Niki de Saint Phalle Parfum (1982)

Niki de Saint Phalle Parfum, 1oz (1982) © Victor Wong
Niki de Saint Phalle Parfum, 1oz (1982) © Victor Wong

My interest in Niki de Saint Phalle began to develop when I asked people in a fragrance group why it smelled so bad, specifically of stinky feet. I mean, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to ask a sales rep that you are looking for a perfume with an obscure name, and it smells like your husband’s stinky feet? Well, apparently Niki de Saint Phalle didn’t not smell like that, for people in the group immediately defended the fragrance, questioning the sample that I had got and telling me how it must have gone bad.

To be honest, I rarely encounter a perfume that has gone bad, and I am curious under what circumstances a perfume would turn into smelling like athlete’s foot. Regardless, another unexpected incident happened, a friendly perfume store sales lady decided I was the perfect person to receive a small landfill of samples of Niki de Saint Phalle parfum (yes, parfum, not EDT), and perfectly they all smelled great, proofing that my first sample was bad.

So, Niki de Saint Phalle is an excellent green floral chypre (heavy moss, heavy woody, dark green carnation, rose and ylang) from the 80s and a joy to wear. I like its unusual intensity, but somehow, the scent never blows me away, I guess because it is also a chypre from the 80s that I have smelled a lot before. The experience I get from smelling it is eerily similar to smelling the current wave of oud wood, oud fleur, oud oud, so oud, duh oud perfumes. What get my attention are the crazy fragile entwining snakes on top of the flacon bottle, the marketing of a waning chypre in the 80s, and of course, the artist herself.

With the help of the Internet, I found out that Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002, last name “de Saint Phalle”) was an artist born in France. Her parents moved the whole family to America when she was three, and she grew up pretty and became a model briefly. Later she moved to Spain to start her family and there she got influenced by Gaudi’s amazing architecture artwork (which I had suspected the case when I browsed through thumbnail images of her artwork). She had made some controversial and ugly-ass “shooting paintings” that looked like some wet toilet paper got stuck on a canvas and shot at with a paintball gun. Luckily the Gaudi bug got into her head instead, and she had created some colorful, whimsical abstract artwork and giant sculptures that are quite distinct, and in my opinion, inspired by Gaudi, late Herni Matisse and her contemporary, Fernando Botero.

Ok, why the two snakes on the bottle? Happy-looking toothless snakes are a recurring image of Niki’s work and according to The Guardian, they were borne out of what she called the ‘summer of snakes’ – when she was assaulted by her father. I shouldn’t and couldn’t question her, but I think it’s a recurring image because it’s easy to draw. (Yay, what colours should I pick for the stripes?)

In the fancy box that houses the parfum flacon, there’s a little leaflet – besides this flacon, you could also buy Niki de Saint Phalle EDTs, body cream, body lotion, bath oil, shower gel, perfume soaps, and shimmering perfumed powder! It makes me wonder, how successful was this perfume? (Not many people talk about it anymore.) Who came up with the idea and took the gamble to launch this massive line of products? At this moment, I know that they succeeded in creating a memorable product and I am enjoying just the echo of it.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976)

 Van Cleef & Arpels' First (1976) EDT, 250ml © Victor Wong
Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976) EDT, 250ml © Victor Wong

In a hospital ward, a bunch of sick kids are lying in bed. The days are long and boring, and the pain and moaning are real. The sun is shining bright and cheery everywhere but the hospital rooms, and the hateful fluorescent lights on the ceiling are always on.

Seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason, a notable and elegant woman, dressed in white, not known to the kids, walks into their room. She has moist, gentle eyes and a kind, discreet smile. She says a bunch of encouraging words to each kid and leaves. Perhaps the most memorable thing about that woman is the scent that she wears and how it follows her around. It’s comforting, powdery, beautiful, floral, and tender, just like her. She is wearing Van Cleef & Arpels’ First (1976).

That’s my impression of First and my vision of who would wear it very well. It’s so beautiful and approachable, yet so elegantly distant. Fruits, flowers, ambers, aldehydes and musks all converge into a prism and exits as a glowing white aura. Who would wear it nicely? The cute Starbucks barista who serves you coffee? Not too sure. The female coworker who is beautiful and plays hard-to-get and toys with people’s hearts? No. Maybe Princess Diana? Just a thought.

I also find the title of the perfume interesting. What does it really mean? Yes, it’s Van Cleef’s first perfume for women, but does it imply there will be many more to come? Or that it should be your first perfume? Or first in class? The name also reminds me of the video game “Final Fantasy” from 1987. The Japanese videogame maker had used up all their capital and thought that the game they had just finished would be their last video game, so they sarcastically named it Final Fantasy. It turned out to be a mega-hit and many sequels followed.

Cacharel’s Loulou (1987)

Cacharel's Loulou (Splash Bottle and Parfum) © Victor Wong
Cacharel’s Loulou (Splash Bottle and Parfum) © Victor Wong

I’ve heard that people who have had a near-death experience recall seeing their whole life being played back like a rewinding videotape in their head at lightning speed. If this is true, I might see a hexagonal blue perfume bottle flash by in my head for a nano-second too long when I die. Yes, that strange geometric blue bottle with a red pointy cap created in the far off exotic land of the discordant color scheme had left me with a lifelong impression. I first saw it at a department store in the late 80s, and I thought, “What is this crazy thing?” I stared at the bottle but was too afraid to touch it because I was a well-behaving young man.

Almost 30 years later, I finally know its name – Loulou by Cacharel, and own a splash bottle and a parfum bottle. They are both sitting on my desk, emitting an alienesque blue aura like two pieces of quartz, humming. My expectation for Loulou was quite huge. Luca Turin gave it a 5 star review with very little explanation, and it was one of the best-selling perfumes from the glorious 80s.

I must say I am a bit disappointed with Loulou, for I had read too many good things about it (I probably should give it more time). It’s supposed to be Cacharel’s reaction to Dior’s Poison – a fruity oriental bomb with massive sillage – but I found it rather tame. I brought a decant to work and asked my coworkers, “Are you ready?” then one spritz on the back of my hand, and three minutes later I asked again, “Did you feel the aftershock?” No one said anything except “Myeh” (I think it’s combination of yeah and meh).

The scent itself is quite interesting and a little “strange.” To me, it has two noticeable layers; the first layer is “something sweet and plasticky smelling,” like the smell of some brand new plastic toy. I think the plasticky smell is actually incense in low dosage mixed with some plum;  the second layer is “some white florals” that are soft, tender and slightly powdery (probably heliotrope) and feminine. I want to re-live the 90s to see how many people actually wore this perfume, brought down to Earth by some UFOs.

P.S. I decanted some parfum into an atomizer bottle and tried it on my skin, it’s quite potent and rich!

Paloma Picasso’s Paloma Picasso (1984, Splash)

Paloma Picasso Splash Bottle © Victor Wong
Paloma Picasso Splash Bottle © Victor Wong

Paloma Picasso comes in a glass bottle housed inside an elliptical plastic donut-shaped black plastic casing, which reminds me of everything from the 80s – big, bold and chunky. Not surprisingly, this perfume was indeed created in the 80s. What bugs me most is that I can see it wherever perfumes are sold in Toronto – “You again? But I don’t like your face!” I had never bothered to pick it up to take a sniff – until the sales lady at my local perfume shop ran out of perfumes to recommend and shoved it in my face, saying with an unenthusiastic voice, “It’s nice. Smell it.”

Was it nice? Well… I thought it’s quite nice, but no dice (reformulated version). Then, one day, a question popped in my head – does this brand have any other perfumes? It’s obviously a hit, (it’s still here after more than 30 years) and I can see it being sold brand-new in department stores everywhere. Why stop there? I began doing some research and this is my discovery:

  1. The perfume was actually designed by the daughter of famous artist Picasso…
  2. who was a jewelry designer for Tiffany and this was her first perfume (!!!) …
  3. and the “proper” category which the perfume belongs to is “Animalic Chypre”… (from the book “The Perfume Guide” by Susan Irvine)
  4. because it has a big dosage of beaver and civet musk

and I stopped right there – wait, it doesn’t smell animalic to me at all. When I think animalic, I think furry musk, Serge Luten’s Muscs Kublai Khan, and poopy oud.

I began looking for a vintage version of it to study more and luckily I came across a vintage splash bottle version that’s actually very cute. It smelled like a lot of perfumes from the 80s – a strong floral chypre, OMG! stop! stop! stop! Too much patchouli, with a very strong patchouli and sandalwood base that almost makes it very soapy and green (like Robert Piguet’s Bandit). It also has a sweet ambery side fencing off the patchouli from raping the jasmines and roses.

As for the notorious civet and castoreum musks that are supposed to be very apparent, I am still looking for them…

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 5 – Crescendo

Lanvin Vintage Ads and Crescendo Extrait © Victor Wong
Lanvin Vintage Ads and Crescendo Extrait © Victor Wong

Over the many months of continuous searching for vintage Lanvin perfumes on eBay, I had come across many Lanvin’s perfume ads and posters. For more than 20 years since late 1930s, Lanvin had been grouping “My Sin”, “Arpege”, “Rumeur”, “Scandal” and “Pretexte” together in their printed ads, almost like a frequent reminder that those were their best perfume offerings. (They were. Lanvin had had other perfumes released throughout those years, but they were never a big hit.) In 1958, Crescendo debut. (Some sites say 1965, which I think is incorrect because periodicals from 1958 already mentioned of Crescendo.) It seemed to me that Lanvin was trying to make it another hit to join the “classic five”, but it had never succeeded. The big wave crests that Lanvin wanted Crescendo to make turned out to be ripples in a quiet pond, and in 1969, Lanvin discontinued it.

Compared to the “classic five” Lanvin perfumes, Crescendo is a decidedly more floral one (but it’s still an oriental spicy perfume), and it smells more interesting to me because of the ingredients used that had never* appeared in any of the “classic five” perfumes – hyacinth, linden blossom, marigold, honey, heliotrope, just to name a few. (*If my memory serves me right.) My only bottle of Crescendo is almost 50 years old, the aldehyde note is mostly gone, and with typical mid/base notes such as carnation, iris, incense, oakmoss, sandalwood and spices trying to run the show. But something is different in Crescendo if you pay a bit more attention to its floral part – it’s sweeter, more tender and creamier, and a bit more uncommon and interesting. I think it’s the hyacinth and ylang-ylang that set it apart. (I thought they were a bit more exotic for a perfume released in the 1960s, but Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs in 1913 had all the flowers mentioned above. Bitch please.)

Overall, I think Crescendo is one of the better extraits that Lanvin have ever produced, despite its short-lived glory.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 4 – Rumeur

Lanvin Rumeur, Parfum, 20ml © Victor Wong
Lanvin Rumeur, Parfum, 20ml © Victor Wong

Lanvin’s little Rumeur had a rocky life. Created by André Fraysse and intended primarily for furs, Lanvin launched Rumeur in 1934, let it run and make money for them for 37 years, and “killed” it in 1971 after a short boardroom meeting. Eight years later, in 1979, news broke out that Rumeur lives and has escaped from a locked basement and started a new life with long lost friends Arpège and My Sin. Together they faced the world that was about to turn “80s” with a new and modest, sleek, glossy black packaging. However, Rumeur didn’t perform as well as Lanvin thought it would, and in 1982, merely three years since its relaunch, the executives of Lanvin took Rumeur to the foggy Woods of Abandonment for a short walk and it was never found again.

(The above drama was imagined by me after reading a few Edward Gorey books.)

The true spirit of Rumeur did not live on, but its name did – in 2006, Lanvin launched a completely new perfume and named it Rumeur again. It sold well and Rumeur 2 Rose was launched in 2007.

I have two versions of vintage Rumeur. The first version is part of a coffret set (1940s), but most of it has evaporated away, and it smelled horribly incomplete. The second version is the one that I think is quite rare, a brand new bottle from the early 1980s.

The opening of Rumeur doesn’t smell very complicated to me – fresh and fruity because of the aldehydes, light bergamot and creamy peach and jasmine. But the Spice Girls, no, Spice Grandmas trio never let the scent go too far and light-headed without them – nutmeg, cardamom and cloves bully the top notes and beat them to submissive and take the front seats. Because of that, the whole composition smells mildly metallic throughout the scent development. At this point, it reminds me of oriental perfumes such as Fendi Asja, YSL Opium and even little bit of Rochas Femme. Finely blended civet/leather/oakmoss/sandalwood is there since the beginning, but it is more noticeable after scent calms down. All in all, Rumeur is a beautiful scent, but not distinct enough to stand out to survive into the 21st century.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 3 – Prétexte

Lanvin Pretexte Extrait © Victor Wong
Lanvin Pretexte Extrait © Victor Wong

If you are not an avid collector of vintage Lanvin perfume extraits that come in rectangle bottles, here is my unofficial guide: Extraits with silver labels and all black stoppers are the oldest (~1940s, fig.1), then comes gold labels and twist caps with gold collars (~1950s-1960s, fig. 2), and occasionally blue labels and black plastic screw caps (~1960s, for small sizes, fig. 3) and finally black labels, gold lettering and twist caps with gold collars (1970s-80s, fig. 4). Assuming the formula and the quality of the materials used have never changed, I suggest getting the ones with black labels (only apply to Arpège, My Sin and Remuer) because they smell freshest.

Lanvin Prétexte

Created by Andre Fraysse, Lanvin Prétexte debut in 1937, had a good running of 25 years, and was discontinued in 1963. I have two versions of Prétexte extraits, one that comes in a 1oz bottle with a silver label (1940s) and little samples with gold labels that indicates they are from the 1960s. The 1oz bottle is much more valuable and hard to get, but the little samples smell much better.

Pretext is a stunning, resinous, powdery, floral chypre with a strong animalic, soft leathery base. The opening has an unmistakable aldehyde note, immediately follows by two distinct scent accords of equal strength: 1) creamy soft white florals (narcissus, iris) and sandalwood and sweet tonka, and 2) a rich chypre base (patchouli, oak moss) with leather, civet, woodnotes. As the scent develops, interestingly part 1) wins and becomes a soft sandalwood floral perfume. I’d dare to say overall Prétexte smells richer and creamier than Arpège, but it doesn’t have the signature abstract floral uniqueness that Arpège possesses.

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century, Part 2 – Scandal

Lanvin Scandal Extrait © Victor Wong
Lanvin Scandal Extrait © Victor Wong

Famous vintage perfumes are very much like Greek temples – most of them are spectacular and iconic, but all in ruins in various degrees of damage. They can be rebuilt with modern construction materials, but you know they will not be the same. The famous Parthenon in Athens is breathtaking, but you have to realize you are just looking at the columns of all there left behind. If you look at the artist’s rendition of the original temple with its giant gothic roof and rooms intact, it might blow your mind just to imagine how magnificent it was before the building collapsed. Vintage perfumes, all have never stopped slow self-destructing, often are only left with middle and base notes; top notes such as citrus and aldehyde are gone, or even worse, spoiled. Even if you are handed the original formula listing all the ingredients, I doubt one can imagine with precision what that freshly made perfume smells like because smells are not visuals.

If you are reading this, 20 years or even 50 years from the day it is published, and are considering spending a lot of money on a vintage perfume from 1920s, not to collect, but to smell, to re-experience the golden days of perfumery, I suggest you don’t. Enjoy your contemporary perfumes, ok? (I obviously don’t listen to my own advice.)

For me, analyzing a vintage perfume is both fun, humbling, and even humiliating. First of all, there are quite a few vintage perfumes not yet recorded on Fragrantica.com, the encyclopedia of perfumes and their respective notes breakdown. Without the “cheat sheet”, I really have to rely on my nose to guess what are in the perfume. I know from past experience, I can only correctly guess 5%-10% of the notes of a perfume. Luckily, there are reviews from other sources, by comparing my experience with theirs, I can tell if my perfume has turned bad or not, and also gain some insight.

Lanvin Scandal EDT © Victor Wong
Lanvin Scandal EDT © Victor Wong

So, here I go, I will start with Lanvin Scandal (1931), a leather chypre, the one that never received any reformulation/reissue. It was designed by Andre Fraysse, and discontinued in 1971. I have two versions of Scandal, one is a mini extrait, 1/2 evaporated, around 80 years old, and a travel size vaporizer EDT, also very old, but younger than the extrait.

Based on the notes breakdown I got from Fragrantica, the top notes such as bergamot, lemon, neroli, mandarin in my extrait are all missing. The “new” opening, and the extrait itself is now all about leather. Old, resinous, incensed, spicy, leather. It reminds me of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, but with richer, sharper, more aged leather, and a smoky, mildly sweet (vanilla) and mildly white floral middle notes (probably iris, ylang and some rose). As it dries down, the leather never goes away, but it becomes smoother.

The EDT version on the other hand, smells a bit different. The opening, just the first few seconds, really, is absolutely horrendous — band-aid, plasticky and chemical. (maybe due to its old age.) That unpleasantness goes away very quickly and suddenly it behaves like the parfum/extrait version, only smelling lighter and more animalic, probably of civet. The leather in this case, smells like a new leather jacket instead of smoked old leather sofa found in a temple that burns incense 24/7.

A quick summary, Scandal to me is an incense leather perfume.
(to be continued…)

Lanvin’s Famous Perfumes from the 20th Century (Part 1)

Lanvin Extrait Coffret Set - My Sin, Arpege, Scandal and © Victor Wong
Lanvin Extrait Coffret Set – My Sin, Arpege, Scandal and © Victor Wong

I’ll tell you one of the strange reasons why I started collecting vintage Lanvin perfumes about a year ago – there were only six to collect, which I thought was an easy thing to do and not too costly. (Later I found out it’s not always the case.) Mind you, it is not a “completist set”, for Lanvin had released over 30 perfumes between 1923 and 1987 (and a hiatus of 13 years before they released Oxygene in 2000), sadly, most of them got discontinued and forgotten, and only a few were big hits and had sold well enough that you can still find them on eBay. The six scents are Mon Peche (or My Sin, 1925), Arpège (1927), Scandal (1931), Rumeur (1934), Prétexte (1937) and Crescendo (1965).

I began collecting Lanvin perfumes after smelling the modern reformulated Arpège at a shop and bought it without hesitation. It was so marvellous. Not for long, I started collecting vintage Arpège, and the snowball got bigger, as always. (And my vintage Arpège collection is a totally different monster.) Out of the six scents, vintage Arpege is the easiest to collect for Lanvin had sold thousands of truckloads of them. My Sin is the second easiest, probably because of the name, and the scent, for it was suggestive that a lot of women bought it to become an imaginary sinner in the mid 20th century. Vintage Rumeur and Prétexte are rare now, and you will be very lucky to find a full bottle of Scandal or Crescendo extrait for under $150, if it ever shows up on eBay.

I am not the only fan of my so-called “Fantastic Six”, Edmond Roudnitska, one of the greatest French master perfumers, had called Arpege, Scandal, Rumeur and Prétexte “the most spectacular tetralogy in the history of perfumery”.* Having one hit perfume is already difficult, but having four, and each intentionally or unintentionally smelling like it complements each other to complete a perfumery four-piece medallion is ultra difficult and awesome.

Recently I have acquired a vintage “cofferet set” of mini Lanvin extraits, and what’s so special about this set is that all the bottles are unopened (although only 1/4 is left due to 80 years of lonesome meditative evaporation), and they are from the same manufacturing period. I think I can finally tell how different each scent is, for a lot of vintage perfumes tend to smell very similar for the top notes are all gone or ruined, and only left with very commonly used base note ingredients.

* Susan Irvine ed. 2002. The Perfume Guide. Prospero Books
(to be continued…)

Adidas’ Originals by Jeremy Scott (2015)

Adidas Originals by Jeremy Scott © Victor Wong
Adidas Originals by Jeremy Scott © Victor Wong

Recently I was reminded by a friend that I liked “weird shit”. We were sniffing new perfumes at a department store and I showed him some of the newer perfumes that I liked, and he didn’t like any of them. “Nah, this smelled like an old man”, he said. His girlfriend said, “I bet there’s Indian oil in this perfume. Go check out Fragrantica.” I didn’t, because I was sure that no company would ever put “Indian oil” in their notes breakdown. Frankly, all I had shown them was a chypre perfume.

Actually that made me think… Do I prefer “weird shit” to “good stuff”? I only know the type of perfumes that my friend likes are designer and mainstream niche, and in my opinion, his “fragrance palate” is not very broad. (Hmm… Did I sound like a pompous asshole? In retrospect, my palate wasn’t very broad either, but I didn’t brush off challenging scents too easily.) I told him I liked “weird shit” last time we met because I was a bit tired and didn’t want to elaborate. (This also reminded me of my other friend Fifty-Fifty who absolutely hates Mac computers, and when he asked me why I loved Mac, I just told him it’s a “fashion statement”. He nodded his head in glee while spending a full day cursing and removing Windows Vista.)

In fact, the real reason why we met at the department store was that he wanted to sell me his “Adidas Originals by Jeremy Scott” perfume. He bought it on an impulse, and he regretted it. I had never smelled it before we met, and really, no one needed to because, come on, look at that bottle – it’s a collector’s item, the perfume is just icing in the shoe.

He told me that he didn’t like the smell, which was expected, not because he liked only a small subset of “normal” masculine perfumes, but I expected it to smell subpar. But to my surprise, it smelled good – pepper, rose and incense, something you don’t find in a regular pair of sneakers or any regular $15 Adidas sports scents. While It doesn’t smell rich, resinous or oudy, it smells modern, sweet and fresh, and definitely “niche”. (It reminds me of Le Labo Baie Rose 26, too.) However, I can see soccer jocks finding this perfume too strange to match their masculine persona and their armpits not accepting a rose scented perfume.

While we were strolling through the department store, he mentioned that he liked Maurice Roucel’s work. Later I found out that Adidas perfume was co-designed by Maurice Roucel. Oh, the irony.