Yesterday I wrote about the wonderful experience that is the Shinagawa flea market in Tokyo, and I forgot to mention one of the scents that I once found there….
And I was thinking. Are these vintage classics that I am so excited to find in their original incarnations mere museum pieces; dusty relics that smell so dated they become laughable?
Or can classic perfumes still be sexy? Can they appeal in the modern age?
It would seem so. One Sunday, a few years ago, our dinner guests, Penny and Terry, sampled the myriad delights of the perfume cabinet and its latest acquisitions. And despite all the goods on offer, the perfume that got the unanimous wow was, to my total amazement, an old, pre-formulation edition of that timeless classic, Femme. Neither of these two is old-fashioned in their tastes (Terri goes for fresh, modern tuberose and wears it well, Penny more the Indian amber and khus), yet somehow this smooth, voluptuous peach of a scent had them inhaling and inhaling (at this point, possibly from elbows, knees and ankles, so much skin space had been covered in scent – this was one of my last pitches).
How could such an old classic garner such a response?
Because, quite simply, they don’t make them like this any more. Femme was a splendid scent, as rounded and full-bodied as it is possible to be without ever becoming obvious.
The perfume clearly has powers of seduction (my friends were up in arms over its sexual magnetism), personified as well in the muse for the perfume, Mae West. Marcel Rochas, head of the house, did a clever thing when he modeled the curves of the original bottle on the hips of his most famous client (the Chantilly black lace of the corset the couturier created for her forms the main design on the box.) At the time of the perfume’s release Ms West was the box office and theatre’s greatest star. West was hilarious, the queen of steamy one liners, and the world needed cheering.
It was nearing the end of the second world war and amid the ruins of Paris, or so legend has it, the great perfumer Edmond Roudnitska was determined to create something happy to banish the ghosts of grey. He had happened upon a perfumery material in one of the laboratory vats, a gourmand ‘apricot-brioche’ molecule that would be the starting point for the perfume that later became the ravishing Femme.
There are two other famous scents to which Femme can be directly compared, its blood relatives: Mitsouko (1918), and Pour Monsieur (1953). All belong to the fruity chypre category. In fact, wear all three and after ninety minutes you will barely be able to distinguish them.
Where Mitsouko (a beautiful, serious creation ) is not conventionally sexed – though its dark spice has intrigue – spiked, undercurrents of piquant green, spices and earth make it forever cerebral, removed. Femme takes the same olfactory template of warm mosses, flowers, spices and fruit, but if Mitsouko is a cool dark wood, then Femme is an orchard of peaches ripening in the sun. It is this full peach note, undercut with plum, fused brilliantly with velvety flowers and warm woody notes of cedar, sandalwood and civet that makes it that much the sunnier of the two: moss suffused with light, a tantalizing scent like a second skin.
Funnily enough, the scent isn’t in the least bit redolent of Mae West (Rochas had had it made originally for his demure wife Helène, the legendary Madame Rochas, before Mae become the perfume’s face and derriere): Roudnitska’s formula was so flawless you can’t even see the seams, never mind rip open the bodice. There is nothing throaty about this scent. It is perfect.
And yet in 1989 Rochas scandalously commissioned another perfumer to reorchestrate the classic – against the wishes of its creator, and thus vulgarized a work of art. The new version, though capturing the fundamental feel of the original, is brassier, louder – probably more like the inimitable Ms West, who once quipped on stage: ‘I feel like a million tonight. But one at a time.’