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September 1, 2003

"The Fall of the House of Guerlain" By Luca Turin

"The Fall of the House of Guerlain" By Luca Turin

The new Guerlain has arrived. This happens only every few years, and is always an event. When I was a kid every launch would subtly alter your life: you could not walk down a Paris street and remain unaware for long that a new shape was in the air. The thrill, these days, is somewhat different: when, some years ago, the Guerlain family sold the family silver to LVMH (the Microsoft of fragrance), Guerlain jumped off the skyscraper nine decades of genius had built. Its been falling in slow motion ever since, and a crowd of perfume lovers has slowly gathered to watch it crash.

First came the ludicrous Champs Elysées, a fragrance so trite, so meretricious that even the androids at LVMH must have felt pangs of conscience. Fortunately, helped by inept advertising, it failed. Then Mahora, a tropical confection, not only monumentally vulgar (no bad thing in itself), but also utterly humourless. Now, after a decent interval during which Guerlain produced several skilled but unambitious fragrances, among which the excellent Shalimar Lite, comes the "big" one.

It is called L’Instant and, for the first time in the firm’s history, is openly composed by an outside perfumer, Maurice Roucel. He is one of the greats, responsible for such masterpieces as Tocade, 24 Faubourg and Envy. Nevertheless, I wager even he felt awed at the prospect of carving his name on Guerlain’s monument. Rumour had it that France’s greatest perfume house was going to redeem itself with cost-no-object raw materials and show the world that the last five years had been a mere lapse of judgment.

Regrettably, the fall continues. From topnote to drydown L’Instant zips past known territory, from Dune to j’Adore via Allure. To be sure, the ingredients are exquisite. Roucel’s signature, magnolia leaf essence, provides a novel, quiet woody-lemony background to an excellent jasmine and ylang chord. The drydown is solid as a rock, rich and powdery. The musks smell unusually expensive: spray l’Instant on the back of your hand before dinner, and lick it when the fruit salad comes. In the Grand Manner, the perfume smells different from the eau de parfum, darker and richer.

And yet…the fragrance is less than the sum of its parts, and smells as if Roucel’s talent was diluted by a committee. It is like the idle rich at play: money and skill marshalled to provide a featureless fog of luxury, beauty without brains, plush without purpose. The ground is coming up fast. Will Guerlain survive ?

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