On my recent trip to Paris I came accross a line of niche colognes that I think have good chances of pleasing amateurs of refined and understated fragrances, as well as potentially proving to be a welcome addition to the fragrance wardrobes of people who are looking for fumes discrete enough to wear at the office. They will also probably pique the curiosity of history buffs and rejoice Europeanophiles.
The line is by Institut Très Bien, a perfume house located in Lyon, France and comprises three colognes, Cologne à La Russe, Cologne à La Française, and Cologne à L'italienne, with each cologne pertaining to a specific style identified with a specific country and tradition. Their names mean Russian or French Cologne or even more precisely, Cologne Russian Style etc.
They are by no means your simple, middle-of-the-road colognes and they were created or partly recreated by nose Pierre Bourdon who happens to be also the author of Shiseido Féminité du Bois (together with Chris Sheldrake) and Frédéric Malle Iris Poudre. They are inspired by cologne recipes from the turn of the XXth century, but their compositions are intemporal, so that they do not feel like fragrances belonging to a bygone era. CALR is based on a recipe dating back to 1906 and Pierre Bourdon succeeded in recreating 90% of the original formula, since some of the ingredients are no longer available. CALF is a recreation of another cologne recipe that was used by the grand-mother of the founder of Institut Très Bien, Frédéric Burtin; he rediscovered it by reading her correspondence and found out that she was in the habit of custom ordering it from the original beauty institute called Institut Très Bien in Lyon in the 1930's and would praise it highly.
CALR was the initial motivation for the creation of the ITB line and Burtin's avowed aim is to offer refined "universes-products" (univers produits), supposedly, to a rich, feminine clientèle (How about that for a marketing turn-off? It's so dumb and obvious, at the same time, to say that, I'm wondering if he really said it, as reported by L'Entreprise). In spite of this, I think that the Colognes could be worn either by a man or a woman of refined taste from any walk of life.
The one that is the most interesting to me is Cologne à La Française. It is the most subtle and refined of the trio, revealing a hidden but lasting charm. Please believe me when I say that I make no conscious nationalistic claim here, although on second thought, I realize I may be influenced by certain core French values like discretion and elegance which imply a certain economy of means and a restrained sense of aesthetics. What happened in the chronological order, is that I found Cologne à La Française to be less impressive at first sniff than Cologne à La Russe which makes an immediate, seductive impact on your nose and presents a much more assertive personality. However, after about ten minutes, Cologne à La Française appears, in my opinion, to be the most elegant, understated, and refined one of the two and, or for that matter, of the three. It has the effect of growing on you, while Cologne à La Russe reveals all of its seduction at first blast but lacks the delicate unfolding of the first. It is a darker, more sensual and more ambery juice (ambrette seeds notes), although, unconventionally, there are no Russian leather notes to be found in it.
In fact, Cologne à La Russe is really an Eau de Parfum, therefore a stronger concentration, while Cologne à La Française is an Eau de Toilette, therefore a little lighter; they both nevertheless retain the names of colognes in this line, probably, I surmise, for historical and structural reasons, because they were cologne recipes originally and also because they make use of a basic cologne structure in the scents. Cologne à L'Italienne is the only one that is truly a cologne and therefore is the lightest concentration; while I find it pleasant enough, it is also the least complex of the three, being more simply citrusy despite the interesting inclusion of a maté note. However, in the hot days of summer it might be the one you find to be the most pleasingly light and mercifully refreshing.
The compositions of these colognes read almost like poems or evocative lessons of perfume geography. Cologne à La Française, for example, is composed of Magnolia from China, folded together with, in the top notes, winter lemon, grapefruit from Israel, white lemon from Sicily, citron from Calabria, bergamot from Sicily, lime from Mexico, and in the heart notes, lavender from Provence, rosemary from Morocco, verbena from Provence, finally uncovering an ambery and irisey base composed of notes of neroli from Tunisia, benzoin from Siam, and Iris from Florence. Some key ingredients differ, but you also discover that all three Colognes share many in common, forming a general cologne point of reference.
The Colognes can be purchased online at www.kultkosmetik.de
Sources: www.instituttresbien.com, nowsmellthis.blogharbor.com, Libération, October 8, 2004, L'Entreprise, September 1, 2003; there is also a review of these colognes on perfumesmellinthings.blogspot.com
Photos are from Institut Très Bien's website.