Monday, January 29, 2007

Jean Patou Vacances

It seems funny that out of all the thousands of lines T.S. Eliot wrote, the only one that really resonates with the general public is the famous opening of The Wasteland: "April is the cruellest month". Still, despite my somewhat lengthy training in British and American literatures, it is the one quickest to my tongue, too... only I can continue: "breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land". To me, lilacs are the very scent of spring, my least favourite time of year.

Remember that "Seasons" clothing and cosmetics system flogged heavily in the eighties? With a freckled, yellow-undertoned complexion, hazel eyes and dark chestnut (red-brown) hair, I'm an Autumn, and that suits me just fine. I love Keats' "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" and all that comes with it: the climate, colours, events, food and scents of the dying year. Spring, with its chilly rain, lifeless skies and dreary, clinging mud, has always seemed to me to be the most over-hyped period, the time when we're supposed to be thrilled that "everything is awakening" - including violets, lily-of-the-valley, magnolia and the dreaded lilacs. Linden actually appears in June, but I still feel it smells suspiciously of spring.

As with any rule, there are exceptions. I can sometimes forgive hyacinth its sweetness because its spicy and metallic green sides can add interest to an otherwise opaque oriental, Annick Goutal's Grand Amour in EdP or Vivienne Westwood's Boudoir, say. Though I seldom wear it, Gucci's urban Envy proved to me that hyacinth and even (gasp!) lily-of-the-valley could smell cool instead of cold, edgy instead of dainty. I have long searched for the perfume that could rescue lilacs for me in this way. I once tried to convince myself that I enjoyed Frederic Malle's En Passant, sniffing hopefully at it and exclaiming about the dewy cucumber notes. My husband came over, grabbed my wrist and put his nose to it, and said simply and dismissively: "Lilacs."

All this to say I had great hopes that Vacances, released in 1936 by Jean Patou to celebrate the introduction of paid vacation in France, would finally be my lilac scent. It is not, lovely though it may be. There is an initial peppery waft of hyacinth with a green stem-like transparency over top, which Victoria suggests is galbanum. There is a soft, vanilla-infused musk in the drydown. But in between there is a headily sweet and creamy mix of lilac and mimosa. It will go on my list with Parfums DelRae Debut of perfumes best enjoyed by others.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jean Patou Que-sais je?

In an essay on the pain d'épice (or gingerbread) of Dijon, M.F.K. Fisher writes of its "flat strange odour, honey, cow dung, clove, something unnameable but unmistakable," a scent that insinuates itself everywhere, sometimes as a little cloud, sometimes "as thick as a flannel curtain". The top notes of Patou's Que-sais je? make me think of her recipe for making a pain d'épice starter: you allow to ferment for many days or weeks a paste made from bread flour and black honey, "the older and blacker the better." Her pitch-perfect description of that spicy yet flat scent is what links her essay to Que-sais je? in my mind: they are reminders that there is something about honey just waiting to go bad.

Que-sais je? is part of the trilogy created by Henri Alméras in 1925 as the launch of the Patou fragrance line. The perfumes were inspired by the stages of a love affair and each was intended to be worn by a woman of a certain hair colour: the heady but delicate floral Amour Amour symbolizes the whirlwind start of an affair and was created for brunettes, Que-sais je? represents the more settled and yet questioning period of love and is for blondes, and Adieu Sagesse, for red-heads, is "Good-bye wisdom!" or the face-forward pitch into love. I can find no useful note list, but Que-sais je? smells to me of peach or apricot, honey, spices (clove? allspice? a tinge of cumin?), orange blossom, neroli maybe, nuts definitely, amber, oakmoss and something animalic, probably civet. Luca Turin recommends it for those who dislike the vanilla in Shalimar, and far be it from me to disagree, but I think it is a more intimate, almost unwashed perfume with none of the brightening citrus or flirty powder-sweet sillage of the Guerlain classic. I agree with Angela that this is a perfume for lovers of Rochas' Femme, versions old and new.

The opening moments are gorgeous, a balance between spiced and honeyed fruit and the creamy nuttiness of a praline. The top notes are particularly short-lived in the EdT formulation, however, and are replaced by a rich, warm chypre that smells of skin without being even the least bit light. There are definitely animal undertones with an old-fashioned quality about them, most likely from civet: indeed, Que-sais je? is a very feline perfume, poised, lithe and little depraved. My husband made a face when I had him smell it. "It's too musky or something," he complained, "and heavy and old." Colony and Normandie had both received unsolicited compliments from him, so he is not categorically opposed to vintage scents. Still, Que-sais je? was my initial favourite from the Ma Collection, and while I find myself loving and wearing Colony, Cocktail and Normandie more often, I would still recommend Que-sais je? as the one to seek out first for those interested in this line.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Jean Patou Colony

Over the next several days, I will be reviewing seven of the twelve Jean Patou Ma Collection scents, discontinued alas, and sent to me by a generous reader of this blog.

Colony was created in 1938 (by Patou's then house nose Henri Alméras?) and includes notes of fruit, pineapple, ylang ylang, iris, carnation, oakmoss, vetiver and spices. (There is a level of vagueness beyond which it is not useful to list the note. 'Fruit' and 'spices'? I'm sorry.) Inspired by the tropics, and the former French holdings in particular, Colony is one of the most precisely evocative perfumes I have ever tried. It is impossible to smell it without visualizing an elegant, still-faced blonde with a graceful neck, sensual yet maternal air and the kind of languid movement that comes from living in a steam bath (as well as a possible drug stupor.) You see her lapped by light and shadow, posed in front of slat blinds, screens or mosquito netting: Catherine Deneuve in Indochine or Widow Clement from the deleted French plantation scene in Apocalypse Now (restored in Redux). It is not so much a perfume as a lifestyle. I really enjoy Colony, but feel as if I should be dying and setting my hair, buying a bunch of Bombay Company furniture and stalking about in giraffe-like fashion to wear it. I'm also made somewhat uncomfortable by the exactness of the nostalgia it evokes for a place and an era that smelled indolic in more ways than one.* While completely different in scent, Kenzo Flower Oriental seems similar in spirit, and wearing the two perfumes lately, I almost feel implicated in something.

Those of you who are made uncomfortable by the word "pineapple", however, shouldn't worry: this is the über-pineapple, the pineapple to end all pineapples, thick and syrupy without being very sweet, exotic without being teenybopper tropical. On me, it is not at all bright, sunny or cheerful, as others seem to report; this is a perfume for shade and shadow, to enjoy semi-outdoors (on a veranda, in an open-air room) on a humid evening. Starting like a tonic cocktail, acidic and slightly herbal, Colony quickly establishes a balance between the full heaviness of the pineapple and ylang-ylang notes and a dry, earthy chypre base. The sillage is insinuating without being overbearing and the lasting power quite good for an EdT. I would like to try the extrait.

*Indoles are organic compounds. In low concentrations, indoles smell floral and are natural components of flowers such as orange blossoms and jasmine, but in denser concentrations are responsible for the smell of human feces. They are also naturally present in indigo dyes (from which their name is derived) and indigo was one of the main exports of Indochina after the French imposed a plantation economy on the peoples of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Luca Turin

I apologise once again for delayed postings - this week I've had a water-leak in our apartment and a persistent and severe case of "auto-immune" hives, apparently related to having been exposed to the shingles virus. I thought I would post the new Luca Turin Duftnote on the Thierry Mugler Le Parfum coffret - link at right. Also, though, you may note a sidebar for a DVD interview with Luca.