No matter where I’ve traveled outside the United States, I’ve heard fellow Americans, also on vacation or on business trips, ridicule the hygienic habits of the locals — “these people” don’t: bathe or shampoo enough, use enough (or any) deodorant, or wash their clothes correctly to remove every particle of dirt and scent…on and on. It’s no surprise that Americans, even many perfume lovers, don’t like perfumes that smell “dirty;” perfumes that contain civet, musk and castoreum come under fire, as do perfumes with a hefty dose of coriander, cedar, cumin, labdanum, costus roots or any other ingredient or mix of ingredients that produces a smell of “body odor.” One of the ‘chestnuts’ of perfume description is “It smells like a cab driver!” (Poor cab drivers, always used as examples of the unwashed.) Recently, someone said the Eau d’Hermès I was wearing smelled like a “bum” — it took just a few seconds to figure out the person was not talking about a street person but a body part: the arse.
Yves Saint Laurent’s Kouros (1981), created by Pierre Bourdon, has been hit hard with the “unclean” rap. Before smelling Kouros, I read about 100 online reviews of the fragrance. Kouros inspires rapture — or revulsion. Kouros was compared, over and over again, to the smell of urinal cakes, men’s dirty public restrooms, fecal matter, semen! Many reviewers opined that only European men (undertone: they are used to smelling funky) would dare wear Kouros.
In his upcoming book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Behind the Scenes of the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York*, Chandler Burr has a few choice words for Kouros too. Burr feels Kouros, in 2007, is “unwearable”, “unthinkable;” Kouros “is brutally not en phase.” Burr’s weirdest thought: “Kouros will get you expelled from a restaurant.” Burr feels that Kouros, like Miss Dior and Caron Yatagan, is probably best worn only by the French in France.
As the abuse piled up, I started to feel protective of Kouros. I’m often puzzled when certain perfumes are categorized, and dismissed, as being ‘old fashioned’, ‘unwearable’, ‘of an era.’ I don’t want every cologne I wear to smell “modern” just like I don’t want to listen to one type of music or wear a uniform. If a perfumer is intent on being “modern” with his or her creations that’s fine, but I don’t want my fragrance choices restricted to the here and now, a current ‘trend’ or ‘attitude.’
Kouros’ list of ingredients varies greatly from one reference source to another; the Yves Saint Laurent website lists only coriander, clove, oakmoss and ambergris. Kouros is rough, brash and hefty, and it has fistfuls of spices. On my skin, Kouros starts off with a wild medicinal/disinfectant menthol-citrus accord. As the powerful opening subsides, Kouros begins to smell of bruised orange blossoms and carnation buds dusted with spices — clove, coriander and perhaps bay leaf and cumin. As Kouros dries down on my skin, it becomes creamier and sexier — I smell a mild flowery accord, a Moby Dick-sized dollop of ambergris, leather and, every now and then, a wisp of incense (reminding me of floral incense cones from India).
Many wearers describe Kouros as “too sweet” but on me, the tonka bean-vanilla accord that appears near the end of Kouros’ development is tempered with its ever-present, dusty spice aromas. And where is the civet everyone talks about? Kouros failed my civet tests: my nose does not detect strong civet when Kouros is on my skin (perhaps that’s a failing of my nostrils), and my cat, Uncle Vanya Mandelstam, does not stalk me, meowing loudly, and try to bite me as he does when I wear civet-rich fragrances. Kouros makes a bold statement (“I. AM. STRONG. PERFUME!”) but I don’t find it obnoxious. Unlike many contemporary designer perfumes that ‘speak’ in a fast, precise, humorless, high-pitched monotone, Kouros’ speech is showy, bawdy, a bit slurred and loud. Kouros does not gently touch your forearm; it gropes you. If you like things a bit rowdy, you may like Kouros. If you’re an understated, quiet type I predict you will hate it.
Unlike many Kouros reviewers, I don’t know much about urinal cakes, but if Kouros smells like them, please provide me with a brand name so I can buy and hang a few cakes in my garage and basement! As for Kouros’ shock value in modern-day Seattle — in the week I’ve worn, and enjoyed, Kouros, not one person has asked me to leave a restaurant or has sneered at me and shouted: “Go back to France you stink-pot!”
*Quotes are from the ‘advance reader’s edition’ of The Perfect Scent.