Patchouli, how I love thee. Let me count the ways: spice, chocolate, woods, tobacco, smoke, earthy glows, and golden warmth, you’re such a thing of beauty in my eyes and your intoxicating richness may run through as much as 70% of my fragrance collection. So, I was thrilled to hear that Frederic Malle was going to focus on one of my favourite notes for his newest fragrance, Monsieur. Not the hideous, purple-skewing fruitchouli gunk that makes up so many modern fruity-florals, but on the real thing. Unfortunately, Monsieur ended up being a fragrance that this “Patch Head” wouldn’t wear under any circumstances.
Monsieur is an eau de parfum that was created by Bruno Jovanovic. Some people have said or guessed that the intention was to create a masculine counterpart to Portrait of a Lady. I don’t think that is the case. While I’ve only tried the reformulated version of POAL, I think it’s a primarily a rose-centric fragrance, not a patchouli-one. (Plus, on my skin, the reformulated version had fruitchouli instead than the real thing.) More importantly, though, comments by Frederic Malle at Monsieur’s Moscow launch do not indicate such an intention.
There is a very informative Fragrantica article by Sergey Borisov about Monsieur’s Moscow launch that quotes Malle in detail about the creation of the scent, how he worked with Bruno Jovanovic for five years on it, the materials used, how some of them are synthetic, and the mechanics of it all. I think his comments are telling and important because they explain the nature of the ingredients, the diffuseness of parts of the scent, what appeared on my skin, and also why I disliked much of the overall effect. Monsieur Malle explains:
the idea was to do a patchouli as we did a tuberose in our Carnal Flower, using what you could call a Photoshopped raw material: extend the legs, add good make up. To do that, we started with the selection of a fine material – a product of molecular distillation called Patchouli Coeur, created by IFF. Next, we basically gave them a better top, good-looking top notes – so we chose mandarine and mandarine aldehyde. We knew that in the past there were some patchouli perfumes where the material worked with aldehydes very well, so that’s why we chose a beginning like that.
Then we stepped back – because that’s how we always work – and we started working on the base – adding incense to some beautiful synthetic ambers like Amber Xtreme. They are used in many modern fragrances today, and if you choose them well, they are very good and it gives a great diffusion to the fragrances, you can feel it. We also added some sweet Sucrasol – which is all about vanilla and caramel, but not exactly vanilla. […][¶]
Then, to put things together, we decided to create a sort of leathery effect, but today with the new IFRA regulations that`s a complicated thing, so we worked with suede. To get a suede effect, bizarrely enough, most perfumers use saffron, I mean Safranal, an excellent material, which has helped us to make a fresh saffron-suede accord that extends all the way to the patchouli base notes. And the last thing we did, to tie all the initial notes together, was adding a quite rarely used material, which is slightly pricey and unusual – it enhances an alcoholic liqueur shade, already present in patchouli in trace amounts: rhum absolute. Those are all the mechanics of the scent, its engine if you want. So if I`d picture that chronologically: Mandarine, Mandarine Aldehyde, Rhum Absolute, then a lot of Patchouli, then you have the Suede, and finally, all that ambery vanilla. And there`s a little bit of musk in the back, for rounding the edges; it almost has no smell, but it blurs the sides. [remainder snipped] [Emphasis and bolding added by me.]
The full list of notes is therefore:
Mandarine, Mandarine Aldehyde, Rhum Absolute, Patchouli Coeur, Cedar, Incense, Amber Xtreme and other amber synthetics, Safranal suede-leather, Sucrasol vanilla, and musk.
Patchouli may be Monsieur’s goal, but that’s not what I smell either straight from the vial or on my skin in the opening. In both cases, the fragrance debuts by trumpeting a powerful ISO E note. It’s followed by a blast of something resembling Norlimbanol, but that doesn’t last long. It’s quickly buried when the strongly antiseptic-like, chemical ISO E is joined by waves of dusty dryness, dry earthiness, dry cedar, dryly spiced saffron woodiness, and a leathery faux-“amber” that is both dusty and dry. All of this is then followed by a completely separate smoky, tarry campfire leather note, then more cedar, more ISO E-like clean antiseptic, a brief whisper of something vaguely sweet, and something earthy that is splattered with a few tiny drops of citric sourness that is vaguely, nebulously “mandarin”-ish.
None of this is my idea of patchouli or my ideal interpretation thereof. While the real thing definitely has a woody side, and sometimes a dusty one to accompany its earthiness as well, there is little on my skin for most of the first hour that translates to an actual, clearly delineated, and solid “patchouli” note to me. Most of the time, it smells primarily like dusty, saffron-tinted cedar and faux amber. Yes, there is some vegetal earthiness, an abstract woody spiciness, and a passing hint of muskiness, but none of it is particularly redolent of patchouli, if you ask me, and could just as easily be part of some other note(s). If one puts aside the Safranal-infused cedar, what’s left on my skin is — in the most generous interpretation — a diffuse, abstract, and largely impressionistic portrait of some of patchouli’s mere undertones. That’s the most generous interpretation. For the most part, I think it really just smells like a completely generic, spiced, earthy woodiness that is heavily blanketed with a cedar synthetic and the woody-leather facets of one of the powerful woody-amber aromachemicals like AmberMax or one of its related kin.
When I initially tested Monsieur, I hadn’t read the Fragrantica piece so I didn’t realise the culprits were Amber Xtreme or Patchouli Coeur. The latter is described on one site as having dry, dusty, and immensely cedary aromas, while the former seems to be one of the most powerful woody-amber aromachemicals on the market. From what I’ve understood of the discussion in a Basenotes thread on the subject, Amber Xtreme is a former IFF “captive” synthetic that was released in 2015 and is related to Trisamber as well as Timbersilk. Those words may not mean much to a lot of you, so let me explain. Trisamber is a super smoky “amber” that, in my personal opinion and experiences, is utterly painful in its intensity, darkness, and raspiness. Timbersilk is a new generation, upgraded version of ISO E Supercrappy that is said to be even stronger, bolder, and cleaner, in addition to having a significantly more pronounced cedar aroma. From what I’ve gathered, Amber Xtreme merges the facets of both chemicals, and then some. As a perfumer friend of mine tried to explain to me, it’s like a more ambery, leathery version of Norlimbanol “but on steroids.” If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you will know none of these things are positives in my eyes; they’re not only things that I have serious physical sensitivities to, but they’re also aromas that I don’t enjoy on a purely olfactory basis.
Adding to my difficulty is the fact that they’ve been used in Monsieur in significant quantities next to a form of patchouli that opens on my skin primarily as an immensely dusty form of cedar. Cedar! Perhaps this is the “Photoshopped patchouli” (whatever that means) that Frederic Malle intended, or maybe I’m simply too much of a patchouli purist, but none of it makes me think of actual patchouli. Instead, the overall opening bouquet makes me think of dry brambles growing out of cracked, dusty soil in a saffron-covered cedar thicket that’s been recreated through a number of strong synthetics, before the whole thing is then transported into an old man’s library where both the leather-bound books and the leather armchairs are cracked from dryness and coated with dust.
My frustration over the situation led me to wonder if I had applied too little fragrance. Where was the patchouli, its richness, or, for that matter, any of the rum absolute and mandarin? Except for its ISO E, saffron-cedar, dryness, and dustiness, the scent was so surprisingly wishy-washy and diffuse (particularly in body and fullness) that something seemed off, and I pondered whether I needed more than several smears amounting to roughly 2 sprays from a bottle. Perhaps a larger amount would make the patchouli emerge in solid waves, or the orange would appear to alleviate the dustiness? True, the initial whisper of something sweet did grow fractionally stronger after 10 minutes, but it smelt ambered. It certainly didn’t resemble rum absolute. As for the citric sourness, it was too diffuse and filtered to translate to a real or solid mandarin note on my skin. If I smelt Monsieur on the scent trail in the air from a distance (and only from a distance), there was something tangential, fleeting, and nebulous in the background that occasionally felt like a hollowed-out suggestion of orange, but it was so elusive that I think I probably just talked myself into believing it was there.
So, I applied a greater quantity of Monsieur on my other arm, a number of generous, sweeping smears roughly equal to about 3 big sprays from an actual bottle, but, alas, there was still no solid, clearly delineated, proper patchouli, mandarin, or rum. All that happened with the bigger dosage was that my right arm now wafted even more cedar, dustiness, saffron, and an even clearer synthetic character. Yet, the odd thing is how the notes align and shape themselves when the overall bouquet is smelt on the scent trail from a distance. There, the cumulative effect of all those heavily filtered, diffuse elements suddenly coalesces into something that feels like a classical, vintage-style men’s designer cologne from the 1970s or 1980s, a designer cologne that is woody, spiced, slightly warm or ambered, and with a whisper of something aromatic weaving around its background.
That classical ’70s/’80s cologne vibe eventually kicks in on both arms regardless of how much fragrance I apply, and it is a noticeable shift that begins roughly 35 to 40 minutes into Monsieur’s development. The mandarin suddenly appears in clear form, trailed by distinct ripples of aromatic freshness that resemble herbal lavender mixed with the brisk crispness of gin-like juniper berries (the latter probably an indirect by-product of the ISO E). At the same time, both the dustiness and cracked leather weaken substantially and gradually begin to fade into the background. The saffron spiciness grows stronger, while the bouquet is now rounded out by an ambered warmth that is flecked just lightly by a quiet caramel sweetness. More importantly, the very first hints of something resembling “patchouli” begin to take shape in the background, though they’re still diffuse, filtered, and heavily muffled by the cedar.
The result is a composition with a very classical and designer aesthetic, which may be why some Fragrantica commentators think the scent resembles Givenchy Monsieur or vintage M7. I didn’t understand the references at first, but they make more sense as Monsieur develops. Having said that, I personally don’t think there is much resemblance to Monsieur de Givenchy in either the ’70s vintage form that I own or the modernized, post-2007 Les Parfums Mythiques reformulation because, on my skin, Malle’s Monsieur doesn’t have significant, dominating amounts of greenness, lemony citruses, crisp fougère-style elements, herbal aromatics, geranium, or oakmoss. [Update: it was actually Givenchy’s Gentleman that people referenced, not Givenchy’s Monsieur. Please accept my apologies for the error. I obviously had fragrances named “Monsieur” on the mind, and merged the two. But while Givenchy’s Gentleman is a closer fit than its Monsieur, I still think it’s different to the Malle, primarily because Gentleman had a truly authentic, full-bodied, deep patchouli in all its best, truest facets. Malle’s cedar-heavy, “photoshopped” patchouli is a completely different animal, as is its faux “leather” base.]
However, I agree that there is something about Monsieur that approaches the general, overall universe of YSL’s vintage original M7, thanks to the lavendery aromatics, mandarin, cedar, ISO E, caramel-nuanced amber, spiced woods, and dry, leathery woodiness. But I think it’s more of a generalistic vibe than something truly concrete. Unlike M7, Monsieur has zero oud (or even faux “oud”). It does not waft a cola-like, sticky labdanum resinousness on my skin, and there is no plummy darkness, either. Plus, everything here feels rather washed out, like watercolours that have been so diluted with water that they amount to a translucent blur, while vintage M7 had both a chewy richness and note clarity. To me, original M7 felt like a niche scent, but Malle’s Monsieur bears a very different vibe, one that is not even a Malle-influenced, luxury and niche interpretation of a designer scent, but rather an actual, wholly mainstream release whose ’70s or ’80s designer bouquet has been reconstituted under IFRA/EU restrictions in rather wishy-washy form.
Monsieur changes gears and shifts its focus roughly 60-75 minutes into its development when the patchouli finally emerges in its own right. I still think it lacks chewy heft or full-bodied richness, but at least the fragrance has an actual, solid, and clear patchouli character now. It’s primarily dry and woody in nature, with only a lightly sweetened undertone but, thankfully, a more balanced degree of dustiness. The patchouli’s other facets don’t appear on my skin: there is no camphorous greenness, chocolate, or tobacco. In some ways, its predominantly woody focus really is not all that different from the cedar, just as its spiciness feels driven primarily by the accompanying Safranal. In fact, the two wrap around the patchouli to create a triple-helix structure where the parts are virtually indistinguishable to the whole. As the main trio starts to pulsate, the aromatic, herbaceous, and citrusy wisps recede to become tiny specks in the distant periphery. The main bouquet is now primarily patchouli-cedar-saffron, streaked with thin veins of dry, woody, dusty, and leathery elements, then set against a backdrop of amber. The latter is turning increasingly abstract and diffuse in feel. It no longer has a caramel aroma; it’s rapidly turning drier; and its subtle sweetness is giving way to a generalised warmth.
Monsieur changes again when its main heart stage begins about 1.75 hours into its development. In a nutshell, the base aromachemicals seep upwards and bloom, turning Monsieur into a weaker version of Patchouli Absolu, the cypriol-heavy, leathery, very woody, smoky, and immensely dry fragrance put out by Malle’s brother company in the Estée Lauder empire, Tom Ford. It’s not a positive turn of events in my eyes; Patchouli Absolute is the absolute last patchouli fragrance this “patch head” would ever go near. Both are overly synthetic, overly arid interpretations of patchouli that focus on woody, smoky, and leathery tonalities rather than the richer, deeper, spicier, and warmer aspects of the note.
And Monsieur just gets more and more hardcore in terms of its smoky harshness as the Amber Xtreme explodes at the start of the third hour. This is “patchouli” ensconced within faux “amber” that smells almost entirely of abrasive campfire wood smoke and tarry leather aromachemicals. Then, roughly 4.5 hours in, the Amber Xtreme actually becomes the center point, a thick wall behind which the woody patchouli timidly hides its face.
By the end of the 6th hour, any lingering sense of real patchouli is obliterated on my skin. In fact, there isn’t a ton of impressionistic, abstract, or “photoshopped” patchouli, either, if you ask me. Instead, there is a duet of raspy, dry, cypriol/nagarmotha-style woodiness infused with chemical “amber” that smells primarily of intensely abrasive smokiness, raspy dryness, charred woods, and rough, tarry leatheriness. Weaving in and out is a faux tobacco aroma that resembles a mix of Norlimbanol and cypriol’s undertones, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the source because so many of the materials share the same woody, dry, and smoky characteristics. Once in a blue moon, there is a certain sourness that pops up, but most of the time the aromachemicals simply smell of abrasive smokiness and leathery woodiness. I can’t bear any of it.
The smoke and leather finally calm down at the start of the 9th hour when Monsieur’s drydown begins. As the wall of desiccated blackness slowly dissolves, the patchouli re-emerges. It’s still a very butch interpretation dominated by smoky, woody, dry, slightly spicy, and slightly leathery facets, but it’s significantly less abrasive and more balanced now than it once was, and it feels more bearable, at least relatively speaking. The patchouli’s rough edges are further softened and smoothened out by streaks of vanilla that slowly begin to appear under the shrinking cover of darkness. By the start of the 12th hour, Monsieur is a simple bouquet of dry, woody patchouli laced with a quiet, nebulous spiciness, some vanillic sweetness, and a hint of soft warmth, though it’s not amber in any distinct, clear way. Monsieur remains this way until it finally dies away as a blur of semi-dry, semi-spiced woodiness.
Monsieur had very good longevity on my skin, but generally soft projection and sillage. I have to admit, I was surprised by the latter. My personal skin chemistry clamps onto any fragrance with a hefty dosage of aromachemicals and makes it last forever and ever. (Alas.) But it also typically amplifies the sillage and power of such fragrances as well. Not so here. Regardless of whether I used the equivalent of 2 sprays or 3, the opening projection was roughly between 2 and 2.5 inches, maybe 3 at best, but what surprised me is that the sillage in both cases never extended beyond 4 inches at the very most. Plus, Monsieur felt so wishy-washy in both aroma and body. While the scent gained some body, depth, and power once the Amber Xtreme kicked in, it was only relative to the quiet diffuseness of the opening and only when smelt up close. Still, by the start of the 3rd hour, Monsieur projected a mere 1.5 inches above the skin even with the larger quantity. The sillage was minimal unless I moved my arms. It became nonexistent 4 hours into Monsieur’s development. (And all of this on someone whose skin chemistry actually amplifies the reach of aromachemical cocktails!) That said, it took 7.5 hours for Monsieur to turn into a full skin scent. In total, the fragrance lasted just under 15 hours with the larger 3-spray application and about 13.5 hours with the smaller amount. Again, I must stress that my skin really holds onto fragrances with powerful synthetics; others have not experienced those sorts of numbers. On Fragrantica, the majority of longevity votes thus far (14) opt for “long lasting” which is defined as 7-12 hours, with the 2nd or next choice (9 votes) being for “moderate” which is defined as 3 to 6 hours.
I’d normally provide comparative reviews and quotes of other people’s experiences for Monsieur but, frankly, this review has been rather a chore to write so I’ll just provide you with some links for you to read further if you’re interested. On Fragrantica, comments are somewhat mixed but largely tend to the favourable side on balance. On Basenotes, there are brief reviews starting with Comment #75 in this discussion thread, with more elaboration from Comment #102 onwards. For one person, “Francolino,” Monsieur felt like vintage M7 meets Montale‘s Aoud Musk and Nasomatto‘s Duro. Personally, I think the mention of both brands should tell you something about the strength of the aromachemicals, and not in a good way, but he meant it as a positive. Other Basenotes posters thought Monsieur bore similarities to Giorgio for Men, or to the smoky “fire accord” in Le Labo‘s Patchouli 24. On balance, the reviews seem quite split. In terms of blog reviews, Kevin at Now Smell This adored Monsieur, while Basenotes’ “Trebor” gave it a one-star “abysmal” rating on his site, Scent for Thought.
As for me, my distaste for Monsieur and my disappointment should be quite clear by now. It’s not solely because the fragrance is a rough aromachemical cocktail. Putting that issue completely to the side, I was truly astonished to read that Malle worked on this scent for five years. If I hadn’t read his own words on that point in the Fragrantica article, I would never have believed it. Up to that point, I thought that the new Estee Lauder ownership had somehow driven or impacted Malle’s development process, the fragrance’s aesthetic, its quality, and the choice of materials. One of my big issues is that Monsieur feels like a wholly mainstream, derivative designer scent, albeit one created with the modern, in-your-face aromachemical style of some lower-end niche brands. It’s not distinctive (except for its intense chemical woodiness and leatheriness), and it doesn’t feel like “luxury” perfumery to me, either. Since Malle’s prices have gone up yet again, the end result is disappointing in more ways than one.
Be that as it may, you should try Monsieur for yourself if you’re looking for a very woody, smoky, and leathery take on patchouli, and if you also enjoy the Montale or Nasomatto style of perfumery. If you loved Tom Ford’s butch interpretation of patchouli in Patchouli Absolu but were hoping for something quieter and softer, then Monsieur might do the trick as well. For me, it’s a total pass.