Delphine Jelk 2009, Modèle No.2 2011, reworked version 2012, EdT 2013, Couture 2014, Eau Fraîche 2015, Intense 2016
[la pətit rɔb nwa:r]
Family: fruity, floral
Notes: bergamot, lemon, anise, bitter almond, rose, licorice, raspberry macaron, cherry, patchouli, tonka bean, black tea, vanilla, white musk
Fabulous fruity-floral
Period: The recapitulation years
La Petite Robe Noire collection

Because Guerlain is one of the few remaining houses to stay clear of fashion, specializing only in perfumes, makeup and skin products, fans were surprised to see a creation align itself with one of fashion's most famous statements, Chanel's little black dress. (Fox-hunting attire, referenced decades ago in Habit Rouge, hardly counts as fashion.) However, what Guerlain wanted to express was not a celebration of fashion or of Chanel, but of the simple perfection and timelessness of the little black dress, something which Guerlain also strives to build into its perfumes. "Guerlain is to fragrance what the little black dress is to fashion. There's one for everyone," Guerlain incisively states. So how does it smell, this "new essential accessory", as Guerlain resolutely calls La Petite Robe Noire?

Classified as a fruity-floral and openly marketed towards the young ("for a romantic, sassy and glam young woman"), it had many a serious customer rolling her eyes before sniffing. Yet, this is Guerlain, grand chef de fruit confit who seriously put fruity notes on perfumery's map, from Mitsouko through Chamade and Parure to Nahéma, and beyond. So rest assured that La Petite Robe Noire was an extraordinarily attractive little thing, made by perfumer Delphine Jelk and Thierry Wasser who used something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue! The old thing was in the drydown, a trail of times past between Mitsouko's fruity wood and Shalimar's smoky vanilla. What's new was at the start, a tangy, succulent combination of Sicilian lemons, jammy raspberry and cherry, and an addictive black note of anise and licorice. "Wasser said his first sketch should find the colour black. He found this with methyl cyclopentenolone," explains Chandler Burr. This synthetic material is called a "maple lactone" due to its smell of maple syrup. It's sweet, but with dark facets of burnt sugary coffee and licorice; in comparison, the ethyl maltol known from Thierry Mugler's Angel is all caramel and cotton candy. To add to the black effect, La Petite Robe Noire also had a small amount of the leathery birch tar note.

The borrowed stuff of the formula was in the middle, namely the Musquinade straight from L'Instant Magic, bitter almond, rose, white musk and vanilla, heavenly chewy and luscious like a freshly baked French macaron, with a squirt of amaretto, precisely so Guerlain and deluxe as to make raspberry and licorice suddenly smell like a proper perfume. (Indeed, the inspiration came to Delphine Jelk upon tasting a fruity macaron.) Finally, the blue was the colour of the juice, a cool blue nuance as unique as the fragrance, tinted with drops of black and red-violet, that makes your mouth water long before pressing the spray button.

La Petite Robe Noire had that fusion of glamour and darkness that embodied its name. Due to its popularity, the fragrance was relaunched worldwide in 2012 as a standard Guerlain, featuring a slightly altered formula by Thierry Wasser with less licorice and patchouli, and more emphasis on the easy-to-wear accord of white musk and Wasser's Bulgarian rose blend. Advertised with one of Guerlain's most captivating and imaginative visual campaigns, devised by the French artist duo Kuntzel+Deygas, in the following months La Petite Robe Noire became one of the best-selling fragrances in France, outperforming even Chanel No.5. Most people seem to agree that the fragrance is the best Guerlain has done since Insolence EdP. LVMH presents La Petite Robe Noire as a case study of how to successfully launch a new perfume. It topped the symbolic one million units sold in just three months after the launch in 2012.

Bottle. The spray version of the heart-shaped stopper bottle came out in 1995 and has since then been used for a number of different scents in limited editions. Unlike the quadrilobe bottle, however, the heart-shaped bottle was never considered a standard bottle. With the advent of La Petite Robe Noire, Guerlain's old heart-shaped stopper bottle has achieved worldwide fame. Although the bottle was originally made with L'Heure Bleue in mind, for La Petite Robe Noire Guerlain stressed that it was "the Mitsouko bottle", probably to point out the modern character of the scent. The old Art Nouveau bottle was given a dramatic black shade and a Little Black Dress pictograph to be seen through the liquid, a look devised by Serge Mansau, distinct enough to be the new "LPRN bottle". For the relaunched version, the dress design has been smartened up by Kuntzel+Deygas (the first one was mocked as looking like a nightgown) and the lid decorated with a pink fabric band. A charming 7.5 ml Parfum bottle has been made as well. Guerlain has issued several collectible bottle editions with changing decorations by Kuntzel+Deygas, without any changes made to the fragrance inside.

EdP, Parfum, EdT. While the original La Petite Robe Noire came only as EdP, the new version is additionally offered as EdT and Parfum. The latter smells like a smoother and more luxurious, and extremely musky variant of the EdP, with an intense, dark scent of amarena cherries, rose absolute, and burnt sugar. The EdT, on the other hand, is entirely different, having green accents of neroli, apple and blackcurrant.

Variations. In 2011, there was a limited edition called La Petite Robe Noire Modèle No.2, although its formula — orange blossom, galbanum, orris, soft leather and a marshmallow note — had no connection with the original scent. It was quickly withdrawn from sale to make room for the international relaunch of La Petite Petite Robe Noire. The Modèle No.2 fragrance was in 2014 reissued in the Parisienne line under the name Mademoiselle Guerlain. The success of La Petite Robe Noire almost begged for a real flanker to come out and in 2014, Thierry Wasser transformed it into a "Couture" model by diminishing the almond and burnt sugar, and adding a cooler raspberry note together with a chypre accord of moss, patchouli, extra bergamot, and a fresh, almost petroleum-like vetiver, which fitted the licorice note quite well. In the Couture version, La Petite Robe Noire took on a drier, lanker style, "an evening gown," as Thierry Wasser put it. The scent won the prize for best feminine fragrance at the FiFi Awards 2015, and in his review, perfume critic Luca Turin praised the skills of Thierry Wasser, "as if he alone was privy to a licorice-lavender accord that goes on forever. Beautiful work, and under the present low-cost, reduced-palette circumstances, borderline miraculous." Couture has been discontinued as the Intense flanker is introduced in 2016, making it Guerlain's shortest living flanker to date.

The fourth member of the La Petite Robe Noire family was an Eau Fraîche, subtitled Ma Robe Pétales. It’s no big surprise that Guerlain would produce a fresh version, as most perfume brands have done so with their bestsellers to solicit new customers. Guerlain’s own portfolio of such variants includes Shalimar Light, Shalimar Souffle de Parfum, Un Air de Samsara, Insolence Eau Glacée, Habit Rouge EdT Légère and L’Eau, Guerlain Homme L’Eau and L’Eau Boisée, L'Homme Idéal Cologne, as well as several citrusy versions of L’Instant for both her and him. The delectable cherry and burnt sugar accord of La Petite Robe Noire is difficult to imagine being recast into a fresh form. The Couture version from the year before maybe paved the way, but the press material told us that this Robe Pétales was something of its own: a fresh floral fragrance with mandarin, green notes, freesia, pistachio and patchouli.

Freshness is no new thing chez Guerlain. In fact, the Guerlain history is based on citrus and herbs, and the Guerlinade would be nothing without it. However, modern freshness is not about fragile Provençal herbs, but about mysterious molecules with nuclear tenacity. Upon first spritz, we knew that Ma Robe Pétales, if anything, was a reworking of Couture, and not the EdP, a chypre, sort of. It opened with a zing of citrus, lemon and mandarin. Mandarin is one of perfumery’s loveliest citrus notes, mellow, honeyed, succulent and warm. Here, it was mixed with an ozonic, fizzy, fresh-air kind of green. Adding to the ozonic sensation was a metallic quality, like the acidity of unripe pineapple, as well as a salty note, probably stemming partly from patchouli. Luca Turin has praised "the weird long-term freshness that Thierry Wasser somehow builds into the fabric of his fragrances," and this Eau Fraîche had it in spades.

The floral notes of Ma Robe Pétales were fresh and airy too, and slightly spicy and creamy, the ones we know from freesia, peony, lily and rose. The fragrance wasn’t overtly floral, just enough to add a pink, bright hue. It was not very fruity either; none of La Petite Robe Noire’s red berry jam was here, but there was a certain fruity tartness, as in peach or apricot. Green florals can sometimes smell like shampoo and air freshener, and at some point Ma Robe Pétales also did. It was saved by a touch of the almond, burnt sugar and licorice that is so defining of La Petite Robe Noire. Here, the dose was well below the gourmand threshold, subliminal almost, and lifted by the salt note, but it gave a trace of that praline flavour that Guerlain uses to get us hooked.

Like La Petite Robe Noire, Ma Robe Pétales was drenched in white musk. With the ozonic green and light floral notes, the drydown effect was clean and cottony, and very long-lasting. The mix of green, creamy lily, praline and musk may be what was described as pistachio — it felt nearly like pistachio ice cream. Ma Robe Pétales was certainly not one of those pale, softly aromatic and minimalistic fragrances that its light green coloured juice might make you think of. This was New Millennium Guerlain, a scent of metallic neon-green, pink petals, almond and licorice. In that sense, it was very La Petite Robe Noire.

The so-called "Intense" version of La Petite Robe Noire is, like the Eau FraÎche, unrelated to the original fragrance. Guerlain already disclosed the creation of the fragrance in 2015, stating that it was designed to excite the North American market. William Lescure, president of Guerlain Canada, explained that while La Petite Robe Noire is an international hit, with three bottles sold every minute in the world, it’s not sweet enough for North American tastes. "When you smell it, you smell North America," he said about the new version. "It is a completely new fragrance," Sylvaine Delacourte elaborated, "with a new orchestration, nothing to do with the others. The other formulations are too dark for the North American market, with licorice, black tea, vanilla — North Americans like things more luminous, easier. They like scent to be cleaner, fruitier and less dark."

A mix of cotton candy, blackcurrant, raspberry, bergamot, rose, jasmine, orange blossom, white musk, vanilla, sandalwood and patchouli, the fragrance smells like a concoction of 80 percent Lancôme La Vie Est Belle, 10 percent La Petite Robe Noire Eau Fraîche, and 10 percent La Petite Robe Noire Couture, which adds up to 100 percent candy shop. If there’s anything "intense" about LPRNI, it’s how intensely girly it is. Only when conducting a careful comparative study, do we realize that La Petite Robe Noire Intense is an improvement on the original Lancôme version, especially from a top note perspective. The dashes of earlier LPRN scents thrown in, and the use of better materials overall, work to brighten up the unexciting, stuffy feel of Lancôme, and make for a bolder, juicier, and more addictive fragrance, with notes of blackcurrant sorbet, sunny peach, fresh-floral bubble gum, hairspray, sugar-dusted cedar and patchouli, caramel fudge, and cotton candy machines running at full throttle. (The press material mentioned a blueberry note, which must be a marketing trick to match the juice colour, because there’s nothing particularly blueberry-like to this scent.) Thierry Wasser’s sense of freshness and air, even in the most sugary of circumstances, is truly impressive. Read more

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