I’ve been lost in a Google labyrinth of pictures for the last 24 hours and both Le Galion and The Perfume Society are to blame. You see, there is a veritable bounty of vintage advertisements from the house of Le Galion all over the Google and each one is absolutely stunning. Now, the reason I’ve entered into this merry little hole of vintage advertisements is because of a fascinating evening I spent this week in the Heritage Suite at Liberty, London’s most fabulous department store, with Nicolas Chabot, the new owner of the historic Le Galion brand and Jo Fairley, the founder of The Perfume Society, who organised the event.
Le Galion is the story of a historic house with royal ties, a legendary perfumer, a symbol of Paris and a fragrance favoured by Hollywood’s brightest stars. What’s amazing about this history is that it has been almost all but forgotten – lost within the annals of modern perfumery. But the brand’s new owner Nicolas Chabot hasn’t forgotten and he has brought Le Galion back from the dead, relaunching a number of its classic fragrances and adding some new ones, all in the historic style of the house. Le Galion is revived and with Chabot at the helm, it is navigating the waters of the perfume industry in search of fragrant treasures, both new and old, guided by the spirit of one of the world’s greatest perfumers.
Below is a summary of the conversation between Nicolas Chabot and Jo Fairley – a tale of many serendipitous moments that is truly fascinating in every sense of the word.
JF: What led you to Le Galion?
NC: I was very lucky. My Great Grandmother opened her first perfume store in 1930. My grandparents and mother worked in the store. I grew up in this environment and I had the chance when I was four or five to see all the big launches of the 1980s; Anaïs Anaïs etc. I grew up in this field and contrary to all of my family’s wishes, I chose to follow the same path. I initially worked at Dior when I was 23. I spent 15 years in the business going from LVMH to Lauder, back to LVMH again and then to Printemps, always staying within luxury and working on the repositioning of brands. Afterwards I was missing the fragrance environment.
The story of how this brand came to life is the most fascinating I’ve ever come across. It has something to do with you mooching round an antiques market at the weekend. Tell us about it.
At this stage I was thinking what was going to be my next step. I wasn’t pissed off but I’d had enough working for a huge company. I had the chance to have friends like Francis Kurkdjian etc., who kept saying that I should launch a brand. I said no way, if I launch a brand under my name it’s gong to be terrible.
On a lovely day late summer in Paris. I found a bottle of Le Galion’s Sortilège. It was a gem. What is this bottle, I thought? I said to myself, what is this fragrance? It was a beautiful bottle. I’ve never seen anything like this. I called my Grandmother. She said she’d heard of it and that the brand was quite famous at the time. I went back and bought the bottle. I started to Google it. What is behind the fragrance? What is Le Galion? Wow. Everything came from the internet. Le Galion was a hugely iconographic brand. They launched in 1920s and had lots of beautiful ads. There are lots of lovers of the brand still and lots of lovers of the vintage. There was an impressive story behind the brand.
The brand had belonged to legendary perfumer Paul Vacher. Tell us about his history.
The brand was founded by Prince Murat in 1930. He was a relation of Napoleon I. This was the golden age of perfumery in France. There were lots of brands at the time. Le Galion is a symbol of Paris. If you go to Paris you’ll see lots of signs with boats, the Police wear them on their uniform. The prince took the symbol of Paris to establish his own brand. The prince got married in the 1930s to Isabelle Orléans, who should have been the Queen of France. This could have been an imperial and royal brand!
The royal family did not like to be in to trade. She asked him to sell the brand. There was a young perfumer in his mid 20s, called Paul Vacher. He was very well known with his first success at a very young age (27), like Francis Kurkdjian. He had created all of the fragrances for Lanvin. He bought the brand in 1935 and kept it until he died in 1975. After the war, he helped Christian Dior to raise his Company. He started with Dior creating the ambient fragrances for his shows. Dior then asked Vacher to create his first fragrance: Miss Dior. He Also created Diorling and was very much linked to the Dior family.
Fragrance historians put Paul Vacher amongst the five most important perfumers of the 1920s. He was really somebody important but he faded away and was forgotten by history.
There’s another extraordinary twist. At the later stages, Vacher’s daughter worked alongside him and you tracked her down,
You can imagine me behind my computer researching such a beautiful brand with such iconography. I found out the brand was sold in the 1980s to an American group. The group did not know what to do with it and the brand was totally slipping. Someone in France still had the good idea to keep the treaures. Passionate people who keep patents so nobody can work on it without authorisation.
I bought the brand back and started buying vintage to see what was inside. All of the vintage was very old and not useable. I went to the Osmothèque and met with Jean Kerléo. I was interested to see what they had in reference to Le Galion. They had vintage in their conservatory. I said Vacher’s daughter may have worked with him, maybe she would still be alive. He (Kerléo) said yes, she is still alive, but she isn’t called Vacher because she’s married. I said what’s she called? He said he didn’t know. Good. I asked where she lived. In Paris, he said.
I came back and made a few calls. Who is the oldest person in the fragrance business, I thought? I called the president of Molinard. I asked him if he knew Paul Vacher’s daughter. He said yes and gave me her name, Dominique de Urresti. I used the modern technology on the web to find her. By chance, she was the first one I called. She was living close by to the mansion house of Le Galion. I called her and she asked what I wanted. I had a chance to meet with her.
And she joined you on your adventure?
She and her mother, the wife of Paul Vacher, who is 100 this year. They had sold the company so everything was behind them. I explained the project was to revive the memory of the legendary brand especially of her father, she said yes. She’s still writing formula on Excel and she is 70 this year.
EU regulations and IFRA have come in since the days of Le Galion and tastes have changed a bit. What had to change about Le Galion to bring it into the 21st century?
Maybe we should smell the first one: Sortilège.
In fact, that was very interesting on this journey. Of course the regulations have changed a lot. Not only IFRA but some bases or raw materials used previously aren’t available anymore. We had to think how we could keep the original scent. It was such a great perfume. We weren’t willing to change it. It would have destroyed his (Vacher’s) memories. Dominique has a very good nose and she was able to retranscipt the original formula with the help of the vintage, the formula and her nose. We did three to four sessions until we found the right formula to make sure it smelled right and met regulations.
You have to evolve in a way. Smelling this and Special for Gentlemen you’ll smell what it was like at the time.
JF: How did you pick your perfumers?
Many were not interested in this kind of project. They have too much ego. We had the chance to work with different perfumers. I didn’t want an in-house perfumer. Vacher remains the star. The first perfumer we worked with was Thomas Fontaine, Creative Director at Jean Patou. He has also worked with Lubin.
JF: So he understands bringing vintage perfume to the present moment?
Yes. Absolutely. We also worked with other perfumers, such as Marie Duchene. She has her own factory in Grasse. She’s the perfumer with the raw materials.
For Sortilège, there is tremendous history. It’s the iconic fragrance of Le Galion. Paul Vacher created Lanvin’s Arpège in 1927. The first thing he did when he brought Le Galion back was to rework the formula of Arpège to try and master it. He added vetiver and some ylang ylang to make the fragrance as it is. At the start it was working very well. Then the war happened. Sortilège was so well known, especially in the US we were able to get the first muse: Marilyn Monroe. We haven’t been able to find the officials ads but we have pictures. We think Chanel must have bought them all and destroyed them. Sortilège was the fragrance of all the celebs in the 50s in the USA and we’ve found pictures of Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly. In the film All about Eve, a bottle of Sortilége is appearing at 15 minutes in the movie. The second muse in 1957 was Eva Gardener.
It doesn’t get more glamorous.
We have relaunched an extract called Sortilège Elixir. A lot of women who used Sortilège when they were young are coming back to us. We have incredible stories where women start to cry in stores. We used the formula of the 60s/70s to make the Elixir to see the difference of what can happen in 30 years. There are more aldehydes, roses and jasmine.
Mens fragrances were also very important to Le Galion and very successful. Special for Gentleman has a nice story. It was launched in 1947, the same year as Miss Dior. Dior had asked Vacher not to launch another feminine at this time. He used the occasion to create his fragrance for men. It’s a fern oriental amber. Smell it, it’s all of the ID of the 50s. Close your eyes and you’re in Mad Men. There is a real desire to retrieve this. The advert recalls Eau Sauvage. Dior liked it and used it. People continue to look and move forward.
Whip launched in 1953. It’s the father of Eau Sauvage, released 13 years before. The difference between them is that Roudnistka put a lot of hedione in Eau Sauvage.
In the mansion house of Le Gallon everything was all done in the middle of Paris, including the maceration. Dior were coming to check the formula of Miss Dior. They were so close the inspiration goes from one brand to the other.
Next one is La Rose. I wanted to share this one. It launched in 1950 and this is Thomas Fontaine’s rework. We’ve got 80% of the original formula and a little twist into the modern. It emphasises how the guy was a visionary.
Snob in 1952 keeps the same base. It’s the same in base in most of fragrances.
What’s the process of working with Dominique? She has the formula and works on it and it goes to the perfumer. Does she smell throughout?
Yes, she goes to the lab. She’s very involved in the process. She has such a reminder about how it was before but she’s so smart she knows how to replace the bases if they’re not working. She doesn’t give the formula and say what you want. She’s very involved. We have tea afternoons and spend hours talking about fragrance. Always she’s involved. Even with a new fragrance, i want her to be involved, she’s the DNA, she’s the spirit and she’s the heritage.
Cuir is our first new fragrance. We launched it last year. We wanted to work with leather because Vacher did the first leather for Lanvin (Scandale) and for Dior (Diorling) but he never did it for his own brand. Cuir is a modern leather mixed with Ambroxan to make it smooth and supple.
The one I want to smell is Bourrasque which came out before the war and had a wonderful message to it. As the threat of war was hanging, the idea was to wear perfume to keep spirits up and keep life normal.
Yes and to resist and to stay alive. Fragrance can not only be a beautiful product but it can reflect history and society at the time.
We worked with perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux to create two colognes. I met him at a party. His mother wore Sortilége and thanks to this perfume he came to perfumery.
There are so many serendipitous moment in this story.
He said he’d love to work on a cologne. This was very important for the brand. Vacher did cologne with Vetiver, Whip and Eau Noble – 50s 60s and 70s colognes. We decided to move forward and not relaunch a cologne and work on a fragrance that reflected the spirit of eau de cologne (Cologne), including neroli, galbanum and clary sage. Everything you could expect from a neroli cologne. It pays to tribute to the old spirit of cologne.
While we working on it I said I’d like a cologne for the night. We worked on this and created Cologne Nocturne. It has a lot of amber. The citrus fades away very rapidly, pushing on the base and heart of lavender and clary sage. Cologne Nocturne smells like the South of France in the evening. We turned the structure upside down. I think it went well.
So what do you wear?
That’s a good question. I would say nothing. That’s a pity because I’m so excited each time I am working on a fragrance. When we are launching the new things we are working on the next. The shoemaker is always the one with the holes in his shoes.
Audience: What did you wear before Le Galion?
I was really an 80s guy. I wore Kouros and Antaeus – those fragrances that could repel all the mosquitos. Then afterwards the 90s weren’t so interesting. I used to wear a little of Dior Homme. I thought it was a beautiful fragrance. I wore Byredo at the very beginning – I thought it was very interesting for a niche brand. They were bringing something new. Frederic Malle too. We should pay tribute to that.
Audience: Would it be hard to wear something consistently whilst working on a new fragrance?
You need to focus your attention on the new product, like an actor immerses himself in his role. We are working on a new masculine being launched in September. We’re really diving into that. It’s nearly finished so for the summer I can wear the Cologne.
Audience: Which one of these fragrances would pull a 20 yr old into the world of vintage?
I’d encourage you to discover Snob. It Launched in 1952 just after all the women were wearing the ‘New Look’. They wanted to party and were like little snobs. That’s why he played with his name. It’s so modern. It’s a rose jasmine with quite a classic construction. It’s a unisex fragrance with Lots of spices in the beginning – saffron and apple as well. Very modern ingredients. Snob works well with the Parisian girls. They love to say they are wearing ‘snob’.