How do you pay tribute to a legend? In the case of a fragrance like Guerlain’s Habit Rouge, the question also becomes how one celebrates a masterpiece without simply creating something that hews so closely to the original as to feel dated and shallow. It’s a difficult task, one which Thierry Wasser resolved in the case of Habit Rouge Dress Code by cleverly opting to create a completely separate fragrance that gives only the faintest nod to parts of the original, while also including modern elements consistent with the current Guerlain aesthetic.
The result is a bit of a mixed bag, in my opinion. There are parts of Habit Rouge Dress Code that are very appealing, especially from a distance, and other parts that I’m not so fond of, particularly up close. That said, I think this is one of the better Guerlain releases in recent years, maybe even the best as compared to the last few, and it will be popular on its own merits, irrespective of the original. It also has the virtue of feeling significantly more unisex and less overtly masculine than Habit Rouge, so I think it may appeal to women as well.
Habit Rouge Dress Code (hereinafter sometimes simply called “Dress Code“) is an eau de parfum and a special release that was created in honour of Habit Rouge’s 50th anniversary. It is not clear to me how long the fragrance will be available, and if it is only a year-long commemorative offering. A few places like Bergdorf Goodman and French Sephora explicitly state that it’s a limited-edition fragrance, but the description for the scent on Guerlain’s French and Canadian websites makes no such mention. As a side note, Dress Code is sold in a limited fashion in the U.S and, like L’Instant Eau Extreme EDP (or LIDGE), might not be offered in Guerlain’s American stores. It is available, however, at the Toronto boutique. To my surprise, I could not find Dress Code at some of Guerlain’s usual European vendors, either.
Guerlain’s Canadian website describes Habit Rouge Dress Code and its notes as follows:
Habit Rouge Dresscode: a new and contemporary twist on the signature Habit Rouge. The fragrance has an addictive jus with a luscious oriental aroma. Created in 1965, Habit Rouge is the first oriental fragrance for men in perfumery. As a homage to the equestrian art, it created an element of surprise with its scents of sensual and bold vanilla. [¶] Habit Rouge has an eternally elegant French appeal, its version Habit Rouge Dresscode is a style manifesto for today’s dandies.
Elegant, delicious, audacious.
Habit Rouge Dress Code starts with a fizzy head note of bergamot and neroli associated with a touch of rose. Spicy heart notes give way to a woody leather base note. Its irresistible attraction is enhanced by its tonka, praline and vanilla notes.
According to Fragrantica, the pyramid of notes is:
Top notes are bergamot, neroli and rose; middle note is spices; base notes are woodsy notes, leather, tonka bean, praline and vanilla.
Habit Rouge Dress Code opens on my skin with a dusty rose whose fruity sweetness has been muffled by a thick blanket of dark spices. There is a dry, woody, cinnamon, followed by several pinches of clove, then the bitter, bracing tones of nutmeg. A few drops of a lemony bergamot and a green, piquant, fresh neroli are splattered on top in an attempt to add moisture to the rose and to resuscitate it.
They fail. The rose is brown and brittle, verging on the decayed, and conjuring up images of a pressed, powdery memento in a cache of old love letters. In fact, there is a very ancient, dated quality to the rose in Dress Code’s opening, a dusty powderiness that harkens back to the past. It almost smells like a rose potpourri, but not quite because nutmeg is typically not the main focus in such mixes while, here, it is rapidly becoming the dominant spice that coats the brown petals. In fact, it takes a mere 10 minutes for the ripples of bitter nutmeg to turn into a flood, embracing the rose in an intimate waltz that leaves all the other notes as bystanders on the sidelines.
Two things are most noticeable amongst them. The first is a quietly smoky leather that is roughened by aromachemicals and flecked with slivers of vague, abstract woodiness. Hiding behind it is a nutty sweetness. Guerlain calls it “praline,” and that’s accurate, but it reminds me more of a mixture of caramel, nougat, toasted almonds, and a small dash of a cinnamon-y benzoin.
Habit Rouge Dress Code quickly shifts. As the nutmeg expands, it not only sucks out all remnants of moisture and juicy, fruited sweetness from the rose, but creates a dusty, earthy bitterness that feels increasingly unbalanced. It is accentuated by touches of clove, but a new arrival is far more powerful. Roughly 15 minutes into Habit Rouge Dress Code’s development, star anise bursts on the scene. It is the same dark, bracing, sharp, slightly salty note that dominated the opening of L’Instant de Guerlain Eau Extreme, the eau de parfum commonly nicknamed as LIDGE.
Combining such large amounts of star anise and bitter nutmeg together is a bold move but, in all honesty, I don’t like it very much and their strength ruins much of Dress Code’s first 90 minutes for me. Both spices are fantastic in small doses, especially with roses or oriental accords, but they don’t feel well balanced or carefully edited here, either individually or together. It’s like a chef who has over-seasoned his food. There is so much bitterness, bracing dustiness, and earthy sharpness that they’ve sapped the rose of some badly needed counterbalancing sweetness.
In theory, the other elements in Habit Rouge Dress Code should compensate for and ameliorate the blast of spices in the opening but, unfortunately, on my skin, they don’t. (And I’ve tested Dress Code several times, even using different quantities in case application amounts make a difference.) The caramel praline is only a minor player in the opening moments, and is muffled in the background. While it does become more significant after 40 minutes, it remains as a swirling backdrop. Plus, even when it does grow more noticeable, the problem then becomes something else. Its sweetness has a saccharine quality that I find to be painfully cloying, especially when I smell my arm up close. The neroli and bergamot are no help, because they vanish roughly 15 minutes into Habit Rouge Dress Code’s development. And the leather is no answer, either. Its smokiness merely accentuates the dry quality of the rose and spices and, up close, its overly desiccated aromachemicals are all too evident. It’s not a supple, smooth, refined leather. It’s also not a raw, tarry, leather either, despite some birch tar undertones. On my skin, it’s merely cracked, dusty, and smoky.
What’s interesting to me is that Habit Rouge Dress Code smells differently from afar than up close. From a distance, the scent is primarily a heavily spiced, dry rose lightly smudged with amorphous darkness and placed within a sugary, caramel cocoon. The bouquet is still unbalanced in the first hour, but it’s improving quite a bit and there is something intriguing enough about the nutmeg and star anise to repeatedly draw me in for more. The salty, spicy bite of the star anise and the bitterness of the nutmeg give the rose a more interesting, less typical profile than the usual accompaniments of chypre-ish or cologne citruses, gooey fruitchouli, oud, or cinnamon. Like the spices, the sweetness doesn’t feel quite so excessive or sharp on the scent wind now, while the whispers of smoky darkness echo just enough in the background to suggest a different path is in store.
It feels very unisex and not overly masculine, in large part because of the focus on the rose and the addition of gourmand sweetness. There is none of the bright, crisp, citrus freshness that gave Habit Rouge such a sparkle, but that also means there is none of the original’s cologne-like start, either. This is a darker (and significantly sweeter) scent that wholly skips the classical barbershop to go straight for the oriental heart with an emphasis on the rose and spices. Rather than hewing to Habit Rouge profile, I find Dress Code nods instead to the spice bouquet opening of LIDGE. Unfortunately, as time goes on, it increasingly tips its hat to the gooey praline excesses of L’Homme Ideal as well.
Change is in sight, and the first hint of it occurs at the end of the first hour and the start of the second. The leather starts to gain in stature. Rather than imagining the red equestrian hunting jacket of Habit Rouge, the image that keeps coming to my mind is a Tudor or Elizabethan dandy’s doublet where the red, velvet fabric has been slashed to reveal deep rivulets of something else underneath. In this case, it’s smoky (chemical) leather. It starts to bookend the rose on one side while, on the other, the praline begins to seep onto its petals, rejuvenating it a little and countering the spices. The star anise and nutmeg are softer now as a result, feeling better balanced. As the praline caramel and smoky leather converge on the rose, the flower changes. It no longer feels so dusty and powdered. It’s also become more diffuse, sheerer in feel. This is not a thick, heavy rose by any means. While it’s ceased to waft a potpourri brittleness, it occasionally smells a little sour on my skin, perhaps due to the indirect effects of the bergamot. For the most part, though, Habit Rouge Dress Code is slowly becoming a smoky, leathery, star anise-nutmeg rose juxtaposed against a treacly praline-caramel backdrop.
The second big change occurs at the start of the 3rd hour when Habit Rouge Dress Code’s heart phase begins. The caramel praline is better balanced, while the spices are now wholly abstract, as the nutmeg, star anise, clove and pinch of cinnamon slowly converge into one accord that fuses fully with the rose. In fact, many of the notes feel blurry and start to overlap, while the scent feels very soft and diffused. The one exception is the leather which is wafting a sharp, arid smokiness that feels very synthetic. At the same time, the equally synthetic woody-amber aromachemicals in the base start to seep up towards the top, slowly enveloping the rose in a new form of dryness.
In essence, Dress Code’s main bouquet is now a withered, dusky, spiced rose slashed with thick welts of smoky leather and bearing thorns of sharp woodiness. Instead of the spice mix opening of LIDGE or the caramel praline syrup of L’Homme Ideal, I’m now reminded more of the smoky rose in Rose Nacrée du Desert, only in thinner, less smooth, and more synthetic fashion.
Dress Code remains that way for the next five hours with few changes until the start of the 8th hour. All that really happens is that the amounts of smoky leather and caramel sweetness fluctuate in strength. Most of the time, the leather is the rose’s main companion while the praline is merely an enveloping haze, but sometimes the caramel-praline sweetness is the most noticeable thing about rose from afar. In the same way, the rose’s woody aromachemical thorns sometimes feels sharper than at other times when they’re merely a pop at the edges. As time passes, the spices grow quieter. Once in a while, the rose has an occasional undertone of sourness, perhaps from lingering traces of the bergamot, but it is a very minor touch.
Habit Rouge Dress Code’s drydown generally begins on my skin at the end of the 7th hour and the start of the 8th. The leather starts to slowly (very slowly) fade away, leaving only the faintest, blurry smudges of smokiness at the edges. Increasingly, the scent is just a soft, dry, dusky rose coated with spices, streaked with growing rivulets of caramel sweetness, and occasionally bearing a woody nuance.
By the middle of the 9th hour, the caramel praline takes over, overshadowing the rose and becoming the primary focus of the scent. The caramel is cloyingly sweet with a sort of saccharine chemical quality to its excessive sugariness. A faint hint of something creamy underlies it, but it is a passing, occasional suggestion more than anything else. There is no clear, distinct vanilla or tonka on my skin at all. In its final hours, Dress Code is simple caramel syrup licked by a sliver of spicy rose before it fades away as a wisp of sugary sweetness.
Habit Rouge Dress Code had good longevity on my skin, moderate to soft sillage, soft projection, and a generally light weight in body. Using 2 wide, generous smears equal to 2 solid sprays from an actual bottle, it opened with about 3 inches of projection, and 5 inches of sillage. The numbers dropped after 2 hours, with a softer scent trail and about 1 to 1.5 inches (at most) of projection. Habit Rouge Dress Code felt quite thin in body and weight after 2.5 hours. It turned into a skin scent after 3.25 hours, though it was easy to detect up close for a few hours to come. In total, it lasted just a hair over 9.5 hours. However, when I applied a larger quantity equal to roughly 3 moderate sprays from an actual bottle, the longevity increased to just shy of 12 hours and the sillage was larger. The fragrance took a bit over 4 hours to became a skin scent. In all cases, Dress Code never felt like a dense, heavy, or intense fragrance on my skin. In terms of body and strength, I would compare it to L’Instant Extreme/LIDGE rather than to something like Santal Royal or L’Homme Ideal, both of which felt stronger and/or projected more on my skin because they had more overt, in-your-face synthetics.
Habit Rouge Dress Code is too new to have extensive reviews for me to provide you with comparative analysis, but the Guerlain expert and blogger, Monsieur Guerlain, has an excellent summation of the scent in a post that actually encompasses a broad overview of Habit Rouge and its various flankers over the years. Towards the end of that page, he writes, in part, as follows:
Dress Code retains the signature rose-leather accord of the original, at once aesthetic and tough, but turns it even more flamboyant by incorporating two modern trends in men’s perfumery that seem to correspond well with the Habit Rouge scheme: the gourmand trend (praline and chocolate), and the super-woody trend (powerful woody and leathery aroma chemicals). It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Dress Code is Habit Rouge with a bit of L’Homme Idéal mixed in, and that this pairing brings unexpected thrills to our nostrils. […][¶]
… Dress Code is Habit Rouge without the cologne opening. Gone are the lime, bitter orange and lavender, and instead the leather is significantly reinforced to appear right from the start, assertive and sexy, much in line with how a modern masculine smells. Like in L’Homme Idéal, this leather note is piercingly sharp, radiant, and somewhat acid, and it makes Habit Rouge’s citronellol and neroli beam and glisten like a glitter ball. To round it out, we get notes of chocolate and praline. These gourmand notes, which these days are all the rage chez Guerlain, are cleverly balanced and never too sweet, coming in and out of focus as the fragrance develops. […] With the praline still present, the base recaptures a bit of the spicy and ashy-woody profile of Habit Rouge L’Extrait, with ginger, coriander and nutmeg mixed with cigar-box cedarwood, patchouli, vetiver, and amber. We also recognize L’Homme Idéal’s addictive leather-amaretto-wood drydown in this scent, but with a new shade of rose. Above all, though, this is Habit Rouge, dressed in hot leather and praline [….] [Emphasis to perfume names added by me.]
I differ from the very charming, affable, and knowledgeable Monsieur Guerlain in that I don’t think L’Homme Ideal contains any “addictive” notes, and I particularly dislike its excessively gooey sludge of praline caramel sweetness. I also don’t think that the gourmand aspects of Dress Code are “balanced and never too sweet,” though I find that they are far better handled here than the ridiculous quantities in L’Homme Ideal. By a mile. On the other hand, I admit that I have a low threshold for sweetness, and that I can’t handle the gourmand excesses of most of the modern Guerlains. As always, it ultimately comes down to issues of personal tastes and skin chemistry. Where I fully agree with Monsieur Guerlain is that Dress Code eschews Habit Rouge’s bright cologne opening, while emphasizing spices, leather, and gourmand aspects in a way that feels like a very modern creation.
On Fragrantica, there are a number of comments about Dress Code, but only two people have actually tried the scent at this point and describe it. I was happy to find that one of them detected a similarity to LIDGE as I did. Their comments read in large part as follows:
- I love it. It is still very HR but a bit more spicy, woody and some LIDGE thrown in. I like HR but this is better! [¶] Update after a week: Wow. I am really really digging this scent. This semi gourmandspicywoodsy base note just kicks ass and is a great addition to HR.
- This is a really great fragrance!!! [¶] They have beaten the strong scent that emerges at the top and it is more sweater i would say.
For all my grumbling on the quantities of certain spices or the caramel sweetness, I actually think Habit Rouge Dress Code is one of the better Guerlain releases of the last 10 years, and definitely the best of the recent lot. I have to admit that I personally don’t like it enough to buy it (which had actually been my original plan upon hearing the early descriptions of the scent), but I think Dress Code has some very appealing parts. It is a scent that not only improves as it develops on the skin, but it also becomes more interesting the more often you wear it.
That isn’t usually the case for me. Here, I think I became more accustomed to the forcefulness of the bracing star anise-nutmeg blast in the opening, and found it easier to bear. I like the interplay of bitter, earthy, and dusky spices with the sweeter notes, and the way the rose is slashed with leather, though I personally find Dress Code smells best from afar. Up close, the aromachemical sharpness of the smoky leather and the woods are too pronounced for my tastes, not to mention the caramel’s sugariness. But from afar, Dress Code has some bold, intriguing, and appealing bits that I think would manifest themselves beautifully on the right skin.
Plus, I appreciate just how different Dress Code is from the original Habit Rouge. As I said at the start, I think it was very clever of Thierry Wasser go in a different direction, rather than making a tired, stale copy with only a soupçon of difference. Dress Code may technically be a “flanker,” but I really think it feels like a wholly separate fragrance with only a modicum of overlap, perhaps even less. The original Habit Rouge (which I adore in vintage form) is quite different in its tonalities even after the sparkling citrus-aromatic opening passes. The rose isn’t a hugely dominant or powerful element on me; the leather base feels wholly different (balsamic styrax resins, not synthetics); and there was creamy vanilla rather than toasted nougat and caramel praline. I’ve never tried Habit Rouge Extrait to know how it compares to Dress Code in terms of its spices, but I liked the strong echoes of LIDGE which remains my favorite release of the LVMH-owned Guerlain era.
In my opinion, this is a fragrance with unisex traits and appeal. I hope women who like very spicy orientals or dusky roses slashed with leather and gourmandise will give it a chance, despite the “Habit Rouge” part of the name or memories of the original’s cologne opening. Regardless of gender, though, I think you must like the gourmand sweetness of modern Guerlain fragrances to really enjoy Dress Code. All in all, I definitely think it’s worth a test sniff.