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Zealot Crusader

Perfume Jargon: The Fougère Pt. 3

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No discussion of the revered fougère genre in perfume could happen without mentioning the rise of niche perfume. Niche perfume houses unattached to designer labels began to grow in number, undoubtedly because they offered the variety that was missing in increasing amounts from designer and drugstore perfume over the years. Niche houses were great at first because they weren't confined to budgetary limitations, made scents via focus groups, or needed contracts with large chem firms to operate effectively because their economy of scale was smaller. Because of the afforded artistic freedom, niche perfume houses were becoming the new home of traditional styles like the fougère or even the chypre, since they weren't required to use synthetic wood substitute X or ambergris proxy Y because they had an agreement with Firmenich or IFF, nor necessarily had to follow regulations if they sold directly to their customers in their own shops.

But, as niche houses became more successful and began getting purchased by larger cosmetic companies, the prices they charged began rising in time due to them often being positioned as a higher-tier luxury option to the base designer lines owned by the parent companies. This slowly began taking niche out of reach for most except the wealthiest and most die-hard of perfume lovers, and now many purely symbolic luxury perfume brands get confused with niche houses because in the strictest sense they are still serving a niche audience, just one separated by growing wealth inequality rather than by difference in taste. Making matters worse, further tightening of IFRA regulations in 2011 and further min/maxing of profit margins meant it was virtually impossible for a brand like Dior or Chanel to make a fougère by definition for sale in their main lines even if they wanted to due to cost of ingredients or restrictions. The amount of oakmoss allowed in perfume for example was not enough to make a fougère base anymore, and other formerly-common base materials were too costly, forcing them to more-loosely define the fougère by smell rather than substance as a workaround, or create upmarket "prestige" lines to make something in a similar vein.

The irony here is this ultimately returns the fougère genre back to it's roots of being a chemical-based abstract perfume style as it was intended by Paul Parquet long ago, rather than a set-in-stone formula decided by purists and taste-makers as it had been allowed to be for decades. Scents like Dior Sauvage (2015) and Versace Pour Homme Dylan Blue (2017) have been called fougères either by their own houses or by industry noses, which leads us all back to the original question of "what is a fougère?" all over again. I think the answer here is pretty clear: many things, yet actually really nothing because most ferns do not have a smell outside the earth in which they grow. Enjoying fougère fragrances to me is less about enjoying the expected smell of a genre like with an oud fragrance (which itself still has a good amount of variation), and more about enjoying various perfumes throughout the years tackle the job of conveying a "fern-like" accord with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy and embellishment.

A bottle of Fougère Royale itself does not particularly smell very much like a leafy plant, but it does convey a sense of greenery with the citrus, florals, and aromatic base notes on display. Once we get into the barbershop stuff, all that gets flushed down the toilet and only the oakmoss really has anything to do with the woods, as the rest is just olfactive "comfort food" with lavender, vanilla, and an assortment of other powdery soft things. Venturing into the aromatics of the 1960's and 1970's offers another take on smelling like something growing out of a pot, with the 70's stuff in particularly getting the job done being loaded down with goodies like fresh vetiver, patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, and grassy galbanum. The 1980's is the biggest mixed bag, as a fougère can smell like anything from a sweaty jock strap to a vase of wilted flowers or a bar of Irish Spring soap, so with few exceptions, most fougères from the era are only considered such since they were declared so back then, and history cemented it with acceptance.

The 90's and 2000's fougères for me feel closest to what a fougère was meant to be than probably any other time period in the genre's life outside the very beginning, because most of them used a lot of fancy chemistry and really well-placed green florals like geranium to really encapsulate a convincing "fern like" smell. The barbershop revivals like Dirty by Lush (2004), were also nice in that they avoided going straight for a recreation, with Dirty in particular smelling more like a can of shaving cream than the powder used on the face afterwards, but once you head into the higher-end niche fougères like Creed Himalaya (2002), Parfums MDCI Invasion Barbare (2006), Penhaligon's Sartorial (2010), or Boy Chanel by Les Exclusifs Chanel (2016), you really start experiencing diminishing returns scent-wise in favor of just owning a status symbol even if what they present is often very well-done. The biggest problem I have with luxury fougères is that the two words are almost mutually exclusive due to just how ubiquitous and commonly accessible the fougère has been for almost all its life from 1882 up until 2011.

2021 is set to see the EU ban the use of oakmoss entirely, which may be the final nail in the coffin for the original interpretations of the genre in many parts of the world (along with many perfumes), so maybe beyond that point a luxury fougère may seem more acceptable due to regulation-induced scarcity, but I'm still unconvinced. Houses like Tom Ford have experimented with creating convincing takes on past fougère styles entirely without oakmoss in their prestige lines by using synthetic patented notes like "akigalawood", and I can see how they mostly get the job done well enough to pass, meaning that may some day roll "down hill" to designer-tier fragrances and below. For now, I'll just have to convince myself that Versace Pour Homme Dylan Blue could be a fougère accord if you overlooked certain aspects of it, bur I can't say the same for Dior Sauvage. At the end of the day, what qualifies as a fougère is really up to the person wearing the perfume. I imagine ferns to be rather bitter, leafy and grassy, with some earthy aspects and maybe a hint of woodiness from the stem; if I used this mind's eye projection to judge many of the perfumes I own classified as "fougère", then 80% of them would heinously flunk. One of my favorite fougères of all time, which is Azzaro Pour Homme, resembles nothing even close to how I imagine a plant might smell.

There you have it really, and you're probably no better off when you started about what defines a fougère, since that seems to be a very amorphous thing which changes over time. At least now you know what used to pass for a fougère depending on which decade of the 20th century you visit, and what sort of passes for one in the 21st century thus far, but what you think of the genre as a whole will depend on what shade of it you zero in on, due to the vast variety within it. Thanks to dissolving gender barriers in perfume, fougère accords also seem to be appearing in perfumes that lean more feminine or gender neutral, which will only increase the already ridiculous variety. Even chypres, orientals, and gourmands can have a huge array of complexity within them, but the fougère genre is the only one based on a concept impossible to define in reality, so as time goes on it will continue to become more all-encompassing yet paradoxically more meaningless. I love fougères from nearly all walks, and not just because a bulk of my fragrance collection is comprised of them, but even after two decades of collecting and wearing perfume I'm no closer to really understanding them, which is part of the fascination. I know it's only rock and roll but I like it. What is a fougère? You tell me.
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  1. ClockworkAlice's Avatar
    Thank you for this great and informative series. The question "what exactly is a fougere?" has been bothering me for months, and now, while still a little bit confused, I feel like I made several more steps into the light - thanks to you.
    I do enjoy reading your insightful and informative comments, reviews, articles and blog posts a lot, I hope you have as much or even more joy writing them.
  2. Zealot Crusader's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ClockworkAlice
    Thank you for this great and informative series. The question "what exactly is a fougere?" has been bothering me for months, and now, while still a little bit confused, I feel like I made several more steps into the light - thanks to you.
    I do enjoy reading your insightful and informative comments, reviews, articles and blog posts a lot, I hope you have as much or even more joy writing them.
    Thank you! I do enjoy them, but also at the same time they can consume me so I take periodic steps back.

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