Yesterday, I spotted a lonely bottle of this on the edge of the very bottom shelf of the discount scent case of a local chain drug store. I hadn’t seen or heard anything about Canoe in decades. Wow, how the mighty have fallen, I thought.
After lunch, I went back and bought that bottle. I wore it all afternoon.
Back in the late 1960s, when I would guess Canoe peaked in popularity in the U.S., it was a very sophisticated, slightly edgy, expensive French brand with all sorts of class associations. Canoe went with skin-tight Lacoste shirts with the little green alligator over the left nipple, madras patch Bermudas, pink dress shirts, penny loafers with no socks, crew regattas, Playboy, summers in Northeast Harbor. American men (and even American women) didn’t talk much about scents in those days, the way they didn’t really talk about sex. You were just supposed to KNOW, like you knew how to pronounce the name (can-OH-eh, in the French manner).
I couldn’t afford Canoe in those days and anyway had no interest at all in fragrances. Wearing it now, though, I realize it was EVERYWHERE in the preppy, affluent suburban circles I moved in in those days. Back then, it was the ONLY cologne for a certain type of young man. It was very much a part of a time when Bond-like sophistication, taste, and style and all that went with them, were briefly cool for American men. I’m actually surprised that Canoe hasn’t come up on Mad Men.
I did a bit of research on the company, Dana, and there was a long story there, too, in its slow progress from trendy Barcelona to 1930s Paris (probably to escape the Spanish Civil War and Franco) to a warehouse at the end of a street of split levels in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Along the way, there was a former Harvard professor marketing guru whose idea was to buy up faded scent classics and take them downmarket. He died suddenly in the ‘90s. His company went bust and came back as “Dana Classic Fragrances.”
This explains how Canoe ended up in a small town RiteAid, looking like a rusty ‘60s Mercedes. Nowadays, like so much else, it is assembled in China. When I opened the box, the label wasn’t even on straight. But the bottle was still the familiar old smirky shape.
And, despite the fact that it was apparently reformulated once or twice during its long decline, the basic Canoe scent seemed to ring true. Smelling that old powdery smell, which reminds me somehow of the baby blue of a Brooks Brothers button down Oxford, I suddenly remembered that the classic all-male barber shops of my childhood actually USED powder on you. Canoe has the scent of coming home on a Saturday morning in June from a fresh haircut in the barbershop in the fanciest downtown hotel.
A classic for sure. I hope it sticks around and maybe even makes a little comeback, like those Madras shorts I never wore either
Since I wrote this review, I bought a 250 ml vintage bottle of Canoe on eBay, apparently preserved, like fine French wine, in the cool, dry cellar of a fanatic perfume collector in Ohio. The factory seal was still on the bottle, which was marked "BOTTLE MADE IN FRANCE." No Chinese assembly in this one. Cost was considerably below the retail cost per ounce of the contemporary Canoe.
Comparing the French and the Assembled in China versions, I confirmed that the Chinese scent profile had stayed pretty faithful to the original. The French version was far smoother and more elegant, however. The lavender of the Chinese edition suggested the cheap face power favored by elderly ladies in my childhood; the French juice had a softer touch of elegant 1930s barbershop. The Chinese version's vanilla suggests a sugar cookie from a supermarket; the French vanilla is like walking past one of the best patisseries in Paris on a late August afternoon.
I assume that most of the difference in the quality of materials in the original, but the lighter formulation (EDC vs. the current EDT) and the long bottle aging may have played a role as well. Not unexpectedly, the EDT was stronger and had better longevity.
These is not at all to say that the contemporary Canoe is unwearable. In some ways, it is a more comfortable fragrance, with a warm, comfortable dry down like sitting next to a gas range when a cake is baking. But the old French Canoe is you with a white dinner jacket and a martini, watching the sun set over the Pacific, while Brubeck plays somewhere in the background.