Vanilla, Ellena ? Who’d have thought we’d read the two words in the same sentence one day? Not only has Hermès’ in-house perfumer publicly stated his dislike for the note, but vanilla seemed somewhat too easy, too obviously crowd-pleasing for the likes of him. After all, despite its beauty, vanilla is the very epitome of the plain, consensual flavor.
Of course, the thrill was trying to guess just what twist Ellena would give to the pod. Clearly, given his trademark “transparent” aesthetics, he wouldn’t go anywhere near Jean-Paul Guerlain’s rum-laced rendition, Spiritueuse Double Vanilla; and to create a vanilla that doesn’t refer to Guerlain, who’s practically got a copyright on the note, requires a fair amount of molecule-bending.
The Hermessence collection usually rests on a contrast/harmony between two dominant notes that are linked by some facets – Ellena explains this method of poetic scent-association in his Le Parfum (P.U.F.). For instance, the latest, Un brin de réglisse, matches the licorice-like facets of lavender with licorice; Osmanthe Yunnan plays on the suede/leather-like facets common to osmanthus and tea.
Vanille Galante matches the smoky-animalic facets of vanilla and lily (a match already made by Serge Lutens with Un Lys). The very top notes are almost redolent of stables and fresh tobacco leaves but that’s only the starting point. From then on, the fragrance almost immediately expands like a soap bubble – in fact, the very Big White Green Bubble I riffed on in a previous post – filled with a light-as-air exotic floral note that brings to mind the cocoa-butter, banana-like sweetness of ylang-ylang, tiaré (Gardenia tahitensis) or frangipani blossom. In fact, the smell of those flowers is mainly composed of amyl salicylate (salicylates are explicitly quoted in the press kit – clearly, some brands are getting less bashful about chemicals; in the case of Hermès, it isn’t surprising, as Jean-Claude Ellena is particularly forthcoming about his work).
Within the space cleared by the sweet, delicate breath of those exotic blossoms, the lily goes on releasing its spicy, smoky, almost clove-like shimmer through a cool-watery veil (this aspect is reminiscent of Frédéric Malle Lys Méditerranée), on the barest sliver of sandalwood. The vanilla, by then, is both entirely recognizable and barely there: a mere dusting on the skin of the bubble.
With Vanille Galante, Ellena has managed a double tour de force: not only has he washed away vanilla’s triteness by signing it, its clichéd yumminess, but he has also managed to stretch out the headiness and heaviness of sweet, exotic materials into an almost impalpable substance. The Platonic ideal of a white-chocolate/vanilla cream laced with something fresh and green, say ginger and cardamom, spread out on a surface the size of Madagascar. Exquisite.
Image by Robert Ryman (1930-), Station, 1994, courtesy Momina