Institut Très Bien is one of several historical fragrance lines (Lubin, Rancé, etc) that have been revived by new owners in recent times. Frederic Burtin, whose grandmother reportedly was a patron of the original Institut Très Bien spa in Lyon during the 1930s, found an old perfumery book with a recipe for the spa's Cologne à la Russe, and with the help of perfumer Pierre Bourdon, came up with a fragrance "as close to the original as possible" (via cosmeticsint.co.uk, 9/1/2004) At the same time...
"We thought about how the range would have developed had the Institut not closed," said Burtin, "and we produced Cologne à la Francaise and Cologne l'Italienne." (ibid)
I gave all three scents a very quick try shortly after they were launched, and liked them well enough. Of the three, my early favorite was the Cologne à L'Italienne, a refreshing blend of citrus, herbs and orange blossom, but at that time the line was only sold in France, and given how easy it is to find a nice summery citrus in the cologne style*, they didn't strike me as WIFFY**.
Now that summer is coming and the line is more readily available in the United States, I thought I would give the trio a more serious smell. This time, Cologne à L'Italienne and Cologne à la Francaise took the back seat; they are both nicely done, but neither is unusual enough to tug at my wallet. Cologne à la Russe is another matter. I don't understand how I completely missed the connection to my beloved (and discontinued) Crown Eau de Russe, a lovely seasonless concoction of sparkling citrus and powdered amber. What it is about such a scent that makes it particularly Russian, I have no idea, but the Institut Très Bien version (1906) predates the Crown (1911) so apparently it is not something Crown pulled out of thin air. For all I know, there were dozens of such Russe scents at one time.
The notes for Cologne à la Russe include bergamot, cedrat lemon, citron, limette, orange blossom, rosemary, verbena, lavender, neroli, amber, benzoin and iris. The opening is a bright and sunny burst of citrus laid over sharp herbal notes. The bright herbal citrus remains but the sharpness calms quickly enough as the powdery amber base warms up. As with the Eau de Russe, the citrus feels nicely chilled, and makes a lovely contrast with the warmer base notes. The Institut Très Bien version is less vanillic and more herbal than the Eau de Russe so they are not twins by any means, but if you liked the one, I should think you would find the other at least worth trying.
Cologne à la Russe is in Eau de Parfum concentration, but even then, it is not a powerhouse fragrance. My Crown Eau de Russe has intensified beautifully with age so it is not fair, I suppose, to compare them, but the Eau de Russe is deeper, stronger and longer lasting, and the sillage is considerably greater. Eau de Russe is the sort of citrus that stands up to winter wear, but I'm not sure I would say the same of Cologne à la Russe. I would very much like to try Très Russe, the Parfum version of Cologne à la Russe that Institut Très Bien released last year, but it does not appear to have made it to the United States as yet.
Institut Très Bien Cologne à la Russe is available in 30 or 100 ml. All three of the fragrances are built around similar heart notes and can be worn alone or layered, and in France they are also sold in a coffret of three 15 ml bottles. For buying information, see the listing for Institut Très Bien under Perfume Houses.
* A few worthy citrusy-cologne type scents: Guerlain Eau de Guerlain, the Comme des Garçons Cologne series, Parfumerie Generale Cologne Grand Siècle, Le Labo Tubereuse 40, Annick Goutal Eau du Sud and Eau d'Hadrien, and of course, if you have a favorite I missed, do comment!
** WIFFY, an acronym coined by Sara at MakeupAlley for "worth the effing freight from France".