"Sublime" By Luca Turin
Thirty years ago, most fine fragrance perfumers were Frenchmen, steeped in that enduring mixture of lust, fascination and scorn towards women locally celebrated as galanterie. I once wrote a letter to the great Edmond Roudnitska asking him to come give a talk on perfumery. He mistook the handwritten final a of my first name for an e and wrote back a letter informing me (Luce is a feminine name in France) that “though a scientist, I was nonetheless a woman”, etc. Embarrassed, I dropped the invitation. Yet his generation, for all its fossil ideas, seldom stooped to the sort of mawkish Barbie-pink trash that is now the staple of emancipated sexiness. Instead, they designed their greatest creations to adorn chessboard queens, dashing in all directions chewing up pawns, chased by panting, step-at-a-time kings. Bernard Chant’s Cabochard, Guy Robert’s Dioressence, Roudnitska’s Diorama were offerings to goddesses, not presents to women. How did this Pantheon die out ? Demeter went first: the last opulent florals Fidji, First, and Chloé show signs of overripe decadence, and are variations on earlier agrestic glories (Joy, Fleurs de Rocaille). Then came the obese Junos of the eighties: Giorgio, Poison and Opium, painted harlots that soon collapsed under their own weight. By the nineties a new race of synthetic Titans (Angel, Boucheron) was in the ascendant, and among the old divinities only the martial and the fleet of foot were left standing. Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche (Diana) remained true to its sleek, magnificent form until it was defaced by the Taliban of EU regulations two years ago. The last intact monumental sculpture seems to be Patou’s Sublime, and its survival is no accident. Patou was always an anomaly: an in-house perfumer (then Jean Kerléo), slow to create and slow to trash, no fashion collections to speed up the pace of life, a launch every few years. Sublime, probably Kerléo’s greatest creation, is a wonderful case of mistaken identity: the luminous buttercup color of the packaging, the exotic-fruit bottle, everything screams éternel féminin. But the fragrance tells a different story: arrestingly handsome rather than pretty, completely abstract despite being made largely of natural materials (jasmine and vetiver), this Minerva of fragrances in full armour and helmet passes the hardest test for any feminine fragrance: it makes a sensational masculine. Roudnitska would probably have hated the notion, but Sublime illustrates the admission of defeat voiced by the public womanizer and closet homosexual Louis Aragon: “La femme est l’avenir de l’homme”.