Nina is an old friend from university who is currently staying with us in Kamakura and has brought along an interesting and very eclectic selection of perfumes. One of them is L’Heure Bleue.
Neil : I have always loved L’Heure Bleue from the first moment I smelled it as a teenager. It is a delicious perfume I think: sweet, dense, moreishly powdery and chewy, yet also elegant and wistful and not easy to dissect. It is enveloping and famously crepuscular – the whole thing of representing the ‘blue hour'; that time at dusk in Paris before the night sets that definitely comes through, but though romantic and quite feminine, I personally don’t find it particularly melancholic (that would be Après l’Ondée). To me it is strangely flamboyant and extravagant, tawdry even. It puts me in a good mood, but I also find it a touch suffocating. What is your own story with it?
Nina: Four years ago, I was wandering around John Lewis in Sheffield, spinning out a dull but mildly warm Summer Holiday Tuesday whilst waiting for my daughter to finish her trapeze training. Ambling past the Guerlain section I reached instinctively for L’Heure Bleue (it was the EDT version) and was immediately overwhelmed with an acute feeling of being spun back to the I950s. It reminded me of certain older women from my childhood – immensely elegant, dry, intelligent, sometimes reproving other times giddy and indulgent spinsters. It recalled my French teacher – a tall, pale, soft and willowy women with impeccably painted pink nails, silver permed hair, whose handbag was forever dispensing 47II Eau de Cologne wipes and who loved to treat her pupils on special occasions to a Knickerbocker Glory down Morellis ice-cream parlour. Rumour had it she was engaged during the war but decided to remain unmarried after, devoting herself to teaching a motley assortment of grammar school girls, enjoying her evenings (as she once told me) looking out across the Channel from her clifftop flat in the CI8th Regency crescent so typical of Ramsgate seafront and spending her Summers wandering around Paris. She was one of those women for whom the war was the most exciting time and who formed a strong core of steel and silver in her demeanour from her activities then, retaining always an air of mystery and the sense that there were many secrets buried neatly within her under that silk and powder surface. For the rest of the Summer I was obsessed with seeking out L’Heure Bleue. It’s a soft cocoon of a perfume – one you can climb inside and linger safely in for a while. I plagued the very handsome but disdainful young Greek guy selling it in the Manchester Debenhams to try the EDP and he politely pretended each time not to recognise me. Then one day on a whim I bought a bottle, instantly facebooked you to tell you Neil, and you wrote back that you had at that moment just been thinking of the perfume yourself. So, timely.
Neil : Completely gorgeous reminiscences. The image of that woman you are describing perfectly captures the Parisian plumed gauziness of the scent. The edp you have upstairs is nice actually, but also the edt I got through in no time (a gift from Helen: I never wore it but I used it if you know what I mean) had a freshness Iiked, with more bergamot up top. Neither of these bottles though quite capture how I remember L’Heure Bleue being. As it used to be there was this almost fried doughnut aspect in the base, a very gourmet edibility that thrilled me: the way it contrasted with all the anisically doused flowers (ylang, iris, violet especially, but also that anti-intuitive (and thus genius) tuberose orange blossom counterpoint, mixed up with a certain spiciness and then the sharp citruses: it was all so orchestrally complex in a way, a real symphony of scent. Whenever someone wore this (I have only ever smelled it on two people or so) it made me swoon when they walked past: it made me want to grab that person and sink my nose into their neck and bite. I am not entirely sure if this current edition would elicit the same reaction, but I do still love it. How do you feel when you wear it? You were saying that it works quite nicely when you are teaching, that it has a calming effect on the kids. Why do you think that is? Is it the sort of pillowy musk vanilla underneath it all that is soothing in some way?
Also, how do you find L’Heure Bleue compared to the other classic Guerlains?
Nina: (Cue Neil goes off for his bath leaving me with a selection to sniff. Sitting, soaked from a two minute dash to the post office in the lusciously warm, wet, Kamakura rain, and Francois Hardy popping up on the i-player, I peruse and muse…)
I know what you mean about the doughnut smell – I have never smelled a vintage, but I noticed this in my early explorations of the EDT. Something pastry-sweet, almondy, a cinammon roll…
I love what you write here about the compulsion to sink nose and teeth into the wearer’s necks… yes, I think it’s a perfume that invites connection and touch whilst maintaining a certain aloofness and coolness – the kind of coolness that comes from vulnerability – I think that’s the Iris. I always get that feeling when I smell Iris in scents.
It is calming. And yes, I frequently wear it when teaching – particularly when starting with a new class or school – being a supply teacher I’m always in and out, and L’Heure Bleue is a safe bet. It’s a scent that can put other staff members at ease as it’s one of those scents that anyone raised in the 80s can recall older women wearing I think, even if they don’t know what it is, and Guerlain as a house is very reassuring and familiar; the fragrances have a certain independent, demure, quality – present and definite without being ostentatious. I suspect its formality also plays a role in being a good one for the classroom. I frequently teach the classes full of excluded kids, and the children with various support needs and behavioural issues and think the balance of formality and warmth in L’Heure Bleue sets a safe tone – its coolness and melancholy chimes well with the sadness so many kids feel being stuck in an alien and frustrating school environment whilst its citrusy sweet notes reassure and uplift. At the start of this year I worked in a school which was distressingly more like a detention centre or prison than a school. Kids dreaded the stigma of being sent there, the buildings were falling apart, there were locked doors along every section of the corridors that you had to lock and unlock without letting children through, and there was a sound of constant banging all day as kids kicked at them trying to get out. I wore L’Heure Bleue religiously every day whilst there – it was like a protector; not from the children but from the environment which was punitive and cruel. The children were tiny, poor and fierce; the staff desperate, loving and stoic, but resigned to the inevitable decline of the place and warning us to expect kicks, spits, bites and scratches as par for the course. It was desperately sad and I spent every night in floods of tears processing the day. L’Heure Bleue somehow contained and expressed the intensities of that environment and since then .
Neil: Smelling it on you now, do you know what I mean about L”Heure Bleue smelling a bit Indian somehow? For me it is definitely the most exotic of the still extant Jacques Guerlains: it’s Parisian but also a touch Maharajah
Nina: Yes I know exactly what you mean – a bit saffrony perhaps? Has it got cloves in? almost astringent.
Just tried the Apres L’Ondee EDT vintage. For me, it’s instant carnival – fruity, full, immediate – brings to mind the film Black Orpheus.. carneval de Manha…soft and full like the singing of Miriam Makeba
But that too has a note I can’t place – ah, that’s cinammon perhaps, nutmeg? Cloves again? I’m thinking apple pie and English gardens now… there’s a real freshness and spice to it. Very sweet.
Ok, while Neil is off again getting dressed let’s peruse…
Shalimar, vintage, parfum – for me this is quintessentially you, Neil, and it always makes me think of you.
I love that intense leather it has, all embracing, sweet, warm
Neil : Yes well Shalimar is the most me by far, in the sense that I can drain bottle after bottle and it feels completely natural and perfect on me from start to finish. At the same time, it doesn’t intrigue and obsess me the way Vol De Nuit does, not by any stretch. Wearing that puts me into a dreamy poetic state. Shalimar just makes me horny.
Nina: Hahaha I can see why, it’s very sensuous. I just see plum pink interiors and cream leather sofas. And elegant gentlemen sprawled indolently over them… it’s a sexy scent. Very definite and self-assured.
Neil :This old and very vintage Mitsouko extrait just smells like a miserable old bat, doesn’t it? Musty and dour doesn’t even begin to describe it. Rather than your serenity inducing school teacher, this woman is a witch.
Liking the benzoiny aspect in the Bleue now, by the way.
Nina: Yes, it comes through after a time. I like it best on my skin at this point, when the initial sharpness has faded.
Mitsouko – what an austere old dame this one is. I see her, small, wizened, black hair in a bun, round, hornrimmed glasses, eyes peering fiercely out at us, little pinprick dots of blackness, her nose screwed up in perpetual lemonface and tight tight lips. She’d whip you with the bamboo for the slightest indiscretion or misdemeanour. But she’s an orphan.
She can find the sweetness of lime – which she likes to suck on from time to time. And the powder that she dusts herself with daily is a secret pleasure – she drowns herself in it when no-one is around…
Neil : (as Nina goes to wash off the Mitsouko that has stained her nostril)
I mean I think that this is a particularly fusty Mitsouko: if you smelled the parfum de toilette I have upstairs you would see the more gourmandise relationship to L’Heure Bleue, which, by the way, smells spectacular on you now. The way it warms up on the skin and glows, refined but sensual and mesmeric. Yum. I have to quickly iron my shirt now and get to work – I’ll put this up tonight when I get in.
You are off to Kyoto and Osaka with Duncan tonight. What perfumes are you going to take with you?
Nina : I don’t know. I’ve just been distracted by your Velvet Desire (Dolce and Gabbana) which smells utterly gorgeous on you
(Pause while I call Neil back twice to smell his wrist lingeringly. Ok, now he’s off to get dressed. Much as I’d like to smell his wrist for a few minutes longer…)
Right, I don’t know. I’ve just tried the Jicky which is very sensuous – makes me feel like I’m nuzzling someone’s collar – a warm neck, a soft chest – feels very strong and masculine and reassuring which is what I aim to be in life haha.. Jicky, the man I would like to be…but I digress.
I think today, I’ll just wear the spots of Guerlain I’m now sporting sans addition – L’Heure Bleue on my right wrist, Jicky on my right forearm, Apres L’Ondée (perfect now I am dry again and the rain has stopped) on my left wrist, Shalimar on my left elbow….no Mitsouko in my nostrils (though it is stinging slightly, that old witch)… Hmm..ah, Stina has just come on… perfect.. I will just bask in this Guerlain..dwell in it. Like the soft darkness and smooth silky wood of the rainy Bamboo garden I was in yesterday
I was going to wear vintage Armani Pour Femme today, layered over Korre’s Victoria Plum cream… But I may just stick with the Roger et Galet Gingembre spritz for the weekend… travel light…Neil, come back and finish off
Neil : I will. This was fun. We must do it again.
Nina : Most definitely. We will. x