Everytime I look at my sample of Cuir de Russie which the nice lady at the Chanel boutique gave me simply because “it’s obvious you love this stuff”, I think of an experience I had back in the early 80s. I was a young executive at the time and, like most businessmen, I wore tailored suits, beautiful silk ties and Italian leather shoes that felt like slippers. Tailors were everywhere but good tailors were like gold! I remember Roger, my tailor, taking me out to the sidewalk in front of his shop to show me a new material that he had just received. He insisted that I see it in sunlight as opposed to his sedate, dimly lit but chic shop. It didn’t matter that the people walking by were looking at us. Having a suit made was serious business and choosing the right fabric was crucial. It’s hard for me not to smile when I think back at that former life… of so many lives.
And so one morning I noticed a sharp-looking businessman in my apartment building carrying a hat. It was a “canotier”! You know… those flat-top, straw hats with a dark ribbon. Maurice Chevalier was famous for wearing them. When my neighbour popped it on his head upon leaving the building, it blew me away and the next day I went directly to the only men’s hat shop in Montreal that I knew of and tried one even though I knew hats can be hard to wear… like some perfumes.
Luca Turin says chypres are hard to wear because some of them smell like they’ve seen more of the world than the wearer. Actually… chypres don’t scare me. I wear them all the time. But leathers!!! They smell so sophisticated AND so subversive! Whether it’s iris-centric Cuir de Russie (1927) or bitter orange Bandit (1944) or peppery Bel Ami (1986), their basic element is leather. They smell animalic! I say… you had better know who you are if you’re going to go to the office smelling of fauna… instead of flora.
Oddly though… leathers also remind me of humanity… of Man’s illusive obsession to tame nature and establish superiority… which he will never do. But the quest, the struggle, has produced such artistic and technological beauty, it inspires! There is nothing more beautiful than art and technology together. The SS Normandie comes to mind… as does the Concorde. Both were designed to improve trans-Atlantic travel and both are works of art in their own right. I think that’s why I find perfume so fascinating. It’s the synergy of art and technology… artist and chemist working together.
As for the canotier at the hat shop… well… it looked like it had seen so much more of the world than I did that I regrettably handed it back to the sales clerk.
But Cuir de Russie, still untested, remains on my radar.
Top image : Ocean liner SS Normandie (1935-1942)
Bottom image : Le déjeuner des canotiers (detail, 1881) by Pierre-August Renoir