On Italo Calvino’s Classics and Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois

What makes a classic? “In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum,” he says, noting that nevertheless the classics cannot exist without this hum. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.”

This topic is the subject of my latest FT column on modern classics. The article, How Serge Lutens reinvented the idea of feminine perfume, is the first of a series that will cover fragrances I consider outstanding and important. Modern classics, in other words. My first essay is on Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois, a composition that challenged conventions and remade wood accords as we know them in perfumery. To read the article, please click here.

Italo Calvino’s essay is worth reading, whether your interest is perfumery or literature, because it’s witty and through-provoking. “Classic” is the most overused word, but unpacking its layers of meaning makes one appreciate the richness of allusions and references that each great work contains. The essay is part of the compilation “Why Read the Classics?” (public library) that includes Calvino’s observations on his favorite writers and novels. I can’t recommend it enough for your summer reading lists.

Of course, I would love to hear what a classical perfume means to you and which fragrances you count among the modern classics.

To read all articles in my column, please click on my name in the byline.

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54 Comments

  • Richard Goller: A superb review, Victoria. To me, a classic fragrance would be one that set a new standard of excellence (sometimes even shockingly so) or took fragrance in a very different direction. and whose influence lives on. Modern classics? Comme des Garcons Parfums, Thierry Mugler A*Men, Cartier Declaration… June 21, 2017 at 10:15am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with your definition. Cartier Declaration is part of the series, by the way. June 22, 2017 at 6:48am Reply

      • Richard Goller: That’s good to hear Victoria. Looking forward to reading more of your series. R June 22, 2017 at 9:31am Reply

  • OperaFan: Wonderful article that makes me want to give FdB a second look. I’ve never experienced the original and wasn’t impressed with the sample I had obtained years ago.
    Hard for me to consider “modern” classics as I tend to look to the past. Certainly, No 5 and the likes of Chamade, Eau Sauvage, or Angel were considered as such early on while others took more time to earn their status in retrospectives.
    I look forward to reading future articles in this series. June 21, 2017 at 11:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Angel was actually the opposite. It was a big failure early on, and people thought that it will not last for a long time. It was because Thierry Mugler believed in this perfume that it reaches its current modern classic status. June 22, 2017 at 6:49am Reply

      • Lila: When Angel first came out it was when sales people were still allowed to spray you with perfume as you walk the perfume aisle gauntlet. I got a hosed down with Angel and immediately went to the restroom to wash it off (this was before my true appreciation for fragrance started). Now I love Angel and can truly see how it could become a classic. A classic fragrance to me would be one that has a modern edge but acknowledges the past as well (history always repeats itself, after all). Portrait Of A Lady has to be among the modern classics. I let my mom borrow my PoaL and her hospice nurse came in one day and exclaimed that she smelled roses – the most classic of perfume ingredients. In a world where clean/fruity/sweet reign supreme, PoaL makes people take notice and that is a classic in the making, imho. June 22, 2017 at 4:37pm Reply

  • spe: Wonderful and thought-provoking topic.

    I’d add Aromatics Elixir (1971) and Jil Sander Woman III (1985) my top two woody, classic, memorable fragrances.

    FdB, unfortunately, falls into the “I grew up in the woods and no woodsy perfume smells as good as ‘the real thing’ does” category for me. The cedar note is distracting for me in all of that fragrances from that series (violet/fruit/etc), however, I do recognize its beauty for others, and it is utterly unique. June 21, 2017 at 1:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, definitely. Both of those are excellent, even if Jil Sander Woman III flies somewhat under the radar. June 22, 2017 at 6:56am Reply

  • Nancy A.: Hi Victoria,

    So much of once was is gone and capturing scent (particular classic) in a bottle transforms us to another time, another place, another memory. And given the price point and the corporate mentality to roll out new or new and improved leaves me cold and will for the most part having me returning to what pleased me in the past. June 21, 2017 at 1:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: Which are those perfumes? June 22, 2017 at 6:57am Reply

      • Nancy A.: Most of the Guerlain line of fragrances, Original Chanel Private Collection, First which not until I looked into it was created by Jean Claude Ellena and realized so many of his fragrances I loved.
        When many of the niche brands surfaced I could still discover the appreciation for good notes but oh those prices! June 23, 2017 at 12:25pm Reply

  • Jennifer Shaw: Hi Victoria, You captured my attention with your title- Italo Calvino’s Classics. I love, love, love his writings and short stories. I am going to need to find this essay collection to read.

    As far as the perfume/ scent angle, certain scents really do take me back to my childhood. I have yet to find the perfect match to the scent of my favorite childhood home in the suburbs of Chicago. The summer’s were heavenly scented with the most aromatic rose, peony, lilacs, stocks and carnations, from the backyard. Caron’s Belladogia was the closest to the gorgeous lush scents of the carnations and stocks. It is quite hard to find an adequate scent of lilacs. Violet fragrances never smell quite right to me either. I love the scent of Coppertone suntan lotion- something about the citrus scent makes me so happy. The closest scent that brings back the happy memories is Molton Brown’s Orange and Bergamot lotion. June 21, 2017 at 2:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m currently reading “If on a winter’s day a traveler…” and it’s excellent. Invisible Cities is another novel I loved, especially since it combines the topics close to my heart–Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, Venice, linguistics and travels. June 22, 2017 at 6:59am Reply

      • Jennifer Shaw: I loved Invisible Cities, too! It is one of my most cherished books from my best friend from when we were both roommates and attending University in San Francisco. June 22, 2017 at 2:51pm Reply

  • Aurora: It’s uniquely you who can pair so well literature and perfume, Victoria, so excited for you about this project. While I have been exposed to FdB thanks to you, we didn’t click so far, I will revisit. Why read the classics? is now on my reading list and I was reminded of Henry Miller The Books in My Life, do you know it?
    I would like to nominate Dior Homme as a classic, it blurs gender more than any other I know (I was lucky enough to win a bottle of the parfum for such a good price, I was actually looking for Intense but experiencing the parfum I fell in love even more). June 21, 2017 at 4:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t read much of Henry Miller, and most of what I know of him comes through the eyes of Anaïs Nin. Calvino, by the way, has a great essay on his novels.

      Can’t agree more on Dior Homme! June 22, 2017 at 7:01am Reply

  • Carla: I’m excited about this series. Today I was craving what may be a classic – Calyx. Lately I have been really into Lutens. What a genius. I read somewhere he thought Iris Silver Mist a summer scent but I always liked it in winter; however I’ve been wearing it with the warm weather lately and it’s perfect. Such a beautiful unusual perfume. Financial Times is smart to have you contribute June 21, 2017 at 4:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, yes! I remember trying Calyx the first time it came out and it was an instant love for me. I must have gone through a couple of bottles of it. 🙂 June 22, 2017 at 7:01am Reply

      • Carla: I’ve run out of Calyx too so I had to “settle” for Le Parfum de Therese! June 22, 2017 at 12:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: Not a bad trade down. 🙂 June 22, 2017 at 2:10pm Reply

  • Eudora: Dear Victoria, I remember perfecty when, two years ago, Serge Lutens perfumes arrived to the city I live now. I had your reviews and my curiosity and I went to the SL tiny corner. I took Ambre Sultan and I felt in deep deep love. Like most of his fragances it is bold and unique. For me he is a genius.
    Calvino is also very unique.
    I went today to smell Feminite du Bois. But I blame the hot and humid weather…I found too much cinnamon very overwhelming.
    Also I have never smelled Iris Silver Mist but I am platonically in love with it thanks to your reviews. I dream with King Iris and cannot wait.
    But I will wait.
    Thanks for another beautiful post.

    Enviado desde mi iPad June 21, 2017 at 6:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also remember my first encounter with Lutens’s perfumes. They smelled like nothing I’ve tried before. They were like a glimpse into another world, another universe of someone’s imagination. June 22, 2017 at 7:03am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: What makes a classic? Ha, interesting question. Italo Calvino needs 14 definitions, that shows how difficult this question is! ”sense of discovery”..”imprints on our imagination”…”timelessness; rooted in the present, transcending it”….well said, but you can hardly say this of The Pickwick Papers, for instance. Still it is a classic.
    Modern classic perfumes? in my humble opinion, that could be:
    J’Adore; Poison; Knowing; Ambre Sultan; Iris Silver Mist; Y; Opium; Paris; Yvresse; Aromatics Elixir; Sublime; Iris Nobile; Faubourg 24. And of course Féminité du Bois! I will wear it today, inspired by your article.
    And the recent, very modern perfumes? The sweet fruities, the ”fruitchoulis”? Who knows? They lack originality, it is often said, therefore no ”sense of discovery”. But maybe one day they will have the charm of the past. And the best will be classics, like Sì, La Petite Robe Noire Black Perfecto; Coco Noir.
    And the inoffensive, but oh so agreeable warm lavender of Mon Guerlain (I finished already 50 ml!).
    Originality is not always required for a classic…think of Le Dix and Liù, both resembling No5. Still, they are classics. And Quadrille, surprising, ahead of its time with those fruity notes, is forgotten.
    As for ”niche” perfumes, there are so many of them.. too many. I bet Hiram Green perfumes could be classics, or Kurkdijan. I gave up sniffing ”niche” perfumes, I was lost on my way. June 22, 2017 at 5:50am Reply

    • Victoria: I recommend reading the full essay, though.
      http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1986/10/09/why-read-the-classics/ June 22, 2017 at 7:05am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: I was already familiar with this text and others on the topic. June 25, 2017 at 5:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Your list of perfumes is very interesting, and yes, it remains to be seen which fragrances will end up inspiring others. La Petite Robe Noire certainly made a splash, and it’s a clever play on the gourmand theme. Of course, just because something is popular at the moment, it doesn’t mean it will survive decades later. The same can be seen with books. In the 1980s everyone read and staged Kundera. Today, he publishes a new novel, and it doesn’t even register. June 22, 2017 at 7:09am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: There are so many of those ”fruitchoulies”, I can not believe that the whole genre will sink into oblivation. I have the feeling that the best of them will survive and become classics. But who knows? The future is not ours to see, que sera sera (I know my classics). June 25, 2017 at 5:17am Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: ”oblivion” I mean, sorry. June 25, 2017 at 5:19am Reply

  • Eudora: Hello Perfumistas,
    I am here to learn so forgive my ignorance. Yesterday I tried FdB on me and also I spray it in a cloth bag I was wearing. Today the cloth bag smell SAME as a smell I identify as Oud. For me FdB IS OUD… What do you think? Thanks. June 22, 2017 at 7:05am Reply

    • Victoria: How interesting! I never made the connection, but oud does have the cedar-like side, especially the perfumer-made accords, rather than the natural variety. June 22, 2017 at 7:10am Reply

      • Eudora: So, can you say that FdB is an oud perfume?

        Also oud is quite trending, right? I thought FdB to be the original or fist “women’s” oud. So a classic.

        Thanks Victoria. June 22, 2017 at 7:28am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s not an oud perfume, because it doesn’t have anything of oud in it, apart from the fact that the cedar in Feminite du Bois might make you think of cedar used in some oud accords. June 22, 2017 at 7:41am Reply

          • Eudora: Thanks Victoria.
            I smelled cedar in it, but only and very strongly the day after I spray it.
            Cedar must be.
            Learning by doing! June 22, 2017 at 7:49am Reply

            • Victoria: That’s how it is for us all! You smell, compare, take notes. You can try smelling another cedarwood-heavy perfume to see if you’re picking up the same note. June 22, 2017 at 1:59pm Reply

  • Karen A: Another inspirational article – as well as all the comments! Putting several things on my reading list (always grateful to you and BdJ readers for ideas). As for modern classics, I am a bit at a loss for ideas, Chamade was mentioned above – that was the first that came to mind. Goutal’s Heure Exquise (which I’m exploring thanks to a sample from a generous BdJ person!) feels like something timeless.

    On a separate note, the other day checking out at Target I asked the woman behind me if she was wearing wearing Clinique AE, she wasn’t but another woman was and it smelled so wonderful! Will put it on the modern classic list, too. June 22, 2017 at 7:59am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad to see Goutal mentioned, which is such a wonderful house, especially their early perfumes. Heure Exquise would be one of my choices too. June 22, 2017 at 2:00pm Reply

      • Karen A: There is such an elegance to Goutal’s fragrances. While I may not want to purchase some, I can’t deny that many are beautifully made. June 22, 2017 at 2:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: And I also love that many are quirky, such as Folavril or Eau du Sud. June 22, 2017 at 2:12pm Reply

  • SolangeN: Classic scents that; like classic literature, express timeless concepts in an archetypical representation; include many, like Shalimar, Angel, No. 5, Chypre, Bandit that may be said to have “invented” a genre and influenced countless imitators.

    Others represent the perfection of an existing concept – Chanel is the master of this with Coco, Coco Mademoiselle, Egoiste, No. 19. I’d add Aromatics Elixir, Jean Louis Scherrer, Azuree.

    Too many more to name are exceptional examples of a particular genre, including Youth Dew, Poison, Sung, Ambre Sultan, Samsara, Miss Balmain, Eau du Soir, Diorella, Cabotine, Envy, Obsession.
    Then there are the few that stand alone in that nobody’s managed to copy them: Magie Noire, Paloma, Cristalle, Fendi.

    I include badly reformulated and discontinued fumes in the possibility they might return in good form one day.

    I think many perfume people bemoan modern fragrances because most could be considered not only “derivative,” but mediocre. Thank you for a thoughtful discussion! June 22, 2017 at 8:11am Reply

    • Victoria: Classics in literature are more durable, because it’s easier to reproduce books than perfumes. So, yes, I would also include the discontinued fragrances in hopes that some day they would resurrected.

      Thank you for sharing such a detailed definition and excellent examples. June 22, 2017 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Alicia: Being a sickly child I lived for a long time in my grandfather’s large library, similar perhaps to Leopardi’s father, which Calvino mentions. Thus I became acquainted with the classics very early in my life. It was my chosen destiny not only to read and reared but to teach them for years to doctoral students in different USA and European universities. Among Calvino’s characteristics the one I found particularly true is number 6, a classic is a book that always has something new to say. The same is true of perfumes. I know and love my classics, the Arpeges, Chanels, Guerlains, Knizes 10 of old. More difficult is to anoint a new one, because to become a classic takes time through the accumulated anointing of several generations. I would have said not long ago that Bulgari Black could be a classic; today it is discontinued, and thus I was wrong. I love Feminité du Bois, but its sister of violettes enamors me as much. My candidates for classics? I’d like three roses to survive: Nahema, Paris, La Fille de Berlin. Private Collection, Declaration, Dune, Opium, Apres l’Ondee, L’Heure Exquise, Songes, 24 Fauburg, Coco, I would nominate each one of them to classicdom. Awaiting eagerly your choices, Victoria, and thanking you for this post. June 22, 2017 at 9:08am Reply

    • Karen A: Funny as I was going to add La Fille, Coco and Songes to my post above. I spritzed some La Fille on earlier as it’s been a while since wearing it and immediately fell in love again! June 22, 2017 at 2:08pm Reply

      • Victoria: It’s a beauty, and I was wearing it the other day and thinking that it might deserve a place on a modern classics list. June 22, 2017 at 2:11pm Reply

        • Karen A: It has my vote! June 22, 2017 at 2:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: A beautiful list! I’m considering Songes for one of my options.

      Your grandfather’s library–and that of Leopardi’s father’s–sound like my idea of heaven. June 22, 2017 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Raquel: I enjoy so much your articles.
    Could TM Angel be a classic? Must de Cartier? June 22, 2017 at 2:20pm Reply

  • sariah: I thought of Songes too. June 22, 2017 at 7:28pm Reply

  • Karen 5.0: Another thought-provoking article! I have Italo Calvino’s “Why Read the Classics?” waiting for me at the library – can’t wait to read it. Thanks for the recommendation. I enjoyed both “If on a winter’s day a traveler…” and “Invisible Cities.” Hope you do, too~

    As for the word “classic,” whether in relation to fragrances, literature, food, or even thoughts, for me it means something you or anyone can return to time and again, finding both comfort AND something new each time. I feel this way about, among many other books, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which is an utterly different book each time I read it. Fragrances: any of the Chanels really – they all stand the test of time (and the nose). Food/cuisine= Thai, Indian, French, Italian. Thoughts=Socrates, Epictetus, Buddha, and St. Augustine, among many others. June 23, 2017 at 10:02am Reply

  • Carla: Speaking of literary classics, I just finished David Copperfield and once again experienced the satisfaction of knowing for myself why a novel is considered a great classic. Dickens is another literary genius. I read and listened and highly recommend Richard Armitage reading it on audible June 23, 2017 at 11:09am Reply

  • Musette: Goodness! What an elegant, marvelous post, Victoria. Such a pleasure to read. I am so boring when it comes to the classics: No5, Lanvin (Arpege/My Sin/Crescendo. Mitsouko.

    But they all bring me such joy! June 23, 2017 at 6:13pm Reply

  • SHMW: Ormonde Jayne Woman, once called just Ormonde (if you want to read early reviews on say MUA) has to be a classic and there really is nothing else like it. June 25, 2017 at 7:30am Reply

  • Martha: I nominate Serge Luten’s Des Profundis as a modern classic. I fell in love at first sniff with its clear, cold, but moving aura. June 27, 2017 at 12:07pm Reply

  • Inma: Hello Victoria,
    these days letting the sensations of this words come to me “that turned woods into silk and richness into radiance”. I love them.
    And your articles about classics in perfumery will help me to develop my own taste.
    Thank you! July 4, 2017 at 8:46am Reply

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