I didn't know much about Chypre as a genre until I started to write the review of Heeley Chypre 21. To me, the chypres have always been throw-back fragrances I associated with Edith Piaf fans and old ladies smoking slim cigarettes through fume-cigarettes.
Now take that image I put in your head and completely erase it. Heeley Chypre 21 is a descendant of a glorious family of fragrances dating back to the Roaring Twenties's when Parisian elegance was at its peak. Think of Chypre 21 as Chris Pine - the grandson of Anne Gwynne - an American actress from the 1940s. He may have his gradnma's nose and lips but he is utterly modern and sexy. Chypre 21 has the key characteristics of a Chypre fragrance but none of the dated feel associated with the classics from the era.
Heeley Chypre 21, however, is more than just a perfume. Released almost 100 years after the original creation of Coty's Chypre in 1917, Chypre 21 celebrates an era and the French chic and elegance. To understand what this fragrance stands for, we need to delve into the history of chypres and the historical context in which this fragrance family emerged.
What are the Chypre Fragrances?
Chypre perfumes are usually defined as fragrances with citrus top notes and earthy-mossy base. Traditionally, the middle notes feature labdanum but this is not always the case. As a concept, Chypres are built around the juxtaposition of cool and fresh citrus, and warm an dry oakmoss.
The key characteristic of a classic Chypre fragrance is the dry bitterness that comes from the oakmoss or patchouli. Think of a fragrance someone like Marlene Dietrich or Josephine Baker would wear. If you have no idea who those two are, I suggest you check Wikipedia or smell the perfume of an 90-year-old lady who, even at her advanced age, insists on wearing bright red lipstick and smoking cigarettes with a cigarette holder. If you do find one, as they are rare, take advantage and ask her about her youth in the 1920's. She'll probably have some eye-opening stories your grandma would never tell you.
As a fragrance family, Chypre became extremely popular in the 1920s. In 1917 Francois Coty released a perfume called Chyrpe, which became extremely popular. Two years later in 1919 Guerlain released Mitsouko - a floral chypre - which even today is one of the cornerstones of the brand.
The perfumer Ayala Moriel points out on SmellyBlog that Coty's Chypre was not the first one of its kind. As early as 1909 Guerlain had a chypre release - Chypre de Paris. In 1911 Forvil also released a fragrance called Chypre, which was followed by another juice called Chypre, this time from d'Orsay.
Ayala Moriel explains that Chypre scents first became popular in the 12th century when crusaders brought from Cypress some of the native plants and ingredients, which were formed formed into a fragrant paste.
The classic Chypre fragrances, however, didn't emerge until the early 1900's and didn't become extremely popular until after Coty's release.
The Roaring Twenties and Chypre
The popularity chypres is very much tied to the socio-cultural changes that took place in France in the 1920s. Often referred to as the Roaring Twenties, the decade before the Great Depression was one of radical shift in Western Europe. Paris was the cultural center at the time and this is where women pushed the boundaries and started the emancipation movement. World War I had just ended and with it had ended the era when women were relegated only to certain circles in society.
Big hats and flowy dresses, popular before and during World War I were abandoned for slimmer silhouettes, short haircuts and trousers. In short, the Roaring Twenties stepped up to men in society and took a position if not yet equal, pretty close to one.
Paris in the 1920s was also the city of choice for many of the most popular artists at the time. Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and Hemingway lived in Paris at the time. Influence from the US brought the jazz music, which set the beat to which the post-war generation danced.
In this climate of cultural revolution Chypre was born as a genre. The classic chypre fragrances of the time were not what you would call pretty, or the kind that tries too hard to please. On the contrary, they were perfumes with an edge that didn't care much if you liked them. In short, they were themselves and it was up to you to deal with them.
"I think of the interchange in the movie Get Shorty (sorry, I should know if this is in the Elmore Leonard novel that inspired the film), where John Travolta’s character, a mobster named Chili, buys a Prius. One of the other gangsters sneers and says, “A Prius. Aren’t they slow?” Chili responds, “I guess they’ll just have to wait for me.” That attitude is pure chypre."
Chypres were, and I think still remain, fragrances for the bold ones, those who are not afraid that they may not please everyone.
What Chypre 21 Smells Like
Chypre 21 has the same DNA as its grandparents from a century ago but with a modern take. Put in other words, Chypre 21 epitomizes the chypre perfume of the 21st century; it is clean, elegant and with an edge that makes it interesting. Take that edge away and you'll get a very well done modern masculine fragrance - similar to what every designer aspires to create but only Heeley can design.
Chypre 21 follows the typical structure of a Chypre fragrance. It opens with bright citrus (bergamot and neroli) and a hint of rosemary, which gives it a slightly herbal blend. The dry bitter edginess of the oakmoss is present from the beginning and remains present throughout the life of the fragrance.
In its heart, Chypre 21 is composed of rose and violet. I don't detect the violet note but I do pick up the rose. It is light and ephemeral, similar to the one in Rose Anonyme by Atelier Cologne. A hint of vanilla adds some density and sweetness but it is never in the centre stage. The vanilla accord is masterfully offset by a saffron note, which gives a dusty character of the fragrance.
The challenging part of creating Chypre 21 must have been the base. Traditionally, Chypres feature a patchouli and an oakmoss note in their dry down. A recent ban by the European Commission and IFRA on the use of oakmoss creates a serious challenge in producing any Chypre fragrance.
In an interview with Helder Suffenplan for Scentury, James Heeley explains that in order to recreate the okamoss base for Chypre 21 he had to use salty and algae notes and combine them with the patchouli note. The patchouli note, Heeley explains, comes from a CO2 extraction (one of the best oil extraction methods), which gave it a unique depth, not attainable in early ages.
The result is a masterfully done fragrance that has solidly stepped into the 21st century, while it boldly carries its 100-year old heritage.
Where to Rock It
The light nature of Chypre 21 makes it perfect for spring and summer. It is Parisian chic in a bottle mixed with British elegance.
Heeley's website suggests that the men wearing Chypre 21 would be the kind to wear a made-to-measure grey flannel suit made of 150s wool material. Think of $2,500 Canali suit.
The ladies rocking Chypre 21 would be the ones standing with their hand on the hip wearing a multi-coloured tweed and powder on their nose.
If that's not you, it doesn't matter. Chypre 21 is so versatile that you have to work very hard not to make it work. I see it as the perfect scent for a white shirt, dark chinos and blue suede driving shoes.
What the Frag Heads Think About It
Just like the other Heeley fragrances, Chypre 21 gets love from the perfume bloggers but not much attention from the mass media. This is just as well - it takes one who has smelled tons of fragrances to appreciate the elegant simplicity of the Heeley perfumes.
Mark Behnke from Colognoisseur gives Chypre 21 thumbs up and says that its modern take on the genre would win it new fans. Mr. Behnke further explains that Heeley has successfully achieved his goal of creating a fragrance that recreates the air of Parisian chic.
The Candy Perfume Boy says "Chypre 21 is very much the thoroughly modern chypre one expects it to be, save for one key difference: it isn’t squeaky clean." And believe me this is a great thing. As we stand, I think we've way too many fragrances that do squeaky clean.
The Scented Hound finds Chypre 21 an easy wear and gives it 3 out of 5 bones. To him, it smells like a "cosy kitten". I'm struggling to understand this comparison but I do agree with The Scented Hound's description of Chypre 21 as an easy wear.
The Bottom Line
Chypre 21 is a great fragrance for a casual spring/summer day. Its daring dirty facet is something the big designer boy fragrances only wish could do. Chypre 21 is a Parisian chic in a bottle. Excellent work, Mr. Heeley.
- Would you buy Chypre 21?
Absolutely. I recently purchased a bottle and it has been a staple in my rotation.
- Would I get compliments wearing Chypre 21?
Chypre 21 is a light and effervescent fragrance. Its projection is moderate at best. Considering this, it is not likely that people will stop you on the street asking you what you are wearing. I don't think Chypre 21 will get you tons of compliments but it will be a personal pleasure to wear.
- What rating would you give Chypre 21?
I think it is a solid 4 out of 5.
Italian Bergamot, Rosemary, Petit Grain
Neroli, Bulgarian Rose, Saffron
Musk, Oakmoss, Patchouli, Sandalwood
Where to Buy It
Chypre 21 comes in a 100ml bottle. You can get it at etiket.ca.