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. Despite not being very popular outside of France, it's continuously promoted as the brand's most emblematic men's scent, and no other masculine Guerlain has had so many different versions and flankers. Guerlain has recently announced the discontinuation of the costly Extrait version from 2008. On this occasion, Monsieur Guerlain goes through the nine variants of Habit Rouge that have existed since Jean-Paul Guerlain first created it in 1965.
The "strong" versions
We'll begin with the "strong" versions: Eau de Toilette, Eau de Parfum, and Extrait. They beg the question: can Habit Rouge really be stronger? 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. It seems that whenever these two materials are present, no matter what surrounds them we can't help thinking of Habit Rouge. The Habit Rouge accord is one of perfumery’s most potent and easily recognizable.
Habit Rouge lovers generally think of the Eau de Toilette as the classic version, but it actually wasn’t created until 1988, as the eighties demanded blatantly noticeable fragrances. Jean-Paul Guerlain originally devised Habit Rouge as an Eau de Cologne. The EdT version adjusted the balance to make the effect of citronellol scratching against leather appear even more striking. In comparison, the EdC version had a certain aromatic softness and delicacy, which the EdT lacked. For those who preferred the former, Habit Rouge Eau de Cologne stayed in production right up to 2007.
Customers complain that Habit Rouge EdT has lost some of its strength in recent years. Thierry Wasser, who is very outspoken about reformulations, explains that the formula has not deliberately been changed, but that the overall concentration of all Guerlain fragrances is lowered to comply with IFRA safety norms. Also, 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.
Considering that in 1992 Guerlain had already 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 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. The oud note seems to have been diminished in subsequent batches though.
Habit Rouge EdT and EdP have both been subject to several different special bottle editions, often with entirely new names. As a consequence, many people believe that an endless number of Habit Rouge variants do exist, even if the fragrance was unaltered.
In 2008 Guerlain presented Habit Rouge 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, among all the different Habit Rouge versions, the 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 luxurious price, it fared well enough to be granted tenure, until this year when it goes out of production.
The "young" versions
We've come to the "young" versions: Light, Sport, L'Eau, and Dress Code. Guerlain is painfully aware of its image as being only relevant to a diminishing number of ladies and gentlemen, an image that the brand actively has been trying to shed since the LVMH takeover in 1994. Not least the two flagship fragrances, Shalimar and Habit Rouge, are perceived as belonging to an older generation, and when in 2005 Guerlain created Habit Rouge Légère ("Light"), it was surely an attempt to copy the success of Shalimar Light from two years before. Shalimar Light was made to attract a younger clientele to Guerlain’s oriental universe, omitting the leather and leaving just Shalimar's lovely lemon pie of citrus and amber. It didn’t smell exactly "light", though, and neither did Habit Rouge Light, which used lemon and neroli to modulate the whole Habit Rouge tune into an almost blindingly bright, gleeful and slightly metallic key. Basically, it married the Habit Rouge accord with a modern fresh-woody base, complete with cedarwood, white musk and amber. Thierry Wasser said that Habit Rouge was among the things that inspired him when he created L'Homme Idéal, and smelling Habit Rouge Light we understand why. However, Habit Rouge Light somehow took out the classic elegance of the scent, and it was discontinued after a few years.
Then, 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 formula instead. Luckily, it smelled refreshingly stylish for the sport fragrance genre, with a spiffy green accord of bamboo, pink pepper, jasmine and white musk. Secondly, it reminds you that Habit Rouge ("red coat") 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. Fox hunting has since then been prohibited by law. Maybe therefore, any equestrian references were avoided in the presentation of Habit Rouge Sport, instead marketed with a racing red coloured bottle suggestive of sports car racing. It briefly appeared in a limited edition called "Gentleman Driver", with the fragrance unchanged. The association to sports car racing wasn’t that inappropriate, since the sharp, plasticky styrene note in classic Habit Rouge is known from the leather upholstery of expensive new cars. 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 of Guerlain’s fresh flankers were called "L’Eau". Unlike Habit Rouge Sport, it actually smelled like a variant of Habit Rouge, easy-to-wear and less leathery than the classic version, and therefore probably too trivial 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.
For the 50th anniversary of Habit Rouge in 2015, Thierry Wasser created a new fragrance called Habit Rouge Dress Code. A highly unique and contemporary addition to the Habit Rouge line, it retained the signature rose-leather accord of the original, at once aesthetic and tough, but turned 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). Guerlain plans to reissue Habit Rouge Dress Code every year with a new limited edition bottle design.
The "old" versions
We will finish with the "old" versions: Eau de Cologne and Eau de Cologne Dry. The genius of Habit Rouge is its highly original rose-leather accord, which achieves a very radiant effect by combining citronellol and tannic leather. The rest of the composition consists of a classic citrus-neroli-lavender cologne mixture, together with warm spices, woody notes, musk, and, famously for the first time in a men's scent, vanilla.
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, there was a certain aromatic softness to Habit Rouge EdC, at least compared with the EdT version we know today, with a less virile tone of leather. Habit Rouge Eau de Toilette was launched in 1988, but the Eau de Cologne version stayed in production right up to 2007.
Guerlain's former artistic director, Sylvaine Delacourte, recounts that Habit Rouge wasn't successful from the start, and therefore the managing part of the family, which found Habit Rouge too feminine, ordered Jean-Paul Guerlain to create a less sweet version. Hence came Habit Rouge Dry in 1967, counting as Guerlain's earliest flanker, but now long gone. If you didn't know better, when you splash on the Dry version, you'd just think it was Habit Rouge. However, if you wear classic Habit Rouge on your other arm at the same time, you'll notice that the cologne notes are amped up, and you sense the lack of vanillic sensuality in the drydown.
Read more about Habit Rouge