For the love of Grey Flannel

GREY FLANNEL FRAGRANCEGiven that today is National Fragrance Day it seemed appropriate to post something about the importance of the smelly stuff. Certainly, the relationship it’s possible to have with your favourite fragrance can be complex and surprisingly intimate. I have known my signature scent, Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel, for example, longer than I have known most of my friends or my other half.

It has been my favourite fragrance for nearly 30 years (yes, I am that old) and has been there on my skin when I have laughed, cried, worked, travelled, fallen in love and – on occasion – fallen over blind drunk. It was there when I went to University in the mid Eighties, when I secured my first journalism job in the Nineties and when I tied the knot in the Noughties. And I’m still wearing it now, in whatever the current decade we’re in happens to be called.

Acquaintances have come and gone but Grey Flannel, like the most steadfast and loyal of friends, has stuck by me through thick and thin – literally and figuratively as it happens since I was once considerably slighter than I am now. Frankly, I only hope that someone has the decency to spritz my lifeless cadaver with it when I eventually pop my clogs/favourite pair of Tricker’s boots.

Oh, I’ll admit here and now that there have been times when I’ve been, you know, less than faithful to Grey Flannel: other fragrances have entered my life and caused me to stray occasionally. What can I say? I write about fragrance for a living so the temptation is there on a plate – and in a bottle. But though I do have a fondness for Givenchy Gentleman, Helmut Lang Cologne, Roja Parfum’s Vetiver Extrait and Lagerfeld Classic, Grey Flannel is the fragrance I always come home to after a dalliance of the eau de toilette kind.

grey copyAlthough launched in the mid Seventies, I first discovered GF though an ad in Eighties’ style bible Blitz magazine which featured a naked James Dean lookalike (or was it Dean himself?) and instantly fell in love with its quirky grey flannel pouch and intoxicating (if polarising) mix of galbanum, geranium, rose, oakmoss, tonka bean and violet. And especially the violet.

People who smell it on me often say it reminds them of the Parma Violet sweets they sucked on as kids. A oriental woody scent with green, powdery and slightly soapy vibes, it’s a lot more complex than that, of course, but I get where they’re coming from and, like the smell of the childhood sweets they refer to, it’s a concoction I find strangely comforting. So much so, in fact, that it’s my lucky charm when I need a little good fortune and in times of crisis I’ve been known to spray a little of it on my pillow. Yep, Linus from Charlie Brown has his security blanket and I have my bottle of Grey Flannel. But that’s how it is with a fragrance that you fall in love with: it’s always there for you.

The truth is, Grey Flannel is not the coolest of fragrances to wear (though the perfumers I know seem to rate it highly) nor is it a particularly expensive one.  But don’t be fooled by the lack of street cred or disrespectful discounting; there’s nothing bargain basement about this award-winning fragrance (it won a prestigious FiFi  –  the equivalent of a fragrance Oscar – in 1976).

Naturally, over the years the formula has changed a bit (pesky new ingredient rules have seen to that) but it’s still pretty faithful to the fragrance I remember back  when I was in my student digs so I’m not complaining. My only concern these days is that Grey Flannel will be discontinued before I am  – which explains why I have a small, nuclear holocaust-style stockpile – but it must be doing something right to be here 40 years after it launched – not to mention to still be in my life after all these years. Franky, I count myself very lucky indeed to have picked a fragrance that has lasted so long. Many young guys I know are falling in love with fragrances that will have vanished off the shelves in three years time once the company that produces them decides to replace them – modern record company stylee – with a younger, fresher, more aggressively commercial model.

So, on the day we’re celebrating all that the fragrance industry has given us my message is this:  if you find a fragrance that means as much to you as Grey Flannel means to me enjoy it, cherish it and keep it close: it’s much more than something that can make you smell nice – it really can be your very best friend.

A version of this post originally appeared on scentmemories.org

Grooming Guru Essentials: Grey Flannel by Geoffrey Beene

Probably the most common question I’m asked as a grooming writer is what fragrance I wear. Like most people I wear a few but my all-time favourite is Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel.

Geoffrey  himself (and I’ve put so much money into his estate’s pocket I feel entitled to dispense with surnames) was an American designer, big in the States but less well known over here, whose clients included President’s wives to A-list celebrities.  Grey Flannel, lunched back in 1976, was his first and most successful male fragrance. I initially came across it back in 1985, following an advertising blitz in some of the UK’s earliest male style mags. The ad itself, featuring a naked James Dean lookalike, was remarkably  bold for its time , though very ‘Athena’, and though I’ve searched high and low to find it for this post I’ve failed so if anyone has a pic let me know.

Anyway, Grey Flannel rapidly became my own signature scent, so much so that I’m still wearing it today, more than 25 years later. Sure, I flirt with other fragrances but I always come back to Grey Flannel, which like the fabric itself, is a trusty, reliable and hard-wearing. And when I say hard-wearing I mean it in both senses because as I’ve discovered, Grey Flannel can be a difficult fragrance to wear.

With an sweet note of violet, along with citrussy orange and neroil,  oakmoss and a warm, masculine sandalwood base it’s distinctly floral (think parma violets and you’re halfway there) which means it isn’t the kind of thing every man’s going to love. In fact when I wrote about it for a grooming retail site a while back a customer shot back with a review so at odds with my own it had me in stitches: “Grey Flannel,” he wrote, “is by far the worst scent I have ever come across and believe me, I’ve come across some stinkers in my time!  It bears a remarkable resemblance to ‘Raid’ pest killer.”

Of course, I’m totally unfazed by this damning indictment. For me, the test of a great fragrance is not how it unites people in praise but how much it polarises them. So go on, give Grey Flannel a go. I dare you.

Grooming Guru Essentials are the products I genuinely love and have used as part of my own routine.