For Malèna: Rochas – Femme Eau de Toilette Review

On picture: Rochas – Femme – Eau de Toilette – 100ml – circa 2008

Assessing Rochas’ Femme can be a complicated task. It has been considered as a divisive fragrance from the very beginning, rejected by some and loved by others. Furthermore, we must consider the impact of the reformulation made in 1989 by Olivier Cresp, which changed the profile of this scent considerably. This being so, I consider it important to initiate with historical considerations in order to unravel an appropriate analysis of the perfume.

Marcel Rochas was a French haute couturier credited for many inventions in fashion, including the bustier in addition to being known for embracing modern, slightly androgynous cuts as well as his use of unorthodox materials. A child of his era, he reached the height of his career between the 1930s and 40s, staying productive during the war years, all through the French occupation and long after that until his death in 1955.

In the mid forties he married his third wife Hélène Rochas, for whom he wanted to create a perfume. For this purpose, he turned to the legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska. At that time, Edmond was beginning his career and, being years of shortages, he formulated what would eventually become Femme using the few ingredients at his disposal -this being a testament to his genius.

Femme is based on a chypre structure, with the addition of an amber accord, leathery elements and fruity accents. In that sense, it is a fruity chypre much like its predecessor Mitsouko by Guerlain released some twenty years before. However, while Mitsouko uses a strong dose of C14 aldehyde as the source of its well-known peach note, Femme instead contains a generous amount of a compound called prunol, the smell of which is similar to a mixture of peaches and plums. In fact, I dare to say that its so-called plum characteristics have more in common with prunes than with the fresh fruit. It certainly smells purple.

The original version of Femme starts with lemon and aldehydes, has a bouquet of flowers as middle notes and a base composed of sandalwood, oakmoss, amber, resins, leather and civet. The effect was tremendously seductive, almost too personal to be considered elegant, yet it managed to navigate both waters with ease. Once the formula was presented to Marcel, he approved it immediately.

The bottle for Femme was designed to resemble the torso of Mae West, with her famously curvaceous looks and tiny waist. It was launched almost right after the end of the war, becoming an instant success. After that, Monsieur Rochas decided to focus on his perfume business and when he died, he was succeeded by his wife Hélène. Some say it took her a few years to appreciate the perfume released in her honor, possibly because at the time of its release she was still somewhat young and her tastes had not yet matured enough.

In 1989, forty five years after its release, perfumer Olivier Cresp was commissioned to carry out the monumental and, to some extent, dangerous task of reformulating Femme. It had become one of the most respected classics of modern perfumery and having to reorchestrate it could become a terrible career mishap if unsuccessful.

It should be noted that over the years the original formula was modified on several occasions losing some of its luster, being the main reason behind the company’s determination to polish the recipe, so to speak, to give it new life and make it more contemporary.

Mr. Cresp had the brilliant idea of including a prominent cumin note in order to highlight the carnality for which it had become famous, readjusting the animalic elements at the base giving it a more gourmand twist in the process. Edmond Roudnitska was less than pleased with the results, deeming it butchered. I do understand why Mr. Roudnitska was not thrilled to have his masterpiece modified. Any creative professional would be mortified to see their work altered. But, to be honest, the end result was very good.

Now, on the reformulation of 1989, it begins with a major, spicy and corporal note of cumin along with a touch of bergamot and notes of peach and plum. Cumin gives the impression of slightly sweaty female skin, not dirty nor pristine, rather alive. Cumin is a spice that terrifies many, but I want to point out that in this composition it is very well balanced.

The fruit notes are noticeable from the first minutes, but these intensify after a while. They are followed by a flower arrangement in which neither one presents itself more ambitious than the other, dancing in excellent synchrony and adorned with some cinnamon and cloves. The cumin lasts a long time, after which a touch of sandalwood appears on a bed of oakmoss and patchouli at the base. The moss is discernible from the start and in conjunction with the fruits, the resemblance with Mitsouko is easy to spot. Also, the prunol mixed with cumin makes it comparable to Shiseido’s Féminité du Bois (later released by Serge Lutens).

Technically, this is a chypre, with all its distant and cerebral distinctiveness very present but at the same time it is a voluptuous perfume, which may sound contradictory but both things are not mutually exclusive. It is tremendously aloof yet personal, profound and intimate but nowhere near subtle. Femme makes its presence stand out, as someone who can’t help but to be noticed, whether intentionally or not. If I had to describe Femme in visual terms, Monica Bellucci in her role as Maddalena Scordia in the 2000 Giuseppe Tornatore film Malèna, is a precise and appropriate description of it. Clearly it has one foot in the war period, yet there is timelessness to it.

There is a discussion about whether Femme is better in its original version or in its 1989 reformulation. If you ask me, both versions are very good, the original being a masterpiece and the reformulation an excellent piece of work. I suggest not to value any of them based on a comparison to the other and much less on their reputation alone. It is a difficult fragrance that will not please everybody, but if you get to know it you may fall in love with it.

Name: Femme
House: Rochas
Concentration: Eau de toilette
Nose: Edmond Roudnitska, reformulated by Olivier Cresp
Release Year: 1944, reformulated in 1989
Category: Fruity chypre

Reviewed Batch: circa 2008
From personal colletion.

4 thoughts on “For Malèna: Rochas – Femme Eau de Toilette Review

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