I was once in a cafe at a planetarium giving a private English lesson. As we sat, plants in various places obscuring corners and faces, I found myself trapped within a prism. Lime green. Yellow. Tangerine. Pouring into every moment of the building, and my head, my brain, behind my eyes; mind-plumbing, synaesthesic. Yet familiar. I knew this. Where am I?
As my student talked and I made the right eyes and gestures and noises, my conscious lolled back inwardly into this colour : paralyzed, stopped, as though I were confined inside the glowing, neon spectrum of a rainbow section.
Gradually, it began to dawn on me that this space I was now inhabiting, entirely different to the one I had entered, was due to perfume. Some really, really, really, strong perfume. Not so much ‘overpowering’, as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Not ‘clouds of perfume’ that had overtaken the surrounding air, but as if the air itself had been stolen. An extrait. An extract, of almost nuclear strength, worn dab-handed in unthinking profusion by a lady who was probably lunching there with her large group of friends and who had gladly let the muguet, lemon, basil and mind-searing galbanum of the perfume’s dandelion-leaved brightness flood the room like a burgeoning, radiation of sunbeams.
It was Vent Vert. Eventually I realized. The knowledge finally swelled up through my body. The vaults of my mental perfume repository identified a positive. I suddenly had a flashback to white polka dots on spring green packaging – a laughing, Parisian, illustrated woman at the Balmain concession at Harrods, the Mecca of my late teens and early twenties where I would on occasion travel down to London by train, stand in awe and exhilaration at the vast range of beautiful perfumes on offer there, and try to muster up the confidence to look knowledgeable and classy enough to resist the hauteur of the assistants.
At that time I was very much in love with Ivoire, but I was still, in many ways, intrigued by the the slightly passé , behatted ladies of these bygone perfumes at the small, but important Pierre Balmain counter, which, even if reformulated – not that there was talk of such a thing at that time – had something vogueish and recherché.
Many years later, in Japan, I managed to acquire a miniature eau de toilette of the 1990 reformulation of Vent Vert for next to nothing and finally got to know the perfume properly. I have always rather enjoyed it – on some days I even have sudden cravings for it – even if I never truly understood quite what it was trying to say with its maximalist collection of flowers – hyacinth, neroli, freesia, jasmine and violet; its zesty combination of citrus fruit – lime, lemon, bergamot and chlorophyllized greenery, that come at you all at once with a whoosh of aldehydes like a photosynthesized burst of sunshine from the bottle.
But taking or adding ingredients to or from a meticulously inspired fragrance formula, in my view, is like removing words or lines from a poem; notes from an original score; and to me, this version of Vent Vert has never been the perfume, as others contend, that fully captures the greenness of the spring breeze carried over fields of grasses; shrubs and new leaves, the very essence of nature and the outdoors. To me, though lovely, Vent Vert feels about as nature-identical as a painted backdrop in a Hitchcock film.
This takes nothing away from Vent Vert’s April May vivacity, its brio and its chic. I find it to be an extremely carefree and happy composition in its 1990 Calice Becker reworking ( the aggression of the galbanum notes of Germaine Cellier’s notoriously green original – perhaps designed to scythe through the smoky environments of 1940’s interiors – one can imagine a tightly fitted suit, and a sharply conspicuous sillage slicing through a room and turning heads – were toned down (for commercial reasons, once green perfumes had essentially gone out of fashion by the end of the 1970’s), to a less tobacco-congested early nineties audience)), yet the pristine eau de toilette vaporisateur I now have in my possession is still intensely green and extremely effusive, with a sharp blast of galbanum at the beginning that does in fact still evoke for me some of the bitter cruelty of Germaine Cellier’s other contemporary shocker, Bandit: such throw: such great DNA – just a couple of sprays on tissue a few minutes ago on this beautiful sunny day have now completely filled up this room.
It is easy for me to imagine, therefore, how the 1990 parfum, used in even greater concentration on that mind bending day at the planetarium, could not only have spread through the air as I sat in that space trying, in vain, to concentrate on my lesson, but actually, actively tinted it.
One of my holy grails has always been to get my hands on the original vintage extrait of Vent Vert. In a very different structure and design, the classic flacon that was used for all the Balmain classics ( I also have much treasured extraits of Miss Balmain and Jolie Madame, upstairs in my cabinets, all in the same bottle), a bottle of vintage Vent Vert extrait or even eau de toilette is one of those ‘can only dream ofs’ that have never come up at the once bountiful fleamarkets in Japan, only the modern editions.
One day, though, standing outside the Studio Alta screen, a popular meeting place, in the busiest place in the world, Shinjuku ( over three million people pass through the train station every day) ; the height of modernity, technology and business in Japan, a maelstrom of people and skyscrapers and the quintessence of futuristic Tokyo urbanity – and a place I really love and feel at home in, quite strangely – my friend and fellow mad perfume cohort Zubeyde then came hurrying towards me excitedly along the street – we were meeting so she could show me some of the secret perfume bargain hideouts in her neighbourhood, later – and she presented me , quite unexpectedly, with a small box, wrapped in a simple paper bag. I had no idea what it was, but it turned out to be vintage Vent Vert extrait.
I was beside myself. She had not known I had long I had sought to own this long gone precious classic, but it was soon all I could think about…….how the human brain can blot out what is surrounding it and immediately hone in, in pure concentration, ignoring the visual and auditory noise all around; and, clasping the bottle, focus, voraciously, on the prize, in that moment, lost to everything.
Opening up the box, and extracting the stout little flacon from its firm indentation, I could not, of course, resist smelling it there, right there on the spot, at the crossroads with all the hubbub of the heart of Tokyo swirling all around me – but as I inhaled that bygone, coutured, oiled and fifties bitterness, I could tell right away that, unfortunately, the top notes had gone ( a situation I tried to foolishly remedy myself by later misguidedly adding expensive galbanum and violet leaf essential oils to somehow resurrect Cellier’s intentions, only making it so green in the process it was like ingesting poison)…..but before I had succumbed to this tragic and stupid temptation, I had at least had the opportunity to properly acquaint myself with the faded heart, and the base notes, of this brilliant, iconoclastic perfumer’s original ideas and execution.
What I did glean from this fascinating shadow of Vent Vert’s former self (I am hoping that some readers who know intact versions of the vintage will shed some light on the differences on the original construct and the later versions; how green the top notes really were), is that although the perfumes do share many similarities – the list of notes presented for both perfumes by Balmain is, of course, is almost identical- on a deeper level, they seem to differ almost completely in temperament: : two manic depressive sisters with very contrasting personalities.
Vintage Vert, even in semi-evaporized, softer, skeletal form, strikes me as far more melancholic, more serious than the reworked later version; austere; drier – as all Cellier perfumes are – more intent. While the almost chirpy second Vent Vert I know so well and enjoy and am wearing today, bright and fresh and mood-lifting, makes me think of a gleefully competent hostess at a country gathering or garden party, dressed up in crisp whites and greens and interacting happily with all those that surround her, the original perfume, more strange, more introverted (despite its reputedly hyper-aggressively green facade), seems more akin to the earth, foliage and undergrowth : the green, more mysterious shadows that can be glimpsed, and smelled, in the quieter, grassy beyond.