June 22, 2010

Histoires de Parfums

An important part of the experience of perfume is the conceptual pedestal it sits on. This can turn out to be simply marketing & PR, or if handled well, a strong alliance forged to that which presses your personal pleasure triggers. An environmental cloud of associations, the allusions to glamour, luxury and bodily happiness, and even the preciousness of the sheer expense of something so ephemeral creates much of the alluring aura around perfume. It's not just about a taste test with a blindfold on, it's about being drawn into what it's all about, getting involved in the presentation and the story. As with conceptual art, it's sometimes more about the back-story than the actual thing itself.

Being an avid reader, and a repeat reader of those stories I identify with, certain books become like personal memories. Associations of history, especially literary history, are potent for me. I would venture to say in the culture of France, allusions to literature are an even more powerful trigger. The French are famous for worshiping their writers as cultural icons that sanctify every archetype of human personality (like actresses or other performing arts celebrities in the U.S.).

I know from myself, and observation of others that psychological associations have a powerful effect, and even the mention of certain famous people or events can affect the interpretation of an actual experience, especially with scents. I do indeed enjoy the concept of Histoires de Parfums, and I know this colors my experience of the fragrances. This may be even more the case than usual because lately I have been on a mental vacation, in full immersion in French literature of at least 100 years old (as read aloud on Librivox: Gautier, Dumas fils, & Balzac, for example).

Personally I think that Paris of the nineteenth century is like a sister to NYC in the present. I see a similarity to our own cultural moment that is psychologically and spiritually bankrupt but sensually deep, narcissistic, corrupt, creative and avaricious, in a perpetual state of longing, tragic, hopeful, with a background continual war being waged between the sexes. As Balzac says, our people are motivated by two things only: "pleasure and gold".

There is an alternate universe of living in or through the past, as depicted in the legends and allusions to rich and varied lives in the themes of these perfumes. They are titled by years such as 1826 and 1740 and 1873 and connected to great literary figures such as Colette, de Sade, Baudelaire, Sand, Verne and glamorous adventurers like Mata Hari and the Empress Eugenie and idealistic youth culture of 1969. There is also a series of iconic perfume types, such as dark patchouli and white violet, the peony bud and a series of three on tuberose, and a complex Amber with a 114 element composition.

For me the theme of this line is contrast -- of white floral, citrus and amber, and though there are some that are not amber at all, I think the exception proves the rule. Amber as a faint burnt honey that is in the background, and white floral and citrus as a high-keyed notes that thread sweetness through most of them too. Their contrast makes a push pull that is energetically modern even while the allusions are to the aesthetic of the past.

I was offered a set of samples of the 16 perfumes, out of the blue. It is luxurious to have this selection of them all at once, and to try them all at once, and at first I tried them rapidly one after the other. Later, I chose one or two at a time, giving the ones I liked a chance to bloom out around me for a fuller experience. I would recommend this way of trying them, if possible, as a way to get the overview of the line as an experience in and of itself.

For me, the tone of the collection as a whole is cool, even modern for all the references to writers of the past, quite wearable, transparent, and ultimately fresh for all the amber which reveals itself like something seen through an open window. Detachment rather than identification, a little distancing to keep the intellectual flavor, more of a sparkle than a lushness or sinking into the sensations of fragrance. The sample collection gives an opportunity to leisurely try them as a line, or as layering elements, and if you are eventually attracted to one or two more than the others, this will reveal itself and you can decide if a full bottle calls to you. For me these are 16 elements of a whole work, rather than one or another being individually a foreground star.

In rough order of my personal preference, these are the ones that appealed to me right away:
1876 (Mata Hari) a spicy citrus rose, with bergamot, orange, litchi, iris, cumin, vanilla, vetiver, santal, gaiac. Tubereuse 1, Virginale (Baudelaire) which is a pale green and the most floral of the three Tubereuse suite. These three based on a sometimes cloying note are at a well calibrated level of intensity for this humid summer weather, and could be layered or varied over the course of a day.
1873, Colette - a strong citrus with white floral, notes of lily of the valley, orange flower, violet and lavender. 1969, a light sweet and sunny citrus rose, with patchouli and white musk (I understand our modern celebrity icon Angie Jolie wears it) I tried it with other green tea and patchouli scents as a layering element yesterday, and it put me in a good mood, which is all I can ask of perfume.

I like the masculine scents too, 1740 (de Sade), bergamot, patchouli, coriander, labdanum and immortelle and 1828 (Jules Verne), citrus, eucalyptus, pepper, vetiver, incense. These are more interesting than what "regular guys" might venture to try on their own, but I suspect if they did they would prefer them over the typical selections they are offered. I liked the perfumer Gerald Ghislain's concept of masculinity of three parts: the romantic, the erotic, and the adventurous.

For a complete list of notes and perfumes, please see the Histoire de Parfums site and the blog site for more information and background.

Above photo, Colette looking as if she is a perfume on a pedestal, herself.


chayaruchama said...

I've always loved that photo of Colette ;-)

Interesting which ones you enjoy-
Some of those are in my'FB' collection.
The Marquis just sings on me; and I confess a weakness for the Blanc et Violette, the Vert Pivoine, too.

Of the 3 tuberoses- you again chose a fascinating choice- the one with the LEAST woody aromachemicals in the base ;-)

All in all, it's a very satisfying line, and well made.

Ask Leah said...

Great post! And yes, completely suited to your tastes and expertise. I love considering the line as a whole and wonder what you would recommend that they do next...

Lucy said...

Thanks L,

I don't have a suggestion at this time, because the ones I would like are a little less "marketable" maybe, like Oscar Wilde, Theophile Gautier and Honore Balzac. Not household names exactly, but still...

Lucy said...

ello ello C/I,

Yes, I was torn between this photo Colette and a great one of Mata Hari, a beauty more for our modern sensibilities, but the pose is so good.

I liked the masculines of de Sade and Verne and Casanova too, but this is such a big subject, one could drown. Love the concept, but maybe they could do a number of perfumes on each personality...
ironically I just saw this crazy article on Mariah Carey's new sugar sweet perfumes to be out soon. She will make a fortune, they predict. Probably true...

Michelle said...

Great posting thank you!..in these fiercely difficult economic times, I think the best thing to remember is that perfume is probably the best most potent fashion accessory one can buy.I recently took my well worn boots in to be resoled rather than buy a new pair so I could buy some perfume. I know I can wear the same black dress, (just like Winston Churchills mother did when she went to the opera and had only one dress to wear... it then became quite fashionable) and change the perception of that dress with a well chosen scent...it never fails.Perfume, I truly believe, is the most essential and best fashion accessory available.

I think that we can always make something last a little longer, but the delight of fragrance will make that task easier. Per use it is the best bargain there is.

Thanks for your fun and interesting blog

Lucy said...

Thanks Michelle for your thoughtful comment. I have become very intersted in what Alabama Chanin is doing, and others, recycling and reworking clothing with embellishments and embroidery and tailoring, I always was drawn to that aesthetic. Perfume is something that we use day to day, so it is a beauty for our selves and others, that connects us to the natural world, so I think of it as a different category, but I love that people use it as an identifying marker, too.