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.