Bringing bygone brands back to life is not a new concept in fashion and beauty. Many leading designer names belong to individuals who departed the world long ago. In perfumery, Frapin (1270), Lubin (1798), Grossmith (1835) and Oriza L. Legrand (1720) are a few recent examples of brands that have been resuscitated under new management.
Last year I met Nicolas Chabot, the entrepreneur responsible for the revival of Le Galion, a perfume house that was founded in Paris at the height of the city’s Art Deco period. Le Galion was hugely successful for many decades but the house inconspicuously dissolved into the fabric of history when Le Galion’s owner, Paul Vacher, passed away in the late 1970s. Vacher was one of the 20th century’s most talented perfumers and despite his Le Galion perfumes barely surviving into the 21st century; his name lived on through his commissions for some of France’s most famous couturiers. Arpege (1927) by Lanvin and Miss Dior (1947) by Christian Dior are his most celebrated commercial successes.
To awaken what Nicolas described as being a sleeping beauty, he selected nine fragrances from Le Galion’s archives to be relaunched using formulas he acquired in the sale of the brand and firsthand knowledge from Paul Vacher’s daughter, a retired perfumer he tracked down in the South of France. From the outset Nicolas discovered that there were raw materials Vacher had used that were no longer being produced and changing regulations prohibited him from using some ingredients at the level of concentration perfumers of Vacher’s era were accustomed to using. Nicolas sought help from a perfumer he could trust with the job of reconstructing these old formulas. For his first relaunch he worked with French perfumer Thomas Fontaine who had experience with similar projects for Lubin and Jean Patou, two Parisian brands that also looked back to their past to inspire their future. It is ironic Nicolas worked with Thomas given Jean Patou and Le Galion were once vicious rivals. This feud is just one of the intriguing chapters of Le Galion’s story. In the mid-20th century the perfume industry was fiercely competitive, secretive and perfumers had their allies and also their enemies. It is a story Nicolas tells very well.
Le Galion’s story began in 1930 when Prince Murat, a descendant of Joachim Murat and brother in-law to Napoleon the 1st founded his own perfume house in Paris. Romanticism was passé and Art Deco had captured modern Parisian minds. The Prince began with seven perfumes that reflected his modernist vision. He named his house Le Galion Parfumeur a Paris. Five years later he sold the business to Paul Vacher, a young perfumer who had apprenticed with the controversial Marcel Guerlain. By the time Vacher acquired Le Galion, he had already made a name for himself as the co-creator of perfumes for Jeanne Lanvin. Working with perfumer Andre Fraysse, the commercial success of My Sin was enough to convince the French couturier to invest further in perfumery. This led to the even more successful Arpege. For his first Le Galion perfume, Vacher revisited the soft aldehydic floral character of Arpege. The result was Sortilege in 1936, which is Le Galion’s most iconic fragrance.
After World War II, Vacher achieved a further milestone when Christian Dior and Serge Heftler-Louiche approached him to create a perfume that would parallel Dior’s New Look collection. It was called Miss Dior and it was as revolutionary as Dior’s couture collection of 1947. Wanting all attention on the fragrance, Dior asked Vacher not to launch another women’s perfume for Le Galion in the same year as Miss Dior so he decided to launch his first men’s fragrance called Special for Gentlemen.
Sortilege had been an instant success and by the 1950s; the brand proved it had the longevity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the industry’s best. Le Galion’s fame took root in America and before Marilyn Monroe spoke about wearing only Chanel No. 5 to bed, she was wearing Sortilege. “She was a real muse of the brand,” said Nicolas. Back in Paris, competition was heating up between Le Galion and Jean Patou. Le Galion launched a new perfume called Snob. The advertising described Snob as being “the most exclusive perfume in the world,” which taunted Patou’s Joy, a perfume that had been advertised as “the most expensive perfume in the world.” Patou retaliated by registering a U.S. trademark for a bottle of something it called Snob. With no real intention of releasing their version, the move effectively halted Le Galion from being able to launch Snob in the U.S.
Success gave Vacher the capital to purchase a mansion in Neuilly, which became his office and production site for Le Galion. Here he also produced raw materials for Christian Dior Parfums and the perfume compound for Miss Dior. His connection with Dior continued into the 1960s and resulted in Diorling, an elegant leather chypre perfume. Three years before his death, Vacher created another chypre for Le Galion, which he called Eau Noble. It was his last creation before passing away and it spoke of the sexual revolution brought on by the 1970s. Nicolas described it as being one of the more difficult fragrances he had to reconstruct owing to the amount of oakmoss absolute the original formula contained, which is now a restricted ingredient.
After his death, Paul Vacher’s wife and daughter took care of the family business. Nicolas explained how the perfume industry changed in the 1980s. Perfume houses were launching large global campaigns for their perfumes like the Opium campaign for Yves Saint Laurent. “You needed a lot of money to be a part of it.” It was at that point the family decided to sell the business to an American company that became unsure of the direction it wanted Le Galion to take. From that point Le Galion slipped quietly into obscurity until Nicolas took over control a couple of years ago.
Since I met Nicolas, Le Galion has released four more perfumes, Cuir, Vetyver, Aesthete and Sovereign. I smelled the first three in Paris late last year. Below are my own impressions on each of the Le Galion fragrances I have smelled and some additional notes from my conversation with Nicolas.
Head notes: Lilly of the Valley, Lilac, Ylang Ylang, Aldehydes
Heart notes: Egyptian Jasmine, Mimosa, Narcissus, Turkish Rose, Iris
Base notes: Indonesian Sandalwood, Vetiver, Labdanum, Musk, Amber
It’s hard for me to review an aldehydic floral perfume without referencing Chanel No. 5, especially when it’s a perfume created during a similar era. Like No. 5, Sortilege’s building blocks are a traditional French floral core of jasmine, rose and ylang ylang. Sortilege’s key difference is the use of Turkish rose, which has a sharp and angular bite compared to the honeyed Rose de Mai used in Chanel No.5. The bouquet is decorated with other exotic flowers, lilacs, mimosa flowers, muguet and narcissus. A careless reviewer might conclude that Sortilege is a mere adaptation of Arpege. It’s true there are some similarities but if you have the fortune of smelling the original Arpege, not the reformulated version Lanvin has been selling since mid the 1990s, modern Sortilege avoids standing in Arpege’s shadow. As the floral notes settle, the aldehydes, which began as a kind of cellophane wrapping of the floral bouquet reemerge from the base. With sandalwood, musk and vegetal amber notes the aldehydes create a classic powdery drydown, which is vintage chic all the way. An hour later the rose note is still prominent and it takes on a slightly green, raspberry aspect. For me the parallel isn’t Chanel’s doe-eyed No.5 but the femme fatale that is No. 22.
Something Nicolas had to decide was which Sortilege he was going to bring back. He knew from Paul Vacher’s daughter that the perfumer was fond of roses and he tracked the annual rose harvests. Each year he would analyse the annual yield and custom blend his own extract from various rose sources, perhaps compensating or extending facets that nature had not provided that year. About the way Sortilege was produced over the decades, Nicolas says, “it was really quite artisanal.” Nicolas was passionate about reinstating the original Sortilege from 1936 even though he had various formulas from multiple decades. Nicolas observed that Sortilege was made even more aldehydic during the 1950s and 60s. This version is now offered as Sortilege Elixir, which Nicolas created with perfumer Marie Duchene. Of the fragrances Nicolas revived, he described Sortilege as being one of the biggest challenges to reconstruct.
Head notes: Bergamot, Citrus, Green Mimosa, Ambrette Seed
Heart notes: Iris, Royal Lily, Rose, Galbanum
Base notes: Atlas Cedar, Amber, Musk
Paul Vacher was a lover of flowers and his collection of single flower perfumes featured prominently in his collection. Iris was his first single flower or soliflore perfume for Le Galion. It was an ode to the scentless flower, which has roots that when aged over a number of years become one of the most expensive raw materials used in perfumery. Le Galion’s Iris is one of my favourites in the collection. Iris, or orris (from the iris root) extracts and accords have a stoic charm about them. The soul of this raw material is especially revealed when successfully paired with other notes. Prada’s Infusion d’Iris, Chanel No. 19 or Aedes de Venustas Iris Nazarena are all examples of how this note shines when surrounded by the right companions. Le Galion’s Iris is beautifully constructed; a delicate balance that is complex without detracting from the cooling iris note that shimmers like moonlight on skin. Iris begins with sparkling bergamot and citrus notes. Green mimosa is used with galbanum to provide a backdrop of lush foliage. A royal lily accord fills the heart of the perfume adding accents of fresh cut flowers and a touch of spice. The iris accord that permeates all levels of the fragrance is soft and clean with a slightly milky tone. Atlas cedar, musk and amber, typical basenotes that form a subtle Le Gallion signature, finish the fragrance.
Head notes: Mandarin, Galbanum, Pink Berry, Pear
Heart notes: Tuberose, Rose ,Orange Blossom, Raspberry
Base notes: Cedar, Amber, Musk
Although Germaine Cellier’s white flower bomb Fracas (1948) is the undisputed archetypal tuberose perfume, Vacher’s Tubereuse predates Fracas by a decade. Not that this bit of history makes Tubereuse a better perfume than Fracas but age has allowed it to escape a pitfall many post-Fracas tuberose perfumes have fallen into, which is copying Cellier’s flower be it out of reverence for her creativity or for more commercial reasons. Unlike the bubble gummy Fracas, Le Galion’s Tubereuse is less fluorescent. The perfume is straight-up white flowers from the beginning but behind the radiant white glare you can find accents of mandarin, pear and raspberry. The flower’s greenness is enhanced with galbanum and its spiciness with pink berries. Tubereuse has the grandeur of classic Givenchy perfumes that would come nearly half a century later. The perfume is grounded with dry cedar and accents of musk and amber.
Special for Gentlemen (1947)
Head notes: Bergamot, Citrus, Lavender, Galbanum
Heart notes: Cinammon, Amber, Cistus Labdanum, Patchouli
Base notes: Oak Moss, Vanilla, Castoreum, Opoponax
With refreshing notes of galbanum, citrus peel and lavender, Special For Gentlemen has an aromatic signature, which features in many of Le Galion’s masculine fragrances but there is also an old world warmth that is spicy, animalic and unique to Special For Gentlemen, the fragrance Paul Vacher launched for men after Christian Dior requested he not launch a women’s perfume that would compete with his commissioned Miss Dior perfume. Special For Gentlemen’s spiciness comes from cinnamon and opoponax resin, which are warmed with vanilla and amber. As the fragrance ages on skin, animalic notes of castoreum and labdanum work with oakmoss and patchouli to create a debonair barbershop-fresh fougere scent for men, which is reminiscent of Guerlain’s Jicky and competes well with its contemporaries, Aberdeen Lavander by Creed and Annees Folles by La Parfumerie Moderne.
La Rose (1950)
Head notes: Bergamot, Violet Leaf
Heart notes: Rose, Ylang Ylang, Water Peach, Royal Lily
Base notes: Cedar, Patchouli, Vanilla, Musk
Paul Vacher is said to have smelled more than 70 species of roses each year before deciding which rose would be used in this composition. Today’s La Rose has a modern twist with subtle aquatic notes that are paired with peach. With violet leaf, these additions return dewiness to the rose, which is perceived in nature but lost in the extraction process. Ylang ylang and royal lily bring floral sweetness and spice, which is rounded out with vanilla and musk. It’s a very contemporary olfactory essay on the flower.
Head notes: Mandarin, Bergamot, Saffron, Apple
Heart notes: Rose, Jasmine, Orange Blossom, Iris
Base notes: Sandalwood, Cedar, White Musk
On a timeline between Caron’s Muguet du Bonheur and Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew, Snob would have been a classic floral bouquet in its day. I suspect the presence of saffron and apple are artistic interpretations of raw materials that featured in the original Snob. Coupled with a modern sandalwood note, Snob is now a child of the 21st century. For me, Snob extends from La Rose. It takes this fleshy flower and makes it sparkle with mandarin, bergamot and crisp apple. The rose bouquet is surrounded with orange blossom, jasmine and saffron. Over a base of sandalwood, Snob is nuanced with orientalism, though the exclusion of gourmand notes restrains any further wandering in that direction. With an abundance of white musk, Snob is as decadent as you would expect but it is not overburdened with complex and heavy layers that were often imposed on perfumes of this era. Instead the white musk accord adds radiance and modernity.
Head notes: Verdelli Citrus, Calabrian Bergamot, Tarragon, Lavander, Cardamom Heart notes: Jasmine, Violet, Iris, Galbanum
Base notes: Oak Moss, Vetiver, Patchouli, Leather Notes
Whip is my other personal favourite from the current Le Galion collection. Like its namesake, Whip enlivens the senses as soon as it makes contact with skin. Acid notes of citrus and bergamot blend with refreshing tarragon, lavender and cardamom. It’s an aromatic tonic that has been used in countless men’s fragrances over the past half century. Jasmine dominates the heart of the fragrance and woody iris and violet form a bridge to the base notes of oakmoss, vetiver, patchouli and a hint of leather. In 1953, Whip would have been a revolution. At the time of its creation, chypre perfumes were marketed mostly towards women. Five years earlier, perfumer Edmond Roudnitska redirected the genre towards men with Moustache for Rochas. Two years after Whip, Chanel followed suit with its masculine chypre Pour Monsieur. In 1966 Roudnitska created a further milestone with his seminal Eau Sauvage for Christian Dior. At that time Paul Vacher supplied raw materials to Christian Dior and he produced the perfume compound for Miss Dior. It’s reasonable to expect Roudnitska and Vacher would have worked alongside each other at some point and an exchange of ideas may have taken place as Whip and Eau Sauvage have a lot in common. Today’s Whip contains some beautiful natural raw materials, which provide beautiful details and realism. I like to think of Whip as being an artisanal Eau Sauvage.
Eau Noble (1972)
Head notes: Bergamot, Citrus, Italian Mandarin, Galbanum
Heart notes: Lavender, Sage, Geranium
Base notes: Oak Moss, Indonesian Patchouli, Cedarwood, Musk
Like Whip, Eau Noble begins with refreshing citrus notes, aromatic herbs and green galbanum. Following a heart of geranium, Eau Noble evolves into a warm and textured chypre. Humid notes of patchouli and oakmoss are surrounded by animalic musk to create a rich drydown of woods and moss.
Eau Noble is one of Nicolas’ favourites. He talked about it in the context of the sexual revolution that it was originally launched into. “Women have taken power, so it’s a real unisex one. You have a lot of patchouli inside. What I like about this one is it is a real 70’s fragrance.” Of the same era as Yves Saint Laurent’s classic Rive Gauche and Paco Rabanne’s Calandre, Nicolas thought that Eau Noble talks to a more experienced perfume wearer and that it takes a little more time to get to know. One of its selling points is the way the perfume evolves on skin but this also makes it one of the more complex perfumes in his collection to sell. In addition to Eau Noble, which Nicolas revived with Thomas Fontaine, he also worked with perfumer Marie Duchene to create a new interpretation called Essence Noble, which accentuates the head and base notes of the original.
Head notes: Violet flowers, Kashmir Wood
Heart notes: Myrrh, Styrax, Lavander, White Musk
Base notes: Oak Moss, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Leather Notes
Reminiscent of sandalwood and pencil shavings, 222 is a futuristic woody fragrance. If I smelt it blind I would have guessed it came from a brand like Comme des Garcons. It’s surprising to think it has been derived from an eighty-year-old formula. Transparent woody notes are brushed with violet flowers, myrrh and lavender. Styrax, vanilla and white musk warm the perfume up with sweetness and the scent of oak barrels and leather surround the majestic overdose of sandalwood.
Of the first nine perfumes Nicolas relaunched, 222 is unique in that it is the only perfume not created by Paul Vacher. Nicolas recounted a moment from one of the days he spent with Paul Vacher’s daughter: “She brought out a coffret and said that this is one you have to get from the archives. This was always in my father’s office. I opened the coffret and it was all the fragrances of Prince (Murat) with the pricelist of that time.” Nicolas felt like all his Christmases had come at once. He was particularly drawn to a bottle labelled No. 22. The scent was woody and exotic. It was clearly inspired by Orientalism, which was popular in Paris during the 1920s and 30s. Nicolas used modern headspace technology to decipher the bottle’s contents. Since the name is currently in use Nicolas opted to call the revived version 222.
Head notes: Bergamot, Italian Mandarin, Nutmeg, Coriander
Heart notes: Clary Sage, Lavender, Petitgrain, Tarragon, Verbena
Base notes: Vetiver, Sandalwood, Tonka Bean, Musk
Niche perfumery with all of its self-imposed artistic merit attracts a fair amount of criticism for being led by trends. Take the use of oud wood as an example; does the world need any more ‘oud’ perfumes? But history reveals that perfumery has always been a landscape of trend following. In the late-1950s a cascade of vetiver perfumes were launched. After the success of Carven and Guerlain’s Vetiver others followed. In 1968, Paul Vacher offered his own perspective. Vetyver opens with fresh citrus notes that are coloured green with galbanum and petitgrain. Aromatic notes of clary sage, lavender and tarragon are the focal point of the heart notes. It is a point of difference comparing Vetyver with other popular vetiver fragrances, which prefer to jump straight to vetiver by this point in the perfume’s evolution. The drydown is a slightly soapy vetiver with tonka bean and hints of sandalwood and musk.
Head notes: Bergamot, Elemi
Heart notes: White Lily, leather
Base notes: Ambergris, Musk, Sandalwood
An original creation constructed by perfumer Vanina Murraciole under the house’s new ownership, Cuir pays homage to Paul Vacher, the creator of leather perfumes such as Diorling by Christian Dior and My Sin by Lanvin, which have a cult status with perfume connoisseurs. Le Galion’s leather has an old-world feel about it. Bitter quinolones create to sensation of leather around citrus, woods and musk.
Head notes: Italian Mandarin, Davana, Saffron
Heart notes: Jasmine, Incense, Castoreum, Oudh
Base notes: Guaiac wood, Sandalwood, Vanilla, White Musk
Another original creation with perfumer Vanina Murraciole, Aesthete is my favourite of the three new additions. As a fan of Hermes Bel Ami, I connect with Aesthete. It’s a spicy animalic fragrance with oriental tones of exotic smoky woods and gourmand vanilla. With indolic jasmine, leathery castoreum, musk and even a touch of oudh, Aesthete purrs with animalic charm.
Head notes: Pink Berries, Black Pepper
Heart notes: Rose, Iris, Myrrh
Base notes: Amber, Patchouli, Oudh, Cedar, Guaiac
Sovereign is the newest addition to the collection and I haven’t had the pleasure of smelling it. Sovereign pays tribute to the house’s original founder Prince Murat. Priced the same as Le Galion’s other uber-lux offerings Sortilege Elixir and Essence Noble, Sovereign is a composition of rose and iris with pink and black pepper, amber and exotic woods. For this latest perfume, Nicolas chose to work with perfumers Amelie Bourgeois and Anne-Sophie Behaghel.
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