Chanel Boy in Les Exclusifs ≈ Transvestite Fougère or Timeless Style in Perfumery (2016) {Perfume Review & Musings}


Chanel before she became Chanel

Chanel Boy Eau de Parfum Review

Has a perfume called « Boy » ever smelled so feminine from the outset ? The unconventionally named new perfume Chanel Boy was baptized with the nickname given to Captain Arthur Edward "Boy" Capel CBE (1881 - 1919); it's now also the title of a new chapter in Gabrielle Chanel's perfumed biography and storytelling. While « Boy » is about a boy, it could very well be the sobriquet given to a girl as well in social circles of the British aristocracy where non-sequitur, eccentric, short monosyllabic and disyllabic nicknames love to thrive. To give the cognomen of « Boy » to a woman would be perfectly acceptable to ears used to cryptic, insider-slang naming and slam-dunk nicknaming. Chanel's own nickname though, « Coco » has a different cabaret or « beuglant » origin in France - and she reportedly hated it...

Chanel frequented the British upper-crust milieu for a good while borrowing inspiration from its tailored men's fashion in particular but also less well known, and as we surmise, its cross-dressing habits and love of costuming which was very fashionable at the time; See above the photograph with Boy wrapped in a feminine Asian, Sino-Japanese kimono with chinoiseries motifs; the borrowing of men's fashion seems to be the mirror idea of that.

The fragrance « Boy » is, as it happens, meant to be worn both by men and women, yet it eshews being called « unisex ». No, it's « Boy » instead. Is it boyish ? No, it rather wishes instead to be so very masculine as to be feminine; so how does this bottled paradox smell like ?

The Lavender

Chanel's first store in Deauville set up with the help of Boy

Chanel_Deauville.jpg The new Les Exclusifs funnily enough lets out before getting sprayed a green, resinous, cypressy note found in Cyprès de Rigaud, a candle which Jackie O loved to burn in the White House; it must be the mossy underpinnings of this re-thought fougère.

The composition when liberated opens up on a beautiful lavender plume, fireworks-like, sweet, aromatic and dusty, streaking the sky with one complex aero-dynamic pattern. This bouquet of cool and fragrant pyrotechnics - blue is the hardest color in pyrotechnics - also smells precious in a nod to the dandy-like figure of Boy Capel, its muse. He is the man reported by tradition to have been Coco Chanel's one true love albeit not an exclusive one (he was married and a womanizer; she loved men). The fact that he died young in a car crash is like Jack Dawson to Rose DeWitt Bukater in the movie Titanic or Marcel Cerdan to Edith Piaf in real life: this love story is a love theory which escapes the test of time.

In a way, Boy reprises the theme of fateful love across the Channel which was inaugurated with Jicky by Guerlain in 1889 - also a scent travelling between the sexes. Like it, Chanel Boy is lavender-accented; like it, it is able to convey both freshness and sexuality; like it it is a song of love to a British love lost for ever.

The main official idea for Chanel perfumer Olivier Polge was reportedly to work on the notion of gender as applicable to perfume. This sounds like a trite idea a priori. Any professional perfumer does that routinely. We know the Chanel nose was not interested in the notion of « unisex » - the term which describes an olfactory compromise - claiming instead to have delved deeper into masculinity to extricate femininity out of it. At a simple level, it means that Polge revisited the genre of the fougère, the scent family most worn by men. The composition does not feel like a typical masculine fougère thanks to this plume effect replacing the splash-in-the-face one, and although a « boyfriend cologne » smell can be perceived. A marked, solifloresque floral facet also ensures we're far away from the codes of contemporary fougères. Polge has managed to make the game of fougère smell more complex and multifaceted.

The Musk

As the composition settles down, it smells more animalic and creamier. You could say that this is an animalic floral fougère. The musky facet of the fragrance smells almost civet-like, which gives it a retro vibe. There is an unusual pungency to this musk which betrays a passeist flavor.

Polge, it turns out, also worked on sensations of authenticity and historicism, to our nose, as if he wanted you to have the chance of smelling a perfume dated from the 1910s-1920s, albeit freshly churned like last-week butter, at most.

Retro, vintage perfume lovers will appreciate this time-capsule, which evokes the trembling hologram of a turn-of-the-20th-century vanity table whose flacons still hold captive, long gone molecules. The musk of Boy feels old-school, revivalist, close to Baur nitro musks, rather than naturalistic and barnyard-like as we are used to smelling today, or clean, or vegan (ambrette seed). Polge could have gone for a recreation of the scent of hot, steamy horses since Boy Capel was a polo player. Instead, he preferred to go for the history books of perfumery and chose historical relevance.

boy_edp.jpg The Heliotrope

As Boy eau de parfum dries down further, the creamy-animalic facet becomes more powdery while retaining a creamy texture (vanilla). You can detect now a note of Heliotropin, with its almondy nuance; it has been made to veer towards the smell of bitter almond. This effect recreates a nostalgic note for French noses socialized with the fragrance of bitter-almond scented glue at school; it's the equivalent of the scent of Play-Doh for American children. Heliotrope flower is a nostalgic note even this year in 2016 when it's making a comeback. It still harks back though instantaneously to the turn of the 20th century when it was infinitely more popular.

As the perfume further develops, the tail end of the accord which let a suggestion of cherry fleetingly appear lets its presence be felt more but never to the point where it becomes obviously about the cherry fruit. Boy is not trying to copy La Petite Robe Noire like so many other releases. Hydropic, dough-like nuances come to complement the full length portrait of Heliotrope, itself the bearer of a nickname, the « cherry-pie » of nice gardens.

The composition then focuses on making the recreated Heliotrope bloom be magnified by the warmth of your skin.

« Uglier », minute nuances of civet, Skatol and costus were inserted to keep the perfume from being about just a pretty boy. In this respect, it is a French perfume more than an English one. French perfumery wants you to smell like a bedroom rather than a bathroom. It knows the value of sky-and-earth contrasts and the role that « disgusting », repulsive and a priori malodorous nuances play to make a perfume smell more beautiful. It also is convinced we're unconsciously attached to those bodily smells.


The Rose

If Olivier Polge purposefully wanted to show us that the notion of gender applied to fragrance is a relative notion, he ends up showing us even more than that that it is in fact vitually meaningless, except as part of a story-board. So while we may think that this is the portrait of the dashing Captain Boy Capel wearing an heliotrope tussy-mussy tucked in his boutonnière, it is really more about a reminder that men in his era could and would wear floral perfumes - and so that ultimately, it does not mean much for the art of perfumery to be constrained by gender, except as a convention to be broken at different moments and intervals. So, yes, Boy is about the depth of the notion of masculinity - as constructed and vulnerable to change. What it is not is an exploration of the roughest and manliest notes to be dug out from the mines, compost, horse stables and greasy garages of the earth, whatever that might really signify in terms of masculinity - and with an added note of rose to allow women to chase it down. The perfumer demonstrates the plasticity of gender in perfume by using history and an archival approach.

Please inhale deeply that lovely rose-sandalwood drydown with a lingering trail of fresh lavender. It is the scent of breaking free from binary thinking, and an invitation to enjoy a greater level of complexity in your perfumes.

Fragrance notes : lavender, rose geranium, lemon, grapefruit, heliotropin, orange blossom, rose, sandalwood, vanilla and musk.

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