A Past & Perfect Future

Tags

, ,

110518_fiddlehead_1

- a review of DSH Perfumes ‘Passport à Paris’

I want you to imagine a right-angled triangle. At either end of the hypotenuse, you’ll find two revolutionary perfumes, and at the other end, a painting no less revolutionary than the perfumes. All three combine to tell one singular story, each contributing its part and its facets to the space described within those three points of reference, a story I shall attempt to tell…

Next, I’d like you to imagine a point in time over a hundred years ago when the future seemed so bright the world was blinded by its promise.

What would it have been like to be raised with a philosophy of a static, fixed life, and instead as you lived be constantly confronted with a present that offered the only given of the time and indeed any time – that of perpetual change? When you have been taught to see the world in representational terms; a perfume is a single flower of violet, lilac or rose (if you were respectable) or jasmine or tuberose (if you weren’t!)?

Just as a painting is a recognizable, carefully rendered image of a familiar reality, until a group of louche bohemian painters decide to rebel against artistic convention and orthodoxy and instead paint the shimmering air between themselves and their subject matter, and as they did, the world was taught to see itself anew, to see those careless smears of oil paint as representing people, places, captured fleeting moments in time and mood.

Claude Monet's 1870 painting, The beach at Trouville.

Claude Monet’s 1870 painting, The beach at Trouville.

In that restless, roiling age, another revolution waited in the wings, one perhaps anticipated by Guy de Maupassant when he wrote:

Ah! If we had other senses which would work other miracles for us, how many more things would we not discover?

It has happened on many occasions that I’ve wondered what it would be like to go back in time and be a metaphorical fly on the wall at, say, the Galeries Lafayette in Paris in the year 1882, when Paul Parquet of Houbigant presented his own heretical fragrant revolution to the world and decided to call it Fougère Royale.

Before that moment, perfumes were composed of natural essences and absolutes aspiring to be literal representations of the flowers that named them. Parquet gave an unsuspecting world something entirely new – an abstract and evolving perfume containing a synthetic aromachemical, coumarin (supposedly in a staggering 10% concentration), and with no known frame of reference at all, but instead, as Guy de Maupassant put it, ‘a prodigious evocation of forests, of lands, not via their flora but via their greenery.’

The world was never quite the same again, neither in art nor in the art of perfume, certainly not when Aimé Guerlain glanced sideways at Parquet’s creation seven years later and gave an unsuspecting world another olfactory revolution named Jicky.

Which brings me to the apparently limitless talents of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and her third creation for the Passport To Paris exhibition at the Denver Art Museum called simply ‘Passport à Paris’. And as so often before with Dawn’s work, this one has special and highly personal meaning for me.

Her three points of inspiration – Claude Monet’s 1870 painting, The Beach at Trouville, Parquet’s original 1882 Fougère Royale for Houbigant and Aimé Guerlain’s Parquet-inspired Jicky – all somehow fed into Passport à Paris to provide not just a lesson in the zeitgeist of the time, but also to redefine it to a modern audience that has perhaps forgotten that once not so long ago, there really was no such thing as a fragrant story in a bottle.

I’ve never known Houbigant’s original Fougère Royale, and unless I make it to the Osmothèque at Versailles (trust me, it’s on the bucket list!), I never shall. But it so happens I had an opportunity to sniff the 2010 recreation by Rodrigo Flores-Roux at Pitti Fragranze last year, and it blew me away. Maybe it doesn’t have the original’s freshness and verve, and perhaps it’s a plusher, lusher interpretation of Parquet’s seminal idea, but it is all of a piece and entirely a glorious fougère, and I couldn’t wait to sniff it again – and to own it some day.

Jicky, on the other hand, is another story. Because on a beautiful day in early May in Paris a long, long time ago, Jicky was the very first perfume the 14-year-old tomboy I then was chose for myself. Like all teenage daughters throughout all time, I defined myself in my mother’s despite. If she chose Mitsouko and Shalimar, then I would instead choose something she would never wear, something for me alone and the me I hoped to become; unconventional, audacious, herbal-green and with more than a few hints of the sensuality I hoped to find in my nebulous future. At the time, I also knew that my literary idol Gabrielle Sidonie Colette wore Jicky, and if it were good enough for Colette, who was I to argue?

I wore Jicky throughout my teens and well into my twenties until I learned to define myself in other ways through other perfumes, but then again, you never do forget your first love. Not if you were Aimé Guerlain in a past life, nor even a young woman with a secret aspiration to set the world alight with her words.

So you can well imagine that immediate rush of emotion, recognition and revelation when I sprayed Passport à Paris for the first time.

I nearly fell off my chair.

In an instant, I was brought back to those two moments – a surreptitious sniff and two sprays at the crowded Stazione Leopolda in Florence, and another far more pivotal point in time upstairs at the Guerlain boutique on that distant May afternoon on a sofa, when a smiling sales assistant, well used to gawky teenagers and their stylish mothers, proffered a storied perfume and I found a kind of self-definition in a bottle I could never have even hoped to imagine.

Passport à Paris is all of that, all of history and heritage and heresy, and yet… it is also, just like its inspirations, entirely itself and entirely new. Fougère Royale can never be what it once was and Jicky today is a wan, thin ghost of its former voluptuously curvy, decadent self.

Tant pis. I can honestly say I no longer care so long as beauty such as this exists.

I could walk you through its evolution, from the citrus song of its opening to its herbal, emerald-green, floral-tinged heart and on to a far drydown many hours later that hints of amber glints in the firelight embracing patchouli, ambergris and civet. I could tell you all of these are both apparent and discernible and yet… not. For here it’s not the olfactory words or notes themselves that matter so much as it is the overall feel and mood they emanate.

If ever a perfume somehow managed to convey the sinuous twists and turns of Art Nouveau, evoking an age of aesthetes and voluptuaries and a perpetual revolution and evolution of ideas, of art, of the art of perfume… it would be this one. That it manages, like all of Dawn’s historically inspired perfumes to appear both timeless and brand-new is a marvel.

I’ve read that some people have complained that DSH perfumes are ephemeral, transparent, discreet and fleeting. Not Passport à Paris. I have slept with it, woken up with it, worn it and adored it over twelve hours after applying it.

As a perfume writer, it happens I encounter a perfume so good, I catch myself thinking that if I don’t own it, I shall die of heartbreak and despair. More often than not, that fit of acquisition passes.

Not this time and not this one. Passport à Paris will be the very first perfume I buy next.

Because in attempting to breathe the past to life, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz somehow managed to evoke a perfect future unfurling like the fern above and a past that imagined the future as perfect.

If I don’t own such beauty, I shall die of heartbreak and despair.

Passport à Paris is available as an eau de parfum and as parfum directly from the DSH perfumes’ site.

Notes: Lemon, bergamot, lavender, palisander rosewood, mandarin orange, jasmine, Bulgarian rose, orris, clover, Australian sandalwood, amber, vanilla, coumarin, ambergris, Indian patchouli and civet.

Disclosure: A sample of Passport à Paris was provided by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for review. I’m not worthy.

Also a huge and grateful thank you to the very dear friend who sent me a sample of vintage Jicky parfum.