Bitter as tonic

Hey folks, it was my birthday this week, and as one of my presents to myself (as well as a tiny bit of perfume) I picked up a copy of a book about the French fashion designer Lucien Lelong.

I’m not sure what state Lelong perfumes are in now – you can still get a few here – but in its heyday Lelong was one of the high glamour brands. I’m not planning to chase vintage Lelong perfumes just yet, if ever. It is the ads which have caught my eye. Rene Gruau illustrated many of them in the 1940s, and if you are familiar with his work for Dior, you will know what I mean. Here’s a lovely example (thanks to Victoria at Bois de Jasmin for letting me know about this one):

The book I bought is Lucien Lelong by Jacqueline Demornex (Thames & Hudson, 2008). I’m reading it slowly in order it savour it. There are a couple of chapters and many illustrations related to Lelong’a perfumes, and my eye fell especially on the story of a perfume released n 1927 just called N.

Lelong had already released perfumes named for letters of the alphabet. In 1926 there was a trio of perfumes, A, B and C. ‘My A is a regal scent, for the evening … ‘. B was a ‘bright, optimistic perfume and an ideal partner for afternoon wear.’ C was ‘as joyful as the sun’. After that Lelong skipped to J (for jasmine) and N (for Natalie).

Natalie was his wife, Natalie Paley, a Romanov princess who had escaped Russia with her mother and sister during the revolution. She became Lelong’s second wife in August 1927. Like many exiled Russian aristocrats, Natalie had to work for a living and so as well as having met Lelong socially, she had been a saleswoman for his business. As his wife she was often photographed wearing her husband’s designs. The marriage did not last; they were divorced in 1936 and Natalie later emigrated to the United States.

But back in 1927, the year they married, Lelong dedicated his perfume N to her. A writer of the day, Lucien Francois, described it in 1945 this way:

Cool, sharp perfumes are rarely successful. This one is as bitter as tonic, with its astringent notes of wood, tea, ylang-ylang and damp leaves, yet its aristocratic coolness is what makes it the most haughty, attractive and taboo fragrance that I know.

It hardly sounds like a perfume typically dedicated to a young bride, but Natalie was apparently not a typical bride. She had a slender, androgynous figure that made her the ideal model for the clothes of the era. She adopted a pared down look, free of ‘showy furs, printed fabrics, pastel colours, embroidery and other fripperies’.

N sounds ideal for her. Don’t those notes sound delicious: wood, tea, ylang-ylang and damp leaves. Ylang-ylang, the only floral note mentioned, might have balanced the earthy notes and added a little sexy lift to the slender eyebrow. In fact, Octavian at 1000 Fragrances has smelled N and while he too finds it bitter and woody, he also detects jasmine, lily of the valley, and aldehydes.

As for that remark made in 1945 that ‘cool, sharp perfumes are rarely successful’: just two years later Balmain released Germaine Cellier’s Vent Vert. It’s a pretty question as to how successful and influential this fragrance actually was. Yes, it was the mother of all cool green fragrances but as far as I know nothing like it ever made the big time until much later, with the release in 1964 of Yves Saint Laurent’s Y. Then there was Givenchy III in 1970, Chanel No 19 in 1971, EL’s Aliage in 1972 and Private Collection in 1973, Chanel’s Cristalle (1974), Molyneaux’s Quartz and Jacomo’s Silences (both 1978), Balmain’s Iviore and Eau de Givenchy (both 1980), and Niki de Saint Phalle (1982).

Whew! What am I missing? Lots, I’m sure. It was quite an era. Exactly what turned the wheel of fashion away from this kind of thing I don’t know. Perhaps people had had enough, and perfumers had run out of things to say. (Although in our time that has not stopped the rivers pink gushing from today’s perfume factories, has it?)

N was discontinued but I don’t know when. I’d so love a whiff. Whether or not wood, tea, ylang-ylang and damp leaves is an accurate list of notes, there is nothing not love there, as far as I am concerned. Ylang ylang and tea in the one blend sounds unusual to me. I know most (but not all) of the green fragrances listed above, but am not aware that any have a tea note. I don’t think I mean green tea, but smoky black tea blended with bitter greens and sexy flowers like ylang-ylang or jasmine.

Any perfumers out there willing it give it a go? You can just call it A. For Anne-Marie. Thanks.

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14 thoughts on “Bitter as tonic

  1. Oh wow. My all time favorite vintage perfume is a tiny bottle of Lucien Lelong Indiscret which I bought in a box lot. I would LOVE, love, love to read this book and encounter N. I’m so intrigued by his style, not to mention his perfumes. Indiscret is not a typical fragrance either which makes me think LL took risks and assumed great artistic liability. One can definitely see it in his perfume ads. Had I been around in the 20’s/30’s I would have pursued his statements with a passion.

    1. Thanks Maggie! Oddly enough, after I wrote this post I snapped up a mini of Indiscret on eBay but it is not vintage. To me it has a noticeable, but not overpowering note of tuberose. Do you get that in the vintage? I have a feeling the re-released version (1990s) is a bit safer than the original.

      The book is lovely. Lots of fashion and perfume eye candy! You might enjoy a the page or so on the design of the bottle of Indiscret. Lelong had close involvement in all aspects of the business. He became interested in sculpture and many of his designs, including the interior design of his salons and possibly even the perfume bottles, were influenced by this.

      I gave a link to Amazon, but bookdepository.co.uk is cheaper option for me; free shipping! Your local library might have it too.

      1. I’m guessing my sample is from the 1950’s (based on published images), so some of the notes may have degraded over the years. On the other hand, the quality of ingredients was probably better back then and the heavy-handed quality of tuberose is not present. Rather, the perfume is what I would classify as a spicy dark floral rich in patchouli, woods and oakmoss. It dries down in a sweet musky way. Just wonderful!

        1. That does sound gorgeous! If it was released by a niche house today for a squillion bucks and ounce people would be queuing up. I think the tuberose was introduced in the relaunch. It is not over-dominant. Just right for me actually. But it must change the character of the perfume entirely. Congratulations on your great find!

  2. Wishing you a belated happy birthday, Anne Marie!
    Thank you for mentioning the book. There is so little written on Lelong perfumes that I appreciate any mention. Elle…Elle was another stunning fragrance that combined rose and chamomile. I smell a shadow of it in Parfums de Nicolai Rose Intense.

    1. Oh, and Rose Intense is no my ‘to try’ list for the spring. I love the name ‘Elle … Elle’. So romantic: ‘Her …. Her …. ‘ Much better than just ‘Elle’, which YSL later grabbed up. Thanks for your birthday wish!

  3. What a beautiful article! Even I, who isn’t a fan of “old times” – whatever you put into that definition, was enchanted by the way you told the story. I hope one day by some miracle you come across a perfectly preserved sample of N. And I’m looking forward to trying that new perfume A 😉

    1. Thanks Undina! You know, I’m getting to the point now when I can love a perfume’s story without feeling I have to own a bottle – have to chase round eBay and risk my hard-earned for a sniff. I can safely leave it in the past and just appreciate the story – and the visuals!

      There are plenty of great perfumers in our own time releasing great stuff for us to enjoy.

    1. Oh many thanks Portia. I had a great day, although we celebrated on the day before, which was a Sunday. Great avatar, by the way.

  4. Happy belated birthday! And if they do come out with “A” you can sign me up – sounds great!

  5. Late to the party, but I hope you had a wonderful birthday celebration, Anne-Marie. And oh, how gorgeous is that artwork? I love how you bring that academic touch to many of your posts, it makes me feel all sophisticated by association. 🙂

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