Some perfume houses (Chanel, Guerlain, Caron, Hermès) have a uniformity of style -such that even when you might not take to certain scents in the range personally, at heart you still feel that there is a stability in the stable. A general ease of quality ; a signature, a DNA.
Dior (oh read it and weep…Diorella, Diorling, Diorama, Diorissimo); Givenchy, Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, all used to also have this quality before their cruel and vile degradations. I can hardly even bear to smell a single perfume at the Christian Dior counter now, knowing how attenuated and chemicalized the once sly, beautiful perfumes have become. The same goes for the dummies – factices! – masquerading as Opium or Rive Gauche.
Givenchy is now a joke – I could never forgive them for the name Véry Irrésistible, particularly when enunciated with a Parisian, or I dare say, a Birmingham accent, and Givenchy Gentleman and Ysatis, two of my favourite perfumes, well, the less said about the new versions the better.
At least visually, however, even if the juices inside are fake news, there is still usually with most houses some kind of cohesion. Van Cleef & Arpels, on the other hand, has always struck me as a real hodgepodge smorgasbord of ephemeral, whoreish opportunism. The perfumes and bottles just come and go. They look horrible together on the counter. There is nothing that really binds them. And that goes for the smell of them, as well.
Yes, there are the seminal, enduring creations from the house: the beautiful First (1976), and Tsar (1989), which I despise from the depths of my heart but still grudgingly respect in that patrician, Blake Carrington kind of manner; and then, of course, the more recent Collection Extraordinaire, featuring highly wearable, smooth and classy (if quite pricey) creations such as Orchidée Vanille, Lys Carmin, and California Rȇverie that I would quite happily have in my own collection if someone were just to give them to me for free.
The main line, nevertheless, I find to be, on the whole, repugnant – Féerie (bleuurrrgh!), Oriens, Midnight In Paris and all their flankers just the standard, thin, trumped up chemical crap I can’t abide. There is just no relation to the other Van Cleef & Arpels perfumes, no family tree lineage or any particularly Parisian, Van Cleevian recognizability.
That said, what of the forgotten perfumes, never blockbuster hits back in the day; ones you might not even have been aware of at the time, but were still there, the ones standing doggedly at their given places on the department store perfumery shelves (remember the days when that was virtually all the perfume that there was available?)
– – This makes me quite nostalgic, actually, the way certain perfumes – Après L’Ondée, say, or Alliage, would be kept under the counter at their respective concessions by their sales representatives, but it didn’t matter because those perfume lovers that wanted those particular scents specifically knew they could make a beeline for them whenever they wanted. They were wanted, which is why they were in constant production. The perfumes were all solid quality; you could trust in them not to be changed to sickening, pale impostors overnight – they were your beloved, signature fragrance.
Both Gem (discontinued) and Van Cleef (also, but depending on your information sources, still possibly available), are perfumes – real perfumes, from this valued, and cherished time, before the psycho, millennial split into toilet cleaners in fancy flacons (high street perfumery) and the vastly priced, decentish perfumes presented to us as the Exclusives, the Extraordinaries, the Private, and Privé Collections and all the rest; the two-tiered approach that every perfume house seems to have adopted now.
Although I knew neither at the time, these two deleted Van Cleefs are both clearly sturdy, well-made perfumes, rich with essence. Gem, which I have no recollection of, and which I experienced for the first time only very recently when I found it for around ten dollars at a Tokyo ‘recycle’ store a couple of weeks ago, had just been tossed into a wicker basket somewhere among the general jumble of the store alongside a whole load of perfumes into the general perfumed bargain bin, and I initially walked (actually limped, like John Merrick) away from the shop deciding to not waste my money………I don’t know, the jewellers – Cartier, Chopard, Van Cleef, Boucheron – never really appealed to me as much as the couturiers…..the matching of a Balenciaga gown with Le Dix, or Worth with Je Reviens – there is a romance there, a duet between scent and silk, fabric and fragrance, that seems more inherently harmonious that the diamond hard surfaces of precious stones that clash like teeth.
Somehow, though, I did a double turn. I was curious. Having smelled the nozzle briefly though (spice?! not what I was expecting) I then, despite myself, found that I was going back to get it.
As it turns out, Gem is now quite a sought after cult item, going for hundreds of dollars on ebay with delirious references to Guerlain Mitsouko and Rochas Femme, a ‘perfume of perfumes’, almost, and it in fact does have some of those classically rich, spiced chypre facets, although in truth to me it is more like a cross perhaps between vintage Opium parfum, and the fruitier, more orange laden KL, by Karl Lagerfeld, just with an extra, mesmerizing aspect of rich (and quite naughtily) animalic jasmine.
With its complexity, depth, opulence and spiciness, this is quite the scintillating perfume, actually, (the plum-filled Kenzo L’Elephant and even Yves Saint Laurent’s classic Kouros even came briefly to my mind for a moment when I was analyzing it later) – a real eighties ‘bitch in furs’ scent – quite dated for its time of release (Duncan guessed 1964 when I gave it him to smell!) and yet perfectly, eminently, full of that classic powerhouse, lip-glossed Dynasty attitude (though I still can’t quite decide whether Alexis or Sable Colby would wear it better). My bottle doesn’t feel at its optimum state – it hasn’t ‘turned’ as such, it just feels a little bit self-marinated, but I know that I will be definitely wheeling this one out again at some point in the future, either to gift to the right person (someone with the real panache and gall to properly carry it off), or else as an adjunct to costume.
There is a used ‘brand’ (the Japanese word for ‘designer’ – there is even a shop devoted to old Louis Vuitton and Chanel handbags and jewellery in Kamakura called Brand Panic) emporium in Ofuna, about twenty minutes from where we live, that sells perfume – Chanel Chance and Coco Mademoiselle extraits at overpriced rates – but when they first started out they used to also have plastic shopping bags out the back that they would bring out for me; loot made of perfume that had seemingly just been thrown out in the trash but which they would allow a crazed foreign scum queen like myself to happily rootle through – full, or almost full, bottles of L’Interdit eau de toilette and the like – I once also got yet another Van Cleef & Arpels perfume, Miss Arpels (ever heard of it? I didn’t think so), in a weirdly shaped, off-centered octagonal bottle with an unintelligible olfactory message; something a bit green tea-ish, melon, magnolia, and peonied – an unfinished oddity by Jean Claude Ellena – who also created First – that I didn’t really like in all honesty and gave to my Japanese teacher (who wore it quite well, in a tediously inoffensive, green floral kind of fashion.)
Van Cleef, though, another scent from that trash bag that had remained hidden from my radar for some unknown reason, was different.
This is an odd one: familiar, but at the same time quite original, created by a perfumer I have never heard of before, Pascal Girout, who seemingly only made this. I sometimes like that idea, though – of a perfumer labouring over one perfectionized fragrance every single day until it is perfect : then never trying again…
Classed as an oriental by Fragrantica (tonka bean, musk, vanilla and cedar; with orange blossom, geranium and sandalwood in the centre), this is nevertheless, like Gem, considerably spicy and cloved, flawless in its construction (it is impossible to discern any seams or any edges between any of the notes), yet fresh and tingly also – all marigold, raspberry, neroli and a touch of galbanum: a curiosity, pebble-smooth, caressingly soft (in that original Kenzo Le Monde Est Beau kind of way), yet to me, quite obviously androgynous. Actually wearing Gem in public would feel quite self-consciously camp to me and hard to imagine, whereas this, more savory, less sugared, is almost Brut by Fabergé or Ambush by Dana: a freshly shaven face eating Kola Kube sweets on a dappling Autumnal day (last summer, when Olivia was showing me the fantastically opulent treasures of her perfume collection, all of which I wanted to steal, she proffered up a small bottle of Van Cleef to me and said have you ever tried this? It’s gorgeous……………very unsurprising, in truth, this synchronicity, given that we are both equally drawn to the delicious and warm in perfumery; more, in general, than the cool, the calm and the collected…)
After I had picked up that first bottle of Van Cleef and smelled it – I have since come into possession of the treasured parfum for a song as well – delightfully dense and close – as I recognized immediately that it was something I would like, I sprayed it all over my freshly washed grey and white lined hoodie as we prepared to cycle back to our house. The scent melded perfectly with the cotton, in that neat, cuddling refuge kind of way (very much a scent to stay in with at the weekend and just escape from the world outside), but, impulsively, on that particular Saturday, for some strange reason, rather than cycle back the usual route, which until that moment we had never deviated from as it was flatter, and generally more scenic – a ride past the temples – I suddenly had a whim to go the much longer back route with its much steeper inclines ; hell on the knees, but good for the heart; and then, inexplicably (she must have been calling), to go into the woods, even though it was completely impassable and impractical on a bike. Perhaps I just wanted to see the lake, where the koi carp swim and which is rumored to be haunted. It’s a lovely place, though, and a good place to rest.
Still, we weren’t expecting – because they were hidden, or at least hiding themselves under a wooden litter bin just by a sharp drop into the forest (there are poisonous snakes in that part of the woods as well, mamushi that bite, with pictorial explanations of what to do if that happens) – four tiny kittens to come suddenly mewling in desperation from under their temporary cover, so wet and bedraggled and in quite a wretched state from their abandonment and night in the forest and running towards us; one of them, with an injured leg, but the fiercest and dazzling newly born blue eyes, making her way straight towards me, crawling up and refusing to let go: this, then, her first ever taste of perfumery, as she nuzzled under my hood…
The park keeper in his hut over the lakeside became aware of all the commotion as we were surrounded by tiny fur balls meowing, and came out and said that he would have to take, or ‘confiscate’ the rest of the kittens – so I have no idea what later became of her siblings, but Mori (‘forest’ in Japanese, the first name that came), clung on to me so fiercely and was so ridiculously cute that I instinctively refused to let go, and we took her home, cycling with her in the shopping basket, where she still is lording and queening it up, in our eccentric, perfumed nest, eight or nine or so years later.
The perfume still reminds me of that day, too, and it always will. I like knowing that it is just there in my collection; enjoy its robust, nerve-soothing predictability. Van Cleef, a scent I probably would never have discovered if it hadn’t been for that strange, lucky Saturday, is thus forever immortalized for me now: in a fun, and life-changing, sweetly perfumed memory tinged with fur.