ASCENT OF A SCENT
WHEN BARON CARLO MAGNANI AND A FRIEND DESIGNED A FRAGRANCE IN A MAKESHIFT LABORATORY, HE DIDN’T PLAN FOR IT TO GO ANY FURTHER THAN HIS OWN POCKET SQUARE – BUT HE COULDN’T KEEP IT TO HIMSELF FOR LONG.
If you want to catch the aroma that has defined 100 years of understated Italian men’s style – the original tailoring accessory – walk down Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone towards Via Manzoni and take a sharp right on Via Gesù. From here on the street you’ll waft a noble-smelling scent that starts off with a curt citrus snap then relaxes into subtle lemon and floral undertones. There immediately on the left, next to Brioni and within a cufflink’s throw of the Four Seasons Hotel, is its source: the elegant boutique of Acqua di Parma. Celebrating its centenary this year, Acqua di Parma and its signature scent, Colonia, has been the profumo uomo for most Italian gentlemen since their first visit to a tailor, when the fragrance was lightly applied to the woollen fabric of a bespoke suit before collection.
This subtle application was always the intention of Colonia’s founder, Baron Carlo Magnani, an aristocrat from Parma who created the fragrance just to be surreptitiously applied to his pocket square. Baron Magnani wasn’t out to make lire. The grandson of Girolamo Magnani, painter and scenographer of Parma’s Teatro Regio, dubbed by Verdi as “Italy’s greatest set designer”, Magnani simply wanted to create a scent for himself, a fragrance that was light and crisp – something different from the dense French and German perfumes of the time.
The Baron’s family had lived in a palazzo in the heart of Parma since 1652 and it was here, in Borgo San Vitale, in 1916 that Magnani called in a chemist friend to set up a makeshift laboratory. They combined lemon and sweet Sicilian orange with Calabrian bergamot, lavender, damask rose, verbena and rosemary with woody base notes of vetiver, sandalwood and patchouli.
Magnani’s scent didn’t stay individual for long. Friends of the Baron soon hit him up for their own batch of Colonia, followed by the local tailors of Parma, then Milan, Florence and Rome. By the 1930s demand was so high that Magnani called on local artisans to create for Colonia a thick art deco-style bottle and black cap made of Bakelite. The colouring of the label was yellow – the hue of the ancient palazzi of Parma – and on it sat the grand coat of arms of the Duchy of Parma.
From then until the early 1990s Acqua di Parma’s Colonia was sold exclusively in tailoring shops. It was regarded as the essence of Italian masculinity, the male equivalent to Chanel No 5. However, the rise of ready- to-wear during the 60s and 70s and subsequent lack of demand for bespoke suiting led to the mass closure of Italian tailoring shops. As a result, Colonia’s distribution dwindled, and the fragrance was almost forgotten until it was rescued in 1993 by then Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo. Colonia had been the preferred scent of Montezemolo’s father, and the nostalgic businessman recruited his high-profile friends, Tod’s owner Diego Della Valle, and Paolo Borgomanero from La Perla, to buy Acqua di Parma. The trio added a new unisex scent, Blu Mediterraneo, and sold the fragrances into classic Italian men’s clothiers and overseas department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Harvey Nichols.
Acquired by LVMH in 2001, Acqua di Parma’s new president, Gabriella Scarpa, a longtime fan of Colonia, knew the brand had legs to evolve. “It was the customers, the customers were asking for more,” she tells WISH from Milan. “The men were asking, ‘Why don’t you have another type of Colonia?’ The women were saying, ‘Ah, but I love Acqua Di Parma, I use Colonia ... Why don’t you have feminine fragrances?’ Hotels like the Four Seasons were asking for amenities, because their customers were so fond of Acqua di Parma.”
While “still respecting Colonia’s values”, Scarpa began by creating a range of feminine fragrances called Le Nobili (the aristocrats), inspired by the flowers and gardens of Italy. She launched Iris Nobile in 2003, followed by editions referencing magnolias, jasmine, roses and peonies. She boosted the men’s line, adding silky and rich new riffs on the original Colonia – Assoluta, Intensa, Oud, Leather, Quercus, Ambra and Club – reasoning that men will want different scents for different times of the day. The brand added new skincare lines, barber collections, leather accessories, pens and high-end spas in Venice, Sardinia and Lake Garda, all designed to take the old world values of Acqua di Parma and adapt them for a modern lifestyle.
What hasn’t changed are the brand’s Made in Italy credentials. After 100 years Colonia is still crafted in Parma, as are the Bakelite caps, packaging and candles. The fragrance ingredients all come from the south of Italy, save for patchouli and some woods. “This process is more expensive, obviously,” Scarpa admits. “Especially because everything is handmade. [But] We Italians have style as an origin. We have a link of beauty between the past, the present and the future. And Italian style will always, always be linked to high-end quality and artisanal made.” Acqua di Parma is available in selected David Jones stores.
What started as a single fragrance 100 years ago in Parma was rescued from oblivion in the 90s and has grown into a range of scents, candles and skincare for men and women.