What do we really know about some of the vanished perfumes of yore, scattered among ruins like Grecian columns which rest on their side in huge heaps, elbowed down by the gusts of Time?
Some like the metropoleis-named Paris Paris, New York New York and Milan Milan by Madeleine Vionet, the portfolio of Soeurs Callot or Guerlain's Ai Loe and Mais Oui by Bourjois are the stuff of hushed discussions among the initiés.
Liisa Wennervirta just happened to be the proud owner of some Kypre by Lancôme, that most obscure of the perfumes tagged with the august classification of chypre; its very name closer to the Greek spelling of Κύπρος/Cyprus, the island where it all began for those. She had the good grace to inquire about it and offered to send me some for reviewing purposes, no doubt curious as to what I'd make out of it, when the strike of bad luck happened: the precarious condition of the old bottle gave in and Liisa was frantically trying to salvage remains for posterity's sake and my own benefit. In her own words "I searched and from the general lack of anything, it seems that I have the last bit of Kypre in the world. Silly and scary at the same time!" Still my tentative review and thoughts today are testament to her admirable salvaging abilities, no doubt. Discussing with Octavian he threw the idea of neoclassicism, which prompted my choice of couture to illustrate the article today. That style was manifested in the fashions of Madame Grèe and Madelaine Vionet as well as the German ideal in architecture that would culminate in Leni Riefenstahl's documentaries.
Kypre by Lancôme along with Tropiques, Tendres Nuits, Bocages, Conquest and Blue Seal were among the first fragrances created by Armand Petitjean, a true pioneer, in 1935, and the first five were sent in time for the Universal Exhibition of Brussels of the same year where they gained double medals of excellence. With one fell swoop Petitjean had established Lancôme as a force to be reckoned with! In 1900 the pre-eminent perfume houses in France had been Guerlain, Roger Gallet and L.T.Piver. By 1940, the only remaining true French perfume houses were Guerlain, Caron and Lancôme!
It was especially clever of Petitjean to choose a French name which rolled off the tongue; also to break with the minimalism of packaging that had at the time become all the rage amongst designers who had imitated the cleaner lines of Chanel or had been inspired by the Art Deco style, with baroque presentations that evoked exotic paradises in no uncertain terms. Georges Delhomme, serving as artistic director and flacon designer, developed the glamorous bottles and boxes which make us dream even to this day. If Lancôme nevertheless is best known today for their skincare, it's due to its founder's wise words: "The perfume is prestige, the flower in the eyelet, but the beauty products are our every day bread".
Petitjean, despite his diminutive name which means Little John, was appropriately known as "The Magnificent One" ~always intent on creating an empire. As an former Coty export broker for Latin American and ardent student of François Coty's business acumen he envisioned his own house to be as successful. Reprimanding the Coty brand for eventually sacrificing quality for volume after Coty's death, Petitjean was determined to up the ante of luxury upon founding his own establishment.
The continuation was a virtual olfactory avalance: Black Label (1936), Peut-être (Maybe) and Gardenia (both 1937), Flèches (1938), Révolte/Cuir (in 1939, and re-issued as Cuir recently) and le Faune (1942). Rejected in his offer to be Minister of Propaganda of the government of Clemenceau, Petitjean worked in the training of a battalion of women ambassadors of Lancôme. The late 1940s saw Armand industrious as ever when he produced Blue Valley, Nativity, Lavender, Marrakech, Bel Automne, and Happy, while the original Magie (a rich oriental with a core of labdanum) was issued in 1950 and the original Trésor two years later, composed by Jean Hervelin. Envol (flight) and Flèches d'Or (golden arrow) came out in 1957. Several other fragrances comprised the brand's portfolio over the years such as Qui Sait, Sikkim, Climat... (space is limited here); but Winter Festival proved to be Petitjean's last. The year was 1959 and after his wife's death and his son's decision to see if pastures were greener on the other side, embarking on maquillage, Petitjean saw the financial situation of the company becoming critical by 1961. Destitute of a successor he squandered his fortune building a plant in Chevilly-Larue. When debt caught up with him, he had no choice but to negotiate a take-over. Armand Petitjean died on 29 September of 1970 having successfully sold his brainchild to conglomerate L'Oréal.
Kypre was according to some sources his favourite creation among his pleiad of scents and smelling it in hindsight it's not difficult to see how it's easy to grow fond of. Technically a soft leathery chypre, it presents a suaveness of character that is less strident than earlier leathers such as Knize Ten and less crisp or luxurious than Cuir de Russie by Chanel. Coming one year before their famous and unfortunately baptised Revolte/Cuir, it pre-empties the idea which would materialize in the latter with more conviction and more...leather! The two versions of Kypre that were handed me, one more intense in parfum, the other in diluée form and sieved through a scarf, give me the impression of a shape-sifting fragrance that provides an interesting encore just when you thought it had performed all it had to perform. The beginning surprised me with its almost aldehydic soapy and fresh embrace, copious amounts of jasmine and rose reading as a classical bouquet. Although no notes are available I detect some sweetness of violets (methyl ionones) along with the soapy, lifting the fragrance and feminizing it. While the feel of a classical chypre is firmly anchored on the juxtaposition of bergamot to oakmoss and labdanum, in Kypre the idea is fanned out on powdery, whispered tones that cede into a sort of ambery, iris and face-powdery background. Much like a neoclassical gown Kypre retains a certain allure of something that can be still admired and worn with pleasure even decades later.
Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Chypre series, Leather Series, Lancome fragrances and news
Grecian dress by madame Gres, via metmuseum.org. Pic of Kypre ad through Ebay. Pic of Kypre bottle and box presentation by Liisa, all rights reserved, used with permission. Kypre bottle with round flat stopper by allcollections.net