Lanvin Arpège old and new: Evolution of an icon
The house of Lanvin was once a touchstone of the glories of French fashion design with a stable of perfumes to match. From its first big hit My Sin (a.k.a: Mon Peche) to the provocatively named Rumeur and Scandal to the glorious Crescendo, the Lanvin fragrances had both the cachet of the house's fashion reputation and their own excellent qualities in their favor. Most of all they had Arpège, created by Paul Vacher and Andre Fraysse and launched in 1927, one of the most familiar names in all of perfumery. It enjoyed great popularity for decades in the hearts and boudoirs of women everywhere. It was named in honor of Jeanne Lanvin’s daughter Marguerite’s skill as a pianist, since the name means Arpeggio, the quick running of notes on a keyboard. Unfortunately, the house of Lanvin passed into the hands of several different owners after founder Jeanne Lanvin died in 1946, and is now owned by interests that have allowed all the interesting perfumes of the past to die, leaving only a reformulated Arpège (by Hubert Fraysse in1993) and a resurrected Rumeur that bears no resemblance to its original namesake. (A couple of recent releases bear the Jeanne Lanvin name and from descriptions I have read seem to be highly uncharacteristic of the brand, although I have not tried them.)
I recently compared two examples of this fragrance from different eras, both in good condition. The older version came in the sturdy square bottle common to the entire Lanvin line at one time. The other one is a clear globular bottle with a rounded plastic gold tone cap and the Lanvin mother and daughter logo on the side, a simplified design based on the classic black and gold orb Arpège bottle. I don't know exactly how recent the latter bottle is, but there are definitely major differences between what is inside each of them and the newer one is most certainly the reformulation.
What struck me about the older vintage (in Extrait) was how complex and fast-evolving it is, so it is indeed aptly named, and the contrast of its sharp herbal-bitter top notes against the deep and almost disturbing animal notes of the base. Its carnal affinity to its naughty elder sister scent My Sin is apparent, but it also has a rather severe sophistication, an almost intimidating aspect that I found fascinating. (My nose had a hard time pinning it down as far as what style of perfume it is.) It is actually a floral aldehydic scent, second in its day only to Chanel No. 5 and firmly established one of the truly great perfumes of all time. Wearing it reveals layers over time; it cannot be judged in the first few minutes or even an hour. Bergamot, aldehydes, neroli, clove and coriander create a sharp first impression which is followed by lush, “dirty” florals that include Grasse jasmine and Bulgarian rose. The base is heavy with musk, and lots of it, as well as fine quality sandalwood and strong vetiver. It is the very definition of “womanly,” but not in the seductive sex-kitten sense of so many other perfumes. The women who chooses this as her fragrance is deeply feminine but powerful too, and she will not stand for any nonsense from anyone. It must have been one of the great aspirational perfumes of its time, to be worn like battle armor; and this from a floral, not a leather/chypre outlaw scent! I first smelled this many years ago and I had nearly forgotten how distinctive it was. I did not think it was for me back then, now that I am older with a more educated nose, I can see why it was such a success.
The other little bottle holds Eau de Parfum, and it is very concentrated, very close to Extrait de Parfum in fact, but it is a softer scent, without that herbal punch at the start, and it has sweeter florals. Indeed the list of florals in the newer Arpège includes such things as mimosa and violet, and I thought I smelled a hint of vanilla in the base too. Finding that last one a little hard to believe I looked it up, and yes it's true, there is vanilla in this, which was definitely absent from the original. It is a beautiful scent, and very easy to wear, but even so it lacks the intrigue of the older perfume. I had seen this at online discount stores and wondered how different it was from the first formulation. If the re-orchestration was intended to produce a prettier scent it worked, but the ironic thing is that the original Arpège was actually more modern in its way, a fragrance for strong and complicated women. The reformulated scent also has a distinctly powdery quality that is missing in the vintage, and somewhat resembles the style of the original's contemporaries such as Le Galion's Sortilège and Chanel No. 5 more than it does the first Arpège, though it lacks the warm, golden radiance of either of those masterworks. In that sense it seems more “retro” than perhaps was the intention. Both of them last very well and would make excellent foundation scents for a grown-up fragrance wardrobe.
The real difference is that the original Arpège makes me think, and puzzles me, and confounds me, and I keep going back to it to figure out what it's doing, while the new edition is lovely in a more uncomplicated way. There is a place for both kinds of perfume of course, but I can't help feeling sad that something has been lost here. The first Arpège endured as a beloved icon for more than sixty years and I can't help but wonder why the decision was made to give it a facelift, especially in the direction of making it “easier” than it was before. Chanel would not re-frame No. 5 to make it more appealing to the masses, so why do it to an equally revered heritage perfume? Of course this is not the first time a great perfume has been changed by its new keepers, and it is nowhere near the disaster it could have been, so that is something to be thankful for. Even so, I will take the unsettling and enigmatic beauty of the old over the smooth and rather misty prettiness of the new.
Image credits: 1959 & 1967 Arpège magazine ads from adclassix.com and antiqbook.com