dimanche 5 juin 2011

Chouda, Madame Grès' Secret Sillage

There were once 5 litres of Guy Robert’s Chouda in the world. I own about 10 ml of it: there can’t be that much more knocking about, since in Robert’s opinion most of it was used up by Mme Grès, who lived to be 90 years old. She preferred it to Cabochard: her chief sales rep didn’t, and though both scents were launched simultaneously, it is Bernard Chant’s masterpiece that survived, though after several changes of hand of the Grès licence it is now a zombie.

Still, Chouda, inspired by the water hyacinth Mme Grès smelled during a trip to India, doesn’t truly deserve to be much more than a footnote in perfume history, unlike magnificent commercial flops like Iris Gris. When he composed it, Guy Robert already had the superb Doblis under his belt and was four years away from putting out Madame Rochas. But when you consider that the year he was working on Chouda, another green, fresh floral came out, and that it was Diorissimo, the former fades into insignificance. Chouda is a fairly simple floral composition with fresh green top notes, dominated by hyacinth and a strong cinnamic effect, which segues into more hay and honeyed broom, daffodil and narcissus notes before coming to rest on a muguet base underscored by balsamic base notes.

It is pretty, and certainly Alix Grès must have enjoyed wearing it: but it doesn’t reflect the commanding, classical presence of her spending pleated gowns. But then neither does Cabochard, for that matter. The perfume branch of the house of Grès seems to have existed in a different conceptual universe, as a way of shoring up the fashion house in its declining years, Guy Robert explains in Michael Edwards’ Perfume Legends. It is to Cabochard as much as to her legendary obstinacy that Mme Grès owes her lengthy career: Chouda wouldn’t have pulled her through the 60s. Nevertheless, this pretty, amiable fragrance does preserve a tiny bit of the grand dame’s secret: her sillage.

Illustratino: Madame Grès in 1949

10 commentaires:

  1. Sometimes the footnotes in the history books are the most interesting things! I struggle with that myself, as I always find myself interested in the forgotten artists, designers, and celebrities. I'm currently working on an exhibition that explores the role of fashion in the life of a forgotten French actress, another on the life of a forgotten French collector/dealer, and my thesis will (I hope) deal with the career of a long forgotten couturiere, Augustabernard. Not every book can be on Chanel/Vionnet/Poiret!!

    But I do understand your point that it seems like Chouda was never even given the opportunity to be forgotten, as it was never popular in the first place. Is the bottle at all interesting?

  2. It's interesting, because relatively uncomplicated, amiable florals are much more the thing now, in the 2000s, than back in her time. Maybe she was just a little ahead of the times??

  3. Billy, as an avid reader of Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, and as an easily sidetracked former academic who based the whole argument of her unfinished PhD on three footnotes in the novels of the marquis de Sade, I couldn't agree more. Benjamin wrote about the salvation of history, and there's always new light to be shed on a field by sifting through the wreckage...
    Your projects sound fascinating! I am now very curious to know which actress you're referring to.

  4. Marla, an artist friend of mine says that you've got to be right 5 minutes ahead of the time, not an hour... I guess half a century is a little premature. Though in that particular case, Roudnitska was a visionary with Diorissimo. The synergy between the couture and perfume house was much better too...

  5. That's true! I have a sister who anticipates every single Western fashion exactly 2 years ahead of time, and by the time it's being worn by everyone, she's moved on to new strange things, and nobody's noticed how she nailed the current trend!

  6. Marla, I'd say that's because she gets the vibe at the same time as the trend forecasters... It happened to me sometimes when I covered the fashion scene, and sometimes still does -- I can't count the times when I went into a shop asking for a specific shape only to be answered "but that's not La Tendance". Sure enough, a couple of seasons later, there it was...

  7. Billy, such an intriguing choice... A great beauty, and funnily, one of her roles was as "Claire de Beaulieu"! I'd love to see a catalogue if and when you have one, it seems there are quite a lot of iconographical sources. From the little I remember reading of the theater at the time, actresses often worked with couturiers instead of costumers.

  8. That is exactly the point of the book! I just submitted my manuscript last week, and it is currently getting edited to shreds, I'm sure.

    Indeed, "Le maitre de forges" was her most famous production, for which she supposedly designed and made the costumes herself, but she was also later dressed by the House of Laferriere and then, most successfully, by Redfern. Is the play still well known in France??

    We are mostly working with postcards and cabinet cards, as well as other ephemera. There will be three dresses in the exhibition for each of the actresses as well as many hats (we are also focusing on Lily Elsie, so Merry Widow hats abound).

  9. Billy, no, the play is no longer known at all, I just found it looking up Jane Hading... My book is currently spending quality time with the editor too!