Classics & Vintages: 126 posts

Vintage treasures, iconic perfumes

Monsieur de Givenchy : Cinema, Fashion, and Perfume

The great couturier Hubert de Givenchy passed away at the age of 91 on March 12th. It’s fitting that in remembering him every obituary mentions his collaboration with Audrey Hepburn. It was thanks to her that he found fame, recognition, and a chance to design the wardrobes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Princess Grace of Monaco. Today we take for granted celebrity endorsements, but in the 1950s it was novel. Yet, the collaboration between Givenchy and Hepburn was different from today’s business ventures between Hollywood stars and designers. The duo inspired each other, serving as each other’s muses. Givenchy’s clean, elegant lines and innovative techniques left a lasting imprint on fashion.

Hepburn contacted Givenchy to design her clothes for Sabrina (1954). Givenchy was in his 20s, running his first boutique on Plaine Monceau in Paris, having previously trained with Elsa Schiaparelli. Givenchy had an impressive career working for Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Lucien Lelong, Pierre Balmain and Robert Piguet, but he was unknown. Hepburn felt that his designs would be perfect for a young woman who returns from a sojourn in Paris. The Hague exhibit told the story of Givenchy initially refusing the offer. As he told at the interview recorded for the museum, “I was busy preparing my next collection so I told her I wouldn’t be able to do it, but she was very persistent. She invited me to dinner, which was unusual for a woman to do back then, and it was at dinner that I realized she was an angel.”

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7 Rare Vintage Perfumes : The Perfume and Wine Class

As preparation for the Art of Perfume and Wine class that I’m teaching in April in France (more details here), I thought I would write about 7 vintage perfumes that have been influential for the evolution of perfumery and that we will smell in their original versions. There will be over 50 different perfumes in this course, but these 7 are among the most essential to learn.

Guerlain L’Heure Bleue 1912

Many perfumers will name Guerlain as the most influential perfume house, especially in its period when Jacques Guerlain was the head creator. L’Heure Bleue is a textbook example of a classic as well as of a symphonic perfume.

We will, of course, smell other Guerlain classics, from Après L’Ondée and Mitsouko to Chamade and Chant d’Arômes.

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Vetiver Voyages

“Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible,” wrote the cubist, surrealist and expressionist painter Paul Klee. The same could be said about perfumery, which is an art of intangible substances. The greatest fragrances conjure up the most complex of images, holding the artistic intent of their creators and offering a glimpse into their thoughts and memories. Just how perfumers achieve is what I explore in my recent article for my FT column, Vetiver Voyages. I use vetiver as an illustration.

One of my favourite examples is Lalique’s Encre Noire Pour Homme, released in 2006, which perfumer Nathalie Lorson composed with the intention of showing off the suave, languid character of vetiver – a note usually seen as bracing and cold. A type of grass originating in India, vetiver is grown to prevent soil erosion and produces a complex essential oil with accents of liquorice, bitter grapefruit peel, smoke and damp earth. To continue, please click here.

The other fragrances in the Modern Classic series were Serge Lutens’s Féminité du BoisLolita LempickaBulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, and Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower.

What are your favorite vetiver fragrances?

Image via FT

On Italo Calvino’s Classics and Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois

What makes a classic? “In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum,” he says, noting that nevertheless the classics cannot exist without this hum. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.”

This topic is the subject of my latest FT column on modern classics. The article, How Serge Lutens reinvented the idea of feminine perfume, is the first of a series that will cover fragrances I consider outstanding and important. Modern classics, in other words. My first essay is on Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois, a composition that challenged conventions and remade wood accords as we know them in perfumery. To read the article, please click here.

Italo Calvino’s essay is worth reading, whether your interest is perfumery or literature, because it’s witty and through-provoking. “Classic” is the most overused word, but unpacking its layers of meaning makes one appreciate the richness of allusions and references that each great work contains. The essay is part of the compilation “Why Read the Classics?” (public library) that includes Calvino’s observations on his favorite writers and novels. I can’t recommend it enough for your summer reading lists.

Of course, I would love to hear what a classical perfume means to you and which fragrances you count among the modern classics.

To read all articles in my column, please click on my name in the byline.

The Art of Perfume : Perfume Techniques and Stories

I already wrote about my most recent perfumery course, covering the first day of our activities, visiting the Edmond Roudnitska garden and exploring the International Perfume Museum in Grasse. Today I’m continuing with our second day, which covered perfume history and professional smelling techniques.

Whenever I hear the phrase “perfume history,” I think of the typical introductory chapter in books on fragrance that start with the Egyptians and the stuff researchers still find in the pyramids. Then a writer might continue with a short homage to the Romans, include a remark on the use of perfume by the bath fearing Europeans in the Middle Ages and with a clear conscience they skip to the brave new world of the 20th century and its Chanels and Guerlains. Perfume history is fascinating stuff, but why is it presented in such a dull manner? I want to do something different.

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