What makes a perfume tough rather than pretty? I don’t think we can look to the perfume’s notes for an explanation, since the meanings we associate with specific smells vary greatly by the individual and culture. Take just about any perfume note in isolation, and you will get a multitude of interpretations. Vanilla can be comforting or cloying. The scent of jasmine is intoxicating to some, fecal to others. Rose is a masculine note in some cultures and quintessentially feminine elsewhere.
But there would seem to be no possible ambiguity about the meaning of Robert Piguet’s Bandit: everyone knows this is one butch, badass perfume. Don’t worry, I won’t rehearse ALL of the familiar cliches about Bandit–you know, the whips! the used panties! the lesbian perfumer!–but I would like to comment on one part of the Bandit myth, which I have been able to trace no further back in time than the publicity for the modern 1999 reformulation:
Piguet worked with perfumer Germaine Cellier to launch the Bandit spirit and scent of the couture runway in 1944 with models sporting villain masks, brandishing toy revolvers and knives.
Given the scale of suffering in the world in the years just before Bandit’s launch, I find it unthinkable that this alarming style of presentation, worthy of the late Alexander McQueen in his prime, would have been graciously received by the audience in attendance at Robert Piguet’s first post-Occupation couture show in 1944. And, strangely enough, there is no mention of any of this in any contemporary account of Piguet’s 1944-45 collections. Instead, the fashion correspondents report that Piguet’s showroom was very prettily redecorated, and they take note of important matters such as these: his “bodices are closely fitted…and the whole emphasis is put on flared basque fronts, panniered pockets, and aprons” (“Fashion: Paris openings,” Vogue, vol. 104, no. 9 (Nov 15 1944), 136.) And though I have been unable to find any historical evidence for them, the masks, knives, and revolvers on the runway appear in just about every recent review of Bandit.
And so I ask, is Bandit really challenging and tough, or have we just been trained to think that it is? I am as susceptible to marketing as the next perfume geek (bring me ALL all of the badass perfumes, and be sure to pour it into a black bottle while you’re at it!) but I have to admit that I just enjoy the smell of Bandit, distinct from all of hype. Meanwhile, I am unable to wear many other perfumes with equally edgy reputations, ones that I just wish that I could like (cut to a shot of my dusty, neglected, but still gorgeously black bottle of Habanita). Wearing Bandit doesn’t mean that I am tough nor does it make me tough, although I do sometimes nurture the hope that the perfumes I wear will invest me with all of the magical qualities contained in their mythologies. We are drawn to certain smells rather than others, as if instinctively, and I don’t think we can ever fully explain why (and here the perfume reviewer throws up her hands…).
What I really, really adore in Bandit is the galbanum, an aromatic resin obtained from plants in the genus Ferula, a bamboo-like plant that is also used to make rods, sticks, and schoolmasters’ canes (I know, I know, it is difficult to stop thinking about dominatrixes in connection with Bandit). Galbanum has been used as an incense and aromatic ungeunt since ancient times. To me, it has a complex vegetal smell like freshly sawn green wood, bitter endive, and conifers rather than simpler greenery such as leaves or grass. I also think galbanum smells like cold, moist garden soil as you turn it over in early spring–definitely alive but full of minerals and alkalinity. I am lucky to own a bottle of Bandit extrait in a vintage Piguet presentation, which consists of a clear glass flacon (not black) in a cream colored box with a diagonal black stripe. I also enjoy the current extrait and EDP, which I find faithful to the vintage, although somewhat different. The vintage extrait has a bolder animalic quality: it is smoky with a freshly tanned leather smell and a bit of sweet spice in the drydown. The current versions are more freshly green, with more definite notes of artemisia and flowers. Vintage Bandit extrait seems to be built upon the vintage Mousse de Saxe perfume base (which contains isobutyl quinoline), while the modern forms serve up the tangy, leathery isobutyl quinoline straight up. Either way, I think Bandit is wonderful. Dare to give it try, if you haven’t yet, and bring on the toy revolvers!