Snippet of a conversation with a Nose.
Me: “So, have you smelled the new Balenciaga?”
The Nose: “Yeah. Everyone’s talking about it.”
No wonder the industry is abuzz. Balenciaga Paris couldn’t score higher on hipster charts if it tried. After the planetary success of Dior Homme, a fragrance more than one perfumer admits he/she would’ve liked to compose, Olivier Polge’s next move was sure to be closely watched. Nicolas Ghesquières, who took on Cristobal Balenciaga's mantle in 1998, has been the darling of fashion editors ever since, combining a keen eye for the house’s architectural aesthetics with futuristic flair. As for the face of the fragrance, Charlotte Gainsbourg, she’s managed to transcend her impeccably hip parentage by proving herself a sensitive, almost scarily brave actress (witness her raw performance in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist), while establishing herself as the epitome of Parisian Boho chic: an artfully disheveled, slightly melancholy belle-laide whose every long-limbed pose is effortlessly elegant…
With its delicate violet theme, Balenciaga Paris manages to reflect both the house’s olfactory heritage (namely Francis Fabron’s 1947 Le Dix, the first Balenciaga perfume, also a violet) and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s wan beauty.
Violet, a symbol of humility and faithfulness – for Baudelaire, the color was “love restrained, mysterious, and veiled” – is played here for its woody, metallic facets rather than the retro lipstick-and-powder associations it picks up when paired with rose (as it does in Sophia Grojsman’s Paris).
But Balenciaga Paris’ deliberately introverted stance is somewhat deceptive. If it seems to hum just below the threshold of olfactory perception, its volume is blown up by an airy green lily-of-the-valley bubble, tinged with the dewiness of violet leaves. The powdery musk base hovers over skin for hours, tiny puffs of it rising at every movement. The chypre effect claimed by Olivier Polge – the notes include the canonic bergamot, oak moss, patchouli and labdanum of the genre – develops at an almost subliminal level, tiny patches of wet earth clinging to the woody base. The pepper-clove-carnation facets are similarly subdued. This is less a chypre illusion like Chanel’s 31 rue Cambon than the barest whisper of a chypre – not unlike Charlotte Gainsbourg’s breathy little-girl singing voice (truly nerve-grating in her debut track, the 1984 Lemon Incest, recorded with her father when she was 12). And not unlike Charlotte’s persona, with its ghostly, intensely sentimental (at least for the French) reminders of her cult-figure parents, Balenciaga Paris is haunted by its more robust forerunners in the chypre family.
That’s where Balenciaga Paris fails to satisfy. Because it’s quite charming and avoids the fruity-floral option one could’ve expected from a Coty fragrance, because it’s composed by Polge, art-directed by Ghesquières and fronted by Gainsbourg, and because it’s interesting and un-clichéd for a mainstream launch, it’ll get a lot more slack than if it were put out, say, by Dolce & Gabbana. But it’s still fairly thin and somewhat synthetic-smelling, and while that may be a deliberate stylistic option, that thinness ultimately wears out its welcome.
Again, not unlike the singing voice of its muse, however much one respects her acting talents and admires her style.
Conclusion of the conversation with the Nose.
Me: “So, whaddya think?”
The Nose: “Meh.”
Photo: Charlotte Gainsbourg in Balenciaga 2008, photographed by her sister Kate Barry for Very Elle magazine.