This painting of Marc Chagall, Lovers in the Lilacs, has always striken me as the quintessential mark of an unanswered question which both love and flowers wear like a corona: how can the ephemeral be coaxed to last?
Lilacs especially live and die for all too brief a season, creating the yearning that short-lived pleasures know how to taunt us with, reminding us of our own mortality.
Vacances by Patou, a fragrance which tries to make them last, was composed by Henri Alméras in 1936 to celebrate the first paid vacations in France (“vacances” in French). Coincidentally it was the same year that Jean Patou himself died of apoplexy at the young age of 49, immersed in business worries and anxious for the future of his house. It seems that his touch on the pulse of trends wasn’t as firmly set in the 1930s as it had been in the 1920s. Luckily the house was saved by Raymond Barbas, his brother-in-law, who would persist and would be commisioning other fragrances to his in-house perfumers Henri Alméras and Henri Giboulet: Colony in 1938, then L’heure Attendue in 1946, and Câline in 1964, as well as other less-known ones such as the 1956 Lasso, Makila, Délices…
Patou himself would have loved to see the deep appreciation lilac and hyacinth lovers feel for his wonderful fragrance, however. Vacances is the best showcase for the simultaneously green, oily and metallic aspects of hyacinth, but also for the richest lilac note one could wish for in a fragrance this side of respectable. And I am saying this because lilac blossoms are profoundly dirty-smelling really, but with such beauty, such wistfulness and such abandon that they know how to play with my heartstrings.
The elusiveness of lilac is due to its resistance to yielding a sufficient essence for use in perfumery, making it the par excellence recreated note, which so often recalls housecleaning products or air-fresheners (the molecule hydroxycitronellal which is also used to recreate muguet/lily of the valley is often the culprit, as well as Terpineol) The IFF Lyral base has also been used in lilac perfumes. On some occasions, perfumers go for an unexpected combination to provide a needed counterpoint, like the aqueous note along with yeast for En Passant by Olivia Giacobetti for F.Malle; or the modern dusty take of Ineke in After my Own Heart.
But immerse your soul into Vacances and you will understand that the message of the lilac panicles is more fulsome, beckoning you to oblivion. The rays of spring sun fall on flowers as if for the first time. But despite its allegiance to spring it can be worn year round.
The starkly green opening of galbanum in Patou's Vacances is the frame to the opaque jade and peppery spice of hyacinth, with its wet green stems smashed. And then the full force of oily-sweet indolic lilac, pretty and dirty like puce-pink knickers dusted with pollen, worn for a day too long and a shower too short. The golden muskiness that remains is subtle yet definitely there, posing a gigantic question mark seeking an answer that will never come.
Notes for Vacances: galbanum, hyacinth, hawthorn, lilac, mimosa, musk, woods
Although Vacances outlived Patou himself, it got to know a hiatus until 1984 when it was re-issued as part of Ma Collection by then in-house perfumer Jean Kerléo. In a coup of inexplicable tragedy, all the scents in Ma Collection however have been discontinued and are quite hard to find. Let’s fervently pray the masterminds at Patou ~and P&G who own them~ bring it back from the dead into the realm of the living where it so passionately belongs.
"Lovers in the Lilacs" by Marc Chagall, courtesy of abcgallery.com. Bottle pic by Frances Ann Ade via Basenotes.