There are some fragrances that come to define the era in which they are released. In the Middle East for instance, Tom Ford's Ambre Leather is currently doing big things.
For my generation (I’m probably giving too much away here) it was a tie between L’Eau D’Issey by Issey Miyake and Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier. So potent was the hold of these two scents over the UK’s pheromone-drenched young men in the late (OK, early) noughties, that if you were to walk around any provincial high street on a Saturday you’d almost certainly have been confronted with a wall of one, swiftly followed by a bash on the nose by the other.
Though both are still popular today, the 2019 throne belongs to one fragrance and one alone: Sauvage by Dior. Since it was released in 2015 – with gravel-throated, desert- traversing anti-heartthrob Johnny Depp as its face – Sauvage has overtaken Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle as the UK’s biggest-selling scent. It’s an extraordinary feat, particularly given the women’s scent market in this country is 50 per cent larger than the men’s. What’s more, Sauvage has achieved its success on the back of an extraordinarily simple cylindrical bottle, a name derived from an older Dior fragrance (Eau Sauvage, which was released in 1966) and against the backdrop of a tricky fiscal climate.
So how has Dior’s Wild West-inspired wildcard fared so well? And what’s the secret of its success? According to Dior’s in-house perfumer, François Demachy, it’s all down to the juice. “It’s a combination of something a little bit classical and something very strong,” he tells me in his office, just off Paris’ Champs-Élysées, which is full to bursting with spider- scrawled flacons of tester perfumes. “Some of the raw materials I used are very strong. The Ambroxan note, for instance. It’s fresh at the beginning, but the balance is quite nice, even if the aggression of the amber note is really direct. There are a lot of facets to it – some spicy notes, some aromatic fresh notes – so the balance works well.”
That Ambroxan note is in fact a synthetic re-creation of ambergris – an ultra-rare, naturally occurring ingredient with an outlandish provenance. “Ambergris is the stomach rejection of a sperm whale,” Demachy tells me with a smile. “The whales eat a lot of squid and the squid’s beaks are very sharp. The whale’s stomach then secretes a mucus that coats the beak in layer upon layer, until the whale vomits it up. The ambergris then follows the currents of the ocean for many, many years until it lands on the coast. We usually find it in Chile or on the Australian coast. It’s been used in perfume for more than 2,000 years and it gives depth and something strange.” Naturally, Demachy has some real ambergris on his desk to show me and he’s not wrong about the strangeness. Not entirely dissimilar to the scent of a sweaty armpit or the nape of someone’s neck after exercise, it’s almost animalistic in its appeal.
Elsewhere in the fragrance, notes of sweet vanilla absolute and fresh bergamot provide a sense of balance. What I’m really keen to know, however, is why Sauvage works so well for the British market. Does Demachy consider the kind of notes different countries prefer when concocting a fragrance? “Looking at a country’s cooking is important,” he says. “If you think of a perfume for China, for instance, it could help you achieve the correct balance between sugar and salt. You might use more ginger or consider the way Chinese people mix flowers in their teas,” he says.
“When it comes to what British people like, my stepmother is English so I knew for a long time about mint sauce, for instance. To mix mint sauce with meat is something that helps me consider the way British people mix spices and there are a lot of spices in Sauvage.” Sauvage’s new parfum iteration contains much the same structure as the original, only enhanced with the addition of rich strains such as dry amber, which has a sage-inspired (sadly, no mint) aspect to evoke “the smoke of ancestral ceremonies”.
There’s also a leather accord and smooth sandalwood. “As the eau de toilette and the eau de parfum were already quite strong, it was difficult to make them stronger,” says Demachy. “So I just wanted to change up the balance and to add some stronger notes, some extra base notes and fewer top notes.”
The resulting scent is a dense, sexy neck-coater perfect for the winter months, when we’ll no doubt be eating plenty of roast lamb. But the big question is whether it will continue the extraordinary success the Sauvage franchise has already experienced. According to Mia Collins, head of beauty at Harrods, it most definitely will. “It’s an exquisite scent that takes all those smelling it on a fabulous journey,” she tells me. “The fresh and captivating top notes give way to a warm, sexy, enigmatic and sophisticated base. Part of what makes it so enduringly successful is that it seems to tap into so many different tribes and zeitgeists.”