TLDR: (Reviewing the current formulation, black wood framed bottle with white lettering, from the Les Parisiens range.) A very well done version of the 1985 classic that lacks the mammoth animalic punch and oakmossy base of the original but which remains excellent (4.5/5).
I started wearing fragrances with some regularity in the late 1970s. By the beginning of the 1980s, I had been exposed to some less well known, high-end products thanks to the largess of an uncle who would gift me his 75% empty splash bottles when he became tired of them.
while in college, I was lucky enough to land a well-paying job and was earning enough to pay tuition and to buy the occasional fragrance. One of these was Derby. I got it by chance just after it was released. I happened to smell it in a store, loved it immediately, and bought a bottle. I have a vintage bottle of this fragrance that I have owned for many years and once in a while will use a little of my it to remind myself how much I enjoy this scent. I got a bottle of the current formulation of Derby last fall in an effort to stretch the remainder of my vintage bottle as far as I could.
As others have noted, Derby had a bit of an edge in the original formulation. The current version has lost this edge.
Today's Derby has much of its original sparkling (aldehydic, I think) opening and spicy floral heart in tact. The base, however, is now a shadow of what it once was. The "civilizing (neutering?)" effects of the revising of the basenotes manages to pull a classic into the modern era. 21st Century Derby is barely animalic at all and has so little oak moss as to effectively have none. The leather is still there, but it is clean now. The vetiver and patchouli assert themselves more than they do in the original.
It is, for all of the IFRA-driven changes, still a great scent with eternal longevity and enough projection to qualify as "beastly" if not judiciously applied.
For me, this was once a cold weather fragrance, but in the current formulation, I now enjoy Derby in early spring and throughout fall. For lovers of 1980s era leather chypre fragrances, Derby remains a quintessential expression of the genre and a bottle-worthy acquisition in the current formulation. The Guerlain boutique exclusive Les Parisiens range seems to be shrinking (Heros and Arsene Lupin Dandy appear to have been discontinued), so interested people may want to get hold of Derby before the current version joins the original in the realm of the very hard to find and becomes available only in the unbelievably expensive fragrance arbitrageurs market.
Guerlain contributed to the powerhouse era of over-the-top 80's ultra-masculine perfumes with Derby (1985), a fragrance that has the type of veneration among guys over 50 that Creed Aventus (2010) has with guys over 30. Looking at what else was circling in the waters of the era, we see Jean-Paul Guerlain choosing the aromatic leather chypre direction with Derby, following in the footsteps of fragrances like Chanel Antaeus (1981), One Man Show by Jacques Bogart (1980) before it, Chaps by Ralph Lauren (1979), all the way back to late 70's progenitors like Caron Yatagan (1976). The primary note in most of these is castoreum and oakmoss, creating a sharp woody/mossy leathery base that is on the "find out" end of the phrase "fuck around and find out", with almost zero sweetness or humor. These types of powerhouse chypres ran counter to the sweeter/soapier, often more-obviously musky powerhouse fougères like Yves Saint Laurent Kouros (1981) and were the business side of the powerhouse spectrum opposite the pleasure side that these fougères represented. Giving a name like Derby to such a fragrance then seems almost appropriate, with such a hat adorning the head of a rugged man of the land more than say a CEO showing boardroom poise. Derby to me feels quite like the Indiana Jones of the 80's powerhouse leathers, preferring a punch to the face over bedroom hijinks or posh images of equestrian sports. Like Indy, Derby is polite only until you step out of line, and dare I say lacking some manners that even Antaeus manages to show. Like Aventus to millennials, this was a statement fragrance for late boomers and early gen-x.
Derby feels decidedly "un-Guerlain" because of this design, which may be part of why it was deleted then moved to a rare and difficult-to-find boutique collection. The scent opens with a slug of searing dry bergamot and bitter artemisia/wormwood. Comparisons to both Antaeus and Quorum by Antonio Puig (1982) can be drawn here, but Derby rides closer to the former if anything. Note pyramids show peppermint and lemon also here, and I can believe the lemon, but not the peppermint. There is a bit of what I detect as mandarin orange here too, and some aldehydes as well, recalling to my mind a sharper and more-intense version of what powers the opening of Avon Black Suede (1980), devoid of all that scent's amber elements. The heart structure also lives slightly in the shadow of precursors like Antaeus and One Man Show, with carnation and and coniferous resinous notes, but where Derby differs is in the spice. A very hot mace and pimento note enter here, recalling future leathers like Hermès Bel Ami (1986) that would take this direction, ending in the expected castoreum, tannery isobutyl quinoline, and oakmoss, but greened out just a tad more than its peers with vetiver, patchouli, then smoothed some with tones of sandalwood. The full effect of wearing Derby is one that remains piercingly sharp in its interpretation of the leather chypre, spicy hot and formidable, but with a dusty powdery gentleman side similar to Chaps Ralph Lauren. Performance needs not be mentioned and longevity is until you scrape it off with an industrial-grade putty knife. Suggested uses are cold weather or whenever you're feeling just a little nuts.
There is of course the elephant in the room: the price. Original bottles made until LVMH took creative control away from the Guerlain family cost a literal fortune, be it the launch "Eagle" bottles, or the later column sprays and "Listerine" bottle gold-cap sprays. You will be paying above Creed, or even above Roja Dove retail prices minimum for any of these if full and unused, making vintage Derby a play-thing for the richest vintage enthusiasts or old guys lucky enough to have hoarded it when hitting discounters decades ago. In 2012 Guerlain re-issued Derby as part of the "Les Parisiens" set but had to do so in accordance with IFRA regulations, toning down the animalic side to appease modern tastes (likely against Jean-Paul's wishes), as with subsequent versions of anything else using civet or castoreum in the 1980's (like Antaeus and One Man Show), plus the oakmoss neutered and plugged with fillers makes the top and heart shine more. This version gets the message across, and can be had directly from Guerlain for less (but still a lot because it's exclusive), although the Indiana Jones of the reissued Derby feels tired and old like his father in The Last Crusade. Derby is the unapologetic black sheep of the Guerlain masculine range that maybe deserves its worship, even if it's less original than I expected from the house, since this kind of lowbrow macho swagger doesn't fit the aristocratic Guerlain narrative at all and makes Derby stand way out there from everything else they've ever made. If you can sample vintage, do it, but any way you wear a Derby, it's likely to knock you on your butt, and everyone else around you too. Thumbs up.
Derby had long been on my "to try" list, and due to the kindness of some folks, I received samples of both the vintage and current versions of it. They're similar, but more siblings than mirror images.
When I smelled the vintage, my initial impression was that it was 80-90% similar to Nicolaï New York Intense (now that I've tried the vintage Derby, I'd describe New York Intense as a faithful Derby remake with a dash or two of Héritage thrown in, and it's at least as good as both of those Guerlain clasics). It's a full-bodied, effortlessly elegant, perfectly balanced green-and-floral scent with that oakmoss glow holding it all together. A masterpiece? Well, I certainly can't find fault with it.
If the vintage Derby was a full entrée, the current Derby is a bit like getting just the sauce, but none of the meat meant to anchor it. It's good, well-made sauce, but in comparison to the vintage it misses a bit of weight: it's light, floral, comforting, but the green edge has been profoundly tuned down. While this was undoubtedly due to reformulation, New York Intense demonstrates that the vintage "green effect" is still possible in a post-IFRA world, and is perhaps closer to the vintage Derby than this is.
I had a sample of vintage Derby from a Basenoter as far back as 2014. I wasn't ready for it at the time - I much preferred a simpler oak moss fragrance such as Sous le Vent or Chanel Pour Monsieur. The clove in the opening, in particular, did not smell like something I wanted to wear.
Over several years of revisiting Derby, I got into the base of the vintage and got a bottle about five years after initially sampling it.
More recently I got a generous sample of the current version of Derby from the fragrance shop in Montreal. I think it is quite a well done re-make. I would consider backing up the vintage with a bottle of modern. It smells more modern, especially side-by-side with vintage, but I like a little dash of modern sometimes. Not everything modern is bad. This feels like a well executed update. If I was keen on impressing other people, I might focus on the reformulated version - it has a dash of something interesting.
I was in Vegas last week and checked this out at the Bellagio boutique. I'm going to get flak for this but I was instantly reminded of another fragrance I already have. I got Heritage instead after a bit bit of hemming and hawing and when I got back to the Mirage, that's when it hit me: it smells like Dior's current formulation of Jules.