Even for the accomplished perfumer, re-orchestrating a classic is a formidable task. Not only does the new version have to respect the original spirit, it needs to add a new, distinctive twist. In addition, it must also follow current regulatory stipulations on the use of ingredients, be on budget and make sense within the brand’s DNA. No wonder most remakes fall short of such high expectations.
Hermès is a more respectful brand than most others of its heritage, but I was nevertheless skeptical of the proposition to rework their classics, which include such legends as Caléche and modern gems such as Hiris. The consolation was that the new versions redesigned by in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena would live alongside the originals. The first in the series was Bel Ami Vétiver, which reinterpreted the leather chypre from 1986.
Created by Jean-Louis Sieuzac, the original Bel Ami has a mellow combination of smoky leather and musk, generously laced with sugary vanilla and amber. The surprise here comes in two stages: first, there is the spicy sharpness of basil and clove, and later, the romantic twist of iris. It’s suave and languid, a perfume that smells of leather bound books and sweet pipe tobacco.
Because of perfume ingredient regulations, Jean-Claude Ellena already had to re-interpret Bel Ami when he took the reigns at Hermès, and Bel Ami lost some of its darkness but gained plenty of radiance. It’s clear from smelling Bel Ami Vétiver that Ellena aimed to retain the features that make this fragrance unique. The two perfumes are more like siblings than distant relatives. Ellena preserved some of Bel Ami’s musky sweetness and the shimmer of spices, while toning down the earthy, balsamic finish. There is still a nod to the retro panache of Bel Ami–a delightfully old fashioned chypre, even post-IFRA.
Despite my misgivings, I enjoy Bel Ami Vétiver. It has everything that I expect from a successful re-orchestration: Bel Ami’s character is recognizable within its radiant composition, it’s elegant, and best of all, it unfolds in several stages. After the bitter and tart prelude of orange and ginger, Bel Ami Vétiver falls into the soft glow of spices. Cumin gives a sweaty, dusky warmth to the woods, while sheer incense darkens the drydown. The advertised vetiver is front and center, redolent of bleached driftwood and green hazelnuts in their frilly husks. It has the breezy quality of many of Ellena’s compositions, but it lasts for most of the day.
Bel Ami Vétiver is a modern dandy with a penchant for black-and-white movies and an occasional cigar, and there is no mistaking its classical “masculine” character. But it doesn’t mean that Bel Ami Vétiver is off-limits to women, and anyone who likes their cocktails dry and their leather well-worn should give it a try.
Since the original Bel Ami will still be a part of the collection, we have the best of both worlds: retro or contemporary, or perhaps both.
Hermès Bel Ami features notes of cardamom, elemi, basil, carnation, iris, patchouli, Russian leather, vetiver, amber, civet, styrax and vanilla. Bel Ami Vétiver emphasizes vetiver and soft leather. 100 ml Eau de Toilette/€ 88. Available at Hermès boutiques.