(Image Catherine Deneuve and Geneviève Page, Belle de Jour. 1967)
Perfumer Antoine Lie.
There is a trend to reclaim and reframe traditional perfume styles in a contemporary context. The work has moved the discussion past tinkering with materials in order to create facsimiles (ie. ‘nouveax chypres’ like Narciso Rodriguez for Her, Guerlain Idylle and Miss Dior Chérie.) Mainstream perfumery has largely placed its faith in the chemical manufacturers, assuming that the billions spent on new aromachemicals and botanical isolates will save the day. A few artisan perfumers have focussed on the ideas and artistry behind classic perfumes rather than their list of ingredients. The discussion shifts from, ‘How do we replace restricted materials like raw bergamot and oakmoss?’ to, ‘What are the characteristics and dynamics of the chypre that make it so successful?’ and ‘What is the meaning of the Aldehydic Floral?’
Perfume writer Barbara Herman and Perfumer Antoine Lie have paired up to offer a third option. They are neither mainstream nor artisanal. With a vintage expert as art director and a modern, Givaudan-trained perfumer composing the perfumes, Eris Parfums takes a particular angle on the past. Herman provides vintage perfumery with context and history in her book, Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfumes and on her blog, yesterdaysperfumes. She interprets vintage perfumes as social forces, emphasizing the provocative nature of the form. Lie is an avant-gardist and has focussed on taking apart traditional ideas and replacing them with with surprising investigations of new materials.
The line launches with three perfumes, all of which show inspiration from both vintage perfumery and vintage surrealist film.
Belle de Jour
The film Belle de Jour was directed and co-written by the surrealist Luis Buñuel. Like the film, the perfume highlight its form’s ability to convey subtext. The perfume references metallic florals of the ‘60s-’70s like Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and Paco Rabanne Metal but without a trace of retro-ism. It is a thoroughly modern perfume, confidently ‘synthetic’. It smells like an inventive orange blossom spin on the rose of Etat Libre d’Orange’s Rossy de Palma/Eau de Protection, composed by Antoine Maisondieu and Lie. The musky drydown has a fruity/leathery balance that reminds me of Robert Piguet Visa—the modern version of the 1950s classic.
The comparisons aren’t meant to imply derivation, just cleverness in composition and historical reference on the part of Lie and Herman. The perfume stands on its own and gets my full attention when I wear it. Belle de Jour’s modern perspective on historical work underlines the ideal pairing of Herman’s and Lie’s skills. Style-points to both for making a perfume ‘about’ Catherine Deneuve, a seminal perfume aficionada!
Ma Bete replicates the overall golden, buttery animalic tone of floral chypres like Miss Dior and floral animalics like Bal à Vresailles Categorically it is a spicy, animalic woody-floral. It alludes to Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete, another surrealist film. It also calls to mind a specific animalic quality that came from materials no longer in use. I’m left wondering how they accomplish this effect so smoothly in this day and age. Again, I credit the excellent collaboration of Herman and Lie for finding this tone that is so evocative of the past, and then creating a perfume that’s neither nostalgic nor ironic.
Ma Bete’s full-bodied richness isn’t weighted down with resins and balsams. It remains expansive in tone despite its sizeable range of woody-animalic tones. Ma Bete is more specifically retro than the other perfumes in the line, but it has a twist. The semblance of animalism is realistically ‘vintage’, yet shorn of weight, it also feels quite modern. The perfume is so well-edited that it allows you to contemplate this quandry without ever being bothered by it.
The modern, aromatic cardamom opening of Night Flower is a red herring. As the name implies, flowers await. They have a soft-focus glow. A smoky medicinal quality underlines heartnotes and Night Flower gets smokier over time. ‘Belle de nuit’ means sex worker, as does ‘fleur de nuit’ (night flower) and Night Flower, like Belle de Nuit rifs on the theme.
If you’ve read read Scent and Subversion, you’ll know that Herman espouses a gleefully queer reading on the coded secrets of perfume and their relation to gender norms. Night Flower is the dominant femme of the line. It is referred to as the, “sexual and addictive” (Lie) floral animalic of the line, alluding to the liberated perfumes of the ‘20s-‘30s. It actually reminds me of the closeted 1950s feminine perfumes, which hid their animalism behind a bouquet in a way that the blatant florals of the previous decades never did. It uses the hyper-gendered language of the moonlit ‘50s florals, but screws with their sham of feminine passivity.
It plays the ’50s as a drag number—a wonderfully campy one. A grape-tinge to the orange blossom seems like a nod to Dior Poison, another landmark monster-femme, yet the aromatic muskiness is a cardamom spin on the lavender of Musc Ravageur, a classic ‘dirty old man’ barbershop fragrance. The gender references are far ranging and I imagine Germaine Cellier would approve.
The risk for the writer looking at the Eris Parfums line is that when you cite vintage perfumes, you’d better know what you’re talking about because Herman certainly does. Comparison can be an easy way out, but a project by Herman, whose writing I admire, begs the juxtaposition. In the context of vintage perfumery, the line shines. The real test though is how they fare for an audience who might know nothing about their historical references. They are a particular treat for the vintage perfume cognoscenti, yet happily each perfume succeeds on its own as a sophisticated contemporary perfume. Herman and Lie have built on each other’s expertise to design perfumes that reward an understanding of perfume history but live in the moment.