Rive Gauche is one of two ‘default’ fragrances that I switch between for summer when I am not working my way through all the most recently-launched scents – the good, the bad and the indifferent, but probably 250 in an average year, which gobbles up a lot of scent-wearing days. The black, blue and silver tin has earned its keep on my dressing table ever since I first bought a bottle of this not long after it launched in 1970. It’s hard to imagine now how ground-breaking this fragrance was: one of the first, with the much more downmarket Charlie, which tapped into the seismic shift taking place between the sexes. While not exactly targeted at bra-burners, Rive Gauche was daring, independent, and (as the translation of one ad. from the French goes: ‘not for the unassuming woman’). You bought it for yourself; you didn’t wait to be given it for a birthday, and you wore it with trousers or jeans, not flowery dresses. It was ambition and possibility and freedom and maybe-one-day-I’ll-live-in-Paris-and-hang-out-with-Simone-de-Beauvoir, all rolled into one beautiful floral composition. It was especially daring because it came in a tin, for heaven’s sake, not a bottle. (And still does.)
Like Chanel No. 5, Rive Gauche is packed with aldehydes and classic floral notes like gardenia, jasmine, rose – categorised as an ‘abstract floral’, in scent-speak. But I find it much ‘greener’ than most true florals (and like it all the more for that). At first whooosh, you encounter the top notes – but to me, these isn’t the bergamot promised in the scent’s official pyramid, but wet mossy notes, geranium – and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hit of Lapsang Souchong smokiness after it’s been spritzed. Then – just like a summer’s morning when the temperature climbs – those floral notes start to open, and warm the fragrance up.
The lily of the valley is very pleasing, the rose light and not heavy-handed: there’s a soft powderiness, but when I close my eyes I’m also reminded of that iconic green creation, Vent Vert (it shares notes of muguet and rose, as well as peach, with that Balmain classic). I spray this fairly compulsively when it’s a Rive Gauche day (it’s hard to overdo the eau de toilette), and only really get to enjoy the woody dry-down at bedtime – vetiver and the subtlest trace of sandalwood, with a surprisingly lingering rosiness. It wasn’t until I looked up Rive Gauche’s history today to check its launch date that I discovered this ground-breaking scent was originally created by Jacques Polge – now the in-house perfumer for Chanel and one of the greatest ‘noses’ of our time.
For whatever reason (economy? unavailability of ingredients?), the original got tweaked a lot en route to the 21st Century, but was reformulated in 2003 under Tom Ford’s reign at YSL. I’m currently scouring eBay for a bottle of the original, for strict comparison (apparently the tin means it’s better preserved than many vintage scents), but I disagree totally with many former fans who say the current Rive Gauche is nothing like the original: to me, it still dazzles. I smell it and I am still that full-of-excitement, what’s-life-got-in-store? teenager, striding towards my bright future. (Albeit in a rather unfortunate pair of flares.)