Royal Leather, the latest fragrance from By Kilian, was a surprise. I thought it was actually interesting, and that’s not a word I think I’ve ever used for a Kilian fragrance. It’s a brand that, in all honesty, does little for me as a general rule because its signature seems to be mere smoothness and refinement rather than originality or bold character. But Royal Leather doesn’t follow the usual Kilian pattern of taking a typical, conventional bouquet and simply making it smoother than things from other brands. It’s bolder than many of its siblings and a little more interesting in its composition as well because it forgoes the usual Russian style of endlessly smoky, tarry birch leather and adds a few quirky twists, like juxtaposing hawthorn with heliotrope. Admittedly, the end result still resembles a smoother form of one or two fragrances from other perfume houses, but those scents are outliers from the typical leathers I encounter. And, I have to say, Royal Leather has a killer drydown.
Royal Leather is an eau de parfum that was created by Fabrice Pellegrin and released late in 2015 to commemorate the opening of Kilian’s London boutique. It is exclusive to his Mayfair shop, Harvey Nichols, and Kilian’s website (which ships worldwide). It is not sold at any of Kilian’s other usual retailers.
On his website, Kilian describes the fragrance and its notes as follows:
Royal Leather is a scent built on the heliotrope flower with oud absolute from Laos and a unique leather accord.
The fragrance opens with a surprising mix of hawthorn and black tea that gives to the scent a warm and deep opening. [¶] The heart of the fragrance is a perfect balance between the soft and powdery notes of heliotrope flower and the rich and animal notes of leather. [¶] The fragrance then evolves into an intense woodsy composition thanks to the oud from Laos and the patchouli from Indonesia that gives to the fragrance a dark yet intoxicating appeal.
The succinct note list is therefore:
Hawthorn, black tea, heliotrope, animalic leather accord, Laotian oud, and Indonesian patchouli.
I want to take a moment to talk about some of those notes. Some of you may be unfamiliar with hawthorn, but it is a major part of the fragrance so you might find it helpful to learn a little about its smell. According to Fragrantica, hawthorn is a shrub or small tree whose flowers bear a strong scent and whose aroma is also called “aubepine.” Fragrantica states that the odor profile is a “sweetish, hazy note … recreated through the use of an aldehyde.” To me, that doesn’t tell you the key part: hawthorn has a slightly woody, slightly bitter, and extremely earthy aroma that resembles rotting vegetation. Think of the roots of a tree, growing gnarled out of loamy, dark soil and covered with wet clumps of leaves; now think of all those things as rotting slightly. It’s not a fungal or mushroom-y aroma and it’s also not as bad as it sounds, though it can sometimes be a little bitter or medicinal. It’s really more of a musky, woody, vegetal earthiness but, as you will see below, one blogger compares it to the scent of rotting flesh.
Vegetal muskiness is also one of the aromas of ambrette (or musk mallow), which I think is a big component of Royal Leather’s leather accord. Ambrette is a plant whose seeds are turned into an essential oil and used in lieu of deer musk which has now been banned for ethical reasons. Depending on quantity, ambrette’s aroma can have a slightly vegetal, fuzzy, skin-like, golden muskiness that is only lightly animalic, or it can be extremely urinous in a way that resembles civet, though I think ambrette is smoother than the synthetic civet you find in many fragrances.
In contrast to all these vegetal, musky, earthy or sometimes skanky aromas, you have heliotrope. It’s a flowering plant whose scent ranges from being floral to vanillic, like marzipan or almonds, sweetened powder, or marshmallows. Here, in Royal Leather, the heliotrope smells primarily like marshmallow powder with only a quiet undertone of floralcy. As you can imagine, that scent profile is at the other end of the spectrum from the other two notes that I’ve described, and it’s a major reason why I find Royal Leather to be so quirky and interesting. Plus, in all honesty, I love heliotrope enormously.
Royal Leather opens on my skin with loads of hawthorn that smells like rotting vegetation, earthiness, and rooty woods. The leather is subsumed within it, musky and slightly woody, but the hawthorn is the star of the show in the opening minutes, not the titular note. It’s infused with the smoky warmth of black Lapsang Souchong tea leaves that have been lightly singed. There is the merest hint of patchouli lurking at the edges, smelling woody and quietly spicy, and a backdrop of general golden warmth from the ambrette.
The unexpected finishing touch is a maelstrom of heliotrope, a swirling cloud of marshmallow powder laced with powdered vanilla, a toasted, nougat aroma, and a touch of fluffy, pollinated flowers. Yet, Royal Leather isn’t actually a powdery scent, per se, on my skin, at least not in the usual way that one thinks of such things. The earthy muskiness is so great that it’s like a humid sponge which absorbs much of the actual powder, minimizing it, and resulting in a marshmallow aroma that is only mildly powdered. Be that as it may, it’s at once both a jarring note next to the hawthorn’s rotting vegetation and leather, and yet utterly fantastic as well, a sort of “odd couple” polarity that would seem quite bizarre on paper but is surprisingly, quirkily appealing in actuality. Perhaps you have to be a heliotrope lover to share that sentiment, or perhaps it’s simply a question of sweetness taming the somewhat rank “funk” of the hawthorn and ambrette. Without the heliotrope’s ameliorating softness and sweet fluffiness, the hawthorn would probably turn quite putrid on my skin.
As it is, a mere 10 minutes into Royal Leather’s development, the fragrance slowly takes on a quiet skankiness as the leather appears in its own right, clearly delineated and wafting raw, tannic, and musky tonalities. It’s not “skanky” in the sense of sexual or raunchy body aromas (and it takes a while for the ambrette to give it a urinous quality), but it’s “animalic” in the vein of semi-treated, barely cured animal hides in the sun. Yet, it’s not a barnyard aroma, and none of it is fecal on my skin. Actually, the animal hides have an oddly refined elegance or chic-ness to them that is a little difficult to describe. I guess you can call it the Kilian version of animalic, musky, raw leather, a heavily filtered version devoid of true grit, impurities, raunch, or sexuality.
This is where the heliotrope comes in but, also, the alleviating effects of some other elements as well. Roughly 15 minutes in, the leather’s rawness is counterbalanced by a quiet creamy softness that is redolent of coumarin, its tonka creaminess, and even its hay-like undertones, too. The ambrette helps in adding warmth and goldenness, in addition to amplifying the hawthorn’s innate vegetal qualities instead of just its earthier, occasionally bitter “funk.” It’s a different sort of goldenness than what you experience with amber; this has more of a vegetal and skin-like quality. As the ambrette, coumarin, tonka, and heliotrope marshmallow grow stronger, they keep the leather’s roughness and butch-like rawness in check, for the time being at least.
The result in Royal Leather’s first hour is a leather that falls midway between that of semi-cured animal hides in a tannery and the cleaner, softer, more refined version of a luxury car’s leather seats. It’s as though the tonka and coumarin act as a filter to the rawness, while the heliotrope adds that necessary touch of lightly sweetened floralcy that accompanies expensive leather products like those from Hermes. That said, I have to emphasize that Royal Leather is a significantly tougher, butch version of any leather that you’d find in a Bentley or at Hermes, and that its middle-ground refinement only lasts a short time before it turns into something quite rough, dry, and cracked.
Royal Leather’s second phase begins at the end of the first hour and the start of the second. The heliotrope’s sweetness, floralcy, powder, and counterbalancing effects weaken, gradually becoming the thinnest, most diffuse veil floating in the background. The leather, its ambrette muskiness and the hawthorn are now left unchecked, expanding their rawness, growing drier, sharper, dirtier, and significantly more vegetal and animalic. The refinement is gone, replaced by a new smokiness as the black tea emerges from the base. Also new is the touch of urinous sharpness that now emanates from the ambrette leather accord, and it only gains in strength as time passes. Royal Leather is now a blend of the hawthorn’s rotting vegetation and woodiness layered with tannery leather hides that are coated with the ambrette’s animalic, quietly urinous muskiness and goldenness, then darkened at the edges with black tea smoke. The heliotrope’s marshmallow sweetness clings to it like a sheer veil, but it’s heavily muted and muffled now. I don’t smell any patchouli and there is absolutely nothing that resembles actual oud on my skin, although Royal Leather has a definite woodiness suffused within its main notes.
Royal Leather shifts again when the third stage begins at top of the third hour and the fragrance basically turns into Leather Oud from Dior‘s Privée line. Royal Leather’s muskiness softens as the woody notes surge forward to become the leather’s main companion. They still don’t smell like oud to me; it’s more like generic woody dryness with some cedar. The tea’s smokiness becomes stronger as well. Together, they cut through the ambrette’s warmth and muskiness, as well as the hawthorn’s more vegetal side. The tonka/coumarin creaminess vanishes but, to my surprise, the gossamer veil of heliotrope continues to hang diffusely over everything. There is no clear, noticeable patchouli at all on my skin, but I think it is working indirectly to add to the general sense of woodiness. The cumulative effect is a fragrance that is centered primarily on extremely dry, cracked leather and dry woods, laced together by thin filaments of black tea smokiness, drizzled with civet-like urinous ambrette, and then dusted with the faintest breath of powdered sweetness. Most of those things are tertiary players, though; Royal Leather is driven in a new direction now, a dry, woody one.
What intrigues me is the polarity that arises in the third hour in the fragrance’s undertones. Just like Dior’s Leather Oud, there is a sense of dustiness that evokes images of fissures in the ground. Yet, here, it’s not quite so desiccated and instead of being mixed with barnyard or fecal notes that some have reported with Leather Oud, the parched dustiness is juxtaposed next to the hawthorn’s rotting vegetation and the ambrette’s subtle marshiness. That’s not the only polarity. Instead of wafting nothing but urinous, civet-like sharpness (like in Leather Oud), there is marshmallow powder that continues to feel simultaneously out-of-place but appealing and quirkily inventive next to leather that is only lightly urinous but mostly musky and woody.
Royal Leather shifts again about 5 hours into its development in what feels like a transitional phase before its long drydown. The noteworthy event is the tonka’s return. It trickles over the leather’s edges, giving it a lick of supple, creamy softness. Slowly, inch by inch, hour by hour, it spreads further until it essentially ends the reign or power of the dry woods, smoke, and urinous skankiness.
The tonka seizes the reigns at the end of the 6th hour. It tames the leather, ends its dryness, gives it richness, and imbues it with a skin-like textural quality that reminds me of warm, barely musky skin coated in cream. The hawthorn continues to manifest a vegetal, woody quality, but it’s now largely subsumed into or fused with the creamy leather. It’s the same story with the woods; they’re still there but in weaker, muted fashion, mere curlicues on the sidelines. Yet, despite being muffled and weakened, Royal Leather retains just enough hawthorn, muskiness, woodiness, and even faint skankiness to ensure that the leather is not too safe, bland, or tame. It may no longer resemble Leather Oud, but it’s not a totally toothless, generic, calfskin suede either. In a way, the fragrance is unisex now instead of having the Dior’s more masculine-skewing profile.
Royal Leather’s full drydown begins about 8 hours into its development. The earthiness, woods, dryness, and even the hawthorn fall away as the rich tonka cream turns the leather into a thick velvet or suede. It’s infused with heliotrope which has regained its subtle floralcy in addition to its continuous vanillic, lightly powdered, marshmallows. The ambrette lingers just enough to give the bouquet warmth and a sexy golden muskiness. The cumulative effect is enormously appealing. It’s as though warm, clean skin had merged with thick velvet brocade, golden musk, clotted cream, and vanillic, powdered heliotrope blossoms. I love the naturalism of the musk and the skin-like texture. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a sucker for heliotrope in all its forms so the combination here with rich suede, warm skin, and creamy tonka made me sniff my arm again and again with appreciation.
Royal Leather didn’t change much beyond this point. From the 8th hour onwards, it merely grew softer and more skin-like. At the start of the 11th hour, all that was left was warm, barely sweetened, golden skin. Royal Leather remained that way until its very end.
Royal Leather had good longevity, good sillage, and average projection. Using several generous smears equal to 2 good sprays from a bottle, the fragrance opened with about 4-5 inches of projection and 6-7 inches of sillage. The projection dropped at the start of the 3rd hour to about 1.5 inches; the sillage was about 4-5 inches, but extended further whenever I moved my arms. Royal Leather became quieter and softer in the middle of the 5th hour, but it only became a skin scent near the start of the 7th hour at the 6.75 hour mark. Even then, I didn’t have difficulties detecting it up close until the 11th hour when I had to put my nose right on my arm. In total, Royal Leather lasted just under 14 hours.
There isn’t a huge amount of discussion of Royal Leather at this time, but there is just enough to give you an idea of how others perceive the scent. On Fragrantica, the one review so far comes from “Summ888er” and he found Royal Leather to be a little like Amouage’s Interlude Man, only tamer, less oriental, and more refined. He also spends a little time describing the style of leather that he experienced, so that may be useful for you as well. He writes, in part:
the opening is leather. not like Fahrenheit Dior, not like tom ford Tuscan leather, not like montales leather oud. the leather note is mixed with pepper and smoke. after half an hour turns to more pepper, somekind of sweet pepper. longevity is more than 8 hours. sillage is great also.
it reminds me of interlude Amouage. less harsh and less oriental. it’s not a typical kilian creation.
I got plenty of compliments. mostly from women. they say i smell classy and masculine. I can hardly imagine a woman wear Royal Leather.
On my skin, Royal Leather wasn’t very similar to Interlude Man. It didn’t have herbs, a strongly medicinal start, or incense; its smokiness wasn’t a quarter of that in Interlude; it had no overt, prominent oud note; and it was significantly muskier, more animalic, and more leather. Plus, the hawthorn has a completely different aroma than anything in Interlude, and then there is the strong presence of heliotrope with its marshmallow sweetness. That said, the sheer creaminess of Royal Leather’s drydown is similar to that in Interlude’s lovely drydown. Still, when you take Royal Leather as a whole, I think a closer comparison is some sort of distant cousin to Hard Leather in the debut (mostly because of Royal Leather’s mix of leather and muskiness), that later becomes a baby brother to Dior’s Leather Oud, before turning into something that isn’t like either of them but which bears a vague, nebulous relationship to the general creaminess of Interlude’s finish.
As for the issue of Royal Leather being too masculine for women to wear, tell that to Patty of The Perfume Posse. She loved Royal Leather, and its hawthorn-leather combination in particular:
Hawthorn in nature smells like rotting flesh, which makes it the perfect note to throw in almost any perfume. […] Pairing it with leather is awesome – especially a nice raw leather that won’t go down easy when Hawthorn starts squicking up on it with the first hints of decayed flesh. […] To be fair, throwing in black tea and oud and patchouli to tamp down hawthorn seems fair. It works. The open is all leathered heliotrope with some other scary things rolling around fighting it out for the first 30 minutes. I expected to be peeling paint from the walls when I sprayed this one, but it’s actually most subtle on the open when the notes are in tension. Tea stays pretty background, and I really get it as an underpinnning and not a main feature, but it’s a great underpinning.
Leather is something I admire, but usually don’t wear when it’s too strong. The use of heliotrope and hawthorn are a nice touch with a strong leather note. As it dries down, the leather becomes more prominent, but the other notes add interest, keeping it from being a linear leather fragrance. You leather lovers, don’t worry, there’s enough rough-up leather to make you happy. Deep in the drydown, it turns mostly leather.
A Basenotes discussion thread adds some further details, starting with comment #15, and I was happy to see both Hard Leather and Dior’s Leather Oud come up. “BigBloke” writes:
It’s really good. Interlude Man/GPH II meets Hard Leather. Longevity is very good – 24 hours plus on my skin albeit a skin scent by then but I asked 2 of my friends to sniff my hand and they could smell it clearly.
The tea note is really well done and lasts. The leather is not particularly skanky and adds the right amount of substance. [¶] Oud is noticeable although not overbearing. [¶] I like the direction Kilian has been heading in with newer releases such as Pearl Oud and this. [Emphasis to other perfume names added by me.]
For two other commentators, “DiamondFlame” and “RedRaider430,” the closest match was Leather Oud. They write, respectively:
- a tamer Dior Leather Oud. Smoky, sawdusty-woodsy and just a touch animalic/indolic. Like the insides of a stable perhaps. Not sure what exactly is ‘royal’ about this fragrance though, other than the price tag.
- Heavier leathers like this (especially with oud) really aren’t my cup o’ tea, but I could probably come closer to wearing this than others of its kind. Worlds better, IMO, than something like Dior’s Leather Oud, as I found it much friendlier and easier to wear. [¶] Classy, quality and refined, like most Kilians, but still not for me.
I enjoyed parts of Royal Leather quite a bit and liked the overall fragrance more than many things that I’ve tried from Kilian, but I still have mixed feelings about it for reasons that aren’t easy to explain. I loved the drydown and the part of the opening where the heliotrope was juxtaposed next to the earthy vegetal muskiness. On the other hand, Leather Oud has never done much for me personally. Yes, this is a more refined, less parched version, but I’m still a little on the fence. I also haven’t decided how I feel about hawthorn, and I think you must like its rotting aspect to enjoy Royal Leather. Finally, at the risk of sounding churlish about Royal Leather’s refinement, I can’t help feeling that the fragrance is neither here nor there. I suspect that, for a lot of people, Royal Leather might be the Goldilocks’ version of musky leather: not totally butch, rough, raunchy, and animalic but also not purely tame or safe, either. It’s a far bolder fragrance than Kilian’s usual style and I appreciated that, but something about it is so much in the middle that it doesn’t sweep me off my feet. And this is where price plays a role in my feelings. Royal Leather costs €235 or £245 for a 50 ml bottle. For that amount, I would like to be swept off my feet, either with a more assertive, raunchier, sexier, Hard Leather-style of leather, or with a purely refined, ineffably luxurious leather.
Maybe it just comes down to the fact that, for reasons I have yet to discern, Kilian’s fragrances always leave me feeling ambivalent. They never move me passionately and deeply, transporting me to other worlds or triggering evocative films in my head (like Hard Leather or Puredistance’ M, two fragrances that cover the poles I mentioned up above). Perhaps I’m simply cantankerous and being difficult. Either way, I have to admit, if Royal Leather were a little cheaper, it would be easier for me to overcome my hesitation regarding the hawthorn and Leather Oud parts because I found the drydown to be compelling, almost addictive. It’s sexy, polished, delicious, and cozy all at once.
The bottom line is that I strongly recommend sampling Royal Leather if you love any of the leather fragrances mentioned here, but particularly if you’ve ever sought a tamer, more refined, milder version of Leather Oud, or a Goldilocks, middle-ground version of Leather Oud and Hard Leather combined together. If that’s you, then I think you might enjoy Royal Leather quite a bit.