Can Guerlain Mitsouko and Chanel No. 5 Tell the Future?

Over the past few months I’ve been having a lot of conversations about where the perfume industry goes after this current pandemic is resolved. Thankfully, I had a place to look for some answers. It has been said, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The book Perfume Legends II by Michael Edwards gives me some clues from the past to think about the future.

Michael Edwards (Photo by Gary Heery)

Perfume Legends II is ostensibly a book about the greatest French feminine perfumes. It covers the story of modern perfumery from 1882’s Fougere Royale through to 2010’s Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady. One of the unique aspects of the book is how author Mr. Edwards presents each entry through the words of the creators. Over the past 30 years he has interviewed the creators, perfumers and designers behind each legend. When those responsible for creation are no longer living, his research uncovered their words from interviews and press statements. Each chapter covers the creative process behind the perfume and the bottle. There is plenty to enjoy if you just focus on the juice and the flacon. What struck me as I have read through the book is how it is also a societal history of the beauty industry. I looked toward the book to reveal what happened the last time the world was affected by a pandemic.

That was in 1918 with the onset of the Spanish Flu. It was at its peak during the fall of that year. When I turn to the subsequent years in Perfume Legends II, I find two of the most iconic perfumes of all time; Guerlain Mitsouko and Chanel No. 5.

Mitsouko was released in 1919. Jacques Guerlain had been working on the Guerlain version of a chypre for seven years. In these early days of modern perfumery women wore mostly floral based perfumes. Mitsouko was going to provide them with an alternative. In this chapter it chronicles one of the first changes in the social status of women. 1918 also saw the end of World War I. Women had been stepping into traditionally masculine roles. This was why they weren’t looking for flowers anymore. They wanted a perfume with the same confidence they had found in themselves. Mitsouko was waiting for them.

It is too early to know what changes are happening with social roles in the current situation. Mitsouko tells us there is likely a perfume waiting to embrace that change.

One of the women who embraced the change back then was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The longest chapter in Perfume Legends II tells the story of the woman, her fashion sense, and her perfume. The book tells how in the summer of 1920 while summering in Cannes with her friends Misia and Josep Maria Sert she got the idea for a perfume. Mr. Edwards has revealed this story for the first time. It displays the forward thinking of Coco for which she is lauded.

The perfumer behind No. 5, Ernest Beaux, was also a man recovering his life. He had made perfume prior to the war and the pandemic. Afterward he would pick up the pieces of what remained. There is a popular myth that the creation of No. 5 was a mistake born out of pique. Anyone who reads the section on his process will realize something quite different. No. 5 is one of the great pieces of perfume architecture with each piece meticulously placed. Mr. Edwards lays out each step of the process. M. Beaux left nothing to chance.

By the time he was ready to show it to Mlle. Chanel she immediately knew what she had. She also realized that the perfume was the star and asked for a simple bottle to contain it. Throughout the book the stories of the bottles contain some of the most interesting views on the times they were created. Coco wanted No. 5 to stand on its own in the now iconic bottle known the world over.

No. 5 would be the beginning of one of the great perfume collections of our time. It is not hard to think there is a creative mind out there now considering their first move into the fragrance world. It is not hard to believe there is a perfumer out there with some new ideas. Once this pandemic comes to an end maybe they will find each other and create something which rhymes with the past.

Perfume Legends II is full of the rhythms of the history of modern perfumery.

Disclosure: I was compensated by the publisher for this.

Mark Behnke

My Mother’s Christmas Present

1

Last year’s Christmas post was triggered by smelling some vintage Guerlain Mitsouko. Writing that was like a fever dream which spilled out of me. In the days after I posted that my memory was jogged again about a Christmas Eve shopping trip with my father to buy my mother a present. It seemed like the appropriate follow-up to last year’s story.

The reason there is a cliché about men shopping on Christmas Eve is because there is some truth there. My father and I would get up every Christmas Eve to go shopping for gifts for my mother. I never thought there was any other way to do it. I don’t know this, but I suspect my mother enjoyed a bit of the lull before the storm by having us out of the house.

Downtown Miami Jordan-Marsh 1960-ish

I loved the shopping expedition because we went to the most elegant department store in Miami; Jordan-Marsh. This was when stores like this were wonderlands filled with the latest technology. I was fascinated with the glass room which contained the record players and sound systems. You would step into the soundproofed booth to be surrounded by stereo sound…stereo! I remember walking from one speaker to the other realizing I was hearing different things from each one. It was a modern marvel.

The housewares department was even more fantastic with the latest and the greatest. There was someone demonstrating non-stick frying pans. Look! Melted cheese slides right out! There was an ice cream parlor where we would have lunch. There were people buying wine in the Wine Cellar. It wasn’t sensory overload it was just enough to satiate my need for novel experiences.

We would look all around the store considering this new-fangled thing or that. I remember advocating for the non-stick frying pan one year. We ended up at the same place every year standing at the Women’s Fragrance counter.

My mother wore only two perfumes Guerlain Mitsouko and Guerlain Shalimar. When we got to the counter a nicely dressed woman would patiently greet the latest clueless males venturing into unknown territory. We would mention that those were the perfumes my mother wore. We would be offered paper strips with the latest perfume. “Straight from Paris” she would say.  My father and the saleswoman would begin to talk. I tuned them out as I smelled the strip. I tried to imagine my mother smelling like what was on the paper. I couldn’t. To me my mother simply smelled like Mitsouko or Shalimar. There was no alternative.

When my father asked me about the new perfume, I would reply I didn’t think Mom would like it. I think my Dad thought so too but he let me be the bearer of disappointing news to the saleswoman. He would ask for one of the two Guerlains and we had finished. We would go upstairs to gift wrapping and get an extravagantly intricate design.

On Christmas morning when I would hand my mother the gift from Dad and me; she undoubtedly knew what was inside. She would carefully undo the wrapping paper. Pulling out the box she would smile at Dad and I with the words, “My favorite!”

It wasn’t the perfect gift; whatever that might have been. It was a gift which told my mother we loved the way she smelled.

Mark Behnke

The Scent of Christmas Past

1

One of the things those of us who love perfume talk about are “scent memories”. The concept that a smell can connect with a memory and bring an entirely personal subtext to fragrance. One ingredient which does this for me is gardenia. My grandmother had fresh-cut gardenias floating in bowls of water spread throughout her gardenia bush-surrounded Florida pine house. I can’t smell a good gardenia without hearing her voice and seeing her face.

Then this summer, as part of a project I am working on, I was going through vintage formulas of different Guerlains. When I hit the late 1950’s version of Mitsouko Eau de Cologne I had something more than a memory wash over me. I was transported fifty years backward so strongly it felt like a virtual reality had settled over me. What I was remembering so vividly was getting ready to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve sometime in the late 1960’s. It was so vital I stopped what I was doing and wrote it all out before it faded away. Even thought it was the middle of July I realized I had written my Christmas Day 2017 post.

—————————————————————————————————————–

I stood at the doorway to my parent’s bedroom. In my hand was my first real tie. My excitement on attending Midnight Mass was making my fingers fumble the perfect Windsor knot. As I looked in my mother was seated at her dressing table. She had some candles lit while she peered into the halo of electric light around her mirror. For a moment I was watching her without her knowing. My mother was always one of the most assured people I knew. She made decisions without ambivalence. She also stood up and took responsibility for poor choices. As I had a few seconds to look at her I felt like she was thinking deeply about something. She was coming to a conclusion about something. Before the process completed she looked up.

All children will tell you the smile of a parent happy to see you is a joyous thing. On Christmas Eve that smile feels like a gift. As I received this present I held out my hand with the tie. The smile widened a bit and she said, “Let me finish here and I’ll help you.”

She was still in her pink terrycloth robe and I had caught her at the end of her preparation. All that was left was adding her perfume. My mother only wore two perfumes for as long as I’ve known her. Guerlain Shalimar and Guerlain Mitsouko. She owned the round “bull’s-eye” bottles; red for Shalimar and green for Mitsouko. They had crystal pointed stoppers which were picking up the candlelight behind them. As she reached for the one with the green circle she tipped it, so it would get some on the stopper. She pulled the stopper. On the end was a drop of liquid picking up facets of flame and filament. She drew it to the hollow of her neck where that drop spread onto her skin. She rubbed the stopper against both wrists then returned it to its resting place in the neck of the bottle. She closed her eyes while taking a breath. When they opened a smile accompanied it. She beckoned me over.

She sat me on a stool in front of her chair as we looked into her vanity mirror. She leaned forward as we drew the tie around my upturned collar. I was surrounded by the love of my mother and the scent of Mitsouko. My turn to close my eyes and breathe in.

My mother could have tied the tie for me but instead she carried me through it with her voice. I got it right on the first try. With a final smile at me in the mirror she sent me off to wait for her to finish getting dressed. While I was waiting I realized a bit of the Mitsouko from her wrist had made it onto the tie. It seemed perfect.

————————————————————————

That’s what came from my Mitsouko fever dream. I loved going to Midnight Mass with my family. The smell of the incense off the censers. The fanfare from the trumpets. The Latin words said in such a rhythm I knew what was being said without knowing the language. Underneath it all I would be sitting on my knees in the pew under my mother’s arm surrounded by Mitsouko most of all.

This is what makes me continue to love perfume.

Mark Behnke