear right from the start, assertive and sexy, much in line with how a modern masculine smells. Like in L’Homme Idéal, this leather note is piercingly sharp, radiant, and somewhat acid, and it makes Habit Rouge’s citronellol and neroli beam and glisten like a glitter ball. To round it out, we get notes of chocolate and praline. These gourmand notes, which these days are all the rage chez Guerlain, are cleverly balanced and never too sweet, coming in and out of focus as the fragrance develops. There’s a jasmine note too, which adds a rich sense of luxury and density. With the praline still present, the base recaptures a bit of the spicy and ashy-woody profile of Habit Rouge L’Extrait, with ginger, coriander and nutmeg mixed with cigar-box cedarwood, patchouli, vetiver, and amber. We also recognize L’Homme Idéal’s addictive leather-amaretto-wood drydown in this scent, but with a new shade of rose. Above all, though, this is Habit Rouge, dressed in hot leather and praline, and we can only imagine Jean-Paul Guerlain would feel proud about this homage to his work.
A highly unique and contemporary addition to the Habit Rouge line, Dress Code will likely be loved by those who are already fans of Habit Rouge, but wouldn’t mind it with an extra dash of debonair for those special dressed-up occasions. Guerlain says that the fragrance will come with a new collectible bottle design every year.
We love: nothing beats the elegance of the EdT
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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