Sortilege —–‘incantation, magic spell, malediction, sorcery’ in French – is a classic floral aldehyde created in the late 1930’s by Paul Vacher (of Miss Dior, Diorling, Arpège, and a fleet of Le Galion perfumes fame). Of its time, of familiar mien if you know N⁰5, L’Aimant, Madame Rochas, the perfume extract that Duncan bought home for me the other night on his way back from Kamakura nevertheless has its own unique charm. While this format of fragrance almost always contains the following ingredients: rose, ylang ylang, muguet, iris and jasmine gemstoned and polished with aldehydes, usually pillowed with a more sexualised base of sandalwood, musk, vetiver and amber, Le Galion’s variant on the theme adds an extra abundance of of lilac, mimosa and narcissus, with a hint of warm labdanum and amber also in the base, which makes it perhaps sound very malleable, talced- feminine and soft in the usual Marilyn Monroe fashion (she, along with Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, and Grace Kelly were used in promotional placement pictures for the scent), but in fact, with its lilting skulduggery, ends up sweetly hypnotic.

Less pliant, and ‘giving’ than some of its predecessors and descendants such as Le N⁰9 by Cadolle, and Detchema by Revillon, Sortilège is cooler; more compact and aggressive, initially, prickled and immaculate, taking its time to bloom into a gorgeously rounded perfume not dissimilar to Givenchy’s L’interdit but more vivid, less morose. At this point, in the one hour intermission, you can certainly see where the perfume got its name: this is undeniable female seduction.

I will sorely miss Strawberry Field, the place we got this perfume, the source of many a cherished delight in Kamakura, and which unfortunately seems to be closing down as the lady who runs it is in poor health. Last time I was there, two people completely unfamiliar with perfume were presiding over her wares – everything half price now – meaning D can just pick something up on the way home like the Le Galion extrait pictured above – but it does look as if it won’t be there for much longer. Such is my affection for the place that it even features in the film I did for Moleskine Notebooks last January, one of the surrealer experiences in my life, in which a crew of Italians from flew in from Milan just as the coronavirus was starting to take hold, and I had a weekend of pretending it was August in January and being constantly looked at and ‘positioned’ and filmed wherever I went – the clothes I had selected ( I had actually gone shopping and looked good) deemed not seasonably suitable for the shoot: I had to literally borrow the shirt off the Japanese cameraman’s back. Standing around in Tokyo, ‘modelling’; beyond ice cold, having a group of eleven media people invade my house the following day for the interview during which they photographed practically every corner of our odd and overpacked abode, causing mayhem in the street outside as neighbours found that they couldn’t park their cars because of all the extra vehicles, wondering what the hell was going on, it was all completely new and exciting. I felt like a star, and it was very illuminating in that regard: I got a tiny taste of what being a ‘celebrity’ would be like. and much as I know I couldn’t stand that kind of attention on a regular basis, with a big pinch of salt, it was certainly enthralling for just a couple of days.

One of the stops on the itinerary – so hilarious, being bundled into the van like fleeing paparazzi and speeding at the limit to the next designated destination each time as though our lives depended on it- was Strawberry Field, which the main organizer of the project – there had been several bungles – had misunderstood as being a literal field of elysian strawberries somehow dotted with perfumes, like a Dorothy snoozing in her field of drowsing opioid poppies, vintage perfume bottles half dug into the soil……was I to walk, daydreaming, through the fragrant beds of fruit and pluck perfumes from my bosom or was it else some kind of huge market just bulging with swooning vintagery that we would wander about it and take woozy pictures with me up close and personal with bottles of Yves Saint Laurent and Ricci? There we were, racing desperately to get there at the appointed hour, the Italian media on their walkie talkies to each other getting agitated about whether we would make it to il campo di fragole into time; one of the Japanese managers calling up sycophantically and hyper politely to placate the owner and begging her to stay open until we got there (financial incentives were eventually offered), frantically scoffing down the convenience store sandwiches that the runner had gone out to by in bulk as there had been no time to get lunch (we were all absolutely famished) – and yet the final destination was, in fact, really just a tiny and cramped (but very charming, if you like statues and mirrors and beads and ceramics and porcelain and knick knacks ) old junk/antique shop. Fortunately, the cameramen had a similar camp sensibility to me and loved it, immediately, and the proprietress in her ragdollhat; she graciously extended her opening hours; we filmed our little segment there, and it was a wrap.

I will miss many things about that place. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t overly expensive either – plus she always gave me a discount. Gorgeous, boxed Guerlains and Patous, some Carons, many Chanels; I got my sumptuous Amouage Gold from there; several Mystère de Rochas, among many many other things I can no longer precisely remember; the beauty being that you didn’t only have to store up on the riches and troves that you wanted to accumulate for your cabinet, but could acquire new old novelties that you might never have encountered before, such as Fame de Corday; old miniatures, abandoned and unwanted eaux de parfum, and half used up extraits. It was a mine of pleasure and perfume education : and without it, I am sure I would never have been exposed to such a lovely creation as Le Galion Sortilège.


Filed under Floral Aldehydes, Flowers

18 responses to “SORTILÈGE by LE GALION (1937)

  1. Always sad to see a favorite shop go… but hopefully you’ve adopted many of its treasures so they are in good hands.

  2. What an enjoyable story! Yes, we have all had some of our favorite shops close, but at least you have some real beauties in your collection and I’m sure you will have even more from the sale. Hopefully, you will find another shop to your liking. There used to be at least 3 perfume shops I had access to (not counting department stores), and now there are none. I now have to purchase everything, including samples, on the Internet. As there are many perfumes now available on line, it is easier to find something, however, I miss the joy and excitement of visiting an actual perfume shop.

    • Me too. That place in Beverly Hills where I bought Nuit De Noel was a mindfuck – I could hardly breathe from the excitement of being in there and if I had been rich, would have come home with a private plane full, seriously. I don’t know if it exists any more, but my god. That was JUST perfumes, a majority of which you wanted. These little Japanese antique shops sometimes have just a few, but that is enough to be exciting in any case; I adore the feeling of walking in and nervously glancing towards the area where they keep them to see if anything amazing is there waiting to be grabbed.

  3. Robin

    I feel quite shattered, reading about the demise of your Strawberry Field. There is no better feeling than hunting through old boxes and bottles in a chaotic shop to discover something rare and beautiful and affordable. To me, there’s nothing more magic in quotidian life. I’m going to look at that Moleskine footage again. I know I loved it the first time. They really captured your essence and I love the unscripted things you said.

    That’s quite bizarre, that they’d think Strawberry Field was a strawberry field. I know a few people like that, who are utterly literal in their understanding of things said. I’m pretty much the opposite.

    I’m remembering a quirky, densely-packed shop in Vancouver’s old Gastown called Salmagundi. The basement with its crusty cement walls was accessed by a spiral staircase that was surrealistically steep and narrow even for scrawny little me. It was floor-to-ceiling kitsch, tiny-drawered wooden filing cabinets and mirrored dressers holding all kinds of mysteries, from Victorian Christmas cards to ancient jet and coloured rhinestone necklaces. Part of me wanted to hunt for hours until I’d touched every single thing, and the other part wanted to get done as fast as possible in case there was an earthquake and we’d be buried alive under a crumbling mountain of dusty chachkas. It was there, behind some carved Chinese sandalwood boxes, that I found a huge bottle of elderly Coco edp for under ten bucks. The honey in that formulation made me dizzy. Glorious. And that feeling of first spying it. NO?? YES!!! Ahhh.

    “Sortilège is cooler; more compact and aggressive, initially, prickled and immaculate, taking its time to bloom into a gorgeously rounded perfume not dissimilar to Givenchy’s L’interdit but more vivid, less morose. At this point, in the one hour intermission, you can certainly see where the perfume got its name: this is undeniable female seduction.” This is so accurate, although for myself I’d switch the two in terms of morosity. I have the parfum and the parfum de toilette. I don’t know how much they reflect what they used to be. I gave a bottle exactly like the pdt I have to a friend whose signature was Sortilege in the sixties. It smelled great to me but Nazrin was disappointed. The top notes, she said, which gave so much to it, that were an intrinsic part of her memory of it, were more or less gone. I wish I could smell it in its symphonic entirety.

    • What utterly divine descriptions of find the Coco. It is this, exactly – I can physically feel that place from what you write. The problem is, deep down, I think we ONLY really like places like that – shopping in regular places is extraordinarily dull for me – D doesn’t particularly enjoy it either.

      Re Sortilege – this tiny parfum also has possibly lost a bit of top note but I think it is about 90% intact. I was surprised by the way that the very compacted beginning transformed into this gorgeously warm and sexy songbird – almost like a pinker Arpege.

      • Robin

        Almost like a pinker Arpege. Genius type mind.

        You put your finger on it, N. Just simply plunking down the plastic for a bottle of full-retail current fragrance — a dime a dozen figuratively if far from literally — at a brightly lit and highly organized store full of bright shiny new things is somehow so blatant, crude, mercenary, transactional. Unmagical. It’s nothing like unearthing a single, priceless gem in a dark, crammed maze of an old place, in a thirty-year-old box with slightly battered edges, with a hand-written price sticker. Especially if the price on the sticker is a few quid. You are the only person in the world with that bottle, the grand prize, the win of the vintage lottery. It’s a surprise, a shock to the brain, an I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening full-body jolt. That instant rush of natural chemicals through the bloodstream is better than any drug.

  4. Stefanie

    Neil, I just found your wonderful musings here while I was searching for reviews for Calèche, which is still a gorgeous mystery to me, after having worn it for almost twenty years now. I like yours very much, which captures all the beautiful moments of its grandeur! Thank you for this, I shall be a regular visitor here from now on, all the best to you, greetings from Berlin, Germany, stay safe!

    • Hi: I always love to see people on here – nice to meet you. Please feel free to comment regularly if you feel like it! I ADORE Caleche, which is why that particular review had to be perfect and why I spent so much time on it.

      Incidentally, we have an apartment (the only property we own – we rent our house here in Japan) in Schoeneberg, on Fritzreuterstrasse, which we may or may not retire to / do a writing sabbatical at some point. I miss Berlin!

  5. Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

    Strawberry Fields forever! I was not a Beatle fan but a Rolling Stone addict!!
    Sergeant’s Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band however was more up my street. I know my classics. What an appropriate name for such a delightful sounding oasis!
    I mourn with you.
    Oh! Mystere: one of my old time favourites, alas no more!

    • I am no Beatles fan either but love certain things – the psychedelia etc. If we ever meet (we used to fly KLM all the time prior to all this malignant horseshit), I will give you some Mystere.

      • Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

        Xxxx zoen dutch for kiss
        Oh doooo come!! Even though Amsterdam has changed from the one you knew!!

  6. It really is so terribly sad that Strawberry Fields will be closing, I know it was a favorite of yours, and featured so nicely in the Moleskin piece you were the star of. Hopefully there are still other shops there that will have a selection of vintage goodies.
    Sortilege is really such a truly magical scent. It is not my favorite Le Galion scent, that would be Bourrasque, or Brumes, but it is far more equisite and expertly crafted than so many others of its time. It truly is an enchantent.

  7. !!!!
    Fame de Corday was my mom’s favorite and the first bottle of perfume she bought herself as a teen shopgirl at San Francisco’s I Magnin’sdepartment store in 1946. The ketone saturated narcissus and razor-sharp Peru balsam were a bit too sophisticated for my young nose but I loved the elegance of its bottle with a simple tiny bow. I have never heard anyone else mention it!
    I have never heard of Sortilege, but the notes sound divinely diva!
    Sorry to hear of the demise of Strawberry Fields. It is quite fascinating what really goes on behind the scenes in even brief films, isn’t it?

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