Perfume and a Movie: Parfums Retro Grand Cuir

and Phenomenon

May 19, 2014:

Parfums Rétro Grand Cuir was composed by Hugh Spencer (Spencer is the perfumer for the brand and Jeffrey Dame is the creative director), with notes of cistus labdanum, birch tar, clary sage, orange flower, lavender, carnation, rose, violet leaf, geranium, cinnamon leaf oil, tarragon, pine moss, sandalwood, patchouli, musk, and rosewood. It can be purchased from Olfactif.com and Luckyscent.com, where a 100-ml bottle is currently priced at $155. My review is based on a sample I received from Olfactif.


Images: film still from the 1996, Jon Turteltaub-directed film, Phenomenon, starring Kyra Sedgwick and John Travolta are from the sites cinema.de and dvdizzy.com. Bottle image of Grand Cuir is from Olfactif.com.



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It’s a very tender scene—one that is indeed representative of the perfume of life, and if you’ve seen the movie or can envision it, then you can grasp how Grand Cuir comes across to me and why I really like it. So, first imagine a man, disheveled, handsome, at the apex of his strength and, at the same time, at his most vulnerable. And then imagine a perfume that opens with a leather note that starts off smelling slightly dirty—tinged with a whiff of the urine-like smell that is often attendant with leather, making it seem all the more real and living. Don’t let this description of dirtiness lead you to think that this is a cheap leather smell: it is very rich, and the fact that it doesn’t smell like supple, cosmetic suede renders it masculine and allows for a more marked transition to follow. Because now it’s time to imagine a woman, cool and ethereal, letting down her guard and intersecting with that man. Imagine her as the scent of lavender, the airy alpine version of lavender. And when you see her fine hands cradling his face—cupping water that she streams over his hair to shampoo him, then snipping his locks, lathering his face and carefully and slowly drawing a razor across it—then also imagine the smell of leather submitting to the scent of an herbal shampoo, creamy orange-flower soap, and spicy barbershop foam.

If you can imagine George Malley resting his mind and feeling the caress of this woman’s eyes and hands on his face, and understand how that simple act might make him feel like a million bucks—if you can imagine writing the olfactory script to that scene in notes of leather and lather, steamy hot water and silky cool ether—then I have done my job in describing Grand Cuir, and there is nothing more to say.

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A couple months ago, I received a complimentary perfume sampler from Olfactif, a Chicago-based perfume sampling service that offers subscribers the opportunity to try three different fragrances a month, hand selected by the company from a plethora of niche brands. (Olfactif also sells full bottles of the perfumes in their sampling program and they offer a credit—eighteen dollars, the equivalent of the one-month cost of the service—towards the purchase of one of the featured fragrances.) Were I at the beginning stage of perfumania, the Olfactif service with its surprise factor and generous 2.25-ml spray samples would be something I’d consider, as I was rather impressed: in addition to including a recently-launched perfume (the one that is the subject of this review), Olfactif also included samples of two older niche perfumes, one of which received a lot of buzz years ago but which I’d never gotten around to smelling. (Luctor et Emergo by The People of the Labyrinths, which, as it turns out, is not to my liking, but it was fun to try it.)

Given that all three fragrances sent to me were selected by the company, with no input from me, what most surprised me is that I found a perfume I love in this random sample of three. What are the odds of that happening? One could attribute it solely to luck, but I think it also speaks to the quality of perfumes that Olfactif includes in its program. (Of course, I should also disclose that there was one sample I found to be a real scrubber, but it was the creation of a niche perfumer whose fragrances I tend to like, so that was surprising too, and goes to show: One never knows where perfume love will strike and where it won’t. It’s good to try everything.)

And on a related note to trying everything: it’s almost thirty years old now, but does anyone remember the movie Phenomenon? In which John Travolta plays George Malley, a genial and folksy mechanic living in a northern California town, who on the night of his 37th birthday is struck by what appears as a piercing light in the nighttime sky that knocks him to the ground and leaves him with freaky-deaky powers of genius. After which, his already curious mind and loving heart expand in such a way that he really does begin trying everything: unable to sleep, he reads four or more books a night, learns new languages at an almost computer-like speed, invents a better organic fertilizer for the garden, formulates new ideas about planting crops, and shows his neighbors how to reroute the mail through his rural town so that it can be delivered on time regardless of the unhurried nature of the mail lady. And that’s just for starters: George attracts the attention of a Berkeley professor when he correctly predicts an earthquake, and lands himself in hot water with the FBI after intercepting a top-secret message in Morse code.

It’s a movie I loved when it came out in 1996, and I recently re-watched it both for enjoyment and because one of its scenes provides a nice simile for the perfume I fell in love with from the Olfactif sampler.

Grand Cuir by Parfums Rétro is a masculine scent and one that is delightfully true to the name of the perfume and the name of its brand—a congruity I’ll credit to the fact that Parfums Rétro is the brand of Jeffrey Dame, an influential member of the online perfume community. (Dame is the creator of the popular online forum, Perfume of Life, and has long made perfume his career.) Grand Cuir is a leather perfume fully aware of the pedigree it hails from, meaning it is reminiscent of leather fragrances one could find back when the Rat Pack was having its heyday, or even in the 70s and early 80s, before men’s perfumes acquired a generic air that seemed to always spell out “sporty” in the same aquatic vein. Like the iconic men’s scent Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel (launched in 1975), which I particularly love and to which it could be kith or kin, Grand Cuir seems to know that “grand” is something best achieved without theatrics and pomposity but simply by appealing to what is instinctually good. What do I mean by that? When I say that Grand Cuir is the smell of an expensive leather briefcase married to the scent of a man whose daily ablutions involve a wash bowl filled with steaming hot water, a lather achieved with triple-milled soap, and a cool slap of lavender-infused aftershave, I think you’ll know what I mean.

In terms of both people and perfumes, rebels might get the world’s attention, and they are important and game changing, but for me there is nothing grander, or more worldly, than an expansive mindset married to old-fashioned values. I suppose you could say that I favor the innovator—with his or her manners and regard for the classics—over the outright nonconformist, and probably that’s why I enjoy movies like Phenomenon and perfumes like Grand Cuir.  There is a reverential heart at the core of the innovator, an appreciation for all that has gone before and a desire to make it better.

The event that turns George Malley into a phenomenon accentuates and accelerates the workings of his brain, yet both before the event and afterwards, he is more heart that mind—his intellect always in service to his heart, and not the other way around. I mean this in the broadest sense, but there is also a woman in George’s picture, one who is resistant to his wooing, but whom he eventually wins over, essentially by way of the things about him that are unchanged. And when that moment arrives, apropos to the kind of people the characters are, and especially apropos to Lace (Kyra Sedgwick), who is a chairmaker—a vocation involving a studious mind and an interest in shaping things by hand—it arrives in the form of a haircut and a shave, administered by Lace at a point where George’s mind is racing, his spirit is flagging and he’s in a state of disarray.