The success of Jean Paul Gaultier’s iconic masculine fragrance Le Mâle somewhat overshadows the greatness of anything else the brand has created. Many of the Gaultier fragrances that followed – the likes of Fragile and Gaultier² – were just as innovative and remarkable as Le Mâle, even if the market wasn’t quite ready for them at the time. Le Mâle is often talked about and nearly always lauded – I myself have written about it on numerous occasions, partly because it’s an icon, and partly because it played a large part in my formative years – I wore it throughout my adolescence and on many a raucous night out (and in…).
But this article isn’t about Le Mâle, no, Le Mâle gets more than enough attention (cheeky git that he is). This is a celebration of Classique, the feminine counterpart to Le Mâle and Gaultier’s very first fragrance – a perfume that doesn’t get the spotlight anywhere near as often as it deserves or desires. Classique has sat on the shelves of our department stores and our bedrooms for 26 years now and whilst others have come and gone, Classique has remained, proving that a good idea executed at the right time really does stand out. But what makes Classique so timeless? Today we’re going to find out.
Classique launched in 1993. Created by perfumer Jacques Cavallier (Alexander McQueen’s Kingdom, YSL’s Nu and M7, and Louis Vuitton Parfums) it was simply called ‘Jean Paul Gaultier’ at launch however, the name subsequently changed so as not to confuse it with the subsequent Gaultier fragrances. Considering the perfumes that were released at the same time, Classique most definitely stood out. When everything else (bar a few notable exceptions – see Angel) was modern, minimalist and clean, verging on the sterile, Classique was unashamedly retro and over the top. In comparison to the abstract Issey Miyakes and the hip Calvin Kleins of the decade, Classique was a big, humorous piece of olfactory theatre that perfectly captured the cheeky, decadent spirit of the Gaultier brand and brought vintage glamour fully in to the modern age.
In terms of its visual and olfactory aesthetics, Classique was distinct because it took from the past and made it new. The bottle, which is arguably as famous as the fragrances itself, was inspired by Schiaparelli’s Shocking, a perfume housed within a dressmakers form – the modern twist in the Gaultier being a bustier with a more feminine shape and swathed in silky lingerie. During the minimalism of the ’90s, this stood out as something exciting and costume-like – a tribute to the opulent, signature bottles of the past.
But the showmanship didn’t just stop with the bottle – in fact, it was actually Classique’s box (I use box as a loose term here) that made real waves. Where most fragrances are packaged in a simple (and let’s be real: boring) cardboard box, Classique went for something completely different – something industrial and anti-chic – something that was completely at odds with its glamorous bottle and fragrance: a tin can. Well, it was a very nice looking tin can to be fair, but a tin can is a tin can none the less!
Classique’s presentation became a talking point. It was something that people had never seen before and came at a time when consumers were ready for something exciting. In fact, it was so different that some retailers gave it a hard pass, thinking that the tin can was anything but luxurious. How wrong were they?!
It was in some way a kind of a provocation to put it in something very industrial, and some people of perfume shops, they refused to take it – they found it scandalous, the can. ¹
– Jean Paul Gaultier
So what we have is something very unusual – a clash of glamour and function and a subversion of expectations: an extravagant fragrance amidst a sea of purity, housed within a statement bottle that riffs on the past but opts for something provocative and sensual, which itself comes housed in the most unconventional of vessels – a humble tin can. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but sometimes it is the strangest of risks that pay off. Classique was one such risk and it is safe to say that the risk paid off.
But the important part is the fragrance, not the look, right? Well, both play a part in the success of Classique but it is true that a good bottle can only go so far – it may get someone to buy a fragrance once, but not again and again. So yes, Classique’s success is a 50/50 split of design and substance, with a bold look equally matched by a fragrance that manages to do that very difficult thing: smell unique and unusual whilst maintaining an inherently wearable character. After all, weird smells are great, but they’re not always the things we want to smell of, am I right?
“One part dusty loose powder, like my grandmother wore — I think it was old Coty; one part that smell you get when you are sitting in the front row of the theater — for me, I think of going to The Chatelet when I was 12, and the curtain goes up, and the hot lights are on the costumes, wigs and sets, and you breathe it all in. And, just to be modern, one part nail polish remover!” ²
– Jean Paul Gaultier
Taking inspiration from the theatre – from makeup powder, dusted wigs, hot lights, rich fabrics, and nail polish remover, Gaultier’s debut fragrance was born as a powdery oriental floral based on four core notes: citrus, orange blossom, rose, and vanilla. To me, Classique smells like a lived-in smell. When I spray it, I think of a costume – a garment soaked in the scent of its wearer and their perfume. It smells powdery and soft, with a lightweight texture – it’s sweet too, with a creamy, addictive hint of vanilla. Then there’s the whiff of flowers – oh the flowers! A peach-pink rose and an opulent, warm orange blossom, both of which provide a hint of the body underneath the clothes – and that’s the beauty of it – Classique really does smell like the theatre and I love how it has this unsettling, slightly sour tone to it that makes one think of warm skin and sweat. It’s more than a little bit sexy…
Two concentrations of the original Classique exist today (there have been and are a number of flankers); the Eau de Toilette, dressed in frosted peach lingerie; and the Eau de Parfum, which wears a far more raunchy red vinyl number straight out of a Victoria Secret catalogue (if Gaultier did Victoria Secret, obv). The EDT plays up the fresher aspects, with mandarin bring a sparkling, zesty start that leads to a fluffy blend of orange blossom and vanilla, with just a touch of rose powder for good measure. I find it to be the more balanced and interesting version of the two because it does that vintage cosmetic powder thing with a wonderful delicate touch, opting for lightness and buoyancy over richness. The EDP is much more full on and seductive. The fruit notes are more vivid, as is that vinyl-esque nail polish remover note and the fragrance generally skews more to the rose than the orange blossom. I wear and enjoy both – the EDT for every day and the EDP when I want to be noticed (you know what I mean…)
Classique has stood the test of time because it is timeless – it smells both classic and modern. It presents a familiar idea in a new way – with weirdness – oh and freshness, showcasing the boudoir-cosmetic style of perfume with a jovial transparency. It’s a fragrance that doesn’t take itself too seriously but never feels like a novelty. Yes, it comes in a tin can, and yes, the bottle is shaped like a voluptuous woman, but this is a seriously good perfume and those two facts simply enhance the experience because everything about Classique – the bottle, the can, the juice – comes together. It all makes sense. It’s a perfume concept executed to perfection – one that fully embodies the spirit of the brand that launched it. It is not a focused grouped perfume-by-numbers – it’s a true distillation of Jean Paul Gaultier and his love for all things theatrical. It’s perfection.
“Classique” seems like the perfect name for this modern classic of perfumery…
Classique Eau de Toilette: 30ml (£44), 50ml (£62.50), and 100ml (£86)
Classique Eau de Parfum: 30ml (£38.50), 50ml (£68.50), and 100ml (£78.20)
Samples (pictured) sent by Jean Paul Gaultier for consideration. I was not paid for this review and Jean Paul Gaultier had no input in the contents of this article. Notes and quotes via Jean Paul Gaultier. Images are my own.