digging (into) vintage: Cacharel Loulou, 1987

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Perfumer Jean Guichard.

I recently found a vintage bottle of  Cacharel Loulou, a spiced floriental in the vein of Coty l’Origan (1905) and Guerlain l’Heure Bleue (1912).  The three could be seen as variations on a theme, and, though l’Heure Bleue is the most iconic of the three, it wasn’t the first.  It took l’Origan’s style of semi-synthetic perfumery (which arguably borrowed from Guerlain Jicky’s vanillin/coumarin/musk base in the first place) and overlaid it with an anise-inflected version of Guerlain’s signature base, Guerlinade. It’s a strategy Jacques Guerlain had used previously when he softened and sweetened Coty Chypre’s apparently angular structure to create Mitsouko

Both perfumers demonstrate their generation’s style of using synthetic materials to mirror the scent of natural materials.  While they both took advantage of the ‘effects’ that the aromachemicals lent the perfume (durability, potency, sillage) they were chosen for their ability to mimic natural essences.  (Eg. vanillin/vanilla, eugenol/carnation, heliotropin/mimosa, ionones/violet). Compared to contemporary composition this use of synthetics solely to emulate botanical scents might seem limiting, but the complexity of the compositions and the nuanced use of materials keep the style from appearing either naïve or cheap.  Done carelessly this method could trick smells the way cheap tromp l’oeil effects look.

Viewed through the lens of minimalism the attributes of classical perfumery can be made to seem like drawbacks. Richness, orchestration and intricacy can easily be spun as bloat, confusion and fussiness. Then again, extravagant perfumes like l’Heure Bleue and Loulou make minimalist Jean-Claude Ellena seem ruthless and perfumes like Escentric Molecules, barbaric.  Whether the dark floriental is your bag or not, the perpetual resurfacing of the basic composition (eg. Caron Farnesiana, Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, Parfums de Nicolai Kiss Me Tender, Guerlain la Petite Robe Noire Couture and even Ellena’s own l’Eau d’Hiver for Frédéric Malle) attests to its value in perfume’s history. 

I refer to Ellena’s perfumes not simply as a contrast to l’Heure Bleue but because both are excellent examples of a method supporting the goals of the perfume.  Ellena’s style of editing puts each and every material under the scrutiny of necessity. The question isn’t whether a material adds to the composition.  Rather, is it absolutely necessary?  Ellena’s studious paring down of materials can be seen in his perfumes for Hermès. They are concise, measured fragrances with an air of aesthetic objectivity.  Their tailored balance and lack of superfluous detail imply that the perfumer was disciplined and accomplished the goals he set out for himself. 

Compared to this standard, l’Heure Bleue and Loulou must appear overwrought. They are baroque and ornamented.  Flip the question on its head, though. What do the voluptuous florientals accomplish that one of Ellena’s slender compositions can’t?  They seem to have far less targeted objectives and their complex formulas offer a wider spectrum of tones, as if they are Leatherman tools for fragrance, loaded with every implement and modality you might need. 

Despite similarities in composition l’Heure Bleue and Loulou differ in mood. l’Heure Bleue is perpetually cited as the most melancholic perfume while Loulou is one of the pack of expansive, egregious power-florals of its day. Similar materials, even similar compositions; different temperaments. Loulou is a version of l’Heure Bleue for the (Dior) Poisoned 1980s. The broad range of tone is there, but it’s more jarring–the volume is increased substantially. It is manic, but it connotes mood as easily as l’Heure Bleue does and buried under the party noises there is a bit of the Guerlain’s moodiness. 

Smelling vintage Loulou today I wonder if Guerlain considered it while creating Insolence, the brand’s in-house modern version of l’Heure Bleue. Insolence (especially the hopped-up Eau de Parfum) seems to have taken Loulou’s trajectory and carried it even further from its origin. This is a remarkable trio to compare if you ever get the chance.

(Image Mervyn Gorman autochrome, 1913)

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