Many people recoil at a whiff of an old school chypre. A chypre’s citrus-oakmoss-labdanum-patchouli signature doesn’t pander and can be downright off-putting for the inexperienced. Grand chypres are so old fashioned. They rarely seduce you with mouthwatering berries and Orange Crush-like fruit. They don’t flaunt their sexiness with blatant oriental notes. They waft fusty oak moss. I get it. I understand all the repugnance. And I love old school chypres just the same.
When I say “old school chypre,” I mean a big chypre, a chypre that doesn’t hide its identity under woody musk. Some of the classic old school chypres, besides Rochas Femme and Guerlain Mitsouko (perhaps the benchmarks), are Christian Dior Miss Dior (now called Miss Dior Classic), Acqua di Parma Profumo, Chanel Cristalle, Hermès Calèche, Niki de Saint Phalle, Nina Ricci Fille d’Eve and Balmain Miss Balmain, to name a few. As different as they are from each other, smell a few of these fragrances side by side, and you’ll understand their connection.
Also, a handful of new perfumes qualify in my mind as old school chypres, too. Annick Goutal Mon Parfum Chéri par Camille, Aedes + Molinard Histoire de Chypre, Vero Profumo Onda and Hiram Green Shangri La all fly the grand old chypre flag proudly.
I adore these fragrances for many reasons. First, they don’t try to make you love them. They’re jolie laide perfumes that don’t need to be pretty, because they’re all-get-out chic. I think of the interchange in the movie Get Shorty (sorry, I should know if this is in the Elmore Leonard novel that inspired the film), where John Travolta’s character, a mobster named Chili, buys a Prius. One of the other gangsters sneers and says, “A Prius. Aren’t they slow?” Chili responds, “I guess they’ll just have to wait for me.” That attitude is pure chypre.
Also, to me chypres signal glamour. I know this is more in my head than in my nose, but isn’t that part of perfume’s attraction? When I think of a chypre, I picture Marlene Dietrich stubbing out a cigarette in a black and white movie. Chypres smell of an era when Lauren Bacall whistled and spies didn’t use smart phones. Things were simple, and yet complicated. This might be a personal weakness, though — I love me a 1930s crystal cocktail glass and a tattered dressing gown.
Chypres challenge me. Most fragrances today aim to please immediately with juicy top notes. “Buy me!” they say. “Don’t I make your mouth water?” The flip side of these floozy scents is that they bore within half an hour. A chypre doesn’t play that game. A chypre gives you something to ponder all day long — at least, the good ones do — as they unfurl and tap at your imagination.
An old school chypre likely smells mossy and piquant at a distance, but chewy and woody and full of heart up close. It’s complex. Now, with years of smelling perfume behind me, I appreciate a chypre’s complexity, just as experience has engendered a love of oysters, Wagner and crazy tartan mixes. Sure, the first time I smelled Miss Dior it baffled me. How could this fragrance still be on the market? Now I have enough vintage Miss Dior stashed away to poach eggs in it all month.
Do you like old school chypres? If you do, which are your favorites?
Note: top image shows Cyprus (and in the insert, Lemnos) from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, via Wikimedia Commons.