Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sous le Vent by Guerlain: fragrance review (vintage

"Funny business, a woman's career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them when you get back to being a woman." The apothecary splash bottle of Sous le Vent by Guerlain resting atop my dresser with its black, disk-shaped label with gold lettering encircling it, makes me think of the logos of old cinematic companies long defunct starring dramatic heroines with high cheekbones hissing deathly lines clad in impeccable tweeds or gala-time smooth silks. Betty Davies in "All About Eve" comes to my mind as she utters those lines, her character in stark contrast to the outwardly maudlin yet steel-hearted assistant-cum-antagonist Eve Harrington.

Although a literal translation would indicate "in the wind", Sous le Vent is French for "leeward" after the name of the tropical Leeward Isles of the lesser Antilles in the Caribbean: indeed the islands are divided into Windward and Leeward groups. Many among those "greener than a dream" isles were colonised by the French, accounting for an interesting, non-coincidental analogy ~the fruit of the Americas which has been Frenchified into Créole. Sous le Vent was composed by Jacques Guerlain for Joséphine Baker in 1933, according to the charming pamphlet provided by the boutique, as a pick-me up for applying after her notorious dance performances in which she often appeared in nothing more than an all too brief skirt made out of bananas on a string. Strutting her proud gazelle frame in the streets of Paris with a pet leopard in tow made everyone forget about Freda Josephine McDonald's humble St.Louis, Missouri birthplace and her vaudeville beginnings, evoking instead the glamourised image of a jungle animal: fierce, supple, ready to leap! And long before Angelina Jolie and Mia Farrow, she had adopted her own Rainbow Tribe: 12 multi-ethnic orphans, proving that titillation of the public and activism aren't mutually exclusive.

It is of interest to note in the iconography of Guerlain print material on their 20s and 30s scents that Sous Le Vent was featured in characteristic illustrations in the "Are you her type" series that included Mitsouko, Vol de Nuit , Liù and Shalimar, indicating that its eclipse among the classics in subsequent years was not due to a lack of intent. Les garçonnes were its natural audience but the ravages of WWII brought other sensibilities to the fore making an angular androgyne scent antithetical to the femme totemism of the new epoch in which the purring, slightly breathless tones of Marilyn Monroe caressed weary ears. It took Guerlain decades to re-issue it; finally a propos the refurbishing of the 68 Champs Elysées flagship store it was the second one to join the legacy collection affectionally called "il était une fois" (=once upon a time) in 2006 after Véga.

I am in the lucky position to be able to compare an older batch of extrait de parfum with my own bottle of the re-issued juice, and although Luca Turin in his latest book claims that the new is very different from his recollection questioning whether it is his memory or Guerlain's "that is at fault", I can attest that the two are certainly not dramatically different. Being a favourite of the black Venus of the merry times between two world wars, should give us a hint that Sous le Vent is a strong-minded affair of great sophistication and caliber. Difficult to wear as a scent to seduce or invite people to come and linger closer due to its acquiline nature, but very fitting as an unconscious weapon for a woman about to close a difficult business deal, embark on a divorce case or hire a professional assassin. It transpires strength! To that effect the vintage parfum offers rich verdancy, a mollified fond de coeur that is perhaps justified by the very nature of the more concentrated, less top-note-heavy coumpound needed for making the extrait or the diminuation of the effervescent citrus top notes. The modern eau de toilette is a little brighter, a little more streamlined and surprisingly a little sweeter in its final stages, yet quite excellent, making it a scent that always puts me in an energetic good mood wherever I apply it lavinshly -because it is alas rather fleeting- from the bottle.

Technically a chypre, yet poised between that and an aromatic fougère* to me, Sous le Vent bears no great relation to the mysterious guiles of Guerlain's Mitsouko but instead harkens back to the original inspiration behind it, Chypre de Coty, but also to another Guerlain thoroughbred ~Jicky (especially on what concerns the aromatic facet of lavender in the latter's eau de toilette concentration). Sous le Vent is both greener and fresher than Mitsouko and Jicky nevertheless, as it eschews the obvious animalic leapings yet retains the cinnamon/clove accent which will later be found in the fantastically "dirty" and underappreciated Eau d'Hermès. All the while however the piquancy that makes Coty's iconic oeuvre as well as Jicky so compelling is unmistakeably there.

Sous le Vent starts with a rush of subtly medicinal top notes of herbs that smell like lavender, rosemary and tarragon, a full spectrum of Provençal aromata. A tart bergamot note along with what seems like bitterly green galbanum skyrocket the scent into the territory of freshness and a smart "clean". Its next stage encompasses dry accords, soon mollified by the heart chord of a classic chypre composition of dusty moss with the sweet tonality of generous flowers that evoke the banana fruit: ylang ylang notably and jasmine sambac. In the final stages I seem to perceive the dusky foliage of patchouli.

Potent and assertive thought it first appears to be, a take-no-prisoners affair for a lady who was known to dance with only a skirt of bananas on, leaving her country for France and being idolized by all social strata, it screams of individualism and élan; yet strangely Sous le Vent, especially the gangly new version, doesn't invoke the scandalising side of Josephine nor her exuberant nature. Complex and elusive, it is certainly not an easy option for today’s women's sensibilities; it is rather too cerebral, too intelligent for its own good, not sexy enough. These qualities however would make it a wonderful masculine addition to a cocky fellow's repertoire. This travel back into more glamorous and individual times is worth the price of admission. Wear it if you are really interesting as a person, it will only enhance that quality.

Notes for Sous le Vent:
Top: bergamot, lavender, tarragon
Middle: jasmine, carnation, green notes
Base: iris, foresty notes, woody notes

The vintage parfum can be found on Ebay from time to time. The current re-issue in Eau de Toilette concentration is part of the Il était une fois collection exclusively sold at boutiques Guerlain and the éspace Guerlain at Bergdorf Goodman, housed in an apothecary style cylindrical bottle of 125ml with a gold thread securing a seal on the cap.

A sample of the modern re-issue will be given to a random lucky reader!

*Fougère is a classic olfactory family -mainly of masculine scents- that relies on a chord of lavender-coumarin-oakmoss.

Pic of Sous le Vent advertisement courtesy of
Pic of Josephine Baker costumed for the Danse banane from the Folies Bergère production Un Vent de Folie in Paris (1927) courtesy of Wikimedia commons.


  1. Anonymous14:11

    I would very much like to try something cerebral & intelligent for a change, so I would very much like to be added in the draw! I usually smile when reading about parallells between "female types", hair colors, etcetera, and perfumes, but with my boyish-like androgynity in frame (despite my age), perhaps this one would be an (illectual) joy to wear? :)
    Even though not commenting - that would be way above my level of perfume competence and experience, I really like reading this Guerlain-series!

  2. Anonymous14:12

    (intellectual, I meant (again writing to fast..))

  3. Anonymous14:33

    The 1st time I wore this, I had to scrub. The 2nd time, I began to appreciate what others saw in it. I've noticed that when a fragrance starts off with lavender, I have some difficulty with it. They are usually scents that I need "practice", to enjoy. This is proving to be one of them. Three times tends to be the charm, so I will spritz again.

  4. Anonymous14:51

    I love Guerlain's "are you her type" ads. I think I like wondering which type I am, and what my corresponding perfume is, though god knows I don't LOOK like my taste in fragrance. But I would love to be included in the draw, please and thank you!

  5. Anonymous16:37

    I did not know SLV compared to Chypre de Coty - hmm...sounds lovely.

    I'd love to win a sample - thanks!

  6. Anonymous18:50

    I'd love to try Josephine Baker's scent. Enter my name, please.

  7. This is the kind of scent that take a few wearings to really appreciate, and I am on my way, definitely.

  8. What I treasure most in these vintage and antique perfumes is their multi-layered personality. When most modern scents are single note, one hit fruit and floral wonders, an intelligent scent seems worth my while. I definitely want to give Sous le vent a go!

  9. Put my name in the hat please!

    I got to see a film clip of the divine Ms. Baker dancing recently--it was only a few minutes long, but it made the reasons for her fame abundantly clear. What a woman.

  10. Dear S,

    I am very happy this latest Guerlain series is proving to provide joy to many of my readers. Glad you're on of them and please do comment if you want to express an opinion: no decapitation here nor quizz tests, we're laid back... :-)
    Those "types" charts are merely a springboard and I find them perverse fun: usually I find things to match with myself across all categories, so it's usually shaterring all limits and having fun while doing it.

    You're in! It's a good fragrance that merits some acquiantance with.

  11. Kathleen,

    I can relate! Lavender is not my favourite note (the true one, not the fake vanillic-musky one in fabric softeners which some people erroneously call lavender). Yet in this one I enjoy it: the aromatic/herbal accord is so good and bright it manages to make lavender smell uplifting instead of medicinal.

  12. Rachael,

    I love those ads too: and in fact there are some discrepancies with other GUerlain ads through the years (a redhead for Vol de Nuit at this one, a brunette in subsequent versions etc) which make it even more confusing!

    You're in the draw of course.

  13. Dear Mike,

    it has some of the character of the Coty if not the same smell (and Coty's is much more modern than one would think!).
    How could I leave you out of the draw? Duly noted.

  14. Gretchen,

    she was an amazing woman and I wish you good luck in the draw!

  15. L, sweetie, I thought you'd come to love it. I think I am right that the time is ripe :-)

  16. L&LM,

    I have included you. Some of the older scent are like museum pieces; admirable and aloof, distant. And some are strangely wearable and likeable despite trends. I think SLV is in the latter camp although it's so removed of every feminine cliche in the last 18 years at least.

  17. Alyssa,

    thanks for commenting and naturally you're included, best of luck!

    I wonder what was the clip about? One of her performances at the Folie Bergere? Or a film clip? (Princesse Tam Tam comes to mind)

  18. Anonymous22:49

    How nice that you can compare the vintage and the new!!

    I simply love this one. I tried it at the same time as Philtre d'amour, and although both are green, this one was my favorite.

    Can my name be in the hat too, please????
    I would love to try this one again!


  19. Still quite enjoying this series...

    What had I recently tried...a natural perfume?...that seemed to straddle chypre and fougere...must look through my notes...anyway, I am intrigued by a foupre/chygere. Baker's story is fascinating, and rather complex... there is a lot of hardscrabble and Madonna (Material Girl)-like image engineering involved which provides other strong indicators of her character, along with the adoptions and the leopard. However, my attentions might ultimately be better captured by this perfume.

    It is heartening to hear that you think the modern is not so far from the vintage. One can only take so much heartbreak before the heart becomes hard...

  20. Anonymous06:17

    I did think that, once the topnotes calmed down (I thought there were a lot of aldehydes in there?), it would be very wearable by a man. Isn't the base really all about sandalwood (and to a lesser extent amber)?

  21. I'd love to try this! It sounds like it has quite a lot of backbone, which is what I enjoy in a scent...

  22. Hello, loving reading all about the vintage Guerlain's- and I loved the film reference, that quote is so true!
    Would love to be included for the draw please

  23. Arwen,

    I had been determined to find batches of the rarer older Guerlains so as to be able to compare and contemplate the history of the house with a more accurate perspective; and my perserverence paid thanks to collector connections, so I am quite happy!

    I prefer this one as well, its green is smarter, more interesting, I find. And quite wearable contrary to Djedi for instance (for all its mysterious, dry qualities it's a little too somber).

    Of course it'd be my pleasure to include you in the drawing! :-)

  24. Adam,

    I agree that's perfect for a man, no one would even think this is a feminine fragrance, it projects as very unisex.
    But aldehydes, sandalwood, amber? I wonder if we're talking about the same fragrance (maybe you're thinking Vega? ~in which case we'd be on the same page), because none of these elements is apparent to me. The sandalwood could be there, although it's nothing like the creamy quality I perceive in other Guerlains. I think the woody-mossy tones I detect come from patchouli.

  25. Noy,

    you're of course in and best of luck!
    It's a quite pleasurable scent: not very strong once it calms and rather fleeting in this EDT concentration, but very nice while it lasts.

  26. Rose,

    that quote is certainly quite fitting to many women's lives, agree with you. Some things come easier to women, some come harder. It's all a matter of how one handles it, but the catch is it's never easy to know but after the fact.

    I have included you!

  27. S,

    yes, I don't think the modern is that far removed from the vintage (agreed that it is of undetermined vintage, but still, since parfum in those scents was abandonded years and years ago, I can safely say that I'm sniffing much more than 20 years old scent here).

    Baker had a fascinating life and I agree: quite complex! I am not into canonisation of the famous. I do like her adoptions though (giving a chance to orphans is a good deed I guess no matter why one goes about it)

  28. Anonymous15:54

    Aha, yes, I *was* thinking of Vega. I reviewed them both on the same day and I was accidentally reading from my notes for Vega! When I first put on SLV, it honest-to-God struck me as smelling like sausage. All in all, I thought it was a fantastic example of the chypre genre, "far tamer than Mitsouko, indeed very pleasant, velvety smooth and warm." I'll have to try it again to look for that lavender you mentioned.

  29. I bought a bottle of the new edt at the Paris boutique. Had to after covering myself from the ankle up in all things Guerlinade, because SLV was so different and energizing. I love it but find myself wishing for more density and, of course, staying power. Decanting into a spray bottle and spritzing in abandon does help with longevity issues. I suspect it can also clear up a subway car ;)

  30. Anonymous07:45

    If it's not too late, please enter me in the draw. This is one I've always wanted to sniff!

  31. Adam,

    oh good! I was going a bit "huh?" for a moment and I know you're attentive to what to smell so I got puzzled and deduced you must be thinking of another one. Yes, Vega is about all those things.

    SLV smelling like sausage: hmmm, if it's one of those local rustic-style ones with lots of rosemary and thyme I like to eat then it's not that bad!! :-P

    Do look for the herbal aspect, I think it's quite pronounced, but like you say pleasant and smooth very soon, not medicinal. It's as if you're driving through the countryside in the south Med at summer, windows down and inhaling the herbs dried out from the rays of the sun. *sigh,; miss those drives*

  32. Natalie,

    you're welcome and glad you're enjoying it. You're included!

  33. Dearest Gaia,

    our tastes are not dissimilar, so it was natural that we would be both drawn to it, yet your point is very succinct: in a crowd full of vanillic soft nuzzling things, this aquiline sprite is making an impression.

    I have the same problem: wonderful while it lasts, it exits all too soon. I will follow your advice and decant into an atomiser; I used to splash on liberally and feeling very "30s Cote d'Azur" traveller *rolling my eyes at my own "posing" while doing it!*

    Clearing a subway car is very helpful in cities like ours ;-)
    (that or a cuminy Lutens will do fine!)

  34. Ben,

    no, you're not late and welcome. Best of luck!

  35. I never knew about the connection between the fabulous Baker and Sous le Vent. Put my name in the draw, please: what fun it would be to smell like her for a little while!

  36. Anonymous21:18

    Oh, I'd love to try this one, too! May I be entered in the drawing? I never win, but some day....

  37. Anonymous12:59

    Oh, I'd like to be a lucky reader too. Please, include my name in the draw!

  38. Oh, yes it would be fun to get to smell like Baker, I agree!
    You're included, good luck! :-)

  39. Elizabeth,

    I hope luck is on your side this time!

  40. Lavinia,

    you're included. It's a very good scent!

  41. This sounds so interesting! I would absolutely love to try it - the notes sound like exactly the sort of thing I love.

  42. Tessa, thank you for stopping by and you're included! Hope you like it if you're lucky.

  43. E...
    Not sure if you can see these "late/after the date" comments, but I wanted to comment on Sous le Vent now that I've had an opportunity to sample some.

    I'll be testing this again...but I must say, this first dance has left me with the overall impression of forward-thinkingness of Guerlain's part. I completely agree with you on the "aromatic fougere" pronouncement, but that I find in the middle and end portions of the ride. The opening is remarkably fresh & clean, like a contemporary concoction. Even sweet.

    Okay, I look back once more, and see you describing the "smart 'clean'" and an ''[evocation of] the banana fruit." That's what I mean...are there others like it from the era?

  44. Anonymous17:21

    This sounds wonderful. Your fragrance writing is a constant source of education and fun, so thank you! Based on your description, I had to order a sample of the re-issue from TPC. But the vintage sounds even better...any hints on how a guy could get his hands on a sample of the vintage EDT?? :)

  45. Hi Pesch and thanks so much for your kind words! I hope you enjoyed the sampling and hope to see you often on Perfume Shine.
    The best advice I can give is scouring the online auctions for the vintage, although I have to admit it's not very common and they're mostly about the re-issue (which is very good and probably a better fit for a guy anyway!).


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