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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Lanvin Arpège old and new: Evolution of an icon

By Donna

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 and

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Blogger tmp00 said...

I wish someone would do a version of the old one...

6:04 PM EDT  
Blogger klavaza said...

I also long for some older, yet eternal, perfumes. Beautiful note, very evocative. Perfumes are valuable goods:

10:58 PM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Tom, it would be great if someone could resurrect that formula! Unfortunately half of the ingredients are probably illegal now, or at least unaffordable.

12:07 AM EDT  
Blogger Flora said...

Thank you Leon! Arpege is about as close as you can get to eternal.

I am still wondering what kind of perfume it was that caused those police officers to be willing to risk their careers to steal it? I hope it wasn't Paris Hilton! :-)

12:19 AM EDT  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

What a very thoughtful post !

I'm a huge fan, and agree heartily with it being for 'strong, feminine women'...

Sadly, my DH is reminded of" being smothered in Britiash schools by teachers he didn't like" :((

I prefer the older version.

5:28 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Donna, for another interesting and informative post. Arpege was recommended to me by a sales assistant and, having read about what an iconic fragrance it was, I bought a small bottle. When I smelled the shimmery, watery jasmine juice, I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Obviously I need an opportunity for a sniff of the original! - Emma

6:19 AM EDT  
Blogger Mals86 said...

Last summer I bought both a mini of the reformulation and one of the extrait, which I'm sure is vintage - it came in a little leather-covered box with a flip lid, with the price tag $7.85 on the back. It was instructive to try a different version on each wrist: the new is, to my nose, a little more pleasant up top but thinner all the way through. Compared to much of the sugary juice currently being hocked by your average Macy's, modern Arpege seems intelligent and strong.

Compared to the vintage extrait, of course, it seems anorexic and a bit woolly-headed. That vintage stuff is RICH. I actually have difficulty wearing it until the florals have relaxed a little - the aldehydes never bother me, but the florals are so full and heavy that I feel swamped by them, and almost nauseated, as if I've eaten far too much of a luxurious, butter-rich meal. But that drydown is the most glorious thing - just stunning. I had never smelled sandalwood like that in anything else (and to be honest, the only other scent of mine that has that quality and amount of sandalwood is my 50's-era bottle of No. 5 parfum).

9:19 AM EDT  
Blogger ScentScelf said...

What a lovely tour, Donna. Thank you.

My own experience with Arpege has been interesting from the get-go...I am generally an aldehyde avoider, as they don't get along with me. But, because I found a fabulous deal on Arpege (the current) at a discounter, I got some. I figured somebody would love it. To my surprise, I discovered that someone was me.

I now have some vintage Eau Arpege, and maybe someday will land some extrait. I can absolutely see your observations about the differences. There is something about the dry down in quietly lush and beautiful....

9:23 AM EDT  
Anonymous Marian said...

Arpege was my first vintage perfume purchase. I acquired it in memory of my mother, as it was one of two scents I remember sitting atop her bureau when I was a child. Because she rarely wore perfume I still haven't opened the bottle for fear that its scent will fail to evoke the associative memories I long for it to arouse.
However your fascinating and scholarly review did the trick for me, Donna. Your description of Arpege made me understand why my mom, a "powerful" career woman, an "outlaw", and "no nonsense" matriarch of our extended family, would have chosen it. My mother's birthday was March 14th. Thank you, Donna, for your timely and wonderfully illuminating gift.

10:13 AM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Chaya, thank you, and it's too bad your DH does not care for it - I think the original is just fierce!

4:02 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Thanks Emma - you will be amazed at how different they are. And "shimmery" is an excellent way to describe the new one.

4:04 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Mals86, it really is rich, isn't it? Not your typical floral at all! I had the same feeling of it being a bit too much at first but wow, that drydown!

4:05 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Thank you ScentSelf - I do like both versions a lot, I just don't know why they thought it need to be "fixed."

4:07 PM EDT  
Anonymous Flora said...

Marian, that is a lovely thing to say, thanks so much!

4:08 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:26 AM EDT  
Anonymous bella said...

What a wonderful post! It brought back lovely memories. I bought it as a very girl in Paris! My first grown-up perfume. I have been obsessed with perfume and scents ever since.

6:35 PM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

I recently bought the older Arpege in non other that a Charity Shop for $5 Australian. And I am in love with it. It is the most beautiful perfume I have ever experienced.

7:44 PM EST  

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