Le Lion de Chanel is the latest addition to Chanel‘s high-end Exclusifs collection and a fragrance that I loved from the start, so much so that I bought the largest bottle possible soon after my second test. Today, I’ll share a broad scent overview of Le Lion, macro and micro olfactory descriptions, and scent comparisons to other fragrances.
Before we start, I want to apologize to regular readers for the delay in this review. I’d intended to cover Le Lion back in January or February 2021 before Apollo – my German Shepherd and then just a tiny pup – ate pages upon pages of my review draft. It was a literal case of “the dog ate my homework.” When I mentioned that at the time, many of you told me that you had been eagerly awaiting my thoughts on what has become a huge fragrance hit. I promised to get back to it and try to reconstitute the destroyed analysis (almost 14 pages work of written text!). Unfortunately I stopped writing soon thereafter because of serious parental health issues (that are ongoing). So here it finally is.
Chanel officially describes Le Lion de Chanel (hereinafter just “Le Lion“) with inane commentary on the astrological sign of the Nazi she-devil and what it supposedly means. I refuse to type any self-aggrandizing words about that wretched woman and I will not be a stenographer to the company’s obnoxious, gushing white-washing about its Nazi founder.
The relevant olfactory basics about Le Lion are as follows: it is an eau de parfum that was created by Olivier Polge, son of Chanel’s old in-house nose and chief, Jacques Polge, and it was released in late 2020. Olivier Polge reportedly worked with Christopher Sheldrake on Chanel’s sole other ambered, oriental Exclusif, the stunning now-vintage EDT version of Coromandel. This work will have relevance later.
Top notes: bergamot, lemon
Heart: labdanum, amber
Base: Madagascar vanilla, patchouli, sandalwood, musk
What I detect on my skin, however, goes far beyond that nutshell summary. Though labdanum, a central and major part of Le Lion, can sometimes skew leathery in some distilled absolutes, I am convinced that it’s not the source of the leather note that appears every time I wear the fragrance. No, I would bet money that Le Lion contains birch tar, a classical way of creating a cuir de russie-style of smoky leather. By the same token, I firmly believe that Le Lion also has a huge amount of jasmine as well as lesser amounts of other materials, even if they may be unlisted.
In my opinion, Le Lion’s note list should also include: birch tar; jasmine; one or more types of incense; and aldehydes. I think it’s likely that there is also tonka in the scent and, possibly, a pinch of vetiver.
BROAD OVERVIEW & SCENT COMPARISONS:
The most reductivist, simplistic nutshell summary of Le Lion would call it a floral leather amber oriental with strong, endless, powerful echoes of vintage Shalimar, both in its original pre-1980/1982 birch tar formulations and its post-1982/1984 sandalwood versions. (Cf., Shalimar Guide Part II on the EDPs/EDTs of the 1980s and beyond; Shalimar Guide Part I on the extrait or pure parfum birch tar version from the 1930s to the 1980s.)
In my opinion, that doesn’t even begin to tell the story. Le Lion’s addictive, alluring character marries: the beautiful bergamot-vanilla, jasmine, benzoin, incense, and birch leather of vintage Shalimar (and also its later sandalwood substitution for the birch tar) with echoes of two other fragrances. First: my beloved vintage Chanel Coromandel EDT – one of my all-time favourite modern designer fragrances and partially worked on by Chanel’s Olivier Polge, maker of Le Lion – with its patchouli, patchouli chocolate, incense, and other notes shared with Shalimar. Second: the gorgeous vintage Dior Mitzah, a dark, chocolatey, leathery, toffee’d labdanum-driven perfume that also has patchouli and incense-like smokiness. (Mitzah’s roses are missing though.)
Echoes of still other fragrances appear on my skin in a few wearings during Le Lion’s drydown. It depends somewhat on how much fragrance I spray. Half the time, Le Lion eventually turns into a blurry, impressionistic bouquet of bergamot-jasmine-vanilla Shalimar with the addition of labdanum. In a handful of tests or wearings, however, Le Lion’s drydown mimicked the fantastic old versions of Ambra Aurea, O Hira extrait, or Ambre Sultan, albeit always with the addition of spicy patchouli. Either way, I found it simply marvelous. It was like having many of my favourite perfumes captured in one. How could I not swoon from the first sniff or buy a bottle?
To be crystal clear, I am not saying that Le Lion is a dupe for any of these fragrances in solo form. It is not, not by any stretch of the imagination. First, other than Shalimar, the others have no leather component, let alone the Cuir de Russie birch tar type. Second, Le Lion is not like pure or solo Shalimar either, due to the integral, central role of the labdanum with all its multifaceted nuances.
However, Le Lion is very much like a vintage Shalimar that has been enhanced by the very particular aromas of labdanum amber as well as by varying degrees of other famous oriental fragrances’ signature bouquets or accords. In other words:
(Shalimar + Labdanum) + additional enhancements resembling the key parts of other famous or popular oriental ambers.
Another thing that I want to be clear about: All of the fragrances that are evoked on my skin and to my nose are different in the degree and strength of their accords and of the individual notes shared in common.
For example, the amount of jasmine in Coromandel could never approach the significantly higher, heftier amounts in Le Lion (or Shalimar). Also, Coromandel has a significant benzoin base (which can skew very sweet if I apply too much scent); that is not the case for Le Lion. Lastly, Coromandel has whopping and quite central amounts of incense and patchouli notes on me whereas the degree of incense-like smokiness and patchouli are significantly less in Le Lion.
To put it another way, my scent comparisons are to the overall broad, ballpark gist of these other perfumes and not to their exact, precise individual note ratios or quantities when examined up close.
I have worn Le Lion at least 20 times in the last 18 months, and it changes on me in terms of its specific olfactory nuances from one wearing to another and depending on how much scent I apply. It various particularly in the prominence of individual notes during the first hour.
However, when everything is taken as a whole and when a handful of anomalous fragrance versions (usually from the psycho skin on my right arm) are excluded, then what’s left is one roughly ballpark or generalized version.
THE BASIC BALLPARK & MOST FREQUENT VERSION:
In many, many wearings, Le Lion opens on my skin with vintage, pre-1980/82 birch tar-filled Shalimar with a hefty slug of bergamot vanilla poured on top and other fragrances layered in-between. While the other scents never compare in strength or clarity to the primary, dominent, Shalimar-centered bouquet, there are noticeable undercurrents of the labdanum-driven Mitzah (minus the dark rose) and Chanel’s own bewitching Coromandel that is driven primarily by a duet of incense and multi-faceted patchouli.
To be precise, Le Lion always opens on my skin with oodles of beautifully fragrant, aromatic bergamot that drenches smoky, slightly tarry Cuir de Russie-style black leather.
What happens next varies in its timing but, usually, a lovely, lush creamy vanilla materializes within moments and slathers itself on top of the leather. In half the tests, jasmine also appears in the opening, creating a central quartet that drives Le Lion for a while. However, the time it takes for the jasmine show up on me varies each wearing; it can be immediately, take a few minutes, 20 minutes, or 30 minutes. (Never more than 30 minutes, though.)
The same timing variability applies also to the labdanum. Generally speaking, the early minutes of Le Lion have the labdanum quietly stirring in the base, smelling both of dark toffee and gritty, slightly musky leatheriness. The time it takes for the labdanum to become a central note, however, varies from one wearing to the next on me. Sometimes, it takes 5 or 15 minutes; sometimes, almost a full hour.
Right on the labdanum’s heels is a slew of accompanying notes that dance around in varying degrees. There is: patchouli that smells of chocolate, spice, and woodiness; an incense-like smokiness that feels quite separate and different from the other types of smokiness in Le Lion; and, after about 20 minutes, delectably creamy and rich vanilla. The whole thing sits upon a base of soft, slightly spicy sandalwood. (Santal replaced birch tar in Shalimar from the 1980s to now, so the Shalimar parallels continue even if you exclude the birch tar.)
25 minutes in, the notes overlap and start to fuse together, gradually and incrementally growing out-of-focus in the style common to all the Exclusif EDP versions that I’ve tried thus far. As a side note, I prefer the old EDT versions because the bouquets took longer to turn blurry, there was better note delineation for longer and, in the specific case of Coromandel EDT, I think the percentages of certain ingredients like the sweet myrrh, myrrh, tonka, and patchouli were different (and larger) than in the EDP version.
45 to 55 minutes in, several notes grow stronger and more prominent in Le Lion. First is the sandalwood which, in conjunction with the vanilla, adds a soft creamy undertone to the notes. Then there are growing waves of labdanum toffee, patchouli chocolate, spiced patchouli woodiness, and incense-like smokiness; together, they engulf the bergamot, temporarily weakening it.
Surprisingly however, the cumulative end result skews closer to Shalimar layered with Coromandel on my skin rather than to Shalimar in solo form.
One important note: The overlap or similarity to other fragrances, the strength of their signature accord, and which perfume or notes dominate is significantly impacted by the amount of Le Lion that I apply. To be precise, the number of sprays impacts the order, strength, prominence, and balance of notes because the Shalimar-like bouquet dominates during the first hour when I apply 3 to 4 sprays, whereas the Coromandel and Mitzah parallels are much, much more noticeable to me and on my skin when I apply only 2 sprays. I should also add that with a single spray, Le Lion is extremely linear and simple on my skin and lacks the nuances I’m describing here. It is also more of a Shalimar redux without much else. I strongly urge you to play with the scent dosages or quantities when you wear Le Lion.
In the hours that follow, Le Lion veers back and forth constantly between Shalimar, Mitzah, Coromandel, or some duo combination thereof. The ensuing bouquets are inconsistent from one wearing to another in terms of their timing, strength, or order. Sometimes, the labdanum, patchouli, spice, and incense-like notes (Mitzah) dominate; sometimes it’s the bergamot, vanilla, jasmine, smoky leather, and sandalwood of Shalimar; sometimes it’s the Coromandel bouquet of bergamot, patchouli, incense, sandalwood, jasmine, tonka, and vanilla; and sometimes it’s different combinations of the signature aromas from two different fragrances at once. What connects the various bouquets is a common bridge composed of bergamot-drenched vanilla, labdanum toffee, a lovely spiciness in the heart stage onwards, and different sorts of smokiness.
In the majority of my tests/wearings, the Shalimar bouquet retreats during Le Lion’s heart stage and the other fragrances take turns dominating for several hours at a time. In my most recent wearing, it was Mitzah (minus its roses) during the 3rd and 4th hour, then Coromandel for another few hours (minus its benzoin), then back again.
However, Le Lion’s later hours are consistently centered on a blurry, golden bouquet of Shalimar with the addition of lots of labdanum. Le Lion lasts so long on me that the times varies but, with 2 sprays, this part (which is not the drydown stage on me) often takes place from middle of the 8th hour to the 11th hour. With 3-4 sprays, this phase actually begins around the 11th or 12th hour. (With 3 or 4 sprays, Le Lion lasts over 24 hours on me.)
By the time Le Lion progresses to an actual drydown, it smells primarily of vanilla-infused labdanum toffee accompanied by a quiet, slightly muffled, spicy, patchouli-ish woodiness. The entire bouquet has a textural softness and plushness from the sandalwood. (By the way, the 2-spray version occasionally, though infrequently, has subtle nuances resembling benzoin and powdery tonka on my skin as well.)
In its final few hours, Le Lion is nothing more than golden, warm sweetness with a suggestion of spiced woodiness lurking underneath.
Let’s turn now to sillage and longevity. Generally speaking, and depending on how many sprays I apply, Le Lion’s longevity is either fantastic or monster. With just 2 sprays, I get about 14-15 hours. With 3-4 sprays, I get over 24 hours.
The sillage, which is also dependent on the size of my scent application, is either, very large at a minimum or practically room-filling during the first 4 hours. After that, the scent trail gradually and incrementally drops, eventually turning into something smaller. That said, Le Lion is always easy to detect on my skin, whether I’m applying 2 sprays or more, during the first 10 hours. To put it another way, if you like big scents, you’ll get your money’s worth in that regard with Le Lion.
Many of you will (hopefully) be satisfied with this rough, ballpark breakdown of Le Lion’s scent and scent progression, but I’ve had a number of people tell me that they prefer and really learn from my extremely (excessively) detailed olfactory analysis and that I should not censor myself. So, this next section is just for those who like me to be extra, extra verbose, not just regularly verbose.
Everyone else should please feel free to skip it and just scroll down to the Conclusion at the end.
MACRO & DETAILED SCENT DESCRIPTION:
Le Lion opens on my skin with an explosion of fragrant bergamot, going off like fireworks over cool, smoky, slightly tarry leather that occasionally has a subtle undertone of ashiness. The bergamot is absolutely superb, sparkling with fresh, crisp, and slightly sweet tonalities. On occasion, it even has the Earl Grey tea nuance that was a trademark of old vintage Shalimar. The bergamot is also inextricably linked with the creamy vanilla. The black leather is innately smoky, tarry, and roughly similar to the sort in Chanel‘s Cuir de Russie (minus the latter’s animalic or fecal nuances).
It is also imbued, on me at least, with an aroma that strongly mimics incense, thereby making the leather even sexier. The incense-like accord is, on my skin, multi-faceted and resembles myrrh followed by dark frankincense smoke and opoponax or sweet myrrh. It instantly called to my mind Coromandel’s central incense trio, albeit in much lesser and different ratios, strength, and intensity here.
The Coromandel similarities don’t end there, however. On my skin, Coromandel has patchouli in the way that Mitzah has labdanum: The materials are dominant forces. Here, in Le Lion, there is a strong, big amount of gloriously spicy, dry-sweet, slightly woody patchouli.
Taking matters further, Le Lion’s entire addictive bouquet is then set upon a rich base of musky, leathery labdanum absolute that strongly calls to mind Dior‘s fantastic Mitzah (minus its rose note.) A friend who is a fellow Mitzah lover texted me after she tried Le Lion to tell me how she almost yelled out “MITZZZZZZAAAAAH!” in the store after sniffing her wrist.
Jasmine joins the party after 20 minutes. It is a quiet note that gradually expands and becomes extremely prominent and integral to the scent. It initially smells non-indolic and somewhat bridal fresh, but also heady and intoxicating. (Later, it grows quite syrupy and even a bit indolic.) The jasmine’s appeal is magnified ten-fold by its fusion with the sparkling, fragrant bergamot and vanilla cream — the exact sort of bergamot-vanilla accord that you’d find in Shalimar and in many Guerlain fragrances.
Together, the jasmine and bergamot-vanilla slather the incense-patchouli-flecked leather heart with lissome sensuality. Oh my god, the bergamot is so utterly glorious, both solo and married to the jasmine, then spread over the smoky leather.
There is something else here, too, though it is a subtle touch that is only occasionally overt and easily detectible: Aldehydes. When it is overt, it hovers quietly over the Cuir de Russie-style birch leather during the opening 15 minutes. In conjunction with the crisp bergamot, it’s a quiet nod to Chanel’s citrus-aldehydic signature. In terms of aroma, it’s not the overly clean, soapy, waxy aldehydes of yore. Instead, it’s is a highly modulated touch that adds a cool, aerated feel to the smoky black leather. Also, instead of smelling like Chanel soap, this subtle pinch of crisp, cool aldehydic cleanness or light is infused with a delicate, muffled nuance of greenness that sometimes smells like vetiver, sometimes like a drier sort of greenness.
I want to talk about the labdanum in Le Lion. In my opinion, its aromas extend beyond the typical sort of “amber” that one encounters in perfumery: a mixed accord where the labdanum is diluted by loads of vanilla, tonka, and/or benzoin. When the labdanum is mixed with vanilla, as it is here in Le Lion, it tends to smell, to my nose at least, like dark, sticky toffee. The labdanum here, however, goes beyond that toffee in its first hour: it is a dark, chewier, grittier, more leathery, and masculine sort of aroma with unexpected undertones of burnt toffee, dark raw tobacco, and musky leather.
As noted above, in most of my tests with a 2-spray application size, the labdanum is initially far less important in the opening hour than the bergamot-vanilla, birch tar leather, jasmine, patchouli, and different sorts of smokiness. To be clear, though, it is still easily noticeable if I smells Le Lion up close. But roughly 90 minutes into the fragrance’s development, the labdanum rises from the base and turns the overall bouquet into something that is like Shalimar enhanced by the musky, leathery, smoky, spicy, dark labdanum that is so central to Mitzah.
(As a side note about Mitzah: It is a fragrance whose availability is now, annoyingly, limited to a few geographic locations but it is not, technically, discontinued. It is still available on Dior’s French website and, I’ve been told, is also available in Dior stores in the United Arab Emirates. It is not, however, sold in most other parts of the world, including the US. It’s all very weird. (It’s even weirder considering what I was told by a Dior insider around 2014: That Mitzah is, or was, one of the company’s most popular fragrances.)
Returning to Le Lion and its scent development, from the end of the 2nd hour and the start of the 3rd hour onwards, Le Lion’s labdanum amber turns into one of the dominant characters on center stage. The effect is to move the leather away from the cooler, slightly ashy and/or tarry Cuir de Russie stylings of old to something that is much more oriental and warm, especially in conjunction to the unlisted spices, the patchouli, and the incense-like notes.
Le Lion is a real beauty at the 4.25 to 4.5 hour mark. The core is a trio of accords: 1) spicy, dry-sweet, golden, musky, ambered, smoky jasmine-bergamot-vanilla leather; 2) loads of woody, spicy, chocolate-skewing patchouli; and 3) toffee’d labdanum. But that’s just the central focus; so much else is happening in a subtle way or in the background way. The most prominent thing is the sandalwood which adds both a spicy woodiness and also a textural quality to the scent, rendering it plush and satiny. Then, there are the subtle nuances, some of which are the result of different notes combining together: tobacco, benzoin-like crème brulée, and an a gingerbread-like spiciness, all dancing around like happy, cheering elves. I find it addictive.
From this point up to the start of the drydown, Le Lion progresses in the way that I’ve already described up, so I want to talk about the specifics of the drydown that occurs on my skin when it’s not the pure labdanum or more spiced labdanum+patchouli bouquets. In a number of my tests when I applied 3 to 4 sprays from a bottle, the drydown is a mix of labdanum, vanilla, and what smells like small slugs of tonka and benzoin. It evokes for me what is now vintage Ambre Sultan and, on occasion, also Ambra Aurea. At other times, however, there is nothing mimicking benzoin and I reminded most of all of the smoky, resinous, spicy, ambered darkness of SHL 777‘s O Hira in its original pure parfum formulation (not the current EDP version).
The rest of Le Lion – final hours, big to huge sillage, and fantastic to 24+ hours of longevity – are the same as above so, to avoid turning this article into an encyclopedia, I’d like to move onto broader and conclusory thoughts on the perfume.
Is Le Lion a litany of greatest fragrance hits? It certainly is for me. But I don’t know how intentional that was. Olivier Polge assisted Christopher Sheldrake in creating Chanel’s Coromandel, so maybe that plays a part. But there is no denying that Chanel has never done a hardcore labdanum or anything that ever remotely evoked Guerlain’s Shalimar until now. Initially, a small part of me was slightly annoyed by what I perceived as plagiarism, especially of Shalimar, but the vast majority of me doesn’t care. In a way, Le Lion has become its own thing, because it copies such a degree of other influences that it grows beyond the sum of its part and turns into something practically new.
It helps that there are so many different parallels, on me at least, to so many different fragrances across a wide expanse. At some point, with enough different body parts, Frankenstein turns his Monster into something entirely separate. I must also confess that, copied Frankenstein or not, given Dior’s endless weirdness about Mitzah’s status and availability, I’m happy that people will get to readily experience some elements of it, albeit mixed with other oriental greats.
The Frankenstein issue raises other points of thought or debate. For example, does that make Le Lion a lesser fragrance? I think it depends on one’s perspective and/or one’s personal tastes, like whether you can ever get enough Shalimar or if you like any of the other fragrances that I’ve mentioned here. There is no doubt that Chanel has entered the oriental field by either paying homage to or flat-out borrowing large chunks of some of the most famous and popular orientals around. It’s also hard to ignore that, to me, Le Lion reaches the heights of glory that it does (for me) solely because it actually is a beautiful Frankenstein composite.
Be that as it may, I do not think that means Le Lion should be disdained simply because of how it resembles Shalimar. No. Let’s be real now about Shalimar: its enormous, wide-ranging influence on most perfumers or brands since its launch in 1924 has inspired thousands of fragrances – and they can’t all be dismissed simply because they evoke the benchmark legend.
Furthermore, Coromandel is part of the company’s own intellectual property stable (as is Bois des Iles to which several people have said they experience parallels) and was worked on, in part, by the same perfumer, so it’s hardly terrible that echoes of it surface here.
As for Mitzah… well, that one was a little bit of a surprise but maybe I’m one of the few who notices the resemblance and maybe anything with so much labdanum laced with patchouli and incense-like aromas would inevitably do the same.
To be completely objective, though, chances are that I would be much snottier if I didn’t love Le Lion so much. My love is a bias which facilitates my brushing off something that would ordinarily set me off. I openly admit that. If Le Lion weren’t such a well-done, harmonious, and purely joyous, intoxicating delight, and addictive scent to wear, I would be irritated by either the degree of parallels or by the wholesale attempt to capitalize on almost a century of Shalimar popularity, love, and sales.
On the other hand, given just how much bias, fury, and loathing I have towards the heinous Nazi cow who founded Chanel and given my very deliberate efforts over the last 7 years to avoid giving attention to any Chanel perfume because I fear I can’t be objective, you should take my comments here as a sign that I’m really being as fair as possible. No amount of similarities, echoes, or arguable (Shalimar) copying changes the fact that, on my skin and in my opinion, Le Lion is: glorious to wear, utterly addictive and intoxicating, either sophisticatedly chic or cozy cuddly depending on stage, and an utter jackpot for people who, like me, love all the fragrances mentioned here.
In short, if you love Shalimar, ambered floral leathers, or the fragrances mentioned here and if you also have not already tried Le Lion, I strongly recommend that you do so. To those who have already succumbed to Le Lion’s intoxicating magic, I know you smell beautiful!
For more experiences with and opinions of Le Lion, you can turn to Fragrantica.