Family: woody, aromatic, gourmand
Notes: bergamot, mandarin, rosemary, orange blossom, bitter almond, rum, apple, rose, tonka bean, vanilla, vetiver, cedarwood, patchouli, leather note
Amaretto and black wood
Period: The recapitulation years
L'Homme Idéal collection
Guerlain wants to be known as the brand that brought several groundbreaking ideas to 20th century perfumery: the revolutionary Jicky, the fruity chypre, the oriental accord, and the masculine oriental, to name the greatest. There's another talent, though, that is just as important as the first, namely to pick up a popular trend and give it the Guerlain treatment. L’Homme Idéal is an example of the latter. It can be classified as what perfumers call a boisé sec, a category of potent fresh-woody fragrances; Boss Bottled by Annick Menardo (1998) was amongst the first. Her stratagem was to use powerful aroma molecules that smell energetically woody and citric. The effect was cool, young and dynamic, with impressive radiance and tenacity. Not surprisingly, the concept has been copied and interpreted by most perfume brands, as in Bleu de Chanel (monochrome woody), Bang by Marc Jacobs (peppery woody), 1 Million by Paco Rabanne (fruity-sweet woody), and Invictus (macho woody), also by Paco Rabanne. Nightclubbing boys like these fragrances for their pheromonal aspects, while professional men buy them to project self-confident masculinity. Perfume aficionados, on the other hand, generally don't find them tasteful, and we guess most had hoped that Guerlain would never venture into this genre.
So, what magic did the Guerlain machinery create this time? Guerlain chose a satirical approach to how men's scents are typically advertised, with muscular, deadpan men in picture-perfect settings. The ideal man is a myth, Guerlain joked, but his qualities — smart, handsome, strong — can be distilled into a fragrance: a fresh, lively top (smart), a gourmand middle (handsome), and a woody, leathery base (strong). During the first seconds of the top notes, our nostrils felt assailed by the blockbuster aroma molecules mentioned above. Those seconds are probably valuable for Guerlain, as they might seduce many of those who didn't know or like Guerlain before (people who already love Guerlain will be surprised by how many people have never heard about the brand — compare Dior’s 15 million Facebook followers with Guerlain’s 750,000). Shortly into the fragrance however, we sensed the aromatic-citrus accord that we associate with Guerlain, a camphoric rosemary together with bergamot and the essential oil of orange blossom a.k.a. neroli, which smells spicy-honeyed and a bit metallic. There was also a green apple note.
Then, in full contrast, comes what Guerlain touts as completely new in a masculine perfume: almond. The almond note holds a special place in Guerlain’s heart, from Jicky to La Petite Robe Noire. Wasser tells us that he got the idea for L'Homme Idéal while he was in the factory mixing up some fresh Jicky. When they started pouring in benzaldehyde, the aroma chemical that gives the bitter almond note, he was "completely intoxicated". This scent of bitter almond hitting lavender inspired him. "What makes L'Homme Idéal unique and recognizable is the almond inherited from Jicky," explains Thierry Wasser. "In L'Homme Idéal, I worked the almond in a concrete and penetrating way, and not just perceived in the background. It is present from top to base, which is new in perfumery." In L'Homme Idéal, we sensed both a bitter almond and a sweet, caramelized one. Combined with tonka bean and vanilla, Guerlain called it an "amaretto" accord, but it didn't come across as overly liqueur-like or gourmand, more like a crunchy praline streak moving in and out of focus as the fragrance developed. There were moments when the tension between this amaretto and the nip of bergamot, rosemary and neroli was just right, and L’Homme Idéal was really delicious, like an Amaretto Sour with marzipan and cherry pipe tobacco. At others, the fresh notes seemed somewhat too metallic and sour, too resistant to the amaretto suaveness. Or, was it the vetiver’s hoarse grassiness that set in one moment too soon from below? We assume that Thierry Wasser wanted to be on the safe side of the gourmand margin for this major launch.
The base accord was a dark combination of vetiver, cedarwood and dry leather notes. Because the almond was still there, the drydown maintained the Guerlain elegance (more precisely, the cigar-box cedar touch of Héritage), and didn't fall for the overdone, cold manliness we often find in this genre — albeit it was not nearly as sensual and velvety as what Guerlain is famous for. As such, L'Homme Idéal followed the trend of mainstream perfumery. The poets and dandies who still wear Mouchoir de Monsieur and Habit Rouge are far too few and far between to sustain the Guerlain business.
Based on the fragrance description, which slipped through the Guerlain firewall by mistake long before the press release, Guerlain followers began to baptise L’Homme Idéal ”a poor man’s Tonka Impériale”. In reality, L’Homme Idéal was a whole new kind of Guerlain, a boisé sec with little Guerlain touches here and there, made with Guerlain's sense of its historic signature, of good materials, and of balance. It wouldn't be wrong to call it the masculine counterpart of La Petite Robe Noire: an irresistibly tart and slightly anisic start, and a sweet almond heart on a dark background. The spirit was young and contemporary, at once sparkling and delicious, commissioned by the marketing department to perform well on a large, varied and competitive international market. People don’t like the same things in Paris, New York, Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but a modern, "ideal" men’s fragrance is supposed to be adaptable: not too sweet, not too fresh, not too rounded, not too brash, and certainly not too elitist. Old-school Guerlain aficionados have criticised L'Homme Idéal for being unoriginal. "I am not here to be a revolutionary," Thierry Wasser replies. "In our inventions nothing prevents us from eyeing what our neighbours bring out, and I do that very openly."
Bottle. There was an underlying black and white feel to L'Homme Idéal: the white almond and the black wood, the bright rosemary and the tight leather. This theme was echoed in the presentation of the fragrance, one of Guerlain's most eye-catching ever. The front of the box was off-white and featured the logo of L'Homme Idéal, an almost cubist illustration of the perfume's tagline, "No need to be l'homme idéal anymore, you have your fragrance." By the way, it was the first Guerlain fragrance to come with an (almost) international tagline. Some may wear the fragrance just for the pleasure of it, but it was its subtle messages about gender roles and lifestyle that appealed to our sensibilities. The bottle itself was an aesthetic triumph, to which the ad visual didn't do enough justice. The label was white with a handsome black font and frame. An inventive detail was that the L'Homme Idéal logo was printed on the reverse of the label, visible through the glass. The label's frame was repeated on all four outer sides of the bottle, painted a matte black. Seen from the front, the bottle was formed like a cube, with finely cut facets that made the golden juice twinkle with diamond-like luxury. The design recalled the travel bottle shape of Robert Granai’s elegant Eau de Toilette bottle, made in 1988 for Vetiver and Habit Rouge. The matte black cap of the bottle was solid and stately, decorated with a silver ring and a guilloche-like pattern on the lower periphery. The upper rim encircled the double-G logo with an echo of the bottle's glass facets.
Variations. To keep up consumers' attention on today's hectic and inundated fragrance market, brands release a steady stream of flankers. Less than a year after L'Homme Idéal, Thierry Wasser presented the fresh version, titled L'Homme Idéal Cologne. For this release, the L'Homme Idéal bottle underwent a total inversion into white, with a summery turquoise twist on the colour scheme. Nowadays, "cologne" doesn't reflect the technical term Eau de Cologne, but is used to name a fresh flanker, usually an EdT. A fragrance should always be marketed with a "new and original accord" to stimulate curiosity, and for L'Homme Idéal Cologne, Guerlain described it as a marriage between Indian vetiver and fresh almond, the latter being the signature note of L'Homme Idéal. The Cologne version also featured grapefruit, orange, neroli and white musk.
The metamorphosis of L’Homme Idéal into a Cologne seemed to copy how La Petite Robe Noire was made into an Eau Fraîche: keep the almond praline but thin it with citrus sorbet freshness, remove the "black" molecules, and soften it with white musk. If L’Homme Idéal was an Amaretto Sour, then L’Homme Idéal Cologne added Campari and Tang orange drink mix to the cocktail. L’Homme Idéal Cologne had lots of grapefruit. It was almost a grapefruit cologne, really. In perfumery, grapefruit is used mainly as a citrus variant in fresh men's scents, with its cold, sulfurous bitterness often trying to disguise an otherwise dull woody accord. It was lovely in L'Homme Idéal Cologne, though. This grapefruit was zesty and pulpy, its bitterness tempered by the sugar of rose and praline, its coldness contrasted with the heat of pink pepper. The first twenty minutes of the fragrance gave us childhood memories of fizzy Tang orange drink mix dissolved into water. After that, we saw why Guerlain wanted to highlight the accord of almond and vetiver: it was obviously fresher and greener than the mixture of almond and black wood in L’Homme Idéal, but it tickled the nostrils in the same delightful way. Thank God for Jicky! Maybe Guerlain never would have discovered the wonders of almond without it. In the original L’Homme Idéal, the vetiver could sometimes disturb the rounded praline effect, but in this Cologne version, it made total sense, with the same golden, ashy effect as in Jean-Paul Guerlain’s Vetiver.
Today, it’s common that EdT and EdP are created each with their individual formula and list of notes, in order to achieve an either more fresh or more sensual effect. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that any version of a scent is basically a flanker. An example of this is L’Homme Idéal: other than the name and the almond note, the EdT and EdP don't have much else in common, not even the olfactive family.
When the EdT launched, many Guerlain aficionados immediately began to wish for a more rounded and “Guerlinade-like” interpretation of the almond note. The new EdP may be the answer to their prayers, although anyone who was hoping for an “intense” version might be disappointed. While the gorgeous crunchiness of the signature almond-leather-bergamot accord is still there in the top, the rest of the fragrance takes a whole new direction. The EdP has not just diminished most of the EdT’s fresh and dry elements, but it has literally removed the neroli, rosemary, green apple and vetiver. Instead we find a sweeter and gentler mandarin top note. This change solves the problem of the original fragrance being too “metallic” and harsh in some people’s opinion; already five minutes into the EdP, it is smooth and velvety like an Amaretto liqueur. Due to the lack of freshness, the overall impression is sweet, but what may come as a surprise is that the EdP is not one bit more gourmand or praline-like than the EdT. Guerlain’s masculines don’t seem to follow the feminine trend of becoming more and more sugary. The downside of the change is that it eliminates the vibrancy and contrast that made the EdT so addictive, leaving the almond a cozy blend of balsamic and slightly spicy notes: cinnamon, cardamom, aromatic resins, rum, tonka bean, and not least vanilla. Jacques Guerlain would rarely use balsamic ingredients as anything but a background accord, but Morocco-based Serge Lutens has made them fashionable to wear in and by themselves.
Despite the presence of cedarwood, ashy like a cigar box, with this interpretation, it’s so restrained that L’Homme Idéal is no longer a “boisé sec” type fragrance, but rather a woody oriental, though by no means a competitor to Guerlain’s classic masculine oriental, Habit Rouge. It smells very much like a vanilla version of the Middle East inspired Ambre Éternel from earlier this year, and hence addresses itself more to young “niche” fashionistas than to lovers of classic Guerlain boldness. If L’Homme Idéal EdT was black leather, then the EdP is suede, a suave evening fragrance with all the rough edges brushed into balsamic soft focus. In fact, it’s so soft that some will likely miss the power of the EdT. L’Homme Idéal EdP is by no means “extreme” the way L’Instant de Guerlain Pour Homme Extrême was.
On the other hand, what probably makes it a real winner among Guerlain lovers is the wonderfully natural feel of vanilla that pervades the scent, like plump vanilla pods soaked in alcohol, as well as an inclusion of Bulgarian rose, sandalwood, and a distinct oud note that will please Arab customers. It all makes for an elegant aura, coupled with a raspberry note that accentuates the fruity and deep syrup facets of rose, vanilla and oud. Raspberry is one of Guerlain’s most frequent fruity notes (think Insolence, La Petite Robe Noire, French Kiss, Santal Royal, Ne m’Oubliez Pas), because it can add a delectable jammy sensation to most floral, woody and gourmand compositions. It’s the first time that we find it in a masculine Guerlain, though. Here, it’s moderated to only appear in the drydown, but it suffices to make us want to have another sip of this Amaretto liqueur.
Officially presented as a joint creation between Thierry Wasser and Delphine Jelk, with this launch Guerlain deviates from its usual policy of only mentioning Thierry Wasser as the creator. Delphine Jelk was the author of the original La Petite Robe Noire (2009), and has worked as Wasser’s co-perfumer since then.
We love: the EdT
If you want your almond fresh
Contemporary woody, just classier
Some images courtesy of guerlain.com
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