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…)

Rochas’ Monsieur Rochas (1969)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

“Excuse me, sir! Have you tried the latest Michel Germain Intense Sexual Secret?” asked the department store Indian sales woman with a noticeable accent.

“Sorry, I am not interested…” I said.

“No, you should try it, it’s very good! Best seller!”

She handed me a test strip. It smelled like Fukushima earthquake – deadly, but intense.

“It’s very intense, it guarantees 24 hours longevity, or your money back! Do you want me to spray some on you?”

“No, I am fine!” I started walking away from her quickly. She started chasing after me, “It’s very good!”

This was completely crazy. She’s trying to kill me. I ran and ran until I was facing a cliff and there’s nowhere to go.

“It’s very good!” She sprayed a huge amount of Intense Sexual Desire on me and I immediately felt dizzy, my limbs became weak and I fell off the cliff. As I plunged into the abyss, I could hear echoes of “It’s very good!” bouncing off the walls.

24 hours later, I woke up. I was sitting in a bed.

“You are finally awake. Not many people can survive 5 sprays of that atrocity,” said a 60-year-old man wearing glasses, looking at me intently.

“Who are you? Where am I?”

“I’m Guy Robert. You are resting in a place called the Forgotten Fougere.”

“I don’t know you…”

“Of course you don’t, only a few people know me. Even women who wear Dioressence and Calèche don’t know I made them. Now people only love the newest and hottest. What do they know.”

“Take this. And don’t let those people bully you again.” He handed me a bottle and turned around to his piano and started playing.  I looked at the bottle, it read “Monsieur Rochas”. I sprayed a little of on my wrist and took a sniff. It smelled wonderful – a great mix of citrus and fresh herbs such as lavender and sage, also spicy and aromatic cedar, vetiver, patchouli and yummy oakmoss, very manly and confident… but it reminded me of something else.

“It smells amazing, but it smells like Lever 2000.”

“Yes, I also made soap products. Mine is better, they probably got the inspiration from my creations.”

“Sir, are you ok? You hit a column and fainted away.” The sales woman helped me up from the floor. She continued, “We have a promotion going on, it’s very good!”

Related Links on Guy Robert:

Santa Maria Novella’s Melograno (1965)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

I got this bottle of Santa Maria Novella’s “Melograno” (1965) through Kijiji. It’s like eBay, but you meet the seller locally and pay cash for the goods. The seller was doing errands for his girlfriends, who has decided to sell most of her perfumes.

“James Bond wears this perfume”, he said. “Pardon?” “Yeah, James Bond wears this perfume in his movie and now everyone is interested. By the way, I am a carpenter, if you need any wood work done, send me an email.” “Sure…” I guess the movie doesn’t show James Bond selling his perfume on Kijiji when he isn’t car chasing.

I often wonder if anyone can tell whether a perfume is made in Italy vs. made in France. Strangely, when I first applied this powdery pomegranate based cologne, I could tell it’s an Italian perfume. Also, it smells very old, almost in the same category of Caron’s Le 3’ Homme and Pour Un Homme – it doesn’t smell like a masculine cologne of nowadays. And it It’s like I have jumped into a time machine going back in time and the destination is an Italian monastery. I can see monks who have nothing to do and decide to make some cologne to pass their time, “Hanno alcune di queste, che vi farà odore sexy, fratello!” (Have some of this, it will make you smell sexy, brother!) (Thank you, Google Translate.)

Paco Robanne’s Calandre (1969)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

When I first discovered niche perfumes, I shamefully looked down upon all designer perfumes. The one that I most detested was Paco Rabanne’s 1 Million. The gold bar bottle looked so tacky to me but it seemed like the whole world were crazy about it. Then one day I went through Luca Turin’s book again and to my surprise, he had given a 5-star rating to a Paco Rabanne’s perfume, and that perfume was Calandre (1969).

Naturally, I started looking for a bottle of Calandre in Toronto. At Shop A, I found out that they still had 3 bottles available, and because they were quite expensive ($100), I didn’t have the impulse to get one immediately. A few months later I visited Shop B and saw a bottle of Calandre on the shelf. I asked the old shopkeeper lady for the price, and the drama began: “Huh, Calandre eh? Everyone is looking desperately for a bottle and only I have it. $150, take it or leave it.” The pride and contempt that belonged to a spoiled girl appearing on a 60 year old woman was not easy to swallow. I said, “well, I saw some in another shop and I just want compare prices.” Her smirk disappeared and she said, “come back when you’ve changed your mind, but I won’t put aside a bottle for you because everyone wants one!” She squinted her eyes as if she was trying to direct some focused attitude beam at me.

I visited Shop A again (are you bored yet?) and asked for a bottle of Calandre and the shopkeeper said, “Sorry, we are sold out.” I stood in the shop frozen in horror as tumbleweeds blew across the shopping mall behind me. I could hear the old shopkeeper laughing in my head. “Are you f**king serious?” “Oh wait, we still have one, lucky you.”

Feeling a bit wounded, I test-sprayed some at work and my coworker sitting close to me said, “Hmm, I could smell some hair spray.” I looked at her and she could probably feel a silent nuclear bomb had just detonated in my head.

Jean Desprez’s Bal a Versailles (1962)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

As I was about to open the shrink-wrap of my bottle of Bal a Versailles (1962), I looked at the box art and laughed. I wasn’t laughing at the packaging, but rather at myself, that I couldn’t believe I would hop from one perfume shop to another hunting for something that I would consider kitschy and granny-looking. (No offence to people who appreciate the packaging.) Have perfumes altered my integrity or I finally can see beyond the surface of things?

I was always aware of the existence of Bal a Versailles because of the gold-brick box and the painting used in the packaging design. I thought, “wow, a Holy Mary perfume, must be the first celebrity designer scent ever”. But, on closer examination, it’s a group of very well-dressed women in the Renaissance period visiting the Versailles. (Just a guess.) Not-so-surprisingly, the scent is a perfect match. In fact, this perfume smells like it belongs to the Guerlain vintage/classic library. It reminds me of Mitsouko and Vol du Nuit, but better! Every note is hitting the maximum level like you have played with the settings of your TV with a remote control and don’t know how to revert them back to their original settings – the colours are super saturated and almost bleeding, and that supposed to be cute little cat on the screen is now a hissing civet. A classic perfume seen through a nostalgic lens, powerful!