The American fashion designer Geoffrey Beene died of cancer in 2004, but Grey Flannel, the perfume he commissioned from the French fragrance company Roure in the mid-1970s, lives on, and that’s something to be grateful for, as it’s a very appealing scent – even in its current, cheaper incarnation.
Created by an otherwise little-known perfumer named André Fromentin, Grey Flannel was launched in 1975 (or 1976, depending on which perfume authority you believe; I’m often surprised how much confusion there seems to be around recent perfume history). Grey flannel was Geoffrey Beene’s signature material, but fortunately that’s not what his first men’s perfume smells of.
In fact Grey Flannel smells of violets, which seems like a weirdly feminine thing to choose for men, yet the clever thing about violets – or to be more precise, about violet leaves – is that as well as smelling sweet they also have a certain woodiness, which makes their scent far less girly than, say, lily-of-the-valley or rose.
Fromentin’s skill was to take this violet-leaf fragrance (which was successfully synthesised in the early 20th century) and mix it with fresh-smelling ingredients such as galbanum (which smells like green pea-pods) and bergamot (one of the most important citrusy components of the classic men’s eau-de-cologne), but also with typical ‘masculine’ woody smells such as oakmoss (actually a kind of lichen), cedar and vetiver.
The result is a deep, rich perfume that combines sweetness and woodiness in equal measure: it’s too sweet for some, but I love it, even though it’s been reformulated in recent years, presumably with cheaper ingredients – though for once at least some of the savings have been passed on to us, the customers, for Grey Flannel is one of the best-value perfumes you can buy.