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…)

Oriza L. Legrands’ Muguet Fleuri (1920, reformulated 2014)

Oriza L. Legrand Muguet Fleur © Victor Wong
Oriza L. Legrand Muguet Fleur © Victor Wong

There are two lily-of-the-valley perfumes that I think are quite well known to the older generation of perfume lovers – Christian Dior’s Dioressimo and Guerlain’s Muguet.

I have a sample of vintage Diorissimo gifted from a generous Facebook friend, and the smell is truly spellbinding. Later I went to smell the current reformulated version in a department store for comparison purpose, although it smelled faithful to the original version, it was less rounded and the lily-of-the-valley note smelled apparently more synthetic or harsher. I have decided if I ever want to own a bottle of Diorissmo, I will get the vintage version from eBay.

Then there’s Guerlain’s Muguet. They release it annually around May as a limited edtion for $600 a bottle. The presentation is different every year and it’s always a delight to see or own one as they really put good artistic effort designing the bottles and packaging. They are beautiful. But I cannot forgive myself for buying a bottle in 2014 because the price was truly regretfully ridiculous. My coworker once visited my millionaire boss’ home and reported that he had an espresso machine that probably cost five thousand dollars. She said, “You know, that’s a downpayment for a car for work for a lot of people.” I swear that I will never buy another edition of Guerlain Muguet no matter how pretty it is. And I refuse to use my bottle too. I just admire it, sniff it, and when the time is right, I will sell it. The smell of Guerlain’s Muguet, nevertheless, is good, I give them that… actually, quite simple but wonderful, as it smells almost identical to the real one, with the exception that occasionally my subconscious creeps up to tell me that I am smelling some shampoo.

Just two days ago a superhero perfume came to the rescue when a friend decided to sell his bottle of Oriza L. Legrands’ Muguet Fleuri (1920, reformulated 2014). I have a feeling that, just like modern “oud”, the lily-of-the-valley note can be easily acquired as a synthetic compound from any big aromachemical company in France. One probably could dilute it with alcohol and call it Muguet la Sillygoose and people will think that a whole village of farmers have gathered 100 pounds of lily-of-the-valley at 5 am for distillation to make 10 oz of essential oil to make that perfume. But I don’t have access to those French aromachemical companies and even if I do, probably the minimum purchase amount is 10 kg. So I think that the price of Muguet Fleur is reasonable (~$95 for 100ml). Besides, Muguet Fluer is not trying to duplicate the smell of lily-of-the-valley exactly; it has notes of galbanum, angelica, violet leaf, oakmoss and lily. The opening smells a bit bitter, which I love, then the rest is similar to Diorissimo and Guerlain’s Muguet. Not exactly, but I am happy and satisfied.

Chanel’s No. 22 Eau de Toilette (1922)

Chanel No. 22 © Victor Wong
Chanel No. 22 © Victor Wong

I learned about Chanel’s products more than I needed when I was purchasing No.22 at a department store. For example, the sales lady recommended the $700 Chanel’s Le Blanc cosmetic set to help me fight my 40-year-long battle of my Asian face vs my freckles; reaffirmed that Chanel’s exclusive perfumes are the cheapest in the world, and Chanel perfumes sold in Canada are made in Paris while those sold in America are made in America. (Tsk tsk, not as good!) But what I really didn’t want to know was that Chanel No. 22 was softer than No. 5.

You see, I bought No. 22 because I wanted to pour aldehyde over my head like the ice bucket challenge. Luca Turin comically said in his review of No. 22 that it had “the largest dose of aldehydes a human can stand without fainting”. And here the sales lady was telling me, “No, No. 22 is softer than No. 5! I prefer it to No. 5.” She totally, unintentionally, violently ripped off the t-shirt with a big number 22 printed on from my body in the middle of the store. I felt embarrassed and cold. She continued, “Also, it came before No. 5.” And I asked, “Why is the number bigger if it came before No. 5?” She answered with a smile. (The correct answer is No. 22 was released in 1922. Furthermore, Chanel.com confirms that No. 22 is a light version of No. 5.)

I don’t know how many different kinds of aldehyde are out there, but I really like Chanel’s aldehyde-heavy perfumes; how they overdosed it like someone was tickling the perfumer as he poured aldehyde into the flask. However, when the aldehyde party is over, the base of No. 22 smells quite like many vintage perfumes that I own – vetiver, vanilla, rose and tonka. I honestly don’t care; I just want my aldehyde fix.

My hippie mountain-climbing coworker once awkwardly told me how he felt about Coca-Cola: “Nothing in the world tastes like it, but it’s so good but so full of chemical.” Same applies to the smell of No. 22 and No. 5.

Chanel No. 5 Eau de Toilette (1921)

Photos from IMDB.com
Photos from IMDB.com

I have smelled Chanel No. 5 in department stores numerous times; it’s beautiful and classic, (my coworkers all say it smells granny, their loss) but I never feel like I need to own a bottle because it is so widely available – If it were an animal, it belongs to “Least Concern” category on the endangered species list, there’s simply no urgency for me to get one. However, this might change soon…

During my 15-hour-long flight to Hong Kong I exhausted the very few movies that interested me and subsequently made me browse the international movie category. The one that immediately caught my attention was the French movie “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” (2009). It was actually a very well made and thoughtful drama, focusing on the brief and life-changing adulterous affair of Coco Chanel and the struggling Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, who was already a married man and a father of four when they first met.

Dotted cleverly in the movie are snippets showing Coco Chanel as a talented designer who can see much further than a common pedestrian, a ruthless and iron-fisted businesswoman who demands nothing but perfection from her sales, workers and collaborators, and a flawed, wealthy woman who gets whatever she wants. Of course, there’s a scene showing the birth of the Chanel No. 5 perfume – “I don’t want to smell like a rose, I want to smell like woman,” she tells her perfumer.

There is a chilling scene in the movie (spoiler) showing Coco Chanel gifting the newly created Chanel No. 5 perfume to Igor Stravinsky’s wife, Katarina. Katarina is sick and dying and she knows that her husband and Coco are having an affair. She thanks Coco for the perfume, and immediately asks her if she ever feels guilty for destroying her family. Without much second-thought, she says no. You could say Coco Chanel has broken a family apart, but at the same time she helps create Stravinsky’s shining career. (The movie ends with a short but devastating scene of Coco and Igor in their senior years remembering each other. *tears*)

A common object can become an uncommon souvenir when you have learned the story behind it and a popular perfume can become very special when you know the history behind it.

Chanel’s Bois Des Iles (1926, redesigned 1989)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

I was at the post office the other day and saw some Canadian postcards on a carousel rack. One of the postcards showed nothing but blackness and titled “Canadian Nighttime”. I thought, “pluhease”. Now I imagine, if Chanel’s Bois Des Iles (Wood of Islands, 1989) were a real destination, the postcard rack would be filled with different beautiful panoramic postcards for tourists to choose from…

First, there’s a geyser shooting up a column of warm aldehyde to the sky and you can see it from miles away. Then there’s a giant nine-yard-long garden filled with the best fragrant flowers – iris, muguet, ylang, neroli, roses and jasmine. Underneath this garden is a mine where you can take a monorail ride to harvest little ores of amber, benzoin, tonka and vanilla beans for souvenir. The cart then exits into the middle of a sandalwood forest where you can sit down and take a break, for it’s easy to feel sensually overloaded.

Yes, Bois Des Iles is so awesome that I didn’t have to struggle choosing it as my first Chanel exclusive. Now, picking the second one is going to be hard…

Lanvin Vintage Black Bottle (1927)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

I have finally successfully removed the stuck stopper from the Lanvin bottle without breaking my heart and the bottle.I had come across many tips and know-how articles on how to do it before, but when it came to doing it on my own for the first time, I was so frightened. It is almost like a cat has jumped on your lap but decides to leave, but one its claws is hooked to the knitting of your brand-new sweater – the cat is struggling, your expensive sweater is being destroyed in front of your eyes, and you don’t want to break its paw trying to get that stupid claw off the sweater. That scary.

I got this bottle from eBay, and the seller wrote it’s a bottle of My Sin (1925) and it’s half-full. (There’s no label on the bottle.) When the stopper suddenly popped out from the bottle, a very little bit of perfume spilled on my hands and I could smell the stunning aroma. It’s beautiful and fresh and new… and old. Very ironic. And judging from the reflection, the bottle is actually 90% full. A very pleasant 1-2-yes-yes surprise. One time I tried to return a full bottle of perfume (in an opaque bottle), and the salesman shook the bottle to gauge how much was left. Honestly, it’s very hard to guess. A full bottle feels like half-full when you shake it.

Now the remaining mystery of this bottle is that I am not very sure whether it’s My Sin or Arpege (1927) for I have never smelled My Sin before, and the Internet told me it smells kind of like vintage Arpege.

[Turned out it’s a bottle of Arpege.]

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong