English Leather Vintage Cologne (Mem)

Tabu, Chantilly, Jovan Musk, Ciara, Stetson, Vanilla Fields, Navy, Emeraude, Drakkar Noir, Wind Song, White Shoulders, Amarige, Giorgio. What do these fragrances have in common? You can find them all at Rite Aid, CVS, Duane Reade, and Walgreens. You pass by them on your way to the dairy cooler for your quart of milk or run your eyes over them while you wait for the pharmacist to fill your script. Occasionally, you wonder what's inside those shrink-wrapped boxes kept ludicrously locked up. (Really, now, who would shoplift any of them?) Sometimes the store provides testers; a sniff or two quickly strips you of your curiosity.

A new-minted perfumista might not realize it, but several of these stinkers used to have pedigree. Constructed out of top-notch materials and sold in proper department stores, these fragrant icons fell on hard times -- new ownership; new formula; declining sales; changing fads -- and came to bitter ends.

Until recently, I regarded English Leather as a joke, the sort of cheesy fragrance a man would buy if the "brick and mortar store" (what aficionados call the pharmacy when they don't want anyone to know they shop on the cheap) ran out of Old Spice. Its sour, sad scent reminded me of the neighborhood bar my father used to frequent-- a murky place filled with the accumulated odors of rotgut, hard pretzels, and human despair. But the vintage bottle I recently acquired (labeled "Mem Company, Inc., Northvale, NJ", the original maker of this 1949 stalwart) smelled nothing like I expected. It smells like real leather.

Russian leather (Chanel Cuir de Russie, of course, but also the sleeper brand Florineige I keep in my arsenal) has an elegant iris overtone. Western leather (Tauer Lonestar Memories, Annick Goutal Duel) features sagebrush and a touch of creosote. Patent leather (Knize Ten, Serge Lutens Cuir Mauresque, Chanel Égoïste) carries a soupçon of plastic and maraschino cherry. Handbag leather (there will never be enough room in the world to list them all) is all suede interior and beige face powder. English Leather smells like riding tack-- straight-up leather conditioned with saddle soap and old-fashioned mink oil with its costus-like intimacy. It has been calibrated so that no single element of its formula stands out overmuch; I don't think to myself, "The lemon note is stronger than the bergamot," or "Oh, there's the vetiver." I just smell leather-- cool, slightly bitter, subtly animalic, a little risky, a lot sophisticated.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, rosemary, iris, rose, cedar, vetiver, leather, musk