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February 1, 2006

"Guerlain revisited" By Luca Turin

"Guerlain revisited" By Luca Turin

Faithful readers will recall a Duftnote a year ago expressing alarm at the impending “modernization” of the Guerlain classics to bring them in line with EU regulations. Things have moved on since then: instead of a callow youth to oversee the job, Guerlain relented and hired the great Edouard Fléchier. Fléchier, a wonderfully inventive perfumer (Poison, Une Rose, etc. ) and Grasse veteran with more experience of naturals than just about anyone alive, has been at it for a year. To date, there is no sign of any planned release of new-and-improved fragrances. Guerlain’s attitude also seems to have changed, from secretive to openly defensive. I recently gave a lecture in Paris to an audience of perfumers and, during the questions, made an offhand remark about Guerlain’s Chamade and Chant d’Arômes having been changed long ago. Days later I got a phone call from Fléchier himself asking me to account for my words. I explained what I meant (Chamade less powdery, Chant d’Aromes less peachy, nothing to do with his work) and the conversation took an unexpected turn.

Guerlain, it seems, feels unfairly singled out for criticism, at a time when everyone is messing with their old formulae to either cheapen them or bring them in line with regulations. True, Guerlain are getting a lot of flak, but only in proportion to the importance of the masterpieces in their safekeeping. Which would you most worry about: the Uffizi hosing down its Botticellis, or the Hirshhorn Museum scrubbing its Julian Schnabels down to the bare velvet? Fléchier insisted that they were working very hard at making sure no damage would be done, and I believe him.

But can they do it ? I’ll bet oakmoss, birch tar etc. simply cannot be replaced. What then ? Plenty, as a matter of fact. For a start, be more open about the whole process. I suggested to Fléchier, and later to Guerlain’s head of PR that they (at long last) explain to their customers what the problem is, and humbly let them decide: Mitsouko with a health warning, or Mitsouko after plastic surgery ? For that matter, why not both ? For example, the Parfum in each line could be the original, with the EdT and EdP revised and “safe”. I think the best course of action would be for Guerlain to invite every perfume journalist on earth to visit the works, let Fléchier explain the problem, have the regulatory people explain the options, and see what King Customer decrees. Welcome to the modern world.