Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hermessence Vanille Galante by Hermes: fragrance review

"Days begin and end in the dead of night. They are not shaped long, in the manner of things which lead to ends – arrow, road, man's life on earth. They are shaped round, in the manner of things eternal and stable – sun, world, God". ~Jean Giono

Jean Claude Ellena's ~resident perfumer of la maison Hermès~ favourite author sums up the mise en scène that the newest Hermessence radiates quietly: roundness, grace and a nostalgic lapsarian intimation of the eternal upon gazing beauty.
Revisiting my musings on how Jean Claude Ellena would interpret a note that is quite taken for granted, that of vanilla, I am reminded of what I had said: "Vanilla is exactly the cliché note that begs for Jean Claude Ellena's modus operandi: chastizing it by food deprivation would be beneficial pedagogically, I feel". It is with some suprise and delight, now I have obtained my own bottle of Vanille Galante, that I realise he doesn't focus so much on the bean flavour as much as on the fluffy, almost cloudy, cotton-feathery aspect it reproduces as a memento of certain flowers' inner core: lily, ylang ylang, and what I sense as the innermost pollen of lilac and wisteria, flowers which exude the most intoxicating, spicy and a little "dirty" underside. I have long felt that Jean Claude is an extremely sensual man with a keen intelligence that makes him exhibit a subtle eroticism in his creations and the language of flowers is by its nature supremely erotic. (After all flowers are the reproductive organs of plants and their aim is to attract pollinators). Let's not forget therefore that vanilla itself is a flower ~an exotic orchid of aphrodisiac properties with which Jean Claude has occupied himself even as an co-author in "Vanilles et Orchidées". And for those who believe in his transparent trajectory through le corps du métier he never produced a foody vanilla, there is proof to the contrary in his woody-edible Sublime Vanille (2001) for Lily Prune!

The French adjective "galant" (or "galante" for feminine nouns) has an intriguing background: In the romans de cour/courtly literature, that is the medieval novels of nobility (for example "Le Roman de la Rose" from 1420-30), "galant" signifies the quality of courteous, gentlemanly and often amorous. The phrase "en galante companie" thus signified the company of a representative of the opposite sex. An attracting vanilla then, but also idealised, exalted, romanticized in an almost Platonic ideal. In musical terms, "galant" refers to the European style of classical simplicity after the complexity of the late Baroque era in the third quarter of the 18th century with pre-eminent representatives the rhythmical composers François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi . Their cyclical forma ties in with the theme of La Reverdie (the return) in literary roman: that of eternal return of spring, a theme of pagan connotations . The common trait would be the lyrical approach of solidly thematic subjects, which could sneak into the treatment of vanilla in Vanille Galante, or what I will from now on affectionaly call "péripéties de vanilla". Thus Jean Claude ambitiously set out to produce an « insolent, complex et paradoxical» blossom that would shatter all preconceptions of how a vanilla fragrance would smell, aiming not at a photorealistic figurative imprint but an almost narrative play at personal impressions devoid of cheap sentimentalities. We reference Jean Giono again ~he says in "Voyage en Italie" that "Describing a painting in sentiments might seem better [than describing it in colours] but it only serves to shuffle the cards". Thus Ellena finds the core of his artistic philosophy anew: He reads "le sentiment" (the sentiment), but he hears "le-sens-qui-ment" (the sense that lies).

Eschewing the typical synthesized vanillin used in gourmand compositions as an easy trompe nez, Jean Claude went for a segment of authentic vanilla extract's olfactory facet; that of the slightly powdery and ethereal, producing a lithe, delicate composition like a swan's feather, like the whitest cotton balls, that truly breathes sensuously only on skin with the achingly poignant timbre of beauty destined to be ephemeral. Using a technique à rebours, Ellena doesn't use vanilla as an anchor of more volatile components nor does he render it dark, boozy and sinfully calorific à la Guerlain (Spiritueuse Double Vanille but also Shalimar and Shalimar Light ;and let's not forget Ylang et Vanille). He diffuses his vision into the clouds with adroitness and a playful sense of optimism, much like he did with L'Eau d'Hiver, when he was playing with the cassie, anisaledhyde and the warm savoury aspects of Apres L'Ondée.
The secret of Vanille Galante is kept by the great master in his favourite conjuring bag of tricks, to be partially revealed at his discretion. He had expresssed similar magical resourcefulness in Bois Farine and in the adumbration of saddlery hinted behind the florals in Kelly Calèche. In Vanille Galante the intriguing touch is the merest whiff of salty, of savoury, upon opening ~a facet that is used in haute patisserie to enhance the flavour and balance the sweeter aspects~ foiled into a lightly spicy one (comparable to how the innnermost stemons of white lilies smell) taking flight onto a mist of salicylates for diffusion (ylang ylang naturally encompasses benzyl salicylate and eugenol). The play is between spicy flowers, yellow flowers and anisic ones. The slight greeness, almost filled with watery liquid, note of jasmine vine is soon engulfed by a finespun suntan, powdery musky* and smoky balletic move.
*{Ellena likes to use Musc T, Muscone and Muscenone, which are rather powdery , expensive, non-laundry musks}.
In whole, there is no mistaking the European pedigree and atmosphere of Vanille Galante! There is no heaviness of languid exoticism despite the mental connotation of Marie Galante, the island of the Caribbean located in the Guadeloupean archipelago. Nor is there the escapism of endless summers under the cruel sun of the Tropics of Atuana. Urban sophistication and modernity prevail: The sense of the perfume is not diaphanous, nor opaque, but somewhere in-between, a little carnal, a little "dirty" underneath it all, forming a new direction in the mold of an airy floral gourmand that will have everyone copying it soon enough.

Lovers of Serge Lutens' Un Lys and Donna Karan's Gold would find a kindred spirit in Vanille Galante; nevertheless, the waxier aspects of the former are here rendered in a language of less oily interplay and the disposition is more in the Pantone scale of yellow than monumental marble white.
Vanille Galante is not only graceful, but terrifically gracious as well, offering a glimpse of warm sun and fleshy, smooth shoulders in the heart of winter. J'aime bien!

Vanille Galante forms part of the Hermessences collection and is accordingly available exclusively at Hermès boutiques around the world in a 100ml/3.4oz bottle or as a travel set of 4 smaller flacons of 15ml/0.5oz each.

Related reading on Perfumeshrine: Jean Claude Ellena scents review and opinions, the Hermessences, Hermes news and reviews.

Other reviews: Perfume Posse,Grain de Musc, 1000fragrances, auparfum, Peredepierre

Bottle pic © by Helg/Perfumeshrine
"A ride in the country" by H.Toulouse-Lautrec
Swan feather caught in foliage, via


  1. Anonymous16:04

    Hi Elena!

    Wonderfully timed review because I just received my 15 ml. bottle of this yesterday!

    Your review is right on and I devoured every word.

    One thing I want to say is that I cannot stand Un Lys or Gold because the lily note makes me sick. But....what a surprise with Vanille Galant! The lily note in this one is magically airy. I love the fact that I can detect it but then right before it becomes overwhelming, something pulls it back and I suddenly smell jasmine.


  2. Glad you've joined the club of Vanille Galante lovers, E.! It's been getting dissed in French blogs (other than mine) and there are decidedly a mixed bags of impressions on the boards... I find it quite mind-blowing in its structure and texture (Octavian says meringue, I say bubble, which I guess the inside of a meringue would be to a microscopic creature).
    I find the very fleeting note you identify as savoury to be the "ham" facet of lilies (and even wisteria or lilac): salty and smoky (gaiac) at the same time. I've also detected a hint of the "stable-tobacco" smell of narcissus in that very first instant.
    I agree that it is very different from Un Lys and Gold, mostly in its texture.
    And I'll be putting my money where my mouth is, and buying a full bottle of this when my mini's empty.

  3. Anonymous17:22

    "dissed in French blogs"? That's interesting. :-)
    BTW E, did you read the gossip about the Mitsouko flanker Lotus? It was created mainly for Asian market, but 40 bottles ended in boutique in Paris and were sold out immediately. They had to open a waiting list.
    What a great advertisement for the scent, isn't it?

  4. Anonymous17:48

    Oh goodness, I feel an purchase-before-I-sniff coming on! What a beautifully written review E.

    I wore Kelly Caleche yesterday and just adore it BTW.

  5. My dear Dawn,

    how fortunate indeed, as I get to hear your thoughts so soon! It's always fun to compare notes on something we have both enjoyed (or hated!), isn't it?
    I know saying Ellena is a magician is as trite as saying the Tower of Pisa is leaning, but there's no mistaking he has created something very subtle, very resourceful here. I can feel every one of the materials and then I lose them, they come back and forth, back and forth and it's as if it's a shape-sifting cloud.

  6. Denyse, cherie,

    how could I possibly not love it? Enamoured as I am of intellectual treatments of scents and distrustful of the easy-kill of a standard "let's address the taste buds and have them salivating" gourmand. There needs to be more and here is proof.

    Perhaps people are thrown off by the name and expect a more vanillic creature. Yet I can clearly, discernibly smell the vanilla, only it's hushed, like a lover's caress on warm curves; not a glutton's second helping of bavaroise!!

    Much as Luca has insisted on the ham-like aspect, I can't really bring myself to link salami with the glorious blossoms I smell at Easter (both lily and lilac ~ called "paschalia" in Greek because of its blooming exactly at the time of orthodox Easter). Perhaps it's a glitch of me of associating them with both the divine (due to their heavnly smell and association) and the carnality of their very erotic scent. There is a savoury/slightly salty facet though, most definitely! We agree.

    I get more lilac pollen than wisteria (glycine) which is markedly spicier and I am getting very curious now as to how Jean Claude would interpret wisteria! Perhaps in a leathery composition!! With perhaps some incensy cool smoke. Could we make a petition please?? :-)

  7. Dear L,

    yeah, that whole thing is highly intriguing (the ML thing, I mean)!
    How exactly did soooo many bottles just "happen" to be at the Paris boutique? (and btw, please note there was no official corroboration from the PR team on it being for the Asian market solely). And if they're "opening a waiting list" since the bottles that "happened" to land there "sold out immediately", it means that there are actually planning on releasing this outside the Asian market, now, doesn't it? ;-)

    Something tells me there was some calculation behind it all in the first place.

  8. Hi Trish! How are you honey?

    Thanks for the lovely compliment, although perish the thought I might influence an unsniffed purchase. It's always good to sniff beforehand.
    Barring that little precaution however I very much enjoyed this one and highly recommend it (and plan on wearing quite a bit!) the same way I enjoy Kelly Caleche (which is another tricky and delicate composition that hints rather than flaunts).

  9. Anonymous22:11

    I take full responsibility for my actions, I'm a big girl, LOL.

    The damage has been done. My fedex package should be arriving on Friday. I can't wait! I got the travel set so I can always divvy up some of the bottles on scent splits which I probably will do anyway to take away the sting on my CC!

  10. Hello, E. So glad that you like this! As you know, I think it's amazing (people are probably tired of me singing its praises).

  11. Hi E, Thank you for the lovely review. The opening quite is beautiful. The scent sounds interesting, one you can really enjoy trying and trying again and getting to know.

    Jean Claude Ellena is such an interesting perfumer to me- and the maker of masterpieces. I don't like all of his but I appreciate them all (the only one I haven't really found was me lately is Apres La Mousson).

    If this scent were by him I would probably only try it when I happened upon it but I think I will need to seek it out.

  12. Anonymous10:06

    Dear E my hopes had been raised recently that this was not to be the lemming I feared (I'd read a number of cool reviews and the Hermes SA I spoke to on Monday said it was "nice"). Those hopes lie dashed on the ground before your utterly beautiful review! You seem very sympathetic to JCE's intellectual approach whilst highlighting the subtle sexiness of his work. I am constantly suprised by how much I like his work given that I adore the Guerlain big hitters and the styles could hardly be less alike. Yesterday in a RAOK I received a sample of Brin Reglisse in a MUA swap - how lovely! My favourite is Osmanthe Yunnan but now you have piqued my interest again and I must ring Hermes to find out when the lemming lands here. donanicola

  13. Anonymous11:46

    oh ps, meant to say, but got distracted by your review ;-) - that delicate painting by Toulouse Lautrec is so lovely. Its delicacy heightened by the intense blue inside the carriage. Perfect. donanicola again

  14. A friend and I were discussing perfume a while ago and he said "Vanilla. That's all men want to smell. Vanilla. Simple as that." - there you go, I thought, it's the spice equivalent of "Love's Baby Soft".... then I bought a vanilla lip balm and it actually has that slightly gritty REAL SPICE smell that actual vanilla beans have. No idea how they manage that but it's barely sweet. Which made me think that vanilla perfumes should make a comeback, like violet ones did with Insolence. Look forward to trying this out!

  15. PS It was "Rose & Co's Sweet Vanilla Lip Salve" which I have to admit I bought purely because of the retro packaging...

  16. Trish,

    oh good! And wise move ;-)

  17. J,

    I do know :-)
    Well, it's quite wonderful, especially in the mild weather we're having.

  18. K,

    I agree that there is something very compelling into smelling this again and again. It beckons you to discover its little nuggets inside.
    Not on the blotter though (where it's harsh), on skin.

    I don't personally love/wear all the J.C.Ellena scents, but he has a very consistent, evolving style and philosophy which I respect and admire deeply.

  19. N,

    how kind of you to say so!
    And you nailed it with the Lautrec, that's why I chose it for this scent! :-)

    Hope you get to enjoy it!!

  20. Lucy,

    thanks for chimming in (and with a product rec on top, the retro packaging of which is VERY tempting, I agree!). Vanilla is a universal pleasing note. I like it when rendered in non-expected ways. Giving something new (and the real pods are wonderful, no comparison with vanillin!)

  21. The Toulouse-Lautrec painting is quite beautiful. I love that the road looks like it was left unfinished...

    I'm also deeply impressed by JCE's style and philosophy (it certainly helps that he is quite eloquent about talking about it). I love that quote about "le sentiment"/"le sens qui ment." I'm fascinated by those little games he plays with the olfactory illusions (putting two touches together, each with a single aromachemical, and creating the illusion of something else), as it seems to be about finding the minimum components necessary to evoke a whole world of smell.

    Vanilla is an interesting one for me because of its use in food as well. I think most pastry chefs would die before adding synthetic vanillin to their crème anglaise, and yet in perfumery, we're perfectly happy to consider synthetic vanillin to tell the whole story of vanilla. The best vanilla ice cream, made with real vanilla bean, has a wonderful floral quality to it (it can be quite intoxicating, how that floral aroma rises up to the nose from the back of the throat as one eats it). I love how Vanille Galante takes this floralcy as a point of departure and moves into the realm of the ethereal.

  22. J,

    the painting is also "out of style", thematically, but "in style" in technique, which is how I feel JCE approached VG too: consistent personal style towards an unexpected ingredient.

    I love that Jean Claude is so talkative about his vision: I devour every word. It's also indicative of an extreme confidence ~he doesn't have things to "hide".

    As to cooking, I love how the very English word flavour denotes both smell and taste. :-)

  23. perfumeshrine, J.C. Ellena is to you what Serge Lutens is to me LOL.

    Honestly, I fail to see sensuality and subtle eroticism in his work, to me his scents come across as too ephemeral, distant, neutral and cold.
    I agree close to the skin sillage is very sensual, but I believe fragrances need intensity like Tubereuse Criminelle for instance.

  24. Garde Rose,

    you could be right!! :-D

    (sorry about the late response, just saw this)

    First of all I consider Tubereuse Criminelle a masterpiece. But surely apart from the mentholated opening, it's quite a subtle perfume, very sensuous and husky!

    Oh, sensuality and subtle eroticism are to be explored, to be discovered anew upon subsequent wearings. It's not garters showing underneath a mini (too easy), it's an antique rose silk camisole under a man's plain, big sweater.
    I feel as though in this ever magnifying avalanche of fragrance launches we get to "make" and "break" fragances all too easily sometimes. We sniff, we reject, we go on... Yet some things need their time to be fully appreciated and this quick, casual "testing" doesn't allow it. This is what I feel Jean Claude's perfumes try to accomplish, as if he is flirting with us: not to lure you in with their brazing top notes or even their strange accords which have you puzzled for days. On the contrary allowing you to pass you by and then having you swerve to catch another look.
    I feel (and that's only my impression, I haven't asked this) that he is trying to create a subtle "flirting" the old way through his fragrances ~a very romantic (but never sentimental) way of "getting to know". You getting to know the perfume but also the perfume getting to know you! This is what I call sensuous and subtle erotic. There is a certain "discours" and contrary to other perfumers' work I feel it's only apparent when on skin and when you get to wear the fragrance as opposed to merely test it. Does it sound a bit more erotic to you know? :-)

  25. I mean "now"...what a typo in my last line. Sorry.


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