Eau de cologne: easy perfumes for difficult people

by Matteo G. Sarti

MILANO – It is hot. It is August and it is the Mediterranean and it is hot. The air smells of linden tree, the vacationers smell of coconut, and I – the busy man about town who has no time for romance – mostly smell of cologne. Cologne being that most artificial impression of lemon water – to be splashed about with wild abandon when temperatures soar above the line of human decency. A line that I like to figuratively position at about 30 degrees celsius if one is to feel forgiving. And today, as I make my way to Florence to visit a lover (let’s call him J. and let’s pretend he isn’t an extremely successful architect), it is hot above human decency. As far as habit goes, I reach out into my perfume cupboard, pick a bottle and systemically spritz my wrists, my nape and that pale sliver of skin on my inner elbow. I usually like to go for robust incense-based fragrances, but I’m partial to rose, nutmeg and labdanum. However, (did I mention?) today it is hot beyond civility, and the thought of smelling like some sort of orthodox priest of the late 19th century isn’t really the olfactory amuse-bouche I’m after. Today is the perfect day to wear cologne.


A. Beardsley, The Toilet

Let’s start with deciphering the lingo: “cologne” isn’t a synonym for perfume. It is a fragrance whose concentration gravitates around a 10% dilution in alcohol, making it much lighter and much more fleeting than the standard concentrations of Eau de Toilette and Eau de Parfum. Colognes usually revolve around themes of citruses and aromatics, for a fresh although short-lived wear. But the genre extends beyond categorizations, as we can see in this brief list of must-have colognes for the discerning gentleman who is hot (literally and figuratively).

4711 – KölnichWasser Mandarin leaves wrapped in metallic, oxidized neroli

A saint into the mainstream of today’s sartorial superstition. Generally recognized as the very first cologne, this fragrance dates back to 1792. The light (basically non-existent) molecular structure of this opus makes for an extremely fleeting experience: by the time 4711 will reach your skin, it will start evaporating. A very glamorous exercise in old-fashioned masculinity, 4711 retails at the same price of a venti latte at Starbucks: so even if its staying power is close to nil, there’s no need to be precious about it. A perfumed gesture rather than a fragrance, this eau can be splashed on with wild abandon, without the risk of offending the bystanders, ever.

Elixir du Dr. Flair – Astier De Villatte Sage, lavender and the lining of a magician’s hat

The traditional routine of the “splash” doesn’t exclusively speak the language of hesperides. Famous for its cult lineup of whited-out ceramics, Astier De Villatte has been ranking up rave reviews for its incense sticks as well as for its collection of colognes (this is because Françoise Caron, their perfumer, is the Philip Glass of aromatics). “Elixir du Dr.Flair” is rich of the same magic that science has when you don’t understand it: medicinal, difficult and whimsical. Very apothecary-like, it plays with everything a hipster should like, with the difference it takes intellect to be understood. It smells magnificent if you’re into this sort of things.

Eau De Rochas – Rochas Bright, effervescent citrus for people who don’t intend to wear any fragrance, thank you very much

I know. It’s an eau de toilette, not cologne, but its performance is so poor one might as well. Eau De Rochas is a citrus-aromatic composition released in 1970. Which explains its apparent prolapse in patchouli. The patch in this (we call it patch, we perfumed people) is extremely transparent and marries perfectly with the bushy sweetness of Basil. Although marketed for women, this fragrance leans very unisex and it could be best described as “bourgeois French matron likes the idea of a sex revolution but doesn’t particularly care for sex or revolutions, either”. Same goes for its longevity: all the pleasure of putting on perfume without the bother of actually having to smell it. Very chic.

L’Eau – diptyque Withered pomander in the great library of Alexandria, 134 BC

Is it possible to smell both clean and defiantly ancient? Why yes! Diptyque’s first fragrance is a POTENT concoction of citrus, cloves and rose which you are either going to love or hate. Reprising the same narrative of the apothecary, this great fragrance manages effortlessly to evoke the shrunken tears of a lonely rose at dusk in Tangier AND a most modern man wearing a most modern suit. People at Penhaligon’s have been wishing they came up with this perfume since 1969.
Laine De Verre – Serge Lutens Air-conditioning

When not busy rambling about the therapeutic absolute-ness of darkness from his Riad in Morocco, Serge Lutens likes to curate two distinct kinds of fragrance: the syrupy and the transparent. Under the standard of the latter, he produced some pretty amazing exercises in synthetics. Laine De Verre (literally, “steel wool”) smells like freshly ironed shirts. It smells as artificial as clean cotton. It smells like air-con: it is unapologetically fake, synthetic and acerbic. I could go on for days, eventually stopping at “caustic”. Why do I Iove it so? Because that’s the same string of adjectives I’d like people to use when talking about me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s