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Pursuits: Bandit is my favourite among the dirty French fragrances

These days, fashions in the fragrance business are such that niche perfume houses refuse to label their

fragrances as masculine or feminine, arguing that a good perfume has no gender. At the top end of the market, fragrance has also moved away from the synthetic

‘fresh’ notes that dominated mass-market perfumery over the last decade and gone for stronger, more assertive smells. It isn’t just the likes of Byredo, L’Artisan or Serge Lutens that are experimenting with perfumes that are packed with dark mystery, even Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent are jumping on to the oud bandwagon with their recent launches.


   The arguments being offered for this trend are that fragrance has always been divided into two camps: French (floral, girly, sophisticated, subtle) or American (fresh, upfront, clean). But there is a third camp: sexy, dirty, animalistic, Middle Eastern, darker. And the niche perfume houses have catered to this third camp.


   I find it hard to take sides in this debate because I’m not sure that the world of fragrance can be so neatly divided. What camp does L’Eau D’Issey fall into, for instance? It uses heavy doses of a synthetic molecule called Calone to make its first entry but after that it is pretty much a standard floral.


   Besides, I challenge the assumption that the French can’t do dirty. (Okay, the big American houses can’t; that I concede). In recent years I find myself going back to the old classis of French perfumery. Many of them are gentle and subtle; for instance, two fragrances that I often wear are Habit Rouge and Monsieur de Givenchy (launched in 1959). Both seem timeless and superior to much of the rubbish that is hitting the market these days.


   Neither of those two fragrances is dirty. But the French are not short of dirty smells. Take Jules, probably the least-known of Christian Dior’s (non-niche) fragrances. It has a top note of sage that smells (in this context, at least) like sex on a bathroom floor. It is an astonishing scent but prissy Dior is reluctant to sell it in much of the world. And even in Paris, it can be hard to find. Saint Laurent is more upfront with Kouros, its own dirty sexy scent for men. Though it is impossible to smell Kouros and not think of animalistic pursuits, the fragrance is widely available, 30 years after its launch. (Body Kouros, which is wonderful, is an entirely different fragrance which has nothing to do with the original Kouros.)


   So yes, the French can do dirty, very nicely. And they’ve been doing it for decades. Nor are the naughty fragrances restricted to niche houses. The big guys have them too: smell Yatagan by Caron (1976) or Equipage by Hermes (1970), to get the scent of real men in the real world.


   But if I have a favourite among the dirty French fragrances, it is one that the French themselves don’t consider particularly dirty even though I think that a brief  spurt under the armpits is enough to make you smell like an unmade bed after a wild afternoon.


   It is called Bandit and has a complicated history. It was launched by the now-forgotten couture house of Robert Piguet in 1944 during the German Occupation of France. Nobody has been able to explain to me why the French were busy making perfumes when the Nazis were over-running their country. But there you have it.


 "However, in the late Nineties, the Piguet fragrances landed with owners who cared. Top perfumers from the fragrance giant Givaudan were drafted to create a scent as near to Cellier’s original as possible."

   Bandit was created by one of the period’s most fascinating perfumers, a woman called Germaine Cellier. Everything I have read about Cellier suggests that she was a strong, kick-ass kind of woman, unusual for that era and it is sometimes hinted that she may have been a lesbian.


   Bandit is a woman’s fragrance (though I doubt if they would market it as a feminine perfume were it to be launched today) and it has many of the ingredients of girly scents; jasmine, tuberose and gardenia. But is has also has galbanum, a plant resin with a bitter green smell and castoreum, which gives fragrances their animal character.


  All this gives you a strong, dark fragrance that smells of flowers roughly crushed in your fist in the throes of passion. But there’s also one other facet: leather.


   In 1919, Caron introduced Tabac Blonde, a woman’s fragrance meant to appeal to the independent lady who smoked cigarettes and drove her own car. Leather became a code for female independence. Five years later, Chanel launched Cuir de Russie (still available at all Chanel boutiques), an improvement on Tabac Blonde that mixed leather with more typical girly accords.


   Cellier used leather in a more menacing way than either Caron or Chanel had. In her hands, the leather in Bandit became the smell of Gestapo trench-coats, of S&M straps and of warm leather gloves.


   Piguet knew that this was no ordinary fragrance. At his shows, he dressed models promoting the scent in masks and strange clothes to make it clear that this was not a normal haute couture smell. When Marlene Dietrich began to use it, the fragrance finally had a mascot who reflected its essence.


  Then, disaster struck. Piguet closed down his fashion house. The two top fragrances in his range (Bandit and Fracas, both created by Cellier) passed through the hands of various owners who cheapened them by using third-rate ingredients and tinkered with the formula. Discerning people stopped using Bandit.


   However, in the late Nineties, the Piguet fragrances landed with owners who cared. Top perfumers from the fragrance giant Givaudan were drafted to create a scent as near to Cellier’s original as possible.


   This proved difficult to do because a) many of the ingredients she had used were now banned under the ridiculous EU regulations that are the bane of the fragrance business and b) because Cellier used ready-made bases (like syrups, created by fragrance companies from many ingredients) and those bases are no longer available. People who have smelt the original Bandit say that the current version is no match for the real thing.


   But I’ve only smelt the stuff we get in the shops today and I have to say that even if it does not approach the quality of the original, it is still wonderful.


   If you are ever in the mood for love and all that goes along with it, spray some of this scent on your body. And perhaps on your sheets.


   You’ll know what I mean.



Posted On: 01 Aug 2012 05:00 PM
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