Like most of my passions in life, this one started innocently enough. Some twenty years ago my mother’s sixtieth birthday was coming up and I decided to get her the first perfume I remember her wearing when I was a 10-year old back in the mid-sixties – Crêpe de Chine by Millot. I don’t remember what the bottle looked like nor do even remember what Crêpe de Chine smelled like. However, I do remember how that perfume made me feel and how it transformed our boring suburban lower duplex with bland furniture and a “crystal and gold” chandelier (which went with nothing) into a space where the crystal chandelier seemed right but nothing else did. I realize now that it was probably the first time in my life that I experienced luxury. I didn’t understand it but I knew how it felt… magical and well, transformative.
For about thirty years after that first experience, I never gave perfume much thought. As a younger man I wore mostly citrus-based fragrances… Pour Monsieur by Chanel and I particularly loved Signoricci and Monsieur Balmain, which brought me somewhat to an olfactory dead end because after MB, I couldn’t get much more “citrusy” even if I doused myself with Real Lemon juice.
So as my mother’s birthday approached, I thought it would be fun to surprise her with a “blast from the past”, literally. I knew very little about perfume at the time but I knew that classics like Chanel No. 5 and Joy were still available; certainly I could find Crêpe de Chine. I went to several high-end department stores in Montreal but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about. By pure accident one day, I came across an opulent store specializing in perfume so I figured that this was my lucky day. I walked up to the store manager, a man in his 60s. He looked extremely elegant… tall, slim, greying hair and wearing a modish skinny blue suit, pink shirt and flamboyant purple tie. He appeared to be absorbed by what he was reading but I charged ahead with my best French, “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, avez-vous Crêpe de Chine de Millot?” and without even looking up at me, he fired back in English, “Is it for your mother or your grandmother?”
“Uh… it’s for my mother.”
“It’s been discontinued for years.” Then, with a sigh and looking up at me, “All the women who wore Crêpe de Chine switched to Arpège from Lanvin. Do you want to try that?”
“No thank you.” I resigned. “It’s more of a sentimental thing.”
“Well,” he retorted with authority, “don’t look for it because you won’t find it!”
And that was that. I promptly forgot about the whole matter and didn’t think about it again until a few years ago when I read on the Internet that Crêpe de Chine was a classic green chypre. A green chypre? Certainly there was a typo or a word missing. What’s a green chypre? And, at that exact moment, my naïve search for a discontinued perfume morphed into a home project and later, into a full-fledged passion, if not obsession.
Today, a couple of shelves in my bookcase are dedicated to books on perfume, many of which I’ve read several times. And, I store my collection of perfumes in a closet to protect them from damaging light and, more to the point, to protect me from disapproving glances from friends and acquaintances. I even lie when people ask me how many perfumes I have in my collection usually cutting the actual number by half or more, depending on how I expect the person will react. But every time I figure I’ve got one too many aromatic fougères or floral orientals in my collection, I read about some new scent that breaks rules or that outdoes a classic and I find myself wondering just how wonderful it is. It’s the classic never-ending story.
P.S. As for my mother’s birthday fragrance, well… I moved on to the second perfume I remember her wearing, L’Air du Temps by Nina Ricci, which was ALOT easier to find.
Image : Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend