One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 01, 2013

Night Life: Balenciaga Le Dix (vintage)(ish)


Despite my seemingly never-ending complaints about the ubiquitous fruity floral, the dominant mode of perfumery for the past decade and more, I don’t hate them. Some of them are acceptable, even pleasant, and I occasionally enjoy walking past the nearly impenetrable wall of fruity-floral-gourmand stink that radiates from the local mall's Bath and Body Works. What I object to is these twinned facts: 1) the fruity floral is essentially all there is in mainstream women’s perfumery any more, and 2) they all smell pretty much identical.

While I was wearing Balenciaga’s 1947 Le Dix so I could think about it and write about it, a dreadful question occurred to me: these young women, raised to believe that the fruity floral is the only scent in existence — will they wear in ten years’ time when they go out in the evening? Because Le Dix is the very quintessence of the sophisticated women’s evening scent: it’s the sort of thing that, if you are older than thirty, you remember your mom putting on when she was dressing up for a special night out at a restaurant or the theatre. She wouldn’t wear it every day, or any day: she would save it for a special occasion, and the last thing you would remember before falling asleep was her wafting into your room on a cloud of perfume to kiss you good-night.

A scent like that was something that girls aspired to: they might wear Jean Naté and Avon in their teens, but when they were grown up, they were by god going to wear some proper French perfume when they went out. But now: what do they have to aspire to? Even the great French lines have been dumbed down, and graduating from the latest celebuscent to the latest Lancôme or Guerlain is frankly not much of an advancement: there is not much distance between Lady Gaga and La Vie est Belle.

You can’t just stumble across a sophisticated evening scent in a department store or a drugstore as you once could: you can’t even find one if you’re hunting for it, because it no longer exists in those milieux. The only solution is to delve deeply into either vintage perfumery or niche scents, and how many people have the know-how and the determination and the nerve and the money to do that? (I mean, besides anybody reading this.)

It’s worth doing, of course, because the fact is that a really great scent —and I mean “great” in the sense of “world-class”, not the debased sense of “fun” — makes you better than you otherwise would be. A great scent confers some measure of its greatness upon you. It makes you stand straighter, it gives you confidence, it allows you to enjoy life more and in turn bring more pleasure to others. Le Dix is exactly the sort of perfume that does this: it’s world-class, all right. It smells of old-fashioned sophistication; it make you you, only better.

As usual, this is the point at which I need to say that the bottle I have, which is perhaps twenty years old, presumably doesn’t smell quite like Le Dix did upon its launch, and assuredly doesn’t smell like whatever it was transmogrified into before it was discontinued: the online discounters uniformly describe the last iteration as “watery florals with woodsy balsamic notes”, and if you don’t have some vintage Le Dix at hand, trust me that “watery florals” couldn’t be farther from the truth.

If you wanted to boil it down to its essence, you could describe Le Dix as “violets and vanilla”, which is rather like describing a Seurat as “dots of colour”: it tells you something about it while telling you nothing useful. Le Dix starts life as a joyous cloud of lemony aldehydes which parts to reveal dark-purple violets garlanded with roses and (I think) a touch of lilac. If a flower has a personality, if carnations are vicious and ylang is seductively tropical, then violet is dreamy, and Le Dix, with its overdose of violets, has that time-stopping dreaminess about it: the only thing keeping it from lulling you into an opiate stupor is the thorniness of the roses and a bright shard of vetiver. Eventually a swell of vanilla adds to the plushness and powderiness of the violets, and a big smudge of dirty-sexy musk — proper musk, not that clean-white musk that's in everything today — grounds the scent in the real world.

And that’s just the nineties-era eau de toilette: I can only imagine what it was in its day, and I actually can’t even imagine the 1947-era parfum. I bet that was a real world-beater.

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