One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Intermission 1: Guerlain

On Thursday, the 7th of October, I spent a few hours in Toronto, and I knew what I wanted to do: I stashed my luggage and headed up Bay Street towards 110 Bloor Street West, the home of the Boutique Guerlain. I knew what I was going to buy, too: more Mitsouko, either the EDP or the extrait, whichever excited me more. I have been wearing and adoring a recent vintage of the EDT, which is rather ferocious, in the best imaginable way, but the EDP is reportedly smoother and the extrait richer and smoother still, so obviously I had to try them. I was undeterred by the general consensus that, despite Guerlain's best intentions, Mitsouko is not what it used to be: how could it be, when its entire raison d'etre is oakmoss, so severely limited these days?

I was the only customer in the boutique, so the charming saleswoman--whom I shall not name, though I have her card, for reasons I'll get to soon enough--was apparently only too happy to give me her undivided attention. I told her what I had come for, and she pulled out a spray bottle of the parfum, which was a massive disappointment: wan, unenthusiastic, nothing like what I had come to associate with Mitsouko. The EDP was not any better, and I knew that whatever I might buy, it wouldn't be those: I would make do with my delirious EDT (which is really very good) and maybe some day hunt down or stumble across some true vintage.

We then moved on to the newest Shalimar incarnation, Ode a la Vanille, which puts the vanilla base front and centre. It is lush and heady, but much easier to take than the original; the only thing that stopped me from buying it was the knowledge that I already have an insane quantity of vanilla scents, and I could in no way justify adding another to the collection. Isn't the bottle gorgeous, though? It's the original Shalimar bottle reconceived by Jade Jagger, daughter of Mick.

We careened through nearly a dozen more scents (I tell you, my nose is tireless). I tried Habit Rouge Sport (not an improvement on the original), La Petite Robe Noire (unworthy of the Guerlain name), Chypre Fatal (not a chypre, not fatal, no better than the other Elixirs Charnels), Les Secrets de Sophie (the same scent in three different bottles, and I don't remember which, so it was not memorable), Philtre d'Amour (beloved of my friend Eeva--I don't get it myself), and a couple of those L'Art et la Matiere scents in the tall bottles. None of it was really leaving much of an impression, a lot of it was far too modern and not nearly interesting enough, and I was beginning to think ruefully that Guerlain had somehow squandered their inheritance.*

We finally came to a couple of re-issues of very old scents, Sous le Vent from 1933 and Vega from 1936. Sous le Vent I thought was lovely, presumably a fair distance from its eighty-year-old progenitor but a worthy thing nonetheless, grassy at the top, spicy with the promise of a (modern-ish) chypre underneath. Vega, though, made me gasp.

It is a huge, mad aldehydic floral, all fury and stinging nettles, a whiplash rendition of Chanel No. 5 and Wrappings and Rive Gauche and god alone knows how many other things, a ferocious bluster of indefinable flowers and greenery protecting a little orb of warm sweet wood. Reader, I put it on my skin!

But I did not buy it, because it is $350 and I cannot possibly justify such a thing. If a scent is life-altering, I will pay $150 for it and not bat an eye, because how often do you get to own something life-altering? $150 is a bargain. But I have my limits, and $350 is well beyond them.

The enchanting saleswoman told me about their mail-order service in case I should change my mind, which is not impossible (if I suddenly were to become rich, or if I worked out a split arrangement), and then sotto voce--although we were still the only people in the store--asked me if I knew about the upcoming pair of men's scents, Arsene Lupin Dandy and Voyou, masculine florals representing two sides of the gentleman thief ("voyou" means "crook" or "lout", Arsene Lupin being a fictional version popular in France). I did not. As if engaged in the sale of classified documents, she reached into a cabinet, pulled out two small spray bottles, no more than an ounce each, one part-full of violet liquid and the other amber: she sprayed them onto touches, and said, "Everybody loves one of them." I sniffed them both at length.

"I like this one," I said, waving Voyou. She beamed, and if I hadn't passed a test before, I had now. "Everyone prefers Dandy!"

She reached into the same cabinet and came up with a long sample vial, probably 5 mL, which she proceeded to half-fill with Voyou, and then tucked it into a little antique-gold envelope on which she wrote the name of the scent. She had just given me maybe a quarter of her entire supply of it. But she wasn't finished: she picked up the bottle of Vega and with an eyedropper filled another sample vial with it. Completely filled it, right to the stopper. $15 worth, for sure.

"I feel terrible!" I said. "I didn't even buy anything!"

She waved the thought away. "You will," she said. "Next time."

I wore Arsene Lupin Voyou a few times and enjoyed it more than I suspected I should: despite its old-fashioned image, it is very modern, so much so that I began to think I had smelled it before, and recently. And then this morning it finally came to me: Voyou is Lacoste Pour Homme. The ingredients are slightly different--that licorice-candy note is not present in Voyou, the top of the Lacoste is fruitier, Voyou is spicier--but the structure is the same. To prove it to myself, I wore the Lacoste this morning, and yep, they're fraternal twins.

Octavian at 1000fragrances (no relation) gave Dandy a big thumbs-up and Voyou the cold shoulder: based on Octavian's description, I think perhaps in retrospect I might prefer Dandy as well, if I had time to experience it from start to finish. My reaction was honest, though: Voyou spoke to me immediately. And why mightn't he? I already knew his brother.

* I know, of course, that Guerlain, like most every other perfume house, has to market what's going to sell, and if the public disdains complex, interesting scents as "old-fashioned" or "old lady perfume" and demands bright, fresh, cheap, fruity things, then that is what the houses are going to have to sell, or go bankrupt. (Even my adored Serge Lutens has begun to go down this road.) And yet it is dispiriting to see a perfumer as illustrious as Guerlain reduced to vending such tat as Gourmand Coquin and the wretched Cherry Blossom line, charging premium prices for it all, and pretending they're as grand as they used to be.

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7 Comments:

  • Vega sounds wonderful! I'll have to walk over there and give it a sniff. If you remember the SA's name I'll tell her you said such nice things about her.

    By Blogger kjanicki, at 9:42 AM  

  • Vega is All That, for sure. I have a decant, and wish I had more.

    But alas, will have to make do with the vintage No. 5 parfum...

    By OpenID museinwoodenshoes, at 11:15 PM  

  • Hi , curious to know why Gourmand Couquin is a variation on then traditional Guerlain releases.

    Thanks.

    By Blogger Saif, at 5:40 AM  

  • Hi , curious to know why Gourmand Couquin is a variation on then traditional Guerlain releases.

    Thanks.

    By Blogger Saif, at 5:41 AM  

  • Hi , curious to know why Gourmand Couquin is a variation on then traditional Guerlain releases.

    Thanks.

    By Blogger Saif, at 5:41 AM  

  • Hi , curious to know why Gourmand Couquin is a variation on then traditional Guerlain releases.

    Thanks.

    By Blogger Saif, at 5:42 AM  

  • Hi , curious to know why Gourmand Couquin is a variation on then traditional Guerlain releases.

    Thanks.

    By Blogger Saif, at 5:42 AM  

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