There’s a twenty-year-old ad for Yves Saint Laurent Paris that says everything you need to know about this iconic fragrance. In the ad, the model Lucie de la Falaise leans against a wall while holding a huge bouquet of light-pink roses. Everything but the model’s face and the bottle of perfume is in gauzy soft focus, including in the background the Eiffel Tower. De la Falaise looks otherworldly in this city of muted pinks and greens, serene, elegant, and very, very French. Surely the City of Light is scented exactly like this, is it not? Isn’t Paris a veritable rose macaroon, tinted pink as Yves Saint Laurent’s fantasy fragrance is?
Paris is an ebullient and romantic daydream of a scent that interlocks a fruity, jammy, and abstract rose with violets that smell the way candied violets look. One spray and (nearly) all is revealed. This is not a perfume of special effects but one that opens big, stays big, and gives you a bit of sandalwood as a basenote souvenir.
Perfumer Sophia Grosjman recorded the central floral bouquet at larger than normal volume, resulting in a spectacular bloom that is at turns mildly powdery and mildly syrupy, like dessert wine. On my skin violet always dominates rose, with iris adding a cloud-like textural element and jasmine adding more clean sweetness. Bergamot in the top expresses lemony fruitiness that is at perfect pitch with the floral soufflé. As the sandalwood appears, so does the type of soapiness that one finds in expensive, finely milled French hotel soaps; it’s cottony-clean and delicately musky.
Paris is not built to act at skin level. Instead, it hovers above, floating in a dramatic waft. How much it wafts can be controlled by the method and amount of application. I would, for instance, never apply as liberally as I would at home if I were going to the office. Not to be forgotten is that Paris is a fragrance of its times, meaning that it was released in the 1980s and it has that grand 1980s presentation and tremendous olfactory sonic boom.
For years I’ve only worn the eau de toilette. The reason behind this is that what makes Paris great for me is not a boiled-down essence of its notes but its lightest formulation (which in today’s terms is quite strong) that lets loose the notes where I can admire them from a distance. Eau de parfum was too concentrated for me and suffocated the lovely airy space where juniper and hawthorn peek into the bouquet. Granted, the sandalwood base is relatively lighter, too, but Paris has always been beautifully inflated at top, as if the base were merely there to provide some mostly hidden ballast.
In addition to its sophistication, Paris succeeds on its frothiness that you want to grab and bring back down to earth while inherently realizing the futility of such an effort. It’s ravishing and unnaturally beautiful—artifice as art. No bouquet ever smelled like this, no city was ever that pink or that gauzy. If by today’s terms Paris seems gaudy, remember that there was a time when it spoke of unerring and impossible sophistication of a type I fear is a bygone thing.