VENT VERT by BALMAIN (1947)

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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.

22 Comments

Filed under Flowers, Green

22 responses to “VENT VERT by BALMAIN (1947)

  1. Great post! I used to love the old Vent Vert…have to try this newer one.

  2. Nancysg

    Years ago I smelled Vent Vert at a discount store and liked it, but didn’t buy it. I had no idea what this Balmain brand was since it wasn’t in the department stores. Now I wish I had the bottle, even when if it was a newer formulation. I do love a good strong green fragrance.

  3. rosestrang

    I’ve only sniffed Vent Vert on someone else aeons ago, but anyway I love your description of it changing and shaping the atmosphere, or the way perfume comes alive if the context and perfume echo each other. I’m thinking of my first encounter with Baiser Vole (not in the league of Vent Vert I know, but anyway..) I was at a poetry and perfume event in the Victorian glass palm-tree houses of Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens – poems were chosen to accompany each perfume. You can imagine how the light green crispness of Baiser Vole floated up into the palm fronds 30 feet above, and how the peppery notes blended with the chlorophyll greenhouse scent. It’s never smelled as amazing as it did in that context.

  4. Zubeyde Erdem

    ☺️ ( I think I saw another bottle of it at recycle shop in Asagaya shotenkai )

    • Really?! Please get it for me and I’ll pay you back! You are supposed to come and see me at home anyway. D says the perfumes are too dusty right now in the collection and that he will have to clean them first though!

      Was it a miniature parfum or eau de toilette? Definitely the vintage version?

  5. Despite the lack of intact top notes in your extrait, you’ve nailed the original Vent Vert — and you’ve contrasted it with the 1990 reworking perfectly. Love the imagery: the gleefully competent hostess. Yes, the original has that mystery, the introversion. I have both, and my original is in good shape, fortunately. In terms of notes (I’m wearing both now) the original extrait has more of a deep, olive-coloured (I see this in my mind’s eye) leafy herbal quality — I can sense tarragon, that earthy fennel thing, which is likely coming from the vetiver in synergy with the basil, galbanum, oakmoss, etc. — and a classic soapiness while not being “clean” smelling, slightly bitter, while Calice Becker’s is much more floral (lily of the valley uppermost), the green a brighter, distinctly grassy green, the lime prominent, sweeter, the soap transformed into shampoo.

    Sadly, I associate the 1990 Vent Vert with a casual friend, very beautiful, an old soul, who wore the decants I gave her after she liked it on me. I didn’t know she was into hard-core drugs. Her man went away for a week and came back to find her dead on the couch of an overdose, phone still in her hand. Kim. I remember her in her youth and vibrancy whenever I wear it and I enjoy that.

    • My god what an association.

      How horrendous and sad, yet I can imagine that as you say, the associations could be so positive with your friend rather than only tragic because the Calice Becker version is just so relentlessly positive.

      I do, as I say, really like her version but I question whether they should have kept the same name if the essential character of the perfume is changed so much. It is not so much a ‘reformulation’ ( which I associate with thinner, eviscerated facsimiles, as an entirely different person.

  6. I have a small vintage extrait which is just absolutely lovely. It has a depth to it that the latter editions do not have. It would be the difference between being in a forest and being in a meadow. There is just something so nuanced and shadow-like about the vintage. The newer formulations are different enough that they should have considered it a completely different scent altogether and named it differently.

    • That’s my feeling entirely! And I totally agree about the forest and the meadow analogy.

      When do you wear the vintage extrait? What kind of mood?

      • I wear it on hot balmy evenings when I want to feel a little refreshed. It just has the right amount of bracing quality to it. I have to be in a relaxed mood to wear it though because it stimulates the senses with its unique character. It really is a truly one of a kind fragrance. I can hardly wait until the right evening comes along to wear it for my first time this year.

      • I love how you orchestrate the wearing of your collection.

  7. I have lately become obsessed with the Calice Becker version (so far, the only one I know). Here in France, it is available in 4ml minis, of which I have bought five in the past two weeks. But I have now spotted it in larger formats and am thinking of buying at least one as a backup bottle. I have a 4ml mini of (modern) Bandit, too, which I love, and am saving for a full bottle. And on their way are minis of the original Vent Vert, along with Jolie Madame. A 2ml vintage Fracas came last week, and oh the beauty, oh the joy – it knocks Carnal Flower into a cocked hat, so I see a full bottle of that in my future, though I guess it will have to be the modern version. Cellier was an amazing perfumeur.

    • Agh, you make me want to get Fracas again. I know a shop in Tokyo that stocks bottles and bottles of the vintage cologne.

      I can totally understand your obsession with the Becker version of Vent Vert. Trust me, you need to get the spray version next, not the dab, as it feels even greener and exciting.

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