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About Grey Flannel: I Was Wrong.

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by , 29th May 2010 at 01:35 AM (3771 Views)

Recently I picked up a bottle of Grey Flannel, and I have to admit that it took me about two years to finally shell out $25 for a drugstore fragrance. I've become a little snobbish in my preferences, and felt that anything seen on a shelf in Walgreens couldn't possibly be worth it in the long run. After all, its company is as pedestrian as Jovan Musk and Acqua di Gio. How good could this unattractive 35 year-old Beene offering be?

What I didn't understand was how different Grey Flannel actually is from the rest of the downmarket rabble. That is to say, I didn't realize Grey Flannel is the victim of postmodern America's horrendous taste, the sort of banally atrocious cultural attention span that is capable of losing enough interest in an upscale designer cologne to relegate it to the dusty corners of commercially-qualified fragrance graveyards nationwide. I should have known better; this kind of thing is common around these parts. But after finding things like Cool Water and Sex Appeal to be less than cool and sexually appealing, I suppose I was just being stereotypical toward the little Grey sack. What was this supposed to conjure? Pajamas? Old men's shirts? With Grey Flannel, I found myself unable to imagine. Shame on me.

There's more to a great fragrance than just illusory perceptions about its "image". A truly great frag will open your nose like a book. It will capitalize on all the dust and soil and air and alcohol, every molecule and mite of its being will successfully parlay plain scent notes into a symphony of sheer will. And like music, it will come from nowhere, and eventually return to nowhere, always leaving you wanting more.

Such is the case with Grey Flannel. I figured I was in for the usual hollow, cheap attempt at raking in big dollars through pseudo-sophisticated '70s packaging. Some uninspired one-note bottled-Blah. Instead I got violets, dry citrus, and dark earthy oakmoss, all combining forces to create something as black and deep and rich as a Litchfield County lake after a summer rain. Ever smell anything like that from a bottle? It's humbling. It's deceptively simple. It's a touch of genius.

Now I'm not going to go so far as to say that Grey Flannel is pure genius. But I stand by there being a distinct touch of it in there. My impression upon first smelling it was a mixture of delight and despair. Here was a profoundly beautiful scent, sold on the cheap in the most mundane places. I could have it anytime, anywhere. But all this is accompanied by the sad realization that this simple beauty is being largely ignored by the masses, which seem to favor far less inspired fare.

I guess it stems from wanting to smell clean - an obsession here in America that I've begun to grow suspicious of. While certainly not against cleanliness (I am quite fond of soap), I find it difficult to understand why everything nowadays is geared towards the redundant reinforcement of smelling soaped and scrubbed. This started in the late '80s with Cool Water - which some see as a milestone of exciting innovation - and spread like wildfire through the fresh/fruity-sweet '90s, until finally metastasizing into the unapologetic hairspray & baby powder crap sold in department stores today. Instead of being avenues for self-identity and individuality, it seems the endless ranks of aquatics and "fresh" fougères are a foundation upon which their unimaginative and risk-averse creators have built an unwitting army of scent-soldiers. Marching in unity in the camouflage of their cologne, these millions of suckers, having chosen their standard-issue "clean" fragrance, wage a merciless assault on the art of perfume itself. After a while even the most stubborn holdout becomes inured, through constant exposure to Cool Water clones, to the possibilities of what can be achieved by choosing to wear something that's, well, a little [I]dirty.[/I]

Enter Grey Flannel - the perfect post-shower antidote to smelling like soap and tap water. While certainly not a filthy, seedy smell, this is nothing if not an earthy, un-pretty composition of seemingly benign notes. The violets are firm and unflinching; the lemon and orange are stripped of any traces of sugar until only their bare, bitter souls are exposed. The oakmoss has sod attached, the austere and elemental sandalwood and vetiver get fleeting nods as everything becomes very dry, very smooth, and very not of this time.

If ever there was a fragrance that did not need a name, it is Grey Flannel. Maybe this is why the moniker Geoffrey Beene & Company gave their only masterpiece is so bland - they just couldn't come up with anything that could credibly encapsulate the whole feel of their scent, and hoped that a comfortable domestic allusion would make up for it. Or perhaps they were puzzled by testing. On me, this fragrance jumps from being a blast of violet and very bitter citrus, to being a very leafy floral violet scent of near-perfume strength. From what I have read, Grey Flannel is more of an oakmoss monster on others, or even a poor-man's sandalwood. With many people getting different results from the same product, the various colors of the fragrance get sifted until one hue finally stands out. But with every person it's a different hue! So in a moment of diplomacy, the Beene people decided to mix it all together and just call it Grey.

They also figured that a real man sees elegance in direct simplicity. The design department put forward a simple wine bottle for the flanker, and wrapped it in colorless cloth. For 1976, that was top-dollar. For today, in a time when we can't go to the movies unless a studio spells each gunfight and explosion out while we drool into our popcorn, elegant simplicity doesn't shout loud enough. With something as understated and unpretentious as Grey Flannel, we're no longer getting the message.

That's too bad, really. Because that means that a rare phenomenon occurs: a great product that has seen very little change over the years, or been eclipsed by improvements, has been demoted. It's not the clone-harried Cool Water, or the aspirational-but-dull Polo. It's isn't the unapologetic and half-assed noisome of Jovan Musk or Drakkar Noir. Nor is it even the unfortunate and commercially-forsaken Obsession for Men, or Cardin pour Monsieur. It is simply a lost treasure, waiting to be found.

I'm glad I found it.

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  1. 's Avatar
    Excellent article. Whether or not I agree with you on just how simplistically good GF really is, this was a well written piece. Thanks for the good read.
  2. MOONB's Avatar
    You're welcome, thanks for reading!
  3. Flaconneur's Avatar
    Thanks for the interesting read on Grey Flannel. As one of the first customers of this fragrance back in 1976, I can tell you in all honesty that today's version is better. I found that the violet notes in the original were a bit harsh and could be burning to the nose at times. I just purchased Grey Flannel for myself, maybe living in the past a little, but found the new version to be much more balanced that the one I remember. Grey Flannel was my first fragrance and I have a soft spot for this fragrance but still feel that it is a great addition to anyone's collection that loves violet.
  4. Flaconneur's Avatar
  5. MOONB's Avatar
    That's interesting to know, and thanks for reading. I've always wondered about the original formulation. I'm a violet-lover, and the violet in GF always seems well blended, typically powdery, and nowhere near overly-sweet. My theory on why the violets in the original version were harsher rests with technology - violets don't offer much in the way of essential oil/aromatics, and it takes a good chemist in his laboratory to "reconstruct" the scent of violets, either from scratch, or using the essence as a base to be built upon. Back in the mid '70s, the chemicals available and procedures for reconstructing violet were not as advanced as they are today. I'm sure sometime in the last 15 yrs, Grey Flannel got an overhaul and was given a solid facelift in the violet/violet leaf department. Hope you enjoy your new bottle.
  6. Flaconneur's Avatar
    Your conclusion seems completely possible and would explain why this scent is much more sophisticated in its violet note. I am enjoying a little journey into the mid 70's. Thanks

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