When it came to the scents to go with the clothes, it has to be said that Paul Poiret, the most legendary designer of them all, actually led the way. He dispensed with the corset, and introduced a fluid line. It was Poiret too [with his “Parfums de Rosine” brand], who first introduced perfume to a couture house, causing an almighty storm that took years to subside.
“What does a dress designer know about perfume?!” Thundered the purists. “Would one expect a perfumer to design dresses?”
And yet? Who better? Who would know women better than one who dresses them? No more or less than designing the correct scarf to go with an outfit, the correct scent is as important an accessory as the right shoes or bag.
Others quickly followed suit...
Over half a century has passed since Jean Patou and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel ruled the fashionable world in Paris; dictated style, vied for clients and fired salvoes at each other from their scented salons.
So alike, so different. Brother and sister under the skin, dedicated and passionate rivals with so much in common. The elegant Patou, “that Hercules!” as Elsa Maxwell called him; indefatigable ladies’ man, habitué of the race-tracks and gaming tables, son of a prosperous tanner from Normandy; and Coco Chanel, illegitimate child of peasant stock from Saumur.
|Jean Patou - at work...|
Both peaked at about the same time, both specialised in “the nothing look”; Chanel with her vests and cardigans, and Patou with his sportswear. Chanel’s “little vest” had actually been inspired by a buttoned fine wool undergarment “borrowed” from a lover. The lover, being English, bought his vests from an exclusive haberdasher in Bond Street, and these vests were made in Nottingham, woven from silk and wool that crunched to nothing in the hand, and clung to the body. Very sexy. Very suggestive.
Chanel took one of these vests, dyed it, added a collar, put it with a pleated skirt, and launched the look that screams “understated class” to this day.
While Coco perfected her vests, Patou concentrated on sport and dressing the modern sportswoman, the greatest coup at the time being his contract to dress Suzanne Lenglen – the French tennis goddess of the day. Spectacularly ugly, even her most fervent admirers could never claim her to be a beauty, but Patou made her look good.
This was the age of “le sport”, that frenetic time between the wars, when clothes that could “move” were needed for leisured people who never kept still.
If they weren’t golfing, sailing, bathing, motoring or playing tennis, they were doing the “Black Bottom”, “Shimmy”, “Bunny-Hug” or the “Charleston”.
Clothes were needed that could keep pace with all this activity, and both Chanel and Patou vied constantly with each other to provide them.
Whilst Patou publicly sneered at dress designers who designed for the theatre (as Chanel did), Chanel swiped back with her emphatic statement that “no man can design clothes for women: clothes must be logical. No man is logical, so how can they design women’s clothes?”
However, in the area of “les riens”, as both described accessories – including perfume – Chanel pipped Patou, not just to the post, but to the Winner’s Enclosure.
Thanks to her friend Misia Sert (known so well, she was known only as “Misia”) who gave her the idea, and to Ernest Beaux who mixed the potions she chose to bear her name, she brought out No5, Gardenia, Bois des Iles, Cuir de Russie, and No22 in rapid succession.
Patou, having launched several fragrances without particularly notable impact, eventually hit the jackpot with JOY, five years after the birth of Chanel’s No5, in 1926.
|Patou's famous "Joy" - formerly "the costliest perfume in the world"|
Prior to this, however, he had hit upon the extraordinarily wonderful and novel idea of setting up a bar in his salons, where bored men waiting for their wives and mistresses to complete a fitting, could have a drink and choose a scent from the selection displayed at the bar.
Presented in classic Art Deco crystal bottles with pineapple shaped stoppers (designed by Louis Suë), one could choose from Amour-Amour (for blondes), Que Sais-je? (for brunettes), and Adieu Sagesse! (for redheads).[i]
Le Sien followed, the first “unisex” perfume; fresh, outdoors, and sporty. JOY then followed in 1928, along with the Cocktail selection. This revolutionary range consisted of 3 basic scents: Cocktail Dry, Cocktail Sweet, and Cocktail Bittersweet – for the 4th, you had the opportunity to create the 4th yourself by mixing your own.
By 1971, No5 had grossed $15million, and despite its prohibitive price tag, Patou’s JOY wasn’t far behind. By then, however, Charlie had been born in the pungent wake of Youth Dew, and it seemed that charming world of elegance, subtlety and sophistication, perched on a bar stool in a Paris salon choosing scents while “Madame” got her outfit just right, might well be gone for good.
Indeed, for a time, it seemed that France was content to stand aside with traditional insouciance and watch as the perfume industry across the Atlantic swamped the globe with brassy pongs and sledgehammer marketing. By the mid-80’s, the world was suffocating in a fog of overpowering potions more suited to the Casbah or harem, because, put simply, this was where the money was coming from and the market the industry was most eager to please.
Finally, Patou, as if waking from a long sleep, eased out of their indolence and decided to do something about it.
In time for Christmas 1983, they relaunched the glorious Normandie, smelling of roses and carnations, moss, jasmine, and expensive leather suitcases – the sort of suitcases that needed porters to carry them onto luxury liners, long, long ago, in that period of gaiety between the two World Wars. This was the sort of scent that took an evening to develop from the first cocktail to that final goodnight under the trans-Atlantic stars. And if the evening lasted longer... so did the scent.
At the same time, Chanel, as if waking from the same long sleep, brought back Cuir de Russie (favoured of Bianca Jagger), Bois des Isles, Gardenia (although a very disappointing new formula), and No22.
Almost in response, having originally thought only to reissue three of their most famous past glories (Chaldée, Vacances, and Cocktail) Patou damned the torpedoes entirely in a spectacular splash at the tail end of 1984, bringing out no less than 12 of their early designer scents in glorious Suë designed bottles, giving everyone the chance to compare present day offerings with those available in the past.
|The magnificent and mouth-watering Patou Collection of Classic Scents. For one brief shining moment in the mid 1980s, you could actually buy all of these...alas, no more.|
Such comparison could well have proved odious, which might well be just what the ever elegant house of Patou had in mind. For whereas now, confusion abounds and to distinguish one “new” creation from another is practically impossible as they hurtle off production lines in chemical factories quicker than coconuts at a fair-ground shy, to bombard a punch-drunk public with yet more combinations of tuberose, gardenia and jasmine, developed by chemists in pharmaceutical companies and hawked around to be sold with minor adjustments of the same formula to the various perfume houses, Patou’s were all individual, each one blazingly different to the other.
Amour-Amour, Que Sais-je? and Adieu Sagesse represent the three stages of a love affair. Warm, hesitant, spicy Chaldée, the Ambre Solaire of its day, brings back memories of holidays in the South of France, and warm, relaxed lazy laughter.
Moment Suprême is the sophistication of the sort of woman who could afford to be dressed by Jean Patou, and who possessed the supreme self-assurance to place her faith in “simple” lavender.
Normandie evokes the leisured life enjoyed by passengers on one of the most luxurious and legendary ocean liners of all time. With a hint of the sort of leather that went to make very expensive luggage before some tram-lined bore decided that “leather” based scents were too masculine and only men should wear them, in a spectacular marketing move, every lady who travelled First Class on the Normandie’s maiden voyage, found a bottle of Normandie at her place at dinner.
|Patou's "Normandie" - created for the luxury liner of the same name|
The hint of cinnamon in Divine Folie and the dry buzz given by Cocktail recall “Les Années Folles”, the mad-cap years between the wars, known as “The Long Party”.
Colony brought a touch of citrus from distant islands across the sea, Vacances, the light but heady scent of lilacs drifting from a summer garden (and created to commemorate France’s first Public Holiday – Patou was not so distanced by the rich that he forgot the poor entirely).
L’Heure Attendue, a sigh of relief and a cry for joy to greet the end of the war, 6 years austerity and enemy occupation. “Awaited hour” – warm, rich, luxurious; to show both France and Jean Patou were finally back in business.
Câline, a gesture to the young, probably the only truly and consciously “youthful” fragrance Patou ever made – to reflect the spirit of the “swinging 60’s”.
12 fragrances, all totally different, each with an individual statement to make. For one brief moment in the mid-80’s, we did not have to imagine what such legendary long-gone scents were like, we could try them for ourselves.
Typically, Parfums Jean Patou did not play safe with a “dummy run” of just one or two to test the temperature of the market, they risked the lot in one throw of the dice on the table.[ii] Rather like their founder often did on the tables at Monte... One can almost see M. Patou’s smile of approval.
Sadly however, this time the gamble did not pay off, for Dior’s Poison was waiting in the wings. The test-tube fragrance – fathered by a laboratory robot, placed in the surrogate womb of consumer research – thrusting forth like the Alien to pervade continent after continent.
It seems we were not ready for a return to elegance. We had in fact, even farther to fall. It seems the public no longer exists, subtle enough, varied enough, sophisticated enough, or civilised enough to appreciate such gestures. We have become too bland, too safe, too homogenised and too colourless to recognise a life-line when we see one thrown into the insipid sea in which we have been drowning for so long. In which case, we probably deserve to drown.
But to the inveterate and impossibly glamorous gambler Jean Patou, just for the few customers who fell on these reissued scents and bought as many as they could afford, this brief, glorious, sadly limited run would undoubtedly have been considered more than worth the risk.
“Ah well...” He would no doubt smile as he did when tearing up a betting slip at the track: “there goes another dress...!”
[i] A contemporary advertisement has the scents definitely aimed at these groups as stated, although it is often thought that Amour-Amour was intended for brunettes and Que Sais-je? for blondes.
[ii] [As my mother predicted, bottles from this limited mid-80’s run are now collectors’ items. I treasure my bottle of Vacances, bought at Fortnum and Mason, which came with a fabulous 1930’s inspired silk handkerchief. EWB]