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.

Modern “Chypres”

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Serge Lutens’ Chypre Rouge & Grossmiths Golden Chypre © Victor Wong

I once wrote about Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete and how much I liked it, and a Facebook friend told me I was a “closeted chypre lover”. Poor me, it’s not me who was in denial, it’s just that I didn’t know this summer perfume from the 90s was actually a chypre.

By “definition”, a chypre is a perfume with an accord composed of citrus, labdanum, oakmoss and musk. I am lucky to have a small decant of the very first chypre, “Chypre” by Coty (1917), so I know what this classic accord (perfume in this case) smells like, and without better words, it’s the “grandma” accord. The chypre accord is unique, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Imagine if I say chypre is the colour brown, but you have never seen such color and I say it’s the result of mixing of yellow and blue and red, maybe you will have a hard time “visualizing” what it is like. However, if you have smelled it before and are able to “memorize” that smell, you can tell there are countless vintage perfumes that share the same chypre common denominator – one sniff and you can tell Guerlain’s Mitsouko is a chypre, Aromatic Elixir is a chypre, Dior’s Diorella is a chypre, Paloma Picasso is a chypre…

Then come the modern perfumes who claim that they are chypres, but I just couldn’t recognize them as chypres. You know, in the old days, in art classes as a kid you would draw people of different nationality circling around the Earth hand-in-hand, a Dutch is a white milkmaid wearing wooden shoes and an American wears a cowboy hat, but now I can call myself a Canadian but boy, do I look Chinese even holding a cup of Tim Hortons coffee. This chypre genre has blurred so much that my nose needs yoga training for flexibility and enlightenment.

Serge Luten’s Chypre Rouge (2006) and Grossmith’s Golden Chypre perhaps are two good examples of dubious chypres.

I remember two ladies in a Facebook fragrance group both say Chypre Rouge is one of their favourite perfumes. If I didn’t know the name of the perfume, just by the smell alone I can see why it’s attractive to them. It smells like the red gooseberry sauce that IKEA cafeteria serves when you order a plate of Swedish meatballs. On top of that, you have the beautiful sweet aroma of red wine mixed with honey. It’s quite romantic, “rouge”, maybe too sweet for me, but no way Jose it’s a chypre. I refuse to acknowledge it. Sorry. Ok, maybe, I don’t know, but the sweetness and fruitiness of this perfume cover whatever chypre element there is.

Grossmith’s Golden Chypre, on the other hand, is a real chypre, but it took me a few wearings to recognize it because the chypre part is very light. (I am sure some people can recognize it right away.) Golden Chypre really is golden, but not vulgar like Paco Robanne’s gold bar shaped bottle One Million, for the smell is like the shimmering blurry ocean of the California coast at dawn. Initially light and citrusy, then the warmth and the rich powderiness of geranium, accentuated by the spicy nutmeg and deep patchouli slowly spread around. The chypre-ness actually flashes before your nose when you first spray it, and shortly goes away like the Big Bang, and reappears faintly when the perfume reaches dry down. An excellent modern perfume, but not as “granny” as I would have expected from Grossmith, a brand since 1835.

Now I shall reach for my bottle of Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete to study it again.

A comment from my Facebook friend, Henrique, on chypres:

I think that what people miss on the chypre is that it’s not a closed system. It’s a texture, an idea of contrast between the aforementioned elements. Like Fougere, the idea was abstract enough to let you modify those elements, extend it through the different fashions of each era. After all, if we made the definition stiff, what would come next wouldn’t be classified as a chypre. For me, for instance, the 80’s floral chypres are hardly classic chypres, but they are able to convey the light-darkness contrast in a different way.

Modern chypres do this also, but they are more subtle in this contrast. Still, they don’t claim to be classic chypres, so it does make sense. And for those that say they are repetitive, classic ones were also too, if you start to test one after the other you’ll see that. This is what happens when a trend, an idea or olfactory family becomes popular. The only difference is that classic chypres arrived on a time that we didn’t have social media to talk and compare them. And we didn’t have either as many launches as we have today, which makes this sameness pop out more easily.

And since you mention art, I would like to point out that many art movements rescue something from an old art movement and put it in perspective with what is happening at that moment. Perfume is not different and we shouldn’t expect the same olfactory themes to remain the same as the times goes by.

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…

Amouage’s Jubilation 25 for Women (2008)

Amouage's Jubilation 25 for Women, EDP © Victor Wong
Amouage’s Jubilation 25 for Women, EDP © Victor Wong

The joy and awe of wearing Amouage Jubilation 25 for Women for the first time is similar to receiving a brand new car of your favorite color named The Goddess of Aldehyde. As you sit in the comfortable back seat, a LCD screen pops up and a mini documentary (narrated in a sexy French voice) of how this car got its perfect multi-color perfumery paint job starts to play…

Mists of aroma get applied to the body layer by layer, first with a feathery light base coat of resins, musks and golden amber, then slightly darker and richer colors of patchouli, rose and incense, not very strong, but they are there. Lastly, fine mists of ylang, lemon and tarragon, whitened to a pastel palette by the powdery labdanum, gives it a smooth warm fruity hue. A final layer of aldehyde is applied to give it a bright and light sheen. No dripping, no fingerprints, just gloss and the reflection of your smile.

The LCD panel slowly sinks back in, and you are greeted by the look of yourself in the rear view mirror finding a glamorous, not bitchy, sophisticated woman, even if you are a man. Now, reach in your invisible handbag and get that pair of retro sunglasses and Hermes scarf and wear them. Yes, perfect.

Sorry, I got carried away. Yes, men can wear it. I think.

I can’t stress how much I love aldehydic perfumes, with Arpege being my number one. Now with Jubilation 25, I’m afraid there is going to be a spectacular WWE fight between the two Victorian ladies, slapping each other’s face with their pocket folding fans. Jubilation 25 doesn’t smell revolutionary, actually almost like a tribute to all fine aldehydic chypre perfumes of the 80s – except that the materials smell richer and yet the perfume wears lighter – how strange is that?

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…)

MDCI’s Promesse de l’Aube (2006)

MDCI's Promesse de l'Aube © Victor Wong
MDCI’s Promesse de l’Aube © Victor Wong

In my last year of high school in Canada, my ESL (English as a secondary language) teacher was deeply in love with the book “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, and she made us read it for assignment. The novel is about four Chinese mothers and daughters and their poignant, and sometimes tragic personal histories that happened in China and America. Two years later, the book was adapted into a movie, and I went to see it in the theater. The movie was deadly sad and had a killer Chinese string ensemble soundtrack. I could hear sniffing and sobbing from the audience in full surround sound throughout the whole movie. Later my sister told me that her friend had also watched it but he wasn’t moved by it at all. He told her, “it’s one of those typical stories, a Chinese mother drowning her baby girl because the family wanted a son instead. Everyone asked me to watch because it’s sad. I didn’t shed a single tear.”

So what if someone tells me that there’s a movie that would make me cry, and I don’t feel a thing watching it? what does that imply?

1) I don’t understand why it is sad.
2) I have seen enough of this kind of melodrama and it can’t move me anymore.
3) I am a dick.

I recently bought a bottle of MDCI’s Promesse de l’Aube because of a 5 star review. The reviewer says, “The tune of this fragrance may not be hugely original, but the orchestration will bring tears to your eyes.”

Because of this review, I was ecstatic when I found out the city I live in finally have a niche perfume shop that carries MDCI. The first bottle I sniffed was, of course, Promesse de l’Aube, but I was disappointed – nothing was wrong with that perfume, and that’s wrong. It’s like watching a TV sitcom where every actor is pretty but none of them I find attractive. Also, where’s the drama? The second time I smelled it, I thought I kind of get it. The opening was more beautiful than I remember, the floral notes smelled real instead of synthetic, and they are well blended. But again, where’s the drama? The actors are staring at each other not saying anything because the commercial break is coming. The third time, I decided to buy it because the shop was going to raise the price and I wanted it in my collection so that I could study it more.

Promesse de l’Aube is a chypre designed by Francis Kurkdjian. It smells quite like Acqua di Parma’s Nobile Iris, which is also designed by Kurkdjian; instead of iris, we have jasmine. On my skin, the dry down smells a bit sour, green, rosy and dusty. In less than an hour, the scent is gone. “Promesse de l’Aube” means Promise of Dawn, and dawn is beautiful, to some it’s so beautiful that tears may roll down the cheek when they see it. I think it’s beautiful too, but that’s all.

Afterthoughts: Of course, I didn’t expect to react the same way as the reviewer. Or any reviewer. The reviewer is Luca Turin in this case, and he never says “the orchestration will bring tears to your eyes” in any other of his reviews. I was intrigued. I wanted to experience that perfume that he thought highly of. I wondered, not seriously, if it was as good as he said to be, or do I have the “nose” to tell if something is that good. Now I think about it, it’s a fun but silly exercise – there are no conclusions.