Thursday, September 3, 2009

Balenciaga Michelle: fragrance review & history

It is always with some astonishment that I find myself in a Wells-like universe while critically appraising fragrances from decades ago: the Balenciaga classic perfumes opus in particular is supremely refined in the grand manner (Quadrille, Prelude, Cialenga, and the more famous Le Dix), yet surprises lay hidden in less far off decades ~as recently as 1979, if 30 years ago can be seen as "recent". Michelle, created that year, as a posthumous homage to the great couturier who had died in 1972 and named after his favourite model, is a classic from the house reflecting values of another time.

Intense in its message, floral and oriental at once with a wink of aldehydes on top like topz eyes behind dark sunglasses, and weird in a sublime way, thanks to a ginormous tuberose and earthy rose in its heart, Michelle by Balenciaga shares a common element with that other fangled, musky and bitter tuberose of the 80s, Dior's Poison by nose Edouard Fléchier (1985); and to a lesser degree with the more vulgar Giorgio by Giorgio Beverly Hills, a fragrance that sadly traumatised a whole generation of teenagers into succumbing to watery ozonics in the hopes of escaping the deadly, miasma-like fumes of their mothers' scent which wafted from every taxi and every elevator to the point of suffocation.
As someone wittingly quipped, the first Dior Poison is "like road testing an Abrams M1 tank in the evening rush hour". To further that image, I should add that Giorgio is all of the above, but done in picturesque Dubrovnik, pre- the Yugoslavian War ravages, when it was a perfect specimen of UNESCO's Cultural Heritage collection of cities, pristinely preserved in formaldehyde.

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972), a Basque-born Spanish couturier renowned for his impecable attention to detail, his contempt for bourgeoisie status of the Chambre and referred to as "the master of us all" by Christian Dior himself, became famous for his architectural eye and ultra-modernity. The latter was especially exhibited in his "bubble skirts" and odd shapes, the "square coat", the swanlike collars and the "bracelet sleeves" among them. His fragrances reflected his demanding and sophisticated nature: they had character!

The nose behind Balecianga's Michelle is Françoise Caron, best known for Eau d'Orange Verte for Hermès, Kenzo by Kenzo (the original with the blossom-shaped stopper) and the reconstruction of Ombre Rose L'Original for Brosseau, but also for Montana's oriental mohair blanket Just Me and the popular oriental/gourmand Escada Collection. Her Gió for Giorgio Armani (1992) continues with the tuberose treatment so prevalent in the 80s and in a way reflects some of the aspects of Michelle without following it closely. Whereas Gió is nectarous, fruity and honeyed, Michelle is rather sharper, mossier and with that weird perfume-y note de tête which is commonly referred to in perfumephiliac parlance as the "bug spray accord". Both Poison in its foreboding purplish bottle and Giorgio in its yellow-striped kitsch shared this bug spray note: an aroma which had become so popular through the extensive usage of the above perfumes back then that manufacturers of instecticides in a reverse compliment (cheapening the formula) replicated in their...yes, you guessed it, bug sprays! The mental pathway wasn't difficult to lay and forever since bug spray ~and the perfumes that echo it~ have that characteristic sharp, needles-up-the-nose, bitter and strangely floral-from-outer-space tonality which has its fans and its detractors. The mental association isn't a personal favourite for reasons of overdosing on insecticides one memorable tropically-latituded summer in Bali many years ago, so although I admire that kind of fragrances intellectually it isn't something I am comfortable with wearing too often. Still in Michelle that bug spray accord is tempered and tamer, making it friendlier.

If by mentioning tuberose you cast your mind to the timeless Fracas by Piguet with its beautiful yet at the same time coloratura expansive and creamy night blossom, Tubéreuse Criminelle by Lutens with its mentholated, polished soie sauvage or Carnal Flower by F.Malle with its coconut and eycalyptus-ladden tropical ambience, then think again: Balenciaga's forgotten vintage extrait Michelle is none of those things and is a throwback to another era. Surprisingly, Michelle is also sprinkled with a pinch of spice, not listed, a cinnamon-like effect which somehow provides a sweet facet along with the vanilla, yet reinforces the bloody, metallic facets of the tuberose and the wet earthiness of the rose in tandem with moss. It wears beautifully in the heat and eases itself into the cooler days of approaching autumn.

The vintage extrait de parfum which is the concentration in my possession (in the design on the right) is extremely long-lasting and smooth, while the Eau de Toilette (circulating in the classic design of Balenciaga fragrances depicted here) smells about the same, but with a radiance and expansion which could become too much too soon in my opinion.

Notes for Balenciaga Michelle:
Top: Aldehydes, gardenia, green notes, coconut, peach

Heart: Carnation, tuberose, iris, orchid, jasmine, yalng ylang, rose
Base: Sandalwood, oakmoss, musk, benzoin, vanilla, vetiver

Michelle is discontinued, but makes sporadic appearences on Ebay and etailers. The Balenciaga house is currently part of the Gucci Group (part of Pineault Printemps Redoute). Popular again thanks to the success of the "Motorcycle bag" and Nicolas Ghesquiere design and is set to produce a new fragrance under the aegis of Coty fronted by Charlotte Gainsbourg, which questions the possibility of ever resurrecting Michelle.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Vintage perfumes, Fragrance history

Pic of vintage coat design by Cristobal Balenciaga via and of Michelle flacon via


  1. I just love your posts. :) It seems everytime I get perplexed by something, one of your posts comes along and sheds light. LIke the "bug spray accord". I got that the other day and kept thinking how incredible that something can remind me of that and smell wonderful at the same time. It was the only DSH perfume I have tried so far : Cardamom and Khyphi. And that one will definitely be mine in the near future.

  2. I. Will. Kill. You.
    Now I want this one, too.

  3. Thanks for the review! I did go ahead and buy - unsniffed, mind you - that 1/4 oz of Michelle parfum for $20, thinking it a well-considered risk based on the listed notes. Tuberose, rose, vanilla, moss? Come to mama. (I had already bought it before seeing that it's listed on the scentsplits wiki; thanks all the same for your kind offer of a sample.)

    Poison scared the pants off me, but I remember liking Giorgio in small amounts - I was a dirt-poor teen in the 80's and couldn't have afforded it in any case.

    I am looking forward to my Michelle!

  4. I,

    am I glad :-)

    This particular "accord" is very characteristic and I am convinced the explanation I have given is the very reason why it is called what it's called (I have always maintained that the green Baygon from Bayer faintly smells like 80s perfume>give it a -tentative- try sometime!)
    How lovely for you you found a perfect specimen which you want to buy! HOpe you get it, DSH is very creative.

  5. L,

    Please. Don't. Kill. Me. I. Will. Send. You. Some.

    LOL, I am being in a silly mood, don't mind me!

    PS. will be mailing you soon, got that "special something" today. :-))

  6. M,

    oh goody! I dearly hope you like it, although for such a bargain who can complain?
    It's a mystery how this has escaped the radar of many for so long (Not to tout my own horn, but I predict this will soon end, LOL, so you did well to grab it while it was on the cheap)Enjoy!!

  7. Wah! It's not cheap!! Wah wah!!!

    :) What was this Michelle zeitgeist? I saw the listing I think Mals pick up, was reluctant to experiment (not that I haven't done so in the past, mind you), let it out of my mind, then I found your post! Ah, well.

    I am going to comfort myself with the fact that the year long project which has been me coming to terms with Niki Saint Phalle is over. She a good way. So my bargain bottle of parfum is a big winner! Except, of course, now I worry about when it will run out, lol.

  8. Sheesh, that was indulgent. I forgot to take a moment to thank you for another interesting, informative post. Guess I'm getting used to it. ;)

  9. S,

    it's quite reasonable on etailers and the bay, I found, when it's available that is. Sorry you missed your bottle...there must be another one someplace with your name on it!
    And I am glad you liked the Niki Saint Phalle: it's such an individual scent. :-)

  10. And oh, thank you for saying so, what a nice compliment :D

  11. Anonymous13:52

    I first purchased Michelle after sniffing it in Kennedy airport's duty free shop. I was an 18 year old high school graduate headed to Europe for a three-month summer adventure, and I will forever associate this magnificent scent with those halcyon days.

    It remains my absolute favorite scent of all time and I don't understand why it was ever discontinued. Then again, perhaps it is for the best, as plenty of vintage stock remains and we don't have to suffer a horrifying reformulation. I have both the extrait and the EDT and your assessment of each is spot on. Thanks for highlighting this underrated, little known gem of a scent!

  12. amazingly good interpretation for Giorgio of BH. This is the scent that involved a nation into cologne. I remember that after Paco Rabbane the Giorgio started a new trend for men (note that did not said masculine) fragrances. But in your words very nicely put.


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