"Guerlain’s Biogenetic Law" By Luca Turin
Given my fondness for both cars and perfumes, it was inevitable I should end up daydreaming parallels between coachbuilders and fragrance houses. Thus Dior is the refined and ladylike Carrozzeria Touring, Caron the shockingly angular Fratelli Zagato, and Guerlain the endlessly graceful Pininfarina. Like Farina, Guerlain never starts with a blank sheet of paper, but with a blurred filigree of everything they ever built. Then they stretch it this way and that, removing old and adding new features as taste evolves, before bringing it all into soft focus. As with Farina, continuity is dynastic: the mantle passed from “Pinin” to Sergio, and now to his son. But after five generations, no Guerlain seems to be willing to take over from Jean-Paul when he retires. There are two possibilities: either put fragrances out to tender like most other brands, and lose know-how and artistic coherence, or hire an in-house perfumer as Cartier, Patou and now Hermès have done. Who? Maurice Roucel must be the prime contender. He has a string of masterpieces behind him, from the forgotten Lyra (Delon) to 24 Faubourg (Hermès) via Envy (Gucci) and Tocade (Rochas). He has shown he can do things exactly in the Guerlain manner (L’Instant), though so far with unexciting results. His very French style of perfumery, that of a man who likes to make women feel gorgeous, suits the house perfectly.
Now comes his long-awaited Insolence. Once you get past the insane press-pack (lights and music when you open the perfume box), the first impression is odd. Roucel daringly breaks with the current obsession with prettiness up front. In the grand old manner, the first few minutes are all wrong: cloying violets in a cloud of hairspray. Insolence is going to be a hard sell unless the staff gets proper training. At t=300 seconds, when the tremendous rush of topnotes slows down and Insolence hits its loping stride, you realize you’re zipping along in one of the best-engineered fragrances in living memory. The reference to Guerlain’s past is clearly l’Heure Bleue, but with a powder-blue respray. For the next couple of hours Insolence shifts back and forth between that and a shimmering, ghostly echo of Amarige’s tuberose. Roucel’s hallmark ingredient, magnolia leaf, works wonders at making this big four-seater GT feel lighter and smaller than it is. If l’Instant was a Peugeot 406, this one is the family Ferrari, the 612 Scaglietti. Great from some angles, wrong from others, but overall fascinating to watch in motion. It’s not a 330 GTC (that was Chamade), but would you turn it down as a present?