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 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, 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…)

Lanvin’s Rumeur (2006)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

“Did you hear about a student from the Philosophy department got full marks in his final exam?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, there’s only one question in the whole paper, and it was ‘Why?’ ”

“And what did he answer?”

“Why not.”

My college classmate was very excited by this rumour, because all he cared so far in his life was getting full marks in his exams with minimal effort. That was, I think, 25 years ago.

In Turin/Sanchez’s Perfumes book, Sanchez pulled the same stunt by writing something similar for Lanvin Rumeur’s review. She wrote, “Baseless”, and gave it one star.

(Note: Rumeur 2006 is a complete redesign of Rumeur 1934 and they have nothing in common.)

Sorry, if I were the professor, she failed the exam. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. They gave Molecules a three star review, but Molecules was well known for having just one ingredient in the formula – ISO E Super. It’s more baseless than baseless, it’s negative baseless, so I guess that makes it positive.

But Rumeur is something special. It was designed by Francis Kurkdjian in 2006. Yes, that dude. He’s famous, a super star in the industry. His “Oud” perfume from his own line, costs f*king $450 a bottle. Rumour, cost me $29 for 100ml. What’s going on? Is a perfume without a base considered a failure? (and does he over-price his perfumes? *evil-eye*) There’s actually a “Rumeur 2 Rose” perfume, implying that Rumeur 1 was a commercial success to Lanvin. I own a few perfumes that I think smell great, but in my opinion, baseless or almost baseless.

To me Rumeur is a faux light skin floral, (there’s a market for that) but it’s so light, all you get in the first 5 seconds is alcohol, then something crazy synthetic like nail varnish. To justify I have spent good money on a perfume made by MJK, I sticked my nose to my skin like a vacuum cleaner, and yes, it’s all there (pear, rose, jasmine, aldehyde, etc.), but they were not leaving my skin. I didn’t get any joy smelling it on myself, but I want to smell it on someone else, particularly a young woman with long hair, who also thinks this perfume is light, and she over-applies it, making herself a beast. May be that’s Mr. Kurkjian’s intention.

Lanvin’s Avant Garde (2011)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

The avant-garde (from French, “advance guard” or “vanguard”, literally “fore-guard”) are people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics. (from Wikipedia)

Sorry, Ms. Shyamala Maisondieu, the nose of Lanvin’s Avant Garde (2011), your creation belongs to the Commercial Art Museum, not the Avant Garde Museum, because it shocks no one (in fact, it’s quite a crowd pleaser), pushes no boundaries and repels no one in any elevator or restaurant. In fact, it smells a little bit like Hugo Boss Bottled (1998), a sweet and friendly apple juiced-up semi-masculine cologne; and you sneakily replaced the apple with some honey, tobacco, pink pepper and white pepper to warm it up, making bad boys smell a bit friendly, and boring clean-shaven office men a bit bad boy.

All-in-all, it’s a decent modern designer scent, but what I find so interesting is not what it smells like, nor its nice bottle. What I find interesting is that I have witnessed a real-time social-media-influenced sales phenomenon happening in slow motion. I have always wanted to get Avant Garde, because I’m a Lanvin fan. I love Arpege, and I think I should also love her extended family despite some of them are only as interesting as a pumpkin. What I didn’t expect was that someone bought a bottle of Avant Garde at a discounted price and reviewed it on Youtube, which caused a domino effect of other Youtube reviewers getting their own bottle and saying how good and affordable it was. Before the Youtube reviews appeared, Avant Garde was readily available at my favourite online shop. Ever since the reviews, fewer and fewer were available (didn’t happen to other perfumes that I paid attention to), until I found out they were sold out. (Pulling hair out.) I have concluded it’s all because of Youtube reviewers! Good job, guys!

Lanvin’s ME (2013)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

Last weekend I had dinner with a group of people that I didn’t know well. Sitting next to me was a woman in her early forties, and I asked her if she liked perfumes. She confessed that she wasn’t into perfumes; she had only a few bottles, but was very attracted to cool-looking bottles. She told me that she wanted a bottle of Marc Jacob… “Daisy?”, I said. “Yes. I can’t remember those names.” Then I asked her what kind of scent did she like and here’s the interesting part – she said that she liked light and fresh scents, “You know, something that almost disappears when you are ready to leave the house.” I almost spewed water from my nose. Here’s the moment when I realized I had accidentally stepped into a parallel universe.

So in front of me is a bottle of Lanvin ME (2013). Got it because I love Lanvin’s Arpege and saw it in a discount bin. A few sprays on my wrist, and I immediately thought of that woman at the dinner table. I guess there’s nothing to report here – it’s a light fresh blueberry scent. Just as I thought I could close the books, it threw a curve ball at me. It’s fresh, sweet and sunny and suddenly there’s a grey cloud of liquorice coming out from nowhere and turned the scent semi-masculine and almost “noire”. It’s so unexpected that I can’t decide if I like it or not, but definitely I keep smelling it. It’s like those two-faced duet by the same person –she turns around and she becomes a he. Interesting but awkward.

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

Lanvin’s Arpege Pour Homme (2005)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

Arpege Pour Homme (2005) was relatively short-lived. I have a few theories why it didn’t achieve the popularity it deserved:

1) Arpege is a famous perfume for women. Naming a cologne “Arpege Pour Homme” is like Chanel naming a cologne “No. 5 Pour Homme”. Not many men are comfortable wearing a perfume with a name that is strongly associated with a women’s perfume.

2) Arpege Pour Homme smelled “feminine” at the time it was introduced. If Lanvin releases it now, I am sure no one will complain about it. Luca Turin writes in his review of Arpege that it is an “unisex classic”. If Arpege is unisex, then Arpege pour Homme definitely is very “masculine” to me.

3) Lanvin is no longer a famous perfume brand to most people. I hope it is not the case.

Arpege is now my most favourite perfume. Yes, I have almost 200 perfumes and I pick Arpege my number 1. My coworkers all think it’s for grandmas, which doesn’t affect me at all. In fact, I spray it on my pillow occasionally for a better night’s sleep. Arpege is now part of my daily healthy diet. But I digress…

I didn’t know about Arpege Pour Homme until recently – it’s because they are not on any shelves! I discovered it on Youtube when I used the keyword “Arpege”. I jumped out of my seat when I saw it, “What!? There’s a Arpege for men?” Now that I have got the last 100ml bottle in Toronto, I can tell you Arpege pour Homme smells incredible. I don’t think it is a classic, but it is a soft mellow masculine; half a cop and half a cup of warm Crème brûlée in a floral shop. As the top notes are gone, I could smell some light incense, although it’s not listed in Fragrantica.