Shalimar Parfum Initial (2011): A New Nuance of Eroticism {Perfume Review} {New Fragrance}


Shalimar Parfum Initial is part of the cultural and marketing movement at Guerlain to revamp the classics-of-the classics that the house are famous for. Its name alludes to a song by Serge Gainsbourg, "Initial B. B.", while evoking a first time. Other houses may have classics, Guerlain have the privilege, with Chanel, of harboring several classics-of-the-classics which are instantly recognizable. In 2007, there was Vol de Nuit Evasion, a faux flanker to Vol de Nuit and a real one to Attrape Coeur renamed Guet-Apens. In 2009 Jean-Paul Guerlain created Mitsouko Fleur de Lotus, a real flanker and an alluring one at that, in my opinion, to Mitsouko.

In 2010, Shalimar got its own first new makeover since Eau de Shalimar (2008) with Shalimar Ode à la Vanille, and a few months later, in 2011, Shalimar Parfum Initial. The speed is picking up as Idylle, which is not yet a classic, has already been re-invested with follow-up launch excitement with Idylle EDT and more recently Idylle Duet.

The flanker policy is probably taking over that of a rethink of the classics. I would argue however that if in Shalimar Ode à la Vanille, the flanker logic was dominant - to offer a twist - with Shalimar Parfum Initial, the cultural curating that accompanies the launch of certain venerable fragrances of the house has been authentically set into motion...

In-house perfumer Thierry Wasser said that Shalimar Parfum Initial is his answer to a request put forth by his niece who asked her uncle if he could design for her, her own Shalimar. It has been assumed that Wasser understood it to mean something like, mostly wearable by the younger set, but the perfume itself leads you to think otherwise. It was modernized, yes, there is no doubt about that, but it does not feel like it lost its original carnality. If anything, the suggestion of moist flesh you get from Parfum Initial, is not to be found in the original Shalimar.

A technical aspect which might explain this, is beyond the subtle workings of the composition, the fact that Shalimar Initial is more of a skin scent while Shalimar has often made me think of the scent sillage which might emanate from a cocotte climbing up the stairs of her claque in front of her customer. Manuals of advice remind you that a gentleman escorting a lady must climb up the stairs first for this very reason; the lady is not selling any goods, so no browsing.

The pink hue of the Shalimar Parfum Initial might lead you to think that Guerlain of LVMH are ready for the complete bastardization of their classics as long as they are susceptible to sell well. But I was surprised to discover a perfume which is a genuine attempt at rethinking Shalimar in its psychological depth and not just by thinking about it in terms of perfumery accords. This, you can leave to the effort represented by the limited-edition Ode à la Vanille which glorifies vanilla with Shalimar serving as a luxurious, time-tested shrine to qualititative harvested vanilla materials.

Notes: bergamot, orange, green notes, fruity notes, iris, jasmine, rose, patchouli, vetiver, vanilla, tonka bean, white musks.

guerlain_shalimar_initial.jpgShalimar Parfum Initial opens on a deliciously modernized bergamot opening, which feels like an explosive, fizzy blast of ozone, bergamot and iris, followed by a rather intense rooty and creamy iris-and-tobacco accord, which feels slightly unisex. Before that, I had felt that the iris escaping from the bottle was reminiscent of Héritage, a masculine at Guerlain, with a nuance of Iris and rose you also find in Idylle. A detergent-like musky white trail mingles next with the initial top notes in a seeming coded nod to the generation hooked on soapy, laundromat scents to which Thierry Wasser's exemplary niece admittedly belongs to.

But after this contemporary interlude, the composition of Parfum Initial falls back into a more mellow, classic Guerlain mode; there is more slowness, roundness and languor. It feels a bit like the lazy movements of a cat which was awoken from its nap and started playing with woolen threads before deciding to go back to cuddle up on a plush ottoman.

Later, the two threads - the white-musk one and the rejuvenated Oriental one - stay together as an undissociable pair. The white musk note adds a raspy, slightly hard edge to the scent while the iris-tobacco accord is velvetier and rounded-off by amber. No doubt, some people will scream at the cheapness of the white musk note here but others will appreciate it for its iconic Zeitgeisty aspect. I think that it harmonizes well within the composition. After I pondered on the familiar sensation derived from the soft Oriental ambery facet of the fragrance and the moistened quality of it, I wonder if it is not in fact because it resembles the magnolia-amber accord of L'Instant de Guerlain by Maurice Roucel?

Parfum Initial, as it turns out, is not about dumbing down the sexuality of Shalimar, just because it might apeal to very young women in search of their under-age Shalimar. To want your own Shalimar might also just mean that you do not wish to wear the Shalimar of your mother, grand-mother, or even your mother-in-law.

Dirty hints relying on dark resins and dry herbs add a more sulfurous Nabokovian Lolita aspect to the composition far from the inoffensive prettiness suggested by the pink color of the juice. If you look more closely at the hue, you also have to realize that this is no candy pink, but a subtle salmon pink contrasted with an equally subtle gray-blue tint. This pink is the color of flesh or flushed cheeks. This blue is dreamy recalling L'Heure Bleue.

The surprise for me is to see that olfactorily speaking Shalimar Parfum Initial in its deep notes is not without calling to mind the work of Daniela Andrier on Untitled by Martin Margiela with its dark, solar and dirty nuances resting on pungent labdanum and musk. It is as if in search of a new way of creating alternative base notes which still stir desire, Wasser had remembered the antique Greek or Sicilian-like coastal heat of Untitled.

Shalimar Initial has become more herbaly, drier. The overdose of iris contributes to drawinga sketch of human flesh with a hint of sexual dewiness. It is not a gourmand composition like La Petite Robe Noire which was also explicitally designed to cater to the youth segment of the Guerlain audience. There is only in Parfum Initial a very discreet anise, dragée-smelling note, the only gustatory nuance that I can capture, which curiously reminds me of Premier Jour by Nina Ricci which explicitly features this dragée note. But Premier Jour was meant as a perfume celebrating new mothers, while Parfum Initial, some say, is an appetizer, a zakuski to be consumed before reaching the stage of womanhood, i.e., Shalimar.

I personally wore Shalimar from age 15, so I take this type of executive decision or fantasy with a large serving of salt. Although I can add the anecdote that when I received Shalimar (and Vol de Nuit) as presents on my 15th birthday, it was duly conveyed to me that the sales assistant had remarked that these were not meant to be worn by "une jeune fille." Overriding public opprobrium, my family came back with the two flacons.

The overall effect of Shalimar Parfum Initial is to feel like a new interpretation of what a scandalous perfume might have smelled like in the 1920s.

The perfumer has succeeded well in my opinion in recreating a sense of closed and dark place without necessarily conjuring up literally a harem atmosphere. But there is something in Parfum Initial of the sensation of the forbidden. One is thrown back to a climate of the first emotions of sexuality when they are perhaps the most closeted, yet, of course, no less intense. What Parfum Initial is not, is a sugary, pinkified and maudlin rendering of the classic Shalimar.

In a sense, you are reminded, it is fitting that Thierry Wasser inspired by his young niece, went back to some of the characteristics of the original myth of Shalimar: Mumtaz Mahal, which was the source of inspiration behind the original Shalimar (1921/1925.) She reportedly was bethroted at the age of 14 and married at 19. She was the favorite of Shah Jahan I and their love was legendary even in their lifetime.

Shalimar Parfum Initial offers the bergamot-vanilla mirroring of the original but like a related yet different relative of the same family, it has its own personality. This iteration makes the case for flankers to be distantly related rather than clone-like. The perfume in the end is convincing because the perfumer attached himself to capturing a spirit rather than addressed the problem as one of pure olfactory filiation. In doing so, he introduced a new carnal atmosphere and a new nuance of eroticism that Shalimar has been offering from the start and is still capable of evoking in more infinite nuances.

PS: The US launch is scheduled for September 2011. In France, the perfume was introduced in March 2011.

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