Kouros: a metaphor for life

Boldness in classicism

I recently read in terror that Kouros could be reformulated (I am sure it will not be the first time) and I realized that I have never owned a bottle of this and it would be a pity to miss. I know how it smells so no surprises there. But actually owning a bottle of this lets you really appreciate what a masterpiece this is. And I use the word masterpiece in the most totalitarian way possible: I can understand if you do not like this but if you have actually smelled it and followed its progression I cannot accept that you do not appreciate the sheer complexity and multiplicity of it.

I am sure nobody needs another Kouros review but I felt compelled to write about this after re-discovering its wonderful and developing qualities. It opens with a strong neroli cloud bursting in the air. It is not the shy, reserved neroli of  Fleur du Mâle, it is bold, sharp and filthy. To me neroli is the smell of spring because Athens is full of bitter orange trees, growing in small squares of  earth trapped under pavement and asphalt, wedged between blocks of flats and still thriving. Throughout winter they are loaded with bitter oranges and when spring comes they start shooting little yellowish pearls that eventually bloom and slowly cover the green ball of leaves with white fragrant stars. I still cannot believe how this tree can bloom under such adverse conditions: polution, not a lot of rain, most certainly not a lot of earth and stretching for some sun through high buildings. But it does. And just because bitter orange trees have always been there in the streets of Athens there always comes a time where you stop noticing them. But with the first sunny days of spring they claim my attention. They bloom and the intensely sweet, dirty, pissy smell of neroli fills the streets and grabs me by the nose. This is not a happy, beautiful smell for me. It is a note I absolutely detest in fragrances. It sort of sucks up the air and replaces it with a carnal, fleshy, honeyed liquid. But in Kouros it works! Probably because it arrives coupled with a herbal sage note. And of course civet, which to my nose announces itself with what can only be described as a crispy roast lamb note. I know it is strange but this is the closest I can get to describing this. Coriander plays a big part too, adding a candied dimension. At this stage Kouros smells like Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Pour le Jeune Homme with a big dollop of civet on top.

As Kouros develops the fresher notes of neroli and coriander stand in the background as civet shows its claws. This is probably the most difficult stage of the development. It is so far from anything else out there that one has to marvel at the imagination and sheer boldness of the people who were responsible for taking decisions chez Yves saint Laurent back in 1981. I cannot help but compare this with CK One Shock for Him which was one of the most positively reviewed mainstream releases of last year. Thirty years after Kouros the mainstream masculine perfume market is shockingly boring. Kouros is still in the market thirty years after its release. I do not think that anyone would dare claim that CK One Shock for Him will be around in 2041. It wasn’t designed to survive.

Well into the basenotes the third transformation of Kouros materializes. The trademark note of masculine YSL fragrances of yesteryears, shaving cream, becomes apparent. The same note that characterizes Rive Gauche and flirts with orientalism in Opium pour Homme EdT. A mature, masculine, reserved scent morphs in front of my nose, on my skin. The exact right amount of musk and civet add a perfectly balanced dose of earthiness and dirtiness to the pristine preppiness of barbershop shaving cream. In this phase Kouros is the most comfortable and warm of all three classic YSL fragrances. Perfectly balanced, compact and masculine.

Kouros is not just a fragrance. It is a metaphor. It represents the phases of a man’s life. The floral, sparkling sweetness of the opening bring to mind adolescence. The fierce assertiveness of the middle notes mark the aggressiveness of the prime years. The balance of the introverted basenotes reach the aim of every man, every person, every fragrance. Confidence.

Notes from Fragrantica: aldehydes, artemisia, coriander, clary sage, bergamot, carnation, patchouli, cinnamon, orris root, jasmine, vetiver and geranium, honey, leather, tonka bean, amber, musk, civet, oakmoss and vanilla.

Notes from my nose: neroli, sage, coriander, roast lamb, civet, shaving cream, musk

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas http://pantelismakkas.blogspot.com/. You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.

13 comments

  1. Great review of a classic! I have memories of it from 1988- before I was a teenager. I used to go to the perfume counter of my local store and spray the tester on a card and keep them in a box in my bedroom. I have a clear impression of what I smelt and what I loved about Kouros. I purchased my first bottle in 1993 and was disappointed I wasn’t smelling those parts of it I loved a few years earlier. Not knowing about reformulations back then, I decided I may have been unlucky and I had bought a bottle that had expired. So I have always had this relationship with Kouros where I am not sure if the difference I perceived was due to a formula change or my prepubescent nose smelt things differently, or if I was simply relying on a faded and inaccurate memory. Last year I bought a 10ml bottle on Ebay advertised as a 1980s vintage, to see if I could settle this once and for all. The smell is more aligned to my 1988 memory but still not quite there….so 24 years later I’ve decided to give up on my pursuit of the Kouros (I think) I once met. A memory of something wonderful is better than nothing at all. I love everything about it. The bottle, the smell, the ad campaign. Truly one of the greats in men’s perfume. I have a couple of doubles of YSL fragrances and they do show slight variances. I wonder if this is due to ageing or if like many other houses, YSL have always made small alterations to their fragrances batch by batch. I do feel like today’s Kouros is ‘thinner’ than 20th century Kouros- with slightly more emphasis on the aromatic notes and less of floral accords. But this could be just my mind playing tricks on me. I am interested to smell the relaunch of their classics and the new M7 Absolute- the counter staff here in Sydney had no news of it being available in Australia. Thanks for an interesting read Christos.

  2. Truth be told I have memories from the 80’s from this one too. Vague ones and from a rather irritating person who was wearing it. when I bought my bottle I was afraid that associations might keep me from enjoying it. They didn’t. I don’t know whether Kouros has changed in the process or my associations have become weaker. I get a lot of florals in the very first minutes. The neroli-coriander combination which is sort of a trademark for many MP&G fragrances is there but it doesn’t last a lot. I still cannot believe that Kouros was a designer fragrance of the 80’s, even if YSL was the designer. I cannot stomach the atrocities people have to choose from the shelves today.

    Kudos to Kouros

  3. You are always such a joy to read, Christos. I loved hearing about the bitter orange trees and how determined they are to thrive in your home city, such that they seem almost like they are pushing up asphalt in their determination to bloom and ensure that they have their rightful place in Athens. And though I have no familiarity with Kouros, I quite enjoyed reading how its stages assume the metaphor of a man’s life for you.

    Also nodded my head when I read Clayton’s comments too … his frustration at trying to seek out the original Kouros that he knew, or thought, he knew. Yes, I think that’s something all of us perfume lovers have experienced at one time or another.

    • I have wanted to right about these trees for a long time and I didn’t expect that Kouros would instigate this paragraph but right there, in the opening, I found the fleshiest bitter orange blossoms.

      I think we all have to come to terms with the fact that what we call “reformulation” is nothing but good old batch to batch variation. I cannot expect a fragrance that has a decent amount of natural ingredients to be able to stay the same from one batch to the other. Sad but true and at the same time it adds a sense of life.

  4. I’m a big fan of Kouros, but my wife can’t stand it. The dirtiness of it that she can’t stand is exactly what I like about it. Mass market new releases don’t seem to have the balls to come up with anything like this, and it’s a shame.

    I like how Luca Turin described it: “It has that faintly repellent clean-dirty feel of other people’s bathrooms, and manages to smell at once scrubbed and promissory of an unmade bed.”

    But it’s the kind of fragrance I like on me and no one else. There was a flight attendant wearing it on an hours-long flight a year ago and it made me gag. Kouros is waaay too much for a confined space, and this guy it took an extra step by showering in it. We could all taste it when he walked by and it felt just short of a sexual assault. Yuck.

    So when I wear it, I don’t want to overdo it. Kouros is a fragrance that needs space. It’s so potent, both in the sense that it lasts long and has strong sillage and in that it is so pungent. A little goes a long way. And because of its pungency, it seems so intimate. Applying Kouros too liberally is like walking around shirtless with a shaved chest that glistens with post-coital sweat.

    • It really is one of those tattoo scents that linger on skin for what seems like an eternity. I don’t think it is so much pungent as it is alarming. It is alarming because it really doesn’t smell like anything else. You catch a whiff from a distance and you know it’s Kouros. You just can’t pretend to ignore it, Aromatics Elixir has the same effect on me. Your experience with the flight attendant is really a perfume horror story.

      • You’re so right about Aromatics Elixir. I love that too, but man, is it powerful. I bought a small bottle of it for my wife a couple years ago — an incredible deal at about $20 for a travel-size spray bottle — and she loves it. But she can’t wear it often. It’s funny, she says it reminds her of what well-dressed women who smoked in the 70s smelled like. I totally agree. I have much less of a mental image of the man who wears — or wore — Kouros. It’s not a fragrance that I have memories of from the 80s (for that I turn to Polo in the green bottle and Drakar Noir and maybe Obsession for Men).

  5. Love this review!! My first memorie of Korus when I was little and my mother tried some perfumes in an old perfume shop. She was trying Opium and YSL Paris or searching for Lancome Jardin d’Bagatelle. As I have smelled it then..I was horryfied I told myself that I’ll not wear it ever…but now…thigns have changed :) with every year, love ti more and more! :)
    Very 80s smell…but perfect.

    Juraj
    BL’eauOG

    • I don’t want to sound like a perfume snob but Kouros is a perfume that can scare someone away if they have not “been around” in the perfume world, just because it is so unique and strong. But in the end it wins you with its balance and complicated development.

  6. Pingback: Van Gils Strictly for Men: a hand from an old friend « Memory Of Scent

  7. Mimi

    I just stumbled onto your review, and I love it. I never considered the idea of Kouros as a metaphor for a man’s life, but it’s quite compelling. And I think its development is able to convey a picture of a “complete” person with all the parts, clean and dirty, naive and knowing, wild and wise, etc., human, but divine (in that respect it’s like those mythical figures from Greek legend the original advertising used to allude to ;)
    Maybe that’s bold, but I like this picture so much more than a pretty perfume that only gives a sanitized picture, rather masking than glorifying a person.

    Kouros was the first perfume I fell in love with, the first one I knew I simply had to have. I was only 15 or 16 then, back in the 80s. But, like you say, I wasn’t really a novice, because as a young teenager I had collected dozens of samples, starting with good old Avon but moving upwards into the designer stuff. I’d given that hobby up at some point, because even though I liked many of the perfumes, admired their beauty and artistry, I never found something I could wear without feeling dressed up somehow. Maybe they made me “prettier”, but also “smaller”. While Kouros seemed to be somehow universal, a smell from another dimension, but at the same time completely “true”. As if I had been waiting for it all my life!

    I never felt that this work of art could ever disappear, the same way it seems absurd that something like the works of J.S. Bach could be “discontinued”. But of course in perfume, these things happen… So I’m glad Kouros is still around! I don’t use it much anymore, but your post reminded me that I should, and also get a new bottle, as a little contribution to keep it alive (and to be prepared in case the owners of YSL do something stupid!)

    PS: Btw, I’m female.

    • Thank you so much for commenting. This is the kind of story that connects me with my perfumes and it is so nice to see readers share their personal perfume stories. I appreciate it.

      It really makes me wonder why you felt that perfumes were in some way defining you more than let’s say your clothes. I must admit that I pay much more attention to how I smell than what I wear and maybe this is the reason why you felt perfumes were restricting you. Very interesting though. I suggest you find a sample of Muscs Koublai Khan: if ever there was a perfume that could oscillate from complete dominance to utter skinscent this is it.

      As far as Kouros goes, I am afraid you will have to hurry: the bottle you see in the photo of this post is the original formulation. New bottles do not have the silver trims on the top and bottom of the bottle and reportedly they smell different.

      • Mimi

        Ouch! The reformulation business sounds bad! I think I’ll start looking for an old bottle. Maybe one of the smaller shops still has some around. And I’ll try the Muscs Koublai Khan as soon as possible!

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