I always used to think of Révillon’s Detchema, Caron’s Fleurs de Rocaille and Le Galion’s Sortilège as three dowdy ladies in bouclé outfits and beige, slightly cracked patent leather shoes, having tea in a corner bar of Avenue Montaigne and deploring the fall of the past subjunctive in French. Now that early perfume history is slowly emerging from the shadows, it is becoming obvious that their heyday had been the first thirty years of the 20th century. This was the time when Paul Parquet, Ernest Beaux, Paul Vacher and others hit upon a new form of perfume abstraction which mixed, rose, jasmine, sandalwood, aldehydes and a host of other materials to end up with the classic parfum fourrure, the “fur perfume” that defined perfumery for the next forty years.
Perfumery differs from painting in that mixing things at random gives a leafy green, not brown. In fact, achieving the uniform golden tan smell of Sortilège and its cohort can be counted as one of perfumery’s miracles. I think of it as —no disrespect intended— Nutella with a twist of lemon zest, and smelling Sortilège again among the samples Le Galion sent reminded me of why this style was for long the reference perfume.
Le Galion fell upon hard times in the ’90s and was recently revived, with many of its classics reformulated with what feels like care and respect. I don’t have the originals of Whip, Special for Gentlemen and Sortilège at hand for comparison, but the new ones smell entirely believable, respectively a woody, creamy lemon à la Monsieur Balmain, a classic shaven-dad marvel in the manner of Old Spice, and the smell of Mother in a fur coat wearing heels and a dark lipstick leaving you with the nanny to go to the Opéra. Sortilège in particular smells lovely, smooth, sweetly nostalgic and with a superb drydown. I think I would pick it over Chanel No.5 at this point, and suspect it would make a perfect perfume for adolescents tired of wearing La Vie est Belle.
In the sample box were included a few novel fragrances that indicate the course Le Galion intends to steer from now on. Rodrigo Flores-Roux composed two colognes, one for the day and one Nocturne. The day one is the classic perfumery iceberg, fooling you into thinking that the emerged part of fresh lemon is all there is to it, whereas nine-tenths of it is below the waterline, with an opulent, dandified heart and drydown that goes on for hours. Nocturne is a very clever, original accord of lavender and citrus with a weird counterpoint of sweet and woody notes beneath. Both are excellent. Finally, an outlier point is Aesthete, composed by the young perfumer Vanina Muracciole, a woody-spicy composition that feels like a brilliant riff on the classics, a sort of punk-Sortilège that augurs well for the next hundred years.
Update: Yesterday I happened to pick up the Sortilège smelling strip while fixing supper, with hands smelling of garlic and soy sauce. The combination smelled surprisingly good, which reminded me of Guy Robert once telling me that his kind of fragrance did not clash with food. When I look back on Poison, Amarige, Samsara and Opium perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of ’80s fragrances was the fact that they could wreck a good dinner at thirty paces.
Categories: niche houses