- a review of DSH Perfumes’ YSL Retrospective Collection
If you ask me, the phrase ‘fashion designer’ has today lost much of the cachet it once carried. In a day and age when virtually anyone with a certain bent, a publicist and financial backing can write ‘fashion designer’ on their resumé, fashion has been diminished to fad, and all fads are as fleeting as a passing mood.
Yet once in a very different time, one fashion designer more than any other changed how we perceive fashion and style even today, even as so many modern fashion designers pillage his very heritage…one fashion designer changed the world, the clothes, and the lives of the countless millions of women who loved, worshiped and adored his work.
Yves Saint Laurent.
No other designer was quite so in tune with his times (sorry, Karl!), and no other designer has had such a definitive impact on how we even perceive those two words ‘fashion’ and ‘designer’. He was arguably the first couturier to conceive of that heretical notion ‘prêt-à-porter/ready-to-wear’ with Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, the first designer to claim that style was an individual statement rather than a sartorial dictate and the first to celebrate women of every ethnicity both on the catwalk and many diverse cultures in his designs. In terms of fashion, Saint Laurent is responsible for a very long list of firsts.
Yves Saint Laurent’s work was exhibited last year in a comprehensive retrospective at the Denver Art Museum – one of only two such exhibits in the US, and as she has before with their Secrets of Egypt and Cities of Splendor exhibits, indie perfumer par excellence Dawn Spencer Hurwitz offers her own olfactory tributes to six pivotal moments in Yves Saint Laurent’s career.
I’ll venture that in terms of paying homage to perfume history, no one does it better than Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Whether consulting ancient Egyptian papyri for the recipes for her ‘Kyphi’, ‘Samsuchinon’ or ‘Susinon’ (favorites of mine to this day) or conjuring the celebrated cities of the Italian Renaissance, she has shown not only a true dedication to the culture behind it, but also an in-depth understanding of the olfactory philosophies of the times and places she chose to evoke.
I was excited to receive these six odes to Yves Saint Laurent, both for the compliment Dawn paid me in sending them, but also for personal reasons. First, because one major personal perfume satori moment at age fourteen involved an Yves Saint Laurent perfume (and likely his clothes as well) on the Pont Neuf in Paris in the spring of 1977, and second because my mother loved his work to such an extent, she’s buried in an Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche dress. For the longest time, the only designer I could afford was an Yves Saint Laurent perfume or lipstick and sometimes both at once, but with that kind of armor on my person, the rest of it, as the saying goes…was immaterial!
When Saint Laurent succeeded Christian Dior after Dior’s sudden death in 1957, he did it with all of France watching his every move intently. The house of Dior was, as one newspaper reporter stated at the time, a matter of national importance. At the tender age of twenty-one, Saint Laurent gave Dior La Ligne Trapêze, a move away from the strictly tailored and corseted designs of his predecessor into a looser, freer, A-form and altogether younger style. Dawn’s Ligne Trapêze is likewise a loose, free adaptation of the classic perfumes of the era such as the great Diorissimo. It begins with a bright, fruity, aldehydic champagne fizz. The peach listed in the notes is quite prominent along with the lemon, but then – just as perfumes used to, just as they rightly should if you ask me – it blooms. The whole opens up wider into a seamless, airborne bouquet of floral fantasy. I can detect lily-of-the-valley, the rose and the jasmine, certainly, and even a hint of heliotrope. I could tell you the notes, but if you love the great chypres of yore, with their endlessly fascinating twists and turns and surprises, Ligne Trapêze will be no exception, not even into the deliciously decadent drydown hours later when the civet and the castoreum growl their sweetly seductive, animal purrs before they, too fade away and leave a whisper of silky suede in their wake, as surely you will, too.
Notes: Aldehydes, amber, ambrette seed, animalia, Australian sandalwood, bergamot, Brazilian vetiver, castoreum, Centifolia rose absolute, grandiflorum jasmine, heliotrope, jonquil, lemon, muguet, orris concrete, peach, rosewood, Siam benzoin, suede accord, violet.
The Beat Look
For his next collection for Dior, Saint Laurent sought his inspiration in the beatniks of the Left Bank, with their penchant for black turtlenecks and leather jackets, but fashioned by Dior in the most luxe way imaginable, in silks, cashmeres and… Crocodile leather motorcycle jacket, anyone? It must surely be a testament to the furore this collection provoked that I couldn’t locate a single image to illustrate it. (The above illustration was taken from Dior’s Winter 1958 collection) Dawn was inspired by YSL’s first eponymous perfume, ‘Y’, but whereas my memory of ‘Y’ was a rather fearsome chypre bête verte, Dawn’s is altogether softer and not nearly so demanding. Here is another aldehyde wake-up call, but in The Beat Look, the plummy, fruity top yields to more prominent florals. On me, the gardenia, hyacinth and the honeysuckle sing their cool, perfect arias quite clearly, before giving way with a grin to a superb leather base, and if that’s not a reference to that jacket (Heaven help me if I ever locate one!), I don’t know what is. I wore The Beat Look to work one day when I was sequestered for a few hours with some colleagues into what amounted to a large walk-in closet, and left The Beat Look behind me. The next day, one of my superiors came up and asked me what I’d worn, before she added plaintively, “Why don’t they make perfumes like that any more?” Luckily for us, Dawn does.
Notes: Aldehydes, amber, animalic, Australian sandalwood, bergamot, Brazilian vetiver, Bulgarian rose absolute, centifolia rose absolute, civet, East Indian patchouli, gardenia, grandiflorum jasmine, green oakmoss, honeysuckle, hyacinth, leather, mirabelle plum, musk, neroli, orris, peach.
It’s hard to understand today the impact Saint Laurent’s justly famous Le Smoking had on womankind as a whole, not simply the lucky ones (Catherine Deneuve included) who could afford it. A woman highlighting her femininity in men’s clothing was nothing new – George Sand in the 19th century, Marlene Dietrich in Morocco in 1930 – but in Le Smoking – or a knockoff – and heels, any woman had the impact of a pulse bomb. The ever-stylish Lauren Bacall – a longtime Saint Laurent fan – was once refused entry to a fancy restaurant for wearing it. It is just as timeless, as empowering and as relevant today as in 1966. For Le Smoking, Dawn bottled up the sum entire of female subversion and an era, too. As a green chypre, it had me, no question, at ‘Hello!’ Green, bitter, and not compromising in the slightest, it is as smoky, as sensuous, as intriguing and as perfectly sexy as anything can be in black wool crepe and stiletto heels. From that initial galbanum glow until that buttery, leathery, mischievous, delicious smoke ring of Mary Jane and tobacco, this is an instant time travel and an instant and still relevant aspiration – that classics will always endure, and as surely as M. Saint Laurent knew and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz certainly does, sexy is not so much the clothes and accoutrements of femininity, but an attitude, and Le Smoking – both the outfit and the perfume alike – has both in spades and to spare!
Notes: Bergamot, blackberry, brown oakmoss, Bulgarian rose absolute, carnation, castoreum, Chinese geranium, clary sage, galbanum, grandiflorum jasmine, honey, hyacinth, incense, leather, marijuana accord, neroli, orris, Peru balsam, tobacco absolute.
In the late 1970s, overt drug references were simply just not done. The scandal of Opium – both its name, its tagline (‘For women addicted to Yves Saint Laurent’), its opulent world launch in a Chinese junk in New York harbor, even its Japanese-inspired bottle, were an instant, worldwide sensation and an instant sellout, despite being banned for import in many countries, even in the US. (They simply shipped it in non-descript packaging, repackaged it, and voilà!) If ever a perfume embodied the Studio 54 era of decadent excess and drop-dead disco glamour, surely it would be Opium? If people know nothing else of Yves Saint Laurent, they know Opium, for you had to live under a rock in the Gobi desert to avoid it in the late Seventies, or the countless imitations that followed it. (Cinnabar, anyone?) I had girlfriends who swore by it and wore it by the bucket in every permutation. My mother wore it for a time, before she moved back to her beloved Shalimar. As Oriental perfumes go, Opium was another gold standard of feisty, fierce spice-and-fire, and in Dawn’s version, it is nothing more nor one whit less spectacular than its inspiration. The carnation-clove-orange and cinnamon beginnings – a large part of what made the original so distinctive – are here dampened a bit compared to the Opium I remember, and since I recall Opium sillage trails so thick you could taste them (those were the days, people!), this is no bad thing. Instead, it’s Opium without quite so much of a perfume hangover the next day, brighter and lighter and altogether a glorious twist on a perfume so iconic, I don’t even have to locate my mini of the original. I close my eyes, and in a twinkling of that spice and that fire, in the benzoin, myrrh-laden, vanilla embers that spark and flame long, long hours later, I’m all there and still happily caught in that moment, singing “Hot Stuff” along with Donna Summer.
Notes: Aldehydes, amber, Atlas cedarwood, bay leaves, bitter orange, Bulgarian rose absolute, carnation, cinnamon bark, civet, clove bud, East Indian patchouli, Eastern lily, grandiflorum jasmine, honey, incense, mandarin, musk, myrrh gum, peach, pimento berry, pink peppercorn, Siam benzoin, spice, vanilla, ylang ylang.
La Vie en Rose
On the day Dawn’s YSL collection arrived, after devouring the letter that came with it and the press prelease, too, I wasted no time and less breath in heading like a guided missile straight for La Vie en Rose, and this time, it was very much personal. Unlike Opium, which I never wore since some of my girlfriends did, I wore YSL Paris once I headed out of punkdom in my early twenties. I wore Paris in the eau de toilette and the parfum and the bath gel and the body lotion and sometimes all at once (true story), I wore Paris to work and on sizzling dates and girls’ night out, I wore Paris any chance and every chance I got. So far as I was concerned, Paris was the epitome of everything rose and everything perfect in my less-than-stellar life, and in fact, one boyfriend even asked many years later if I still wore it. What could I say? I loved it without reservation and inhibition, as you can only do in your twenties, and heaven help me, I’d love it still if it had not become reduced to a (misguided) rumor of its former glory. When a perfume so perfectly embodies a philosophy of life it inspires even the designer to make a dress such as the ‘Paris Bow’ pictured above, that means…something. So out it came, my little bottled wonder of La Vie en Rose, on it went, and then…this grown woman of jaded mien and grown-up responsibilities and (supposedly) grown-up tastes…cried. For La Vie en Rose is very much more than my own rosy-violet-linden tinged memories of my twenties, but more than that, it’s the Paris I remember, without being quite so bombastic, yet as perfect as only the very best recollections can be. From its first breath of fruity, green-tinged linden blossom through its epic, expansive rose-and-violet heart and without any of those rose-violet associations of lipstick I so dislike, this is the answer to that perennial question…Why do I love perfume? Because of perfumes like La Vie en Rose and perfumers like Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, because the best are so emotionally evocative, so utterly transporting in time and place, I can withstand anything at all, so long as I have beauty such as this to breathe. That’s why.
Notes: Aldehydes, Australian sandalwood, bergamot, cassis bud, Centifolia rose absolute, civet, French lily, French linden blossom accord, green clover blossoms, green oakmoss, heliotrope, moss, muguet, musk, neroli, violet, violet leaf absolute, Virginia cedar, wood violet, ylang ylang.
Ma Plus Belle Histoire d’Amour
Named for an embroidered wisteria and yellow jacket and a classic French love song, Ma Plus Belle Histoire d’Amour is a floral perfume that could equally well be called Impossible April. Impossible, for how does it happen that wisteria and linden blossom waltz so well in tandem, and is the ozone (not a note I encounter very often) that keeps this bouquet so expansive and open all through, like the French doors flung open on a day of sunshine after rain, when all of nature blooms before your eyes? I dare you to tease out the blooms one by one, but I can recognize what must be wisteria underneath a brocaded, embroidered opening of bergamot and linden blossom, rose, a touch (a very light touch) of jasmine and ylang and certainly lily-of-the-valley, too, but all along this perambulation through spring, vanilla hums sweetly in the background with its friends sandalwood and musk, but so lightly, so elegantly, you don’t even notice some hours later when that door to this impossibly gorgeous April day closes, and alas, it is over. Then again, tomorrow is another day and hope springs eternal…
Notes: Australian sandalwood, bergamot, Bulgarian rose absolute, civet, Dassinia orchid, East Indian patchouli, French linden blossom accord, honeysuckle, lemon, linden blossom absolute, muguet, musk, ozone, sambac jasmine, vanilla, wisteria, ylang ylang. (All notes from DSH Perfumes)
It’s not hard to find traces (and outright theft) of the immense legacy Yves Saint Laurent left behind, in the many modern designers who steal what they find, in his extraordinary command of color and technique, or simply in that definition of style he was the first to advocate and so many of us follow even today. But these six perfumes are much more than cover versions of perfume songs we used to know, so much more than riffs over the familiar themes and tropes we now take for granted in perfumery. They are all imbued with that deft restraint Dawn adds to all her perfumes, never so overpowering as to leave you breathless in the wearing, but always, like the best of art and the superlative best in perfumery art, exhilarating, inspiring, and as flawlessly executed as any Parisian couture.
To be beautiful, a woman needs nothing more than a black pullover, a black skirt and to be in the arms of the man she loves. – Yves Saint Laurent.
To which I could add, but if you really want to knock ‘em down…wear any one of these heartstopping tributes. Because, as the Maître also once said…
My most beautiful love story…is you.
As indeed Catherine Deneuve and Laetitia Casta sang on the fortieth anniversary of YSL to a visibly moved Saint Laurent.
Sometimes, we perfumistas are very, very lucky, that the very best love stories can be bottled, too.
Image credits: Photos of ‘La Ligne Trapêze’ dress & ‘Paris Bow’ dress from designsponge.com, taken from the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition. Black and white photo of model in YSL couture by Jean-Loup Sieff. Photo of Dior suit, 1958 from oakcat.tumblr.com. Photo of Catherine Deneuve with Yves Saint Laurent in1966 via nastassie.livejournal.com. Photo of ‘Opium’ dress (1978) from the Costume Institute’s collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Disclosure: Samples were sent for review by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Whom I owe an oversized apology for such a belated review!