"Into the Ninth" By Luca Turin
There is a slice of Paris, roughly the 9th arrondissement, stretching from behind the Galeries Lafayette to the dizzying railway cut of Place de l’Europe, that belongs in a city one quarter the size. You pass faded offices under flickering neons, hairdressers showing photographs of ugly hairdos nobody will request, driving schools with cut-open engines in the window, shops that still sell stamps and coins long after the last collector died. This is where, in years past, some perfume stores stocked the products of fallen firms like Lubin (the cheerily sad Gin Fizz) or Houbigant (the sinister Duc de Vervins). The Ninth is where French glory slowly fades to blue in shop windows, where disheveled glamour goes to die. It is my melancholy duty to report that I lately saw Parfums Balmain pass by Rue Lafayette, at dawn, looking haggard.
The telltale signs of decadence had been there for some time. For a start, the packaging hadn’t been changed for a decade. There was no need to, it looked great. But when that happens in a country like France, obsessed with sprucing up, you start to worry. And sure enough, the last two fragrances, Balmya and Eau d’Amazonie, were cheap, thin little things. Oddly, Pierre Balmain (clothes, watches) seems to be doing well, with prosperous-looking ads everywhere. Unlike Worth, Fath and Grès, where the fashion house went belly-up leaving the perfumes stranded, it seems Balmain just stopped caring.
Ironically, Balmain had caught the modernisation mumps early and seemed in great shape. The great Vent Vert, Germaine Cellier’s masterpiece, was beautifully reengineered by Calice Becker fifteen years ago. She also did the lemon-sandalwood Monsieur Balmain, still the sunniest masculine around. Jolie Madame, Cellier’s other great (a more civilized version of Piguet’s Bandit), is still in the range. And then there’s Francis Camaille’s Ivoire, the last of the monumental soap statues of the eighties. A range like that deserves to survive and expand.
When I was trying to contact Parfums Balmain, I was bounced around from phone number to phone number until I came to the firm that has recently acquired the license, and they sent me the full range. I asked what other brands they represent. My heart sank when they told me: Ungaro and Rykiel. It seems these former grands seigneurs now sit across each other in the tumbril, hands tied, on their way to the Ninth.