Friday, April 5, 2013

Form and Fashion: Balenciaga's Scent Trajectory (With a Drawing)

I've never really seen how the early scents produced under the Balenciaga name had much to do with the designs, let alone mystique, of the man himself. In The Master Of Us All: Balenciaga, His Work Rooms, His World, Mary Blume refers to the couturier's presiding aesthetic as "austere extravagance", demonstrating, again, through the course of the book, for anyone who wouldn't know just by looking at his often structurally oblique clothes, that the man, if not the myth, was virtually intractable.

His garments were often, like something out of nature, unclassifiable works of wonder - and he himself, private to the extreme, offered nothing by way of context or explication. He avoided the public, and he avoided trends. In a world that increasingly, post Dior, valued novelty and an ever changing theme, Balenciaga moved more organically, refining his line at a snail's pace. You look at Dior, Saint Laurent, or Givenchy, several of his contemporaries, and see with each year a new iteration, a different direction. Balenciaga was more of a nautilus, curling outward more and more elaborately over time from some undisclosed axis. Many design strategies of his time - most notably, Dior's New Look - reshaped or remapped the female physique. Balenciaga seemed to dematerialize it, rendering each woman who wore him a floating nimbus of shifting lines and moods. Somewhere inside that cloud, an indivisable idea.

The early Balenciaga fragrances are wonderful, but they seem more like something Dior or Givenchy might have inspired. However wonderful they are, they fall far more easily into categorization than the man or the inimitable clothes he created. His first two fragrances, La Fuite des Heures and Le Dix, were released between 1947 and 1949, more than a decade after the designer had moved from Spain to his Paris atelier. I've never smelled La Fuite des Heures. Released years later for the American market as Fleeting Moment, it has been attributed to Germaine Cellier (of Bandit, Fracas, and Jolie Madam) and described varyingly as a chypre and an aldehydic floral. Le Dix, named after the address at 10 Avenue George V where sat Balenciaga's fashion house, is most definitely an aldehydic floral, emphasis on soft woods and cool violet.

While arguably austere, Le Dix is hardly extravagant. Granted, thanks to No. 5, the fashion at the time was for aldehydic florals, yet something along the lines of the inscrutable woody warmth of Arpege would have made more sense to me. Even compared to Chanel No. 5, Le Dix is delicate and pristine. It's one of my favorite violet fragrances, and has special sentimental value to me, having sat inside my grandmother's medicine cabinet during my childhood in an unmarked miniature bottle, but I would never associate it with anything I've since seen by Balenciaga.

Smelling Le Dix in that unmarked bottle, with no idea where it came from or what it was called, I thought of the fragile vintage tulle dresses housed in an old cardboard box up in my grandmother's attic. You touched them and they started to fall apart, their beads scattering on the floor. Le Dix was something from another time, candied, powdered, and quaint, but indicates none of the sculptural durability of Balenciaga's work. Perhaps this goes toward explaining the earliest ads for the scent, which posed the bottle near the designer's face, lest the link be lost on the consumer, with the simple text: "His creation." It was, in fact, the creation of Roure's Francis Fabron (of L'Air du Temps and L'Interdit).

Le Dix also reminds me of an anecdote from Blume's book regarding Chanel and Balenciaga, once friends, then, abruptly, not. At first an advocate of Balenciaga's artistry, Chanel derided him after a falling out involving a magazine article (was there ever a lifelong friend among Chanel's working relationships?). "To a tough cookie like Chanel," writes Blume, "Balenciaga's vulnerability seemed a weakness. His staff knew it was his strength." Le Dix hints at the vulnerability without underscoring the strength.

After her betrayal, Balenciaga returned to Chanel everything he owned associated with her name, including a portrait of her she'd loaned him, as if to say, "You look at yourself for a change." Anyone can make such a renunciatory gesture. It takes a lot of backbone to enforce it over time, and Balenciaga seems to have, by all reports I can find, never dealing with Chanel again in anything approaching the spirit of their earlier friendship.

He was stronger yet than even that. To the dismay of his friend Givenchy, he attended Chanel's funeral, explaining, "In life there are things one must forget, the ills that people have done to you." It's hard to imagine grudge-holding Chanel appearing at Balenciaga's funeral, had the tables of mortality been turned, and just as hard to imagine that bedrock strength of character smelling Le Dix.

Until the seventies, Le Dix, Fleeting Moment, and a later addition, Quadrille (1955), defined the Balenciaga style through fragrance. Quadrille was rethought (ie reformulated) in the eighties, adapting its mossy chypre structure to the style of those times with an infusion of dark plummy fruits. In either formulation, Quadrille alone comes closest for me to matching or expressing Balenciaga's mystique. You can get a little lost in its moss-laden depths in a way diaphanous Le Dix makes unlikely. Le Dix seems thematically transparent, Quadrille more opaque, its movements more subterranean. Like chiffon, Le Dix seems to hide nothing. Quadrille is sturdier, more voluptuous stuff, recalling the fabrics Balenciaga worked very hard to find - like Gazar, a nubbed silk that took several years to engineer and ably supported the structural folds and contours which became Balenciaga trademarks.

It took a while for the fashions of fragrance to catch up to the fashion of Balenciaga. By then, Balenciaga had closed his salon. By the seventies and eighties, the trend in fragrance was increasingly robust and byzantine, and scents like Ho Hang (1971: a masculine fougere eventually claimed by as many women as men), Michelle (1979: a velvety floriental by Francoise Caron), Portos (1980: a front loaded woody, leathery animalic with a wonderfully pungent cumin accent), and Prelude (1982: an unusual amber pulled in different directions by florals and spices) got closer and closer to the formidable inscrutability that was Balenciaga. These scents required time to understand. Like Balanciaga's constructions - the melon sleeves, the envelope dress, the wedding gown with "coal scuttle" headdress (pictured) - they're at once broadly stroked and infinitely nuanced. The reformulation of Quadrille brought it up to that speed, and taken together these scents, for me, compose a nearly complete and accurate picture of Balenciaga's oeuvre.

Rumba (1989: a rich, patchouli laden floral) tipped the scales to the other side, falling so in step with the trends of its time that, wonderful as it is, it contradicted Balenciaga's singularity. The more recent Balenciaga Paris went full circle, recalling the bright fragility of Le Dix, adding waifish inconsequentiality to Le Dix's ephemeral charms.  Florabotanica put a period on things, and relates to nothing but its own pleasantly content mediocrity. In between, there were Cristobal (1998: floral vanilla), Ho Hang Club (1987: woody leather), and Talisman (1994: early stage fruitchouli), some more decent than others.

(Leave a comment telling me your favorite Balenciaga - or the one you're most curious about - and why, and I'll draw two winners for a sample of one of the following: Le Dix, Quadrille, Cristobal femme/homme, Rumba, Balenciaga Paris, or Prelude)


Bryan Ross said...

I happen to love Balenciaga Pour Homme. It's a lovely composition, full of brisk citruses, woods, artemisia, and musk. In many ways it reminds me of a cross between Caron's Yatagan and YSL's Kouros, but without the uniformity of the former or the decadence of the latter. Really good, high-quality stuff. Thanks for this post, it's a good look at an interesting brand.

Brian said...

Oh man. I totally forget about Balenciaga Pour Homme. I love that one too. That's a good analogy. I can see both of those fragrances in it.

Katy McReynolds said...

I think I am most curious about Quadrille. Those plummy notes get me every time! I actually like Florabotanica. I get quite a bit of vetiver from it and layer it with a little Encre Noire to dirty up it's way too clean base. It might be improved by some Body Shop White Musk perfume oil. Honestly, I bought a bottle after trying some Thierry Muglar flankers, in all their overpowering Wagnerian superlative ness, I was just relieved to smell something less complex! Should my gratitude have been an investment in a full bottle? Probably not......

Brian said...

I hear you. I actually felt that way with Balenciaga Paris. Kind of a palate cleanser for me. I need those. I just get a little vexed when I feel like that's all I have to choose from. Mixing florabitanica with encre noire sounds like a great combo.

wefadetogray said...

I dont recall having ever tried any Balenciaga except Florabotanica fairly recently but I did not like it. I would love to try Paris and Quadrille.

Gwenyth said...

I discovered the perfumes of Balenciaga many years ago. My first discovery was Le Dix. I remember being so enchanted by its beauty.

I had always been a perfume lover (I commented about my love of early Avon perfumes as my "gateway" drug...) But I fell down the rabbit hole to the wonderland of perfumes when I discovered the online communities of fellow Perfumistas. I've been lost ever since. :)

On a whim, I ordered a vintage bottle of Le Dix. (People could buy vintage perfumes online?? Who knew?) My first sniff caused my eyes to roll back in my head. Such a gorgeous scent! Then I was off and running. Cristobal, Talisman, Rumba, Michelle....they followed in quick succession.

Either I am an utterly simple person with absolutely NO discernment or I am simply easily pleased; because I rarely find a perfume I don't at least like. I'm hopeless.

The Balenciaga perfumes are exquisite and I was SO thrilled when the new ones have been released. It is a venerable House with much to offer.

Thanks, as always for your post - so well written, so well constructed, and very thoughtful.

(No need to enter me in the draw)

Katy Josephine said...

I am most curious about Le Dix, but most enamored with Rumba because I don't quite get it yet. The fact that it was formulated by Jean Claude Elena blows my mind, and because I LOVE him, I keep trying to love Rumba. But in the end, it's not quite right...too much cinnamon and not enough leather. But God, do I want to love it.

Julia said...

Being a huge fan of violets, I really quite like Balenciaga Paris, but that and Florabotanica are all I've smelled. Am very curious about Le Dix because of the violet notes!

Brian said...

Hiya Josephine. I've been reading Ellena's THE DIARY OF A NOSE recently, and while he hasn't mentioned Rumba, he has mentioned First, another now untypical fragrance for him, compared to what we think of his "style" now. I think it relates to Rumba:

"Up until the 1970s, perfumes prided themselves on being accomplished works. They were complex rather than structured; they were piled high, an accumulation, an addition, and afforded only one reading. There was a sort of pretention in this, a desire to dominate that tolerated no criticism. I followed this model when I composed First for Van Cleef & Arpels in 1976.Gorged on analyses of market archetypes, I collected, borrowed, and conflated every signal for femininity, wealth and power into this perfume, which, over time, has become alien to me. I certainly do not disown it. The loving relationship I had with it lasted only the time it took to create it."

I'm not sure I agree with him when he implies that this was a standard confined to the 1970s, as perfumes of the kind he's talking about are certainly still being made (admittedly in niche if not in mainstream perfumery). But it's definitely an insight into HIS evolution. Now, he says, he composes with spaces built in, and the smeller projects into those spaces.

Brian said...

This draw is now closed. Thanks for participating.

Bryan and Katy, please get in touch with me through the blog.

Susan said...

Just wanted to leave a note that I adore Le Dix. Might be my favorite violet. I haven't tried any other classic Balenciagas... just the modern stuff. I think Balenciaga Paris is pretty nice.