Can the modern guy wear Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel? Barrister and Mann weighs in.
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Fragrance these days is largely a matter of incremental innovation. Everyone is racing to do something just a little bit better, a little bit smarter, a little bit more inventively than everyone else. It’s rare for a genuinely different fragrance, one that doesn’t imitate one of its forebears, to make it onto the market. But, then, Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel is no ordinary fragrance.
Designed by the otherwise unknown Roure (now Givaudan-Roure) perfumer Andre Fromentin, Grey Flannel was officially released in 1976, though some sources claim that stock was available as early as 1975. The idea was to design the fragrance equivalent of Beene’s signature fabric, the soft grey flannel from which he cut his famously beautiful suits. This was reflected in its understated, elegant marketing, which made heavy use of the distinctive texture of the material as a backdrop.
I can find no official note list for Grey Flannel, so I have to rely on the one given by Fragrantica:
Top notes are galbanum, neroli, petitgrain, bergamot and lemon; middle notes are mimosa, iris, violet, sage, rose, geranium and narcissus; base notes are tonka bean, almond, oakmoss, vetiver and cedar.
Seems like a relatively pedestrian list, right? As with everything, there’s more to this fragrance than meets the eye. Geoffrey Beene, pioneer that he was, wanted to create something new, something genuinely original. You really have to smell Grey Flannel to believe it.
What does Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel smell like?
It opens with the sharp bitterness of petitgrain, the tiny, green, unripened fruits of the bitter orange tree. This is brought into sharp relief by subtle flashes of shrill, intensely green galbanum, a plant whose oil smells like nothing so much as fresh celery juice. The galbanum imparts a fleshy, petal-like character to the opening, reminiscent of burying your face in a patch of wild violets. Beneath all of this rests the soft, silvery powder of an elegant iris note, dry and dusty and fabulous, like the olfactory reflection of a 1920s feather boa.
Wrapped around the entire top-note architecture is an assemblage of oakmoss and violet leaf, expertly blended with subtlety and style that you just don’t often see from designer houses these days. At ~$16/oz, there is absolutely no way in Hell that Grey Flannel contains any real violet leaf absolute, and the IFRA’s 43rd revision of its Code of Practice basically guarantees that there’s no real oakmoss in it either. Instead, the oakmoss note is created through the use of synthetic Veramoss (also sold under the name Evernyl). The violet leaf accord is almost certainly produced with the incorporation of methyl heptine carbonate (a peppery, swampy aromachemical) combined with leaf alcohol, a strange compound produced naturally by most plants that smells of freshly cut grass and crushed leaves.
Curiously, Grey Flannel was, as nearly as I can tell, the very first fragrance ever to incorporate violet leaf as a listed note. While many often point to Creed’s massively overpriced (and unremittingly harsh) 80s flagship Green Irish Tweed as the source of what eventually became a flood of violet leaf scents, Pierre Bourdon and Olivier Creed are believed to have gotten the idea from Geoffrey Beene and Andre Fromentin, who had released Grey Flannel nearly a decade before.
The galbanum and violet leaf eventually fade into the background, allowing a more floral violet and the aforementioned iris to come forward. At this point, the fragrance strikes a lovely balance and develops an almost humid quality, rather like the inside of a greenhouse. I’ve wondered over the years whether the composition includes geosmin, the molecule that creates the smell of damp soil after rain, but, given the fact that geosmin clocks in at around $40/g, it’s not terribly likely. Pretty convincing effect anyway, though.
HOW WELL DOES IT PROJECT AND HOW LONG DOES IT LAST?
Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel falls down on the longevity and projection thing. From what I’ve read about its vintage formulations, it used to be a 70s powerhouse, intensely tenacious and strong. There are reports that the fragrance habitually lasted between 12 and 18 hours for most people, likely due in no small part to the presence of real oakmoss and vetiver, both of which are powerful fixatives.
Tragically, that’s no longer the case. Countless reformulations by the various IP holders of the fragrance, combined with increasingly tight restrictions from IFRA, have robbed Grey Flannel of most of its tenacity and projection. You have to wear quite a bit of it these days in order for it to behave as anything more than a skin scent after a few hours. Thankfully, it’s inexpensive enough that this isn’t as much of a problem as you’d think. But it’s a terrible shame to see a once mighty powerhouse robbed of most of its teeth.
You can recover some of the performance using the so-called “layering” technique: apply 2-3 sprays in the same place to boost projection and longevity.
When you should and shouldn’t wear it
Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel is refined, understated, elegant, genteel, and wholly without pretense. Honestly, anyone who likes it can wear it quite easily, and its reduced strength actually makes it appropriate for the summer, where its cool violet leaf/iris character makes for a refreshing change from more modern and chemical designs.
This is a cologne that’s at home in any situation. It’s beautifully crafted and smells far more expensive than it is, and it’s plenty interesting enough to keep you from smelling like everyone else. The low projection makes it hard to over-apply, but, like any proper cologne, try not to do it anyway.
Where to buy it
Forty one years after its original release, Grey Flannel is still easy to find. You can pick it up in any Walgreens, CVS, or Walmart, and it’s easy to find online as well. CVS sells a 1 oz (30 ml) bottle for around $16 USD, which is a ridiculous bargain. FragranceNet sells a big ol’ 8 oz bottle for about $22.
Geoffrey Beene Grey Flannel remains a masterpiece, even with the nibbling away at its core that has resulted from years of reformulation and regulation. It’s brilliantly sophisticated and remains one of the most original and distinctive fragrances I have ever smelled. If you buy it blind and don’t like it, you can easily give it away, and its minimal cost ensures that the risk in buying it is pretty low.
One particular note: In 1997, Geoffrey Beene released Eau de Grey Flannel, a bright blue, shrill, horribly derivative fragrance in the vein of Cool Water and various other aquatic scents, but completely devoid of any charm or particular quality. Skip it and go for the original.
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