The Lion in the Room: Le Lion by Chanel (2020)

The elephant lion in the room: Le Lion’s connection to Shalimar. As long as Shalimar (Guerlain, 1925) exists, and continues to be produced, there will be components of Le Lion that feel superfluous. But if I take this strict line of thought and extend it to its conclusion, many perfumes would be superfluous exercises largely at the behest of the Guerlain canon. And so I will not see this comparison through, or take it as totally tenable; that is, judging Le Lion based on its Shalimar-like qualities. But I will contrast the two, in order to discern more from the Chanel creation.

Know at least that Le Lion is a true Oriental, that word marking a category that I do not dare utter (viz. this article), in the way that it smells properly of spices and resins coming together to form a fragrance that has its two feet – or paws – respectively planted in two realms at once: the natural and the abstract.

Photo Respectfully Borrowed from © CHANEL

Le Lion has an utterly magical and miraculous opening, which gratifyingly fizzes like a Champagne rush of resinous amber dust and powder. Thank bergamot right at the top, which is shy about nothing whatsoever, flashing its intense bright light that emanates out-in, oscillating between acrid, tannic, antiseptic, smoky, and bitter, ultimately featuring a bright citrusy effect that is swiftly tempered with a blend of herbs and spices, offering a breezy swirl of hot air high up tinged with vanilla, which is not so far away from Ambre Sultan (Serge Lutens, 2000). The vanilla is tincture-like and real, paradoxically deep yet fresh, floral yet with nuances similar to that of barrel-aged rum (dark sugars, caramels, molasses, clean wood smoke [oak]). For this reason, my mind goes to many places: to Chêne (Serge Lutens, 2004) for its woodiness, Vanille (Mona di Orio, 2011) for its clean yet aged smokiness, Eau Duelle (Diptyque, 2010) for its washed creaminess, and Vanille Galante (Hermès, 2009) for its lightness of being; a vanilla exposed of its florality and pure smokiness.

Overall the connection to Shalimar is transient. Le Lion maintains the bitter, verging acrid top note of Shalimar that is found best in the vintage Eau de Cologne concentration, keeping this long in suspension. This is otherwise known as that powdery diaper accord, which in its very funkiness makes it a treat for connoisseurs. The top of Le Lion is unnatural and discordant, never totally coming into smooth harmony (I think this is what renders it ‘mature’ smelling), but always pleasing to study.

Shalimar and Le Lion diverge insofar that Shalimar superimposes its central vanilla-incense motif against its unique chewy floral iris-dominant heart that pushes it to its famously savoury edge, whereas to my mind Le Lion in fact smells more categorically and straightforwardly Oriental than Shalimar. This is thanks to its heavy application of the sieved and blushing warm note of labdanum, with the same high-quality patchouli note found in Coromandel (Chanel, 2007), with its aroma of dark and deep earthiness washed of its typically strident facets; and a persistent leather (birch tar) note à la Cuir de Russie (Chanel, 1924 [2007]). There is nothing gourmand about Le Lion at all, and the vanilla note recedes deep into the general background of the composition. In many ways Le Lion is in fact a leather fragrance; a leather made up of many parts. This rests on sandalwood, more functional than in fact detectable, imparting base and creamy muskiness.

Le Lion is like a recently extinguished fireplace in a lounge with Baroque furnishings. Quite an image. Indeed, within the image-repertoire of the Chanel universe, we cannot avoid reference to Gabrielle Chanel’s apartment at 31 Rue Cambon, it houses that Lion statuette, too. Still warm, smouldering, and a little smoky without any attempts at purifying this idea of smoke (it isn’t incense, after all, but labdanum – which has an incomparable texture, tone, and nuance), Le Lion has what I would call elegant heft, operating in a register of depth and tonal darkness that is essentially absent in the feminine collection and the Les Exclusifs no less: Sycomore (Chanel, 2007) and Cuir de Russie come close, but there’s a prominent florality (a motif native to Chanel) to both of them that disqualify them from this assessment. In fact, I would like to suggest in comparative acts not to look at Cuir de Russie, but Antaeus (Chanel, 1981) against Le Lion. Indeed, two different eras and genres (Antaeus has an intoxicating woody-animal base with a savoury dose of coriander seed and thyme), but a familiar heart that cannot be neglected, and indicative of what I think is inevitable in perfumery in this modern phase: infinite variations from a finite set of themes. Le Lion crosses Shalimar, Cuir de Russie, and finally Antaeus to arrive at its composition. A recapitulation of sorts, and a pleasurable one no less.

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