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Lucien Lelong – the book, the French couturier, and his perfume

Dear readers, further from my previous blog about the late stylish French couturier, Jean Patou, a book about him and his perfume, it somehow reminds me of another Frenchman couturier, despite his name and work has been forgotten, for some reason I was obsessed with him lately, and I have a strong desire to blog about him. In the world of French haute couture and perfume, something that is inseparable is the relationship between the creation and the creator, among all the big names that being frequently talked about, my interest with Lucien Lelong started with his mysterious forgotten perfume when I came across one of the social media post about a couple of months ago, at first it wasn’t the instant attraction to me as I have never heard of this Frenchman nor his work before, not until there was a time when I realized that he did some great things about saving the French haute couture industry back in the WWII period, and, his haute couture work has been photographed by one of the esteemed, and my favorite photographer, George Hoyningen-Huene, a stylish Russian émigrés who has a tasteful eyes to capture elegant fashion and beautiful people back in the pre-war and Great Depression period, then I started to intrigue to trace back this forgotten French couturier and his work.

Perhaps some of you might knew about this French couturier already, especially if you came across one of his legendary perfume that sits right on your grandmother’s vanity table, however, the name Lucien Lelong is rather foreign to me given how obsessed I am in French fashion and style, and I was rather surprised that how little information out there that I can get from the internet about him, and under a serendipitous incident, I discovered that there’s actually a book out there about him and his work, written by Ms. Jacqueline Demomex, published by Thames and Hudson back in 2008; without a second thought I instantly bought it online and only got it at my hands about a few weeks ago. Having the same craving flame of tracing the history of Jean Patou, I started to be mesmerized by discovering the story of this forgotten French couturier, and his legendary perfume work, as I dived deep into the book.

Renowned for his haute couture in the early 20th century, Mr. Lucien Lelong was born in Paris and being cultivated under a fashionable environment since his father owned a fashion boutique when he was young, he was trained at Hautes Etudes de Commerciales in Paris before establishing his own namesake brand in early 1910s. Although he didn’t exactly design everything with his own hands, his vision and creativity did bring him some of the most exceptional designers to work with him, whose names are still well-known to our days which included the late Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain, of course all these mentioned great designers have eventually branched out and opened their own fashion house, somewhat it interprets how significant and influential Lucien’s work is in the world of French fashion and haute couture.

When it comes to Lucien’s haute couture design, his style is very much about quintessentially high society elegance, ethereal and fluidity, with a touch of theatrical (film-noir) feel, and femininity from the detail of his creation. With his exquisite couture work which attracted countless of elite and famous to shop for his couture dresses, the reputation of Lucien Lelong became well established in the French haute couture industry, which he eventually became the Chairman of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, the most significant organization in the French haute couture industry to determine which fashion design house is eligible to be qualified as a true haute couture house, as well as safeguarding the French haute couture position in France; Lucien has served that position there from 1937 through 1945. During the German occupation of Paris in WWII, Hitler attempted to move the entire French haute couture industry to Vienna and let it flourishes there, while the heroic Lucien stood firm for his position by representing the whole French couture industry of keeping the French haute couture and fashion to be flourished and developed on the French soil instead of moving elsewhere, the French couturier and chairman even pushed back to the tyrant if he insisted his will of doing so, he is going to face his consequence by seeing all the French couture fashion houses to cease business as the passive resistance over his tyrannical and barbaric ambition. I have heard about this story before when I was visiting Vienna a couple of years ago, but never know that this brave hero is this French couturier Lucien himself until now!

As said at the beginning, fashion and perfume goes hand in hand, with the creative talent and success of Lucien Lelong in the French haute couture and fashion field, inherently it paves the way for his other artistic venture – perfume. The first perfume, as the matter of fact, there are three perfumes actually, that he created with perfumer, Mr. Jean Carles, which comes in 3 single letters: ‘A’, ‘B’ & ‘C’ (this perfume series was named ‘Tout Lelong’), they all launched in 1926 with the bottle design in the rectangular classic flacon; according to the book, Lucien has meaning behind each perfume: ‘A’ means ‘a regal scent, for the evening’, ‘B’ is a bright and optimistic perfume for an ideal partner to wear in the afternoon, and ‘C’ represents the joyfulness like the sun evokes. After the success of those 3 fragrances, the French couturier then launched a subsequent ones which named ‘N’ and ‘J’, both of them were created in 1927. As mentioned before, each single letter of his perfume’s name has a meaning; for perfume ‘N’, Lucien created it to pay tribute to his second wife, Natalie Paley, who is one of the Russian émigrés after the Bolshevik revolution, the first cousin to Tsar Nicholas II, the last Romanov Tsar of Russia.

While for perfume ‘J’, it simply represents Jasmine. These earlier perfume by Lucien Lelong, in fact they have become one of the rarest to be found nowadays among other Lucien’s perfume, after trying very hard to find them until recently that I eventually found a miniature version of ‘N’, that enables me to experience this precious vintage perfume in person.

With its spicy and gingery opening, this perfume probably described the character of Natalie as a beautiful woman with a strong will despite the unfortunate things that happened to her, while the green notes from the opening is hardly detected after decades later, the powdery (which derives from Orris root) and floral notes in the middle, are still present yet it has become more of a vintage glamour feel now; I almost mistaken the Vetiver from the base note to Patchouli as it seems a bit aromatic to me, but overall the dry down did create a visual image in my head with Natalie was wearing an elegant Lucien Lelong evening dress, in a crispy light hue and draped beautifully when she was gliding down from the staircase, with her full make-up and scarlet red lipsticks, a silent glamorous femme fatale who is intimidating and irresistibly gorgeous at the same time.

Besides the single-letter perfume collection, perfumer Jean Carles has also created a couple of signature fragrance for the Lucien Lelong brand, which they have also became a legendary classic perfume for decades, that included ‘Indiscret’ which launched in 1935, ‘Elle Elle’ (taking the initial of the French couturier’s name) in 1937, ‘Tailspin’ (also known as ‘Passionnément’ in Europe) in 1940, and ‘Orgueil’ in 1946. Another remarkable perfumes included ‘Mon Image’ in 1933, ‘Sirocco’ in 1934, ‘Opening Night’ (also known as ‘Orage’) in 1935, ‘Balalaika’ and ‘Jabot’ in 1939, ‘Cachet’ in 1948, here are just a name of a few which created by unknown perfumer(s) out of the hundred perfumes under Lucien Lelong’s name.

Besides smelling the beauty of the fragrance, another thing I like to discover, is the design of the perfume bottle and its packaging, and I have to start with the legendary ‘Indiscret’ first, as the design of this particular bottle literally came from the idea of Lucien’s couture dress, one can see the fluidity draping of the dress and the sand-blasted bottle effect that reminiscent to the softness and enigmatic elegance of the chiffon fabric. The bottle that I just acquired recently, although the fresh citrusy top notes has almost varnished over time, the fragrance still retained its bygone Parisian glamour of the 1930s, the intensity of the complexed and rich floral notes, from Jasmine and rose, to the African Orange flower and Iris, and the vintage-y woody base note seems like a mixed of Sandalwood and Cedarwood to me, but one thing for sure, the scent did reflect the elegant fashion back then, with a bit of resilient, femme fatale and a strong-will-to-survive feel which I can completely picture one of my beloved late Dutch-Javanese model, Toto Koopman, wearing a Lelong couture dress, showing her confidence and no-nonsense beauty even without saying a word while underwent the traumatic era from the Great Depression and later WWII.

Perhaps due to the high production cost, the couture-dress-shape bottle of ‘Indiscret’ slowly migrated into the other classic, iconic bottle design which we all see today: the signature sphere-shape clear glass bottle with a long neck to the screw stopper (with no atomizer) and some small round glass on the sphere body (for some reason it reminds me of the Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama’s dotted pumpkin artwork), this bottle design, I possibly believe, comes out during the later life of the French couturier during the 1950s, when the health of Lucien started to decline and he decided to close his couture house in 1948 however keeping the perfume business to continue. The shape of this bottle somehow makes me think of the luxurious crystal wine decanter or flask back in the early 20th century, don’t you think?

In the musical comedy movie ‘An American in Paris’ (1951) starred by Gene Kelly, there’s a scene when the character Jerry (played by Gene) was trying to ask a beautiful perfume salesgirl out after he entered into a high end perfume boutique, one can find the selection of Lucien Lelong’s perfume displayed on the perfume vitrine too along with other legendary perfume that we know today; can you recognize which ones are they?

Now you can see how significant it is for Lucien Lelong’s perfume that associate with fashion, elegance, style and even bygone Hollywood glamour too! Speaking of perfume boutique, do you know that the perfume salon of Lucien Lelong was designed by the reputed French interior designer, the late Jean-Michel Frank, with lighting and the moulded plaster drapery element, which imitates the fluidity of the couture dress, by the renowned sculptor, the late Alberto Giacometti? The atmosphere is bright and airy thanks to the crispy white interior, which exudes the aesthetic of the French couturier, or at the very least, the harmonious, luxurious yet minimalistic ambient that he intended to create for his space.

Nowadays, it’s relatively difficult to find a full bottle Lucien Lelong perfume, especially the most iconic ones that mentioned, they have mostly become a collector piece by fragrance connoisseurs or vintage perfume collectors, or being showcased in a museum, if fortunate enough, you might still be able to find them from certain online vintage perfume sites, or even some auction house sales in Europe. From what I have seen, the price of just the bottle of Lucien Lelong perfume, even without the perfume juice inside, can go up to more than a thousand US dollar depending on the condition, and accompanying with the original packaging or not; I can barely find the almost-full bottle of ‘Indiscret’ and ‘Balalaika’ at 50ml I believe, without the original packaging, in the price of almost equivalent to a 100ml (or 85ml) brand-new, current luxury niche fragrance brand’s perfume in the market now. You may wonder: “is it a wise choice to purchase a vintage fragrance in such amount rather than getting a bottle of the latest perfume from a brand that is popular in our time now that can actually use?” I did ask myself the same thing, and hesitated, worth it or not? I can’t tell, but for sure everyone has their own way to see a value over something.

Every product has their life cycle, and every fashion has their lifespan; when I was staring at these precious discontinued Lucien Lelong perfume, I keep thinking how unfortunate it is that such a glamorous and luxurious haute couture perfume will become what it is now! If Lucien is still alive today and seeing how his perfume and product being handled, I wondered, how does he feel and how would he respond to this?

Same as my experience of tracing back Jean Patou’s story and work, I have posed the same question to myself during this search about Lucien Lelong: “What fascinates me so much about this late French couturier? Is it about his personal style or his design aesthetic? And what is the purpose and what am I looking for here?” Is it because of the significant contribution and his body-of-work to the perfume and French haute couture history that I need to know in order to enrich my knowledge about perfume, French fashion and style? Or is it his tenacity, bravery and resilience during the WWII period to protect the valuable French haute couture legacy, and its status in French fashion to the world, that literally moves me so much that given me strength to carry on my creative pursue? To show me another example that a noble, decent and talented great man do exist and they are real indeed but simply not in our time now? Or is it because of after the search and hunt during the past months, it helps to strengthen my mindfulness, and even compassion, to cherish something that is valuable and rare, in particular, for the artistic creation and even the creator himself, that has been neglected for so long however having a significant impact and intangible value behind?

As a men’s style connoisseur and writer, a small perfume business founder, a Francophile, or even a perfume collector, that’s one thing for sure is that it definitely inserted a valuable and beautiful chapter in my journey called life, at least as the foundation of learning how to cherish bygone historical legacy and creation, and fortunate enough, being able to own a piece of memorabilia that I can connect with the late French couturier at some point, being able to experience the olfactory beauty and the mystery of these legendary fragrances, taking me back in the heydays yet difficult time of Paris during the interwar period, that I can experience how the fashionable era back then, enables me to create a visual image about how the style and fashion looks like through perfume, despite some of the fragrance notes might have changed over time.

Time passes, so as style, fashion and people, new designers and artists might emerge every single day, with their news filling up in our newsfeed every day, at the same time, the old ones are undoubtedly worth our respect and remembrance too since they were the one who laid the foundation of what the artistic creation we see today, either it’s haute couture for both men and women, leather goods or perfume, to me, being mindful, in-depth and appreciative over delicate artisan work makes us much refined, cultured and humane, and I possibly believe that it’s one of the admirable quality when it comes to gentlemen’s art of living and lifestyle on top of the outer beauty, grooming and manners.


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