Under the skin

Mille feux, eau de parfum Louis Vuitton.
Upper Ten, eau de parfum, Lubin.

Cuir Cannage, eau de parfum, La Collection Privée Christian Dior.
Perfume ingredients: saffron, peppercorns, raspberries and leather.
Perfume ingredients: saffron, peppercorns, raspberries and leather.
 Perfume ingredients: saffron, peppercorns, raspberries and leather.
Perfume ingredients: saffron, peppercorns, raspberries and leather.
Cuir de Russie, eau de parfum, Les Exclusifs de Chanel.Boxeuses, eau de parfum, Serge Lutens. Alizarin, eau de parfum, Penhaligon’s.
Rose, the delicate ally of leather. Moynat’s Impérial leather.

How can leather, that most tactile and sensual of materials, be captured in the sillage of a perfume?

When entering a saddler’s in a small village or a trunk-maker’s workshop, one’s impressions and sensations are always the same. There’s the atmosphere of calm, steady concentration, the soft thuds of leather being spread out and of clicking tools. But more than anything, there are smells galorethe scent of wood, burned bark, smoked incense, spices and flowers, roasted beans. At times, they’re overwhelming, almost unpleasant; other times they’re soothing, caressing the nose with the kind of softness you experience when you run your hand over fine leather. Ramesh Nair, creative director at luxury trunk-maker Moynat, experiences this every day: “The smells aren’t so much from the leather itself, but rather from the plants used for tanning the hide. The skin’s smell prior to tanning is actually awful, like something decomposing. But this inert material is transformed when brought into contact with bark, leaf or root extracts, taking on a new forma new life.” It is no longer skin but leather, imbued with the smell of acacia wood, mimosa, oak and even quebracho.

Variations on leather

Talk about a perfumer’s dream inspiration. Every leather is unique, by dint of its origin and tanning. Russia leather can no longer be found, but Moynat has revived the legend with its new Impérial leather. Created in the 17th century, its characteristic pungent smoky smell came from the birch tar oil used to make the skins water-resistant. It inspired a great number of perfumes, including Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, launched in 1927, and more recently, Serge Lutens’ Boxeuses and Thierry Mugler’s Cuir Impertinent.

Until the early 20th century, leathery compositions were aimed mainly at men. But this began to change under the impetus of women like Coco Chanel and Félicie Wanpouille at Caron. The smoky sillage of Cuir de Russie and Tabac Blond (Caron) expressed the signature style of the audacious flapper look popular in the Roaring Twenties.

Today, leathery fragrances are more commonplace. They stand out through their sensuality and ability to stir the imaginationas in Yves Saint Laurent’s rock and leather vibe; the powdery cosmetic chic of Dior’s Cuir Cannage; and the chesterfield leather feel of a New York club with Lubin’s Upper Ten.

Then there’s the tradition of scented leather gloves with L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Bucoliques de Provence and the mystery of the Orient with Penhaligon’s Alizarin. Each perfumer has their own recipe to convey the full spectrum of sensory dimensions, the scent, texture and grain, ranging from birch and styrax essences to oud and incense for woody, smoky accents. Saffron can be added for spice or iris for tactile softness. When creating Galop d’Hermès, Christine Nagel was inspired by Doblis, an ultra-soft, sensuous, feminine Hermès leather. The perfume’s “dialogue” between rose and a leathery accord celebrates this femininity. Neither dominates the other: they are two different facets of leather, reflecting its inner “flesh” side and outer “grain” side.

Inspirational material

“Leather has always fascinated the fragrance world,” points out Jacques Cavallier, the nose at Louis Vuitton. “It is a dream-like material that opens up the senses in a flash.” A thousand and one emotions jostle in the perfumer’s mind when he first visited the company’s ateliers, aroused by the sweetness and floral-spicy scents of vegetable-tanned calfskin, or the bright gleam of a raspberry-red skin.

Cavallier sought to bottle these sensations in his fragrances. He could have created a leathery note, but he took it further: working with the company Payan Bertrand, he spent a year developing an infusion of vegetable-tanned leathers. The result of these alcohol-macerated skins is amazing, a distillation of olfactory subtleties. Two of the seven perfumes in the collection include this exclusive ingredientDans La Peau, delicately sensual, a touch floral; and Mille Feux, a flamboyant leathery fragrance with fruity raspberry accents. As the sillage unfolds, the leather is only hinted at yet eminently present.