Recently, I've been exchanging emails with Elena over at Perfume Shrine about a series of mysteries revolving around Youth Dew and its somewhat unknown related iterations, all of which were released during a little blip on the Lauder screen in the mid seventies. It's been fun playing detectives - the fragrances have come and gone, so it's all harmless mystery. Things get a little more serious, I learned, when a more established fragrance is forced into what is considered by its die hard fans a weird sort of early retirement. I'm speaking of the latest Youth Dew reformulation, but I'll get to that.
In 1977, Estee Lauder released Soft Youth Dew, a flanker to her flagship fragrance. At least, I think she did. Pick a day, any day, and run a search on Ebay for Soft Youth Dew. All you're ever likely to find are half ounce gift with purchase bottles. It's almost as if the fragrance was put on a giveaway trial run and quickly considered ill-advised, without ever actually being put on sale. Stranger still, when I did find something other than a half ounce bottle of Soft Youth Dew, it was a vintage tester bottle. The juice in that tester bottle smells very little like the Soft Youth Dew contained in the half ounce bottles, several of which I've smelled. It's much closer to Youth Dew proper, with a hand extending firmly toward Cinnabar.
Cinnabar was released a year after Soft Youth Dew, and the bottle it comes in hasn't changed much over the years. What has changed is the cap, and the name. Soon after the appearance of Soft Youth Dew, Cinnabar was introduced under the title "Cinnabar, Soft Youth Dew Fragrance". The cap for the earliest spray bottles of Cinnabar is identical, except in color, to the cap on my Soft Youth Dew tester bottle. Viewing these together was the first time I'd thought about a direct, explicit connection between Youth Dew and Cinnabar. When you remove Cinnabar's cap, you see that the bottle looks very much like the original bath oil and cologne flacons for Youth Dew. Many people have commented on a connection between the fragrances, but that has always been a perceived connection, based on ingredients and standards of classification. Those earliest bottles for Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar, as well as the commingling of their names, makes their intrinsic connection crystal clear.
Also clear: Lauder had no apparent problem with a connection being made. Either way, she would succeed: Cinnabar might, on the one hand, trade on the success and lineage of Youth Dew; on the other, it might break new ground as something quite different, for those who didn't really fancy Youth Dew much. Soft Youth Dew disappeared. Youth Dew and Cinnabar prevailed, the latter presenting some formidable competition for Opium, a similar oriental released the year before.
Elena pointed out to me the possibility or probability that Lauder and Yves Saint Laurent might have been in competition over the choice of Opium's inro style tasseled bottle. Had Lauder won, the strategy for Cinnabar's marketing might have been different. Opium, of course, won, but Lauder clearly next bested Yves, choosing a name for her oriental which embodied inro without having to shape itself as one. There was a bit of been there done that to Lauder's decision in packaging Cinnabar anyway. For years she'd been presenting solids of her fragrances in decorative compartments one could attach to a dangling chain. Essentially, as Elena pointed out, the inro-themed idea was first hers. Besides which: While Opium was a provocative name, Cinnabar was a richly evocative one, whose associations reverberated in the consumer's imagination, as opposed perhaps to simply scandalizing or titillating it.
Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar/Soft Youth Dew Fragrance weren't the first times an Estee Lauder fragrance appeared and disappeared in short order. Soft Youth Dew competed with Lauder's own trio of fragrances: Pavilion, Celadon, and White Linen, one of which will sound very familiar to you, two of which you've possibly never heard. It wasn't the last time the Youth Dew franchise was openly toyed around with, either: years later, Youth Dew Amber Nude was there, then not.
In between all these up front conceptual tinkerings have been behind closed doors tweaks and adjustments - and not just of Youth Dew but of all the Lauder scents. Almost everyone realizes that Youth Dew has changed at least a little over the years. The animalics it originally contained had long since been removed a year ago or less (or more), when the fragrance changed more than ever before. Until this latest change, Youth Dew die hards remained content(-ish). The juice remained that nice dark balsamic brown. Its oils pooled luxuriantly on the skin. Its smell contained a thousand childhoods, and motherhoods, a menagerie of memories and remembered moods.
Want to see a shit-storm? Visit the Lauder page and peruse the customer reviews for Youth Dew. Notice that around this time last year, the objections began. They haven't stopped since. "This is not my Youth Dew," wrote YouthDewGirl, age 55-64, El Cajon, California. "I do not know what Estee Lauder has done to this fragrance but it is terrible now... Bring the old Youth Dew back again!"
"The new generation will never know what they have missed," according to Mother01, age 55-64, Elkton. "They will try the new version and move on, because it is nothing special now. The original scent was used by four generations of women in my family."
You get the picture. So do they. This litany of objections, as several note in the "reviews", demonstrates how savvy the loyal consumer is. The Lauder lady at the counter will tell them nothing has changed, just as I was told yesterday at the mall, but the longtime Lauder buyer smells rat. In a sense, Elena and I have been, in the last few weeks, enacting our own version of this online commiseration, comparing our impressions and theories about Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar and their relationship to Youth Dew original, testing personal perceptions against those of a peer.
For us, it's innocent sleuthing. To the Youth Dew Loyalist, changes to the formula are a far less entertaining affair. For the Lauder brand, this breach of contract with the consumer is serious business indeed, and if the reviewers honor their word, the company will realize they only thought they knew what a slump in sales truly meant. Reading these reviews I thought, don't mess with loyalty. Then too, I thought that anyone who's ever gotten into an argument with a woman of a certain age should know better than to try to pull the rug out from under one. Tell her you're selling insurance out of Cambodia and need to dip into her pension, maybe, but messing with her fragrance is folly.
Still, I thought, how bad could it be? So I went and smelled it.
I don't think it is bad. In fact, I like it. It's a fine fragrance, better than most, on its own terms. The problem is that Youth Dew can't be separated from its own terms: that's a lesson Lauder might have learned herself with early Cinnabar and Soft Youth Dew, and it's a lesson Tom Ford must have surely learned the hard way with Amber Nude. As the Lauder sales associate told me yesterday, the biggest obstacle for Amber Nude was the fact that no one seemed to be able to figure out it wasn't meant to REPLACE Youth Dew. Thus the constant refrain: What happened to my Youth Dew? Hard to sell a flanker when it sits between the original and its loyalist.
The feelings for and against Youth Dew are strong enough that no side really wants to see something slightly different. Take it or leave it, yes. Six or half a dozen, not so much. "Everything that made Estee Lauder's original fragrance so unforgettable is still here," read the ads for Soft Youth Dew. "It's all just a little s-o-f-t-e-r." Apparently, not soft enough, or too soft altogether when it comes to lovers and haters of the original.
The newest Youth Dew is more leathery to me. It still comes in the Body Satinee, the cream, the dusting powder, the bath oil, the deodorant (head scratcher, that one). All are arguably just as penetrating as Youth Dew's ever been, in any concentration. The oil won't be pooling, but the fragrance sticks around. No more cola colored contents. No more deep, dark, recesses of the earth balsamic structure. It can hardly be said that this Youth Dew is younger, or hipper, less stately than Youth Dews past, so it's hard to believe the changes have been an effort to win new consumers. It's a woody oriental, with less floral decadence than it once, even recently, had. Stealth woody orientals aren't selling like hotcakes, last time I checked.
This version, in fact, reminds me more of an exercise like Amber Nude and Soft Youth Dew than it does a reformulation. In effect, in all but name, a flanker. In some ways it reminds me of the reformulated Magie Noire's relationship to its original. It remains, however dark and oriental, surface bound somehow, lacking that weird vintage resonance. Still, for me, if not for the Lauder website reviewer, it's unmistakably Youth Dew - and latest Youth Dew's version of surface is still far deeper than the majority of contemporary fragrances.
It's interesting to consider what Lauder, still living, might have made of all this - let alone to ponder whether she would have allowed it in the first place. I like to think she learned some kind of lesson with Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar, though I don't know just what that would be. In truth, her handling of those two related fragrances, however superficially confusing, was done intelligently enough that no existing fragrance was compromised, no established name muddled. It's hard to imagine Estee, who spent so many years building her empire, woman by woman, relationship by relationship, countenancing this kind of maneuver, which amounts to betrayal in the eyes of many of those women. Better to have let Youth Dew die, she might have thought.
Which is exactly what the ladies on Lauder's website are saying.
(Pictured: the changing face of Youth Dew - from Youth Dew to Cinnabar and everywhere in between. Top photo: Cinnabar, Soft Youth Dew Fragrance. Second down: Tester bottle for Soft Youth Dew. Third down: Early bottle for Cinnabar. Fourth down: Early Youth Dew cologne bottle. Fifth down: Magazine ad for Soft Youth Dew. Sixth down: A hybrid Cinnabar/Youth Dew/Soft Youth Dew bottle, with Youth Dew's silhouette, Soft Youth Dew's name, and Cinnabar's branding.)
Monday, April 29, 2013
Saturday, April 20, 2013
In 1969, Dina Merrill, until then regarded as a socialite turned model/actress, created a line of cosmetics in association with Coty under the name Amaranthe. Merrill's father was E.F. Hutton (When he talked, people listened). Her mother was cereal heir Marjorie Merriwether Post. During Merrill's childhood, her mother convinced her father to buy out Birds Eye frozen foods. He resisted, thinking frozen foods were a fad with a short shelf life. She insisted, pointing out that shelf life was immaterial when it came to frozen foods, and their fortunes significantly metastasized. Their company eventually became General Foods. You've probably eaten more than a few General Foods products, so you can imagine how wealthy Merrill's family was. Along with that fortune, Merrill inherited her mother's headstrong business sense, making her a logical choice for Coty.
She wasn't simply the name behind Amaranthe, the way Jennfier Lopez and any number of celebrities put their names on beauty products now. Running a company was in her blood. Coty had been bought out by Pfizer in 1963, and was going through the kind of seismic changes representative of the cosmetics industry at large. Those changes required different directions, territory most recently, at the time, epitomized by Revlon. In 1956, Charles Revson had the wisdom to bring Princess Borghese's cosmetics line into his company's portfolio. Borghese was real life Italian royalty and her cosmetics were known in her country as "family secret recipes". My family's secret recipes involve cookies, but the rich roll differently, and the buying public has always been fascinated, to the point of mimicry, with the rich, which might be why cookies cost a fraction of the price on a tube of a royal's lipstick.
Revlon's move wasn't an unmotivated stroke of genius. All of the cosmetics companies were losing ground to Estee Lauder, whose higher price points and limited distribution strategies had changed the playing field. Revlon competed through its Borghese acquisition. Faberge launched the Juliette Marglen division. Max Factor purchased the already established Alexandra de Markoff line. Perfumes and cosmetics had long been endorsed by celebrities, but Lauder was something different, a sort of homespun in-the-know, hands-on magnate - what the British might call a Battle Axe, with flawless make-up on - and the success of her persona forced her competitors to rethink their market profiles - drafting not just endorsements but self styled "creator pioneers".
Dina Merrill wasn't Italian royalty but she was a pretty close stateside approximation, and more than Borghese she touched upon the all-American appeal of Estee Lauder. She supervised the Amaranthe line until the mid -70's, when it folded. In a People magazine article from 1980 she mentioned her frustration with the way department stores allotted floor space to cosmetics companies, calling their practices corrupt. You have to imagine she was referring in a veiled way to Lauder, who, to this day, has the kind of focused presence in department stores that Coty and Revlon can only dream of. While Coty has plenty of celebrity scents represented at the mall, you're just as likely to see its product at Walgreen's, whereas Lauder has, after all these years, maintained its uniquely exclusive, independent counter presence at Macy's and its ilk (not just through Lauder proper but through Clinique, another kind of main street apothecary-in-the-mall brainchild). Lauder had taken the model of the door to door Avon saleswoman - a neighborhood friend bearing tips and trends - and transplanted that living room experience into high end, high volume brick and mortar sales figures.
Merrill's official story differed from Lauder's in the sense she had no real "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" appeal; yet the women shared a unique persona, that of perfectly coiffed business sense steeliness. Ultimately, Merrill might have been the wrong kind of move for Coty in this chess game with Lauder. Like Grace Kelly, Merrill was perceived as a bit of an ice princess shiksa by the American public, with none of Lauder's underdog brunette chutzpah - admirable, but not exactly relatable.
Business sense doesn't necessarily imply audacity, but it did for Lauder, who was perceived in many ways as the woman next door with bright ideas and no nonsense advice. She wasn't above getting her hands dirty, which is a little different than a socialite sitting on the board of directors, high up on a corporate penthouse floor. In all the stories about Lauder you can imagine the feisty click of her fast moving heels. Merrill's are muffled by plush carpet. These aren't nearly the truths of the matter, but Lauder, famously elastic with the truth, knew better than anyone that the buying public didn't go by truth but by appearances, and Merrill's public persona was a lot more patricianly effete.
Amaranthe released one fragrance of the same name, and however lovely, it too was a bit ill-judged. Hate them or love them (I love them), Lauder's fragrances match her persona - strong willed, full of presence and drama, a little bossy, a little intrusive. Even Soft Youth Dew - until then, about the softest Lauder fragrances got - was more shrieking than shrinking violet. It wasn't really until the -90's that Lauder produced anything even remotely resembling something other than bombastic, and it's arguable that even Pleasures and White Linen Breeze had the kind of stealth you could never really misconstrue as anything other than robust.
At the time of its release, Amaranthe had Estee, Youth Dew, and Azuree to compete with in the Lauder line-up. Those fragrances, even then, were slightly old fashioned - high drama balsamic, aldehyde and leather constructions. Amaranthe was old fashioned in a different way - probably closer to Coty's 1913 Muguet de Bois than anything more up-to-date in the brand's fragrance profile. Yet it was hardly outdated, unlike Lauder's output at the time maybe, and in fact more forward thinking, adding to its muguet theme a bright peachy succulence. It thought ahead to the kind of fragrance which is practically ubiquitous today, upbeat and unassuming, but executed it with far more class. Put the name Ralph Lauren on the bottle and it would sell respectably in today's marketplace, I imagine. Amaranthe isn't exactly squeaky clean, though I smell nothing anywhere near animalic in it - but far more than anything Lauder or Borghese produced, it was bright and more arguably classically all-American. It was more mid -50's than late -60's probably, but hardly -30's and -40's like, say, Lauder's bestsellers.
There's nothing even faintly sensual about Amaranthe; nothing close to dramatic. Which isn't to say it isn't wonderful. However familiar in its parts, the whole is something I can't remember smelling before the mid-nineties. Knowing anything about Merrill's persona, it's hard to imagine her approving anything else. Amaranthe is perfectly engineered to express her known cinematic qualities - more blonde than brunette, more reserved than showy, reassuring rather than provocative. In addition to the muguet and its counterpart peach theme, Amaranthe has something subtly lactonic going on. I would call it golden milky, a quality its bottle and packaging somehow reinforce.
The shape of the larger bottle resembled a peach, forcing you to hold it as you would that fruit. Its glass extends this impression further, covered in a rubbery tactile material, showing the "juice" inside - half brandy, half sunshine in color. There's the subtlest trace of high end liqueur in it, as well as whiffs of rose and jasmine, but it steers clear of deep woods and white floral indoles. It isn't in the least declarative. It's what you imagined you might smell if you got close to the face of -50's mainstays like Doris Day and, obviously, Dina Merrill herself, the peachy, good natured cleanliness America wants to believe emanates from the rosy cheeks of its young women. The bosom was left to Lauder, and the success of her fragrances, and the relative failure of Amaranthe, suggests that, however in love with the ideal of a clean-scrubbed face America was, it inevitably stooped to cleavage.
Amaranthe is almost impossible to find now. I found a bottle like the one pictured above on Ebay, reasonably priced.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
If you've only smelled the reformulation of Molinard's Miss Habanita and been led to believe it has little or no connection to its reason for being, good old smoky Habanita, it's perfectly understandable - and I feel sorry for you. Here's a good, if kind of tragic, example of a careless reformulation, where everything interesting and even remotely complicated has been altogether removed from the fragrance as initially conceived. And for what? It's hard to imagine the current version of Miss Habanita selling any better in the present marketplace than what it replaced might have.
Released in 1994, over 70 years after the release of Habanita, original Miss Habanita is one of my favorites, and the two relate to each other in fascinating ways. Miss Habanita, these days, is a densely sugared white musk affair, chokingly sweet, depressingly banal for something so relentlessly perky. Its fruits are neon jammy, and the neon is right up in your grille. Fruits have been done better, frankly, and original Miss Habanita is still around here and there on Ebay to prove it.
Classified as a fruity chypre, its take on fruit recalls Nina Ricci's Deci Dela, by Jean Guichard, which was released the same year. Deci Dela and Miss Habanita are very similar in their use of steeped fruits over a drier than dry base of oakmoss. This isn't cheery, life affirming succulence. It's darker than that; more earthy. While we're all waxing poetic over our romantic ideas about oakmoss, let's remind ourselves how the Egyptians viewed it. As Edwin T. Morris mentions in Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel, it was once an essential part of the embalming process. Egyptians stuffed the cavities of eviscerated corpses with it, preparing for burial and the afterlife. Then as now, it was a good fixative; its antimicrobial properties "serving admirably in the mummifying process". When some people smell oakmoss and say it reminds them of something damp and musty, they're not too far off the mark.
Pretty elemental stuff - as opposed to, say, something slightly smooth and sweet which used to be in a lot of fragrances in much larger quantities. Vis a vis Miss Habanita, let's put it another way: someone took the peach off Mattisse's table, where it fit in with the contrived color scheme, and threw it out in the yard, where time's gotten to it and reminded you that a painting, like mummification, freezes things into a lie. The fragrance sits comfortably somewhere between compote and compost. Original Miss Habanita was a late stage reminder that at one point perfumery had as much to do with the unknown and the unsettling as smelling fancy or clean. Miss Habanita has a little weirdness and mystique in it, mixing the beautiful with the ever so slightly macabre. Listen, don't get me wrong. Miss Habanita isn't that dark. But we've gotten so used to FRUITY FLORAL meaning something much brighter and perkier and airheaded that a recalibration might be necessary before approaching what that used to mean.
Miss Habanita distinguishes itself from Deci Dela further by faithfulness to its source, a composition which itself plumbed the depths of the darker side. I wouldn't say that Miss Habanita is perfect for those who find Habanita a little much, obviously. For one thing, a Miss can get in just as much trouble as a Mrs., if not more. Ideally, appreciating one means appreciating the other. Miss Habanita isn't a refinement or a series of improvements but a way of contrasting certain aspects of the original in refreshing ways.
The moss - and some vanilla - speak to the creamy tobacco of vintage Habanita. Everything anyone might find questionable, if not entirely objectionable, is still there - the leather, the tobacco, the dirtied amber, the palest hint of decayed floralcy - and maybe even amplified in some way by bringing a certain amount of translucence into the equation. I can just as easily imagine Miss Habanita being used to scent cigarettes, as Habanita once was, and Habanita is such a dense proposition that it's easy to forget it also contained peach and orange blossom and plenty else besides, much of which reappears in its progeny to more emphatic effect.
Miss Habanita reminds me of Habanita with the lights suddenly turned up. Everybody's still doing what they were doing in the dark. They haven't had a chance to pretend otherwise yet. It lasts amazingly well, always surprising me by its persistence. It's a wonderful fragrance, full of quiet melancholy. Other than Habanita, there's really nothing quite like it.
I suggest looking for it on Ebay. I've seen it through e-tailers but the bottle you receive is not always the bottle pictured, and a simple exchange of emails with an Ebay seller will reassure you of getting what you pay for. The original formula came in two bottles, one frosted mustard, the other translucent amber. One of these is simpler in design; my favorite of the two, the amber glass, looks exactly like the famous Lalique Habanita bottle graced with water nymphs and has a glittery metallic bronze cap.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
In The Diary of a Nose, perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena writes, "Green is the only color that makes sense as a smell," adding that, in his collection of raw materials, he has different kinds of green including gentle, harsh, smooth, sharp, dense, etc. Among these he has greens "that smell of beans, fig leaves, syringa, ivy, seaweed, elder, boxwood, hyacinth, lawns, and peas."
He might be right, in one sense, given that of all the colors green is used maybe most frequently as a descriptive. Green chypre, for instance - or green floral. When I think of any number of fragrances I picture the color green. I can't talk about, or wear, Jean-Louis Scherrer or Givenchy III without seeing the fields of parched summer grass I remember from my childhood vacations in rural Arkansas. Alliage brings to mind bitter snapped stems. Clinique Wrappings is a shock of fir peeking out from under banks of aldehyde snow; Tauer's Cologne du Maghreb, a dish of fresh herbs. Ellena says every perfumer runs the hazard of conjuring mental images of toothpaste when using mint in a composition, but I smell it in many fragrances and think of herb gardens.
It might be more accurate to say that green is the color that gets the most mileage in the scent vocabulary. Red, for instance, is a little trickier, but some rose-centered fragrances do read to me as red. Une Rose has always brought to mind a deep red velvet when I smell it; Agent Provocateur, a drier shade on the spectrum, like something long sitting out in a potpourri dish. Miss Dior Cherie - don't let's get started on exactly which version - reminds me of fresh strawberries; not just their smell but their damp, staining skins. Lipstick Rose evokes the obvious - but even Arden's Red Door recalls the crimson lipstick my grandmother applied with a brush from its tube.
I often think pink, especially with the contemporary spate of fruity florals. Baby Doll is strictly bright fuchsia tutus and tart berry innards. Yellow crops up every so often too - buttery yellow for certain floral compositions, palest yellow for scents whose vibe feels incredibly buttery to me, whether from orris root or otherwise. Daffodils pop up in my head. More often than anything I imagine golden yellow to orange hues, probably because orientals are one of my favorite types of fragrance. Alahine is golden light at dusk, casting everything in a late afternoon glow. Mitsouko is a brassier shade, something like peaches steeped in liquid sun. I even think of white, when I smell White Linen - something scorched of all color, singeing the senses.
Sometimes I wonder if some of us have a rare offshoot of synaesthesia when it comes to scent. The synaesthete cross-pollinates the senses in ways most people don't. She might see a number and hear it as a sound, for instance. She might see a color and experience it as a smell. What about the other way round, I wonder. What about seeing a scent as a color, as a sort of tinted wash that spreads over our senses? Has anyone seen MARNIE, the Hitchcock film, where Tippie Hedren's kleptomaniac goes into fugues, seeing red when an object or a situation triggers certain emotions? During these episodes the whole screen goes blood red. I wonder if scent is like that for some of us.
It's not quite as cinematic with me, but most of the smells I love do filter the images they conjure through some emotionally corresponding colored lens. When I smell Vent Vert, I do see green - my mind goes right to an analogous image - a field, a spring lawn, fresh shoots proliferating on deciduous branches. It's like that in some way with every scent I smell. So I'm not sure I agree with Ellena, whose own Kelly Caleche tints my imagination a specific sort of pale but vibrant metallic pastel.
Friday, April 5, 2013
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)