Counterpoint: Mitsouko

Welcome to a new feature that I hope will appear monthly! Portia Turbo of Australian Perfume Junkies and I had so much fun doing “Scent Semantics” with some other fragrance bloggers in 2022 that we decided to launch TWO regular features as a new collaboration in 2023. The first, which we plan to post on the first Monday of each month, is “Notes on Notes“, in which we choose one note and write about it however the spirit moves us; our first Note was oakmoss. This second feature is “Counterpoint”, in which we ask ourselves the same handful of questions about a single fragrance and post our separate thoughts on it. We’re still experimenting with format, so comments on that are welcome too!

Counterpoint, a monthly blog collaboration

This month, our first Counterpoint is Mitsouko.

  1. How did you first encounter Mitsouko, and what was your first impression?

Old Herbaceous: I first encountered Mitsouko early in my self-education about fragrances, after I went down the rabbit-hole in 2014. So many writers described it as legendary, seminal to the foundations of modern fragrances, a masterpiece, that I knew I had to try it. I was lucky enough to find a tester of the eau de parfum for sale online, which gave me plenty of spritzes to really sample it at a reasonable price.

My first impression was – wow! I’m not sure I’m equal to the challenge of this fragrance! I remember reading somewhere that on some days, one wears Mitsouko, and on other days, Mitsouko wears you. It was more pungent than many modern fragrances, but strangely alluring. One of my daughters, however, found it much less appealing. A few years ago, she and I were reading together and I spritzed some on my wrists. She looked up from her book and asked, “What is that?” I proudly told her it was a very famous fragrance called Mitsouko. She said to me, very seriously, “Please promise me you will never wear that again.” Ouch! But I continued to find it strangely alluring, though it isn’t a regular in my rotation, unlike some other classic Guerlain fragrances.

I’m now the happy owner of the newest version of Mitsouko eau de parfum, part of the 2021 “Les Legendaires” collection, having acquired it just last weekend at the Guerlain boutique in The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach while visiting a longtime friend. She and my oldest daughter (who is her goddaughter) indulged me while I sniffed, sampled, and chatted with the sales associate. It is less pungent than the older eau de parfum I have, which could be a result of the latter’s age, I suppose. I find it very wearable, and when I sprayed it on my wrists after opening the lovely package, my husband said from several feet away, “That’s very nice, what is it?”. Then he came over and sniffed my wrists, and expressed deep appreciation.

Portia: Way back in my late teens I was a squirt bitch on holidays at a local department store. My houses were Guerlain, Nina Ricci, Oscar de la Renta and Worth. It was a really good section to have because it covered a good cross section of the population age and taste wise. My Mum was a Shalimar wearer so I already knew that and loved the way it smelled on her. Mitsouko was not love at first sniff, I’m embarrassed to say. My vague memories are that it was too pungent and over the top. Yes, even for the 1980s. Maybe it was just too sophisticated for me. Could it have seemed too old fashioned? The times were all about Opium, Lou Lou, Obsession, Byzance and Fendi. Those were the brand new stuff and Mitsouko wasn’t really like those, or like anything in my wheelhouse. I just remember that compared to everything else in my section or others it was not my favourite. 

If only I’d known what a favourite it would become…..

2. How would you describe the development of Mitsouko?

Portia: Well I’m wearing Mitsouko extrait with batch code VF8EA2. Check Cosmetics (https://checkcosmetic.net) has that listed as a 1988 batch. It’s a 7.5ml Flacon Bouchon Coeur (Heart Shaped Stopper) c1912-Present according to Guerlain Perfumes (https://guerlainperfumes.blogspot.com/p/guerlain-flacon-list.html). Sealed when I bought it there is about 1/5 used so far. My feeling is that it has become richer and deeper in the years since I’ve had it. Oxygenation is a bloody wonderful thing until it isn’t. Fortunately Sydney has had some very cool summer days as well as the hot ones, so this revue done on a steamy hot and humid day will be tempered by other wears in the last week or so.

So how does Mitsouko develop for me? Sweet fruits and a floral bouquet open, already underpinned by spices, amber and oakmoss. That much lauded peach note doesn’t really smell peachy to me. Sure, once you think it’s peach (tinned not natural) you can make the connection but I think the citruses make it much more interesting than peach as such. The sweetness is also not 21st century sweet, it is the less confectionary and more rich fruitcake or flan but also not them either. Furry, fruity, spicy and pithy. My most often mentally correlated perfume is CHANEL Coco but done in the Guerlain style. HA! I’m not really making an enormous amount of sense here but trying to give you links and thoughts that go through my mind.

You know I’m not a perfumer, or even a sharp nose. The more perfume I smell the less I think I know. One of the notes I smell in Mitsouko that is never mentioned is frankincense/olibanum, not the burning sticks but the waxy droplets you can buy in markets. I also smell some balsams or spicy resins. These could all be attributed to named notes but they smell present to my clunky nose. The animalics and musks also aren’t noted but they are there buffering the fragrance till the end.

Overlaying all is the furry, green, inky, magical woodiness that is oakmoss. It’s presence becomes more prominent through the life of Mitsouko and seems to twine with the amber and spices till all that’s left is what my nose smells as Mitsouko. This extrait gives the most extraordinary longevity. A single swipe on my wrist will remain fragrant till tomorrow as long as I don’t swim/shower/bathe it off.

Last vestiges are still Mitsouko but melded with my own skin scent to whisper for hours and hours till fade.

Bottle of Mitsouko perfume extrait
Portia’s Mitsouko extrait, 1988 vintage

Old Herbaceous: I don’t pick up much of the famous peach note in either version, older or new, just a general fruitiness; and at the outset, the fruits are more bergamot and other citruses, especially in the older eau de parfum. Oakmoss? Oh yes! Even my untrained nose could clearly identify that when I tried it at the outset of my fragrance journey, and I still smell mossiness almost right from the first spray of my new eau de parfum; here, however, it is an extract of tree moss, not true oakmoss. It still smells great!

Fragrantica describes the older edition’s notes as: top notes — Bergamot, Citruses, Jasmine and Rose; middle notes — Peach, Ylang-Ylang, Jasmine, Rose and Lilac; base notes — Oakmoss, Spices, Cinnamon, Vetiver and Amber. Its listing for the new “Les Legendaires” version, though, classes it as an eau de toilette and it doesn’t have a listing for a 2021 eau de parfum. The new bottle I have is clearly marked as eau de parfum, and I don’t see an eau de toilette listed on Guerlain’s website. However, one commenter says that in Europe, both an EDT and an EDP of the new version are available, so maybe that’s the answer.

The notes list on Fragrantica differs somewhat from the older version, but that may be more of an editorial choice than actual olfactory creation: Top note — Bergamot; middle notes — Peach, Jasmine and May Rose; base notes — Spices, Vetiver and Roots. Guerlain’s website specifies that the spice notes include black pepper, baies roses, and cardamom; and that the base notes also include patchouli and tree moss, to create that chypre structure. Guerlain helpfully provides an actual ingredients list; if I knew more about which molecules create which accords, I could prove a more detailed list.

As the base notes develop, both versions become drier and mossier; the older one becomes a bit skanky. The new version does seem to benefit from perhaps a higher dose of vetiver in the base notes. I smell cinnamon in both versions, though it isn’t listed among the accords in the newer version (it must be grouped among “spices”).

3. Do you or will you wear Mitsouko regularly? For what occasions or seasons?

Old Herbaceous: I haven’t been wearing Mitsouko regularly, especially after my second daughter’s reaction! But the new eau de parfum is very appealing and I think I’ll wear it more often. My husband likes it, and so do I. It feels to me like a fragrance for autumn or winter more than spring/summer; I’m sure that’s because of the spices.

It also feels to me more like an evening fragrance than one for daytime, though I don’t feel strongly about that. It’s a mysterious, exotic fragrance, one better suited to the slanting light and shadows of evening and night than to an exuberant dawn.

Portia: Mitsouko is now my most worn Guerlain, by far. There’s something totally unique about it. It fits so many situations where even Shalimar does not, for me anyway. In one form or another Mitsouko gets the spritz or dab at least once a month. It wears beautifully day or night, winter and summer, casual or dressed up. Every wear shows a different aspect or pushes a different feeling. Funnily, I can never pick Mitsouko on another person. I always think it’s some niche fragrance. It really does change for every wearer, moment and use to my nose.

So short answer, yes, I do and will wear Mitsouko.

4. Who should/could wear Mitsouko?

Portia: Anyone who loves to smell good, stand out from the crowd and is unafraid to buck modern trends. It takes a certain amount of confidence and swag to wear Mitsouko. Too many spritzes and it will wear you. TBH I don’t mind being worn by something so spectacular.

Aimed at the female market back in 1919 I think we’ve all moved on far enough that we can agree the perfume doesn’t mind what sex wears it, so wear what you like. If whjat you like is Mitsouko then join the club. I’ll perfume twin with you any day.

Mildly amusing story, especially considering my usual inability to pick Mitsouko in the wild. Was at the art gallery this week on a tour of their new First Nations section. I could smell Mitsouko as clear as day. It took nearly 3/4 of an hour for me to work out that it was definitely Mitsouko. I’d clocked which other gallerist was wearing this enchanting perfume much earlier though. In a moment when the tour guide wasn’t speaking I asked her very quietly. “Is that Guerlain Mitsouko? You smell freaking amazing” Her face lit up, I thought she was about to hug me. She really did smell utterly fabulous and we spent the last of the tour shyly smiling at each other. It was a strange thing but maybe because I’ve been wearing Mitsouko quite a bit to try and hurdle my “It’s Mitsouko, don’t get technical, enjoy the ride” thought process to keep myself from parsing it in my usual wears it was top of mind.

Old Herbaceous: Anyone who wants to wear Mitsouko should wear it! I really recommend trying the 2021 version from the collection “Les Legendaires”, it’s lovely, and Thierry Wasser has been much applauded for updating these classic fragrances in a way that apparently returns them to being very close to the originals. Definitely not a safe blind buy, though, in any version. I think it’s unlikely that perfumistas who are drawn to fruity florals or gourmand fragrances would enjoy any version of Mitsouko. You really have to love chypre fragrances to like it; fortunately, I do. I could see young women or men wearing Mitsouko with great aplomb, if they are somewhat unconventional in their tastes and dress. This is not a cute or sweet fragrance, and it has a very vintage vibe, even in its new incarnation. You can tell that its origins go back a century; Mitsouko was created by Jacques Guerlain in 1919, over 100 years ago, at a peak of Western fascination with the Far East.

This was the era of “Orientalism”, the European and American obsession with Asia and especially the cultures of Japan and China that had begun in the second half of the 19th century and continued into the 20th (the opera “Madama Butterfly” was written in 1904, for example). Many aspects of those ancient cultures were simplified or transformed for Western consumption; for many years, fragrances like Mitsouko, Shalimar, and others with strong notes of spices or amber were referred to as “Orientals”, a phrase that is fading away.

I was reminded of that over the weekend, when my husband and I went to see a museum exhibit about the sculptor Rodin. It included a small figure of a Japanese actress whose stage name was Hanako; her real name was Ota Hisa, and she was a sensation in the years just before the First World War, when she toured Western countries in a stage play called “Revenge of the Geisha.” Rodin met her in Paris and she modeled for him several times in 1906, later becoming a friend to him and his wife.

Hanako, by Rodin

The 1909 novel that is said to have inspired the name “Mitsouko” is about a love triangle during the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, between an aristocratic Japanese woman, the Japanese admiral who is her husband, and a British naval officer with whom she falls in love. So many layers of history, art, and meaning! The complicated fragrance that is Guerlain’s Mitsouko evokes them all, as it gradually unfolds.

Two bottles of Mitsouko eau de parfum, by Guerlain
Guerlain’s Mitsouko eau de parfum, old and new.

What are your thoughts on Mitsouko, in any format? Do you wear her or does she wear you?

Sketch of actress Hanako and a mask
Sketch of Hanako and mask, by Rodin

15 thoughts on “Counterpoint: Mitsouko

  1. Basenotes has a. much longer notes list for original Mitsouko; it includes clove, ambergris, and the resins that Portia smells (benzoin, cistus, myrrh), as well as amber and sandalwood. I think its list is probably the most accurate. Wikipedia also lists labdanum.

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  2. Given the notes list I should be all over this like a rash. Alas, no. Not for me, and I can’t even explain why. I’ll chalk it up to bring one of my life’s great perfume mysteries.

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    • Mitsouko really is a perfume mystery. It is so distinctive, but it doesn’t smell like many of its notes or even ingredients, from what I can glean from its ingredient list on the Guerlain website.

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  3. Ahhh….. mysterious Mitsouko. Always owned, never known.
    Yes! She never does a repeat performance. What an intelligent comparison to the actress. The perfect thing to wear to a First Nations art show. Somehow Mitzi always fits, the botanicals used & the artistry to create her.
    I don’t get the peach note either.
    DH thinks it’s smell like urinal pucks!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. First of all, I want to say that I love this format!

    Now, about Mitsouko… I really-really-really disliked it the last time I tried it. I will try the latest version when I get a chance to see if anything has changed. But I still enjoyed reading your stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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