The first time I smelled Paul Poiret’s fragrances was at The Osmothèque, the perfume conservatory located in Versailles. I enjoyed Le Fruit Défendu – a gourmand rose lavishly garnished with banana and vanilla cream – but it was a luscious peach chypre, Nuit de Chine, that stole my heart. Poiret’s influence on the fashion of the 20th century has been compared to that of Picasso on art, but he also left a mark on perfumery. In 1911, Poiret launched a perfume house, Les Parfums de Rosine, named after his daughter. He was the first couturier to link fashion and fragrance. Coco Chanel followed in his footsteps 10 years later when she created Chanel No 5 with perfumer Ernest Beaux.
Nuit de Chine – one of Poiret’s first perfumes – shows how our views on fashion have evolved thanks to his work. Poiret had a penchant for fantasy and opulence, introducing elaborate gowns, harem pants and lampshade tunics. He was inspired by the Arabian Night tales, Persian paintings, Greek art and the Japanese kimono. He made fashion modern and thrilling.
Poiret was born in 1879, the son of a cloth merchant in Paris’ working-class neighbourhood of Les Halles. As he wrote in his 1931 autobiography King of Fashion, he had been fascinated by shapes and colours since childhood, when he collected unwanted silk scraps to make dresses for his sister’s doll, turning her into “a smart Parisienne one moment or a Chinese empress the next”. After successfully selling his études to the couturier Madeleine Chéruit, Poiret continued his career in fashion by working with prominent designers of the era like Jacques Doucet and the House of Worth. It was just a matter of time before he opened his own boutique.
The young designer set the blueprint for modern fashion by changing the shape of garments and casting aside petticoats and corsets. He also had a flair for marketing, expanding his brand to include interior design, fabrics and fragrance. To mark the launch of his perfume house, Poiret threw a party called La Mille et Deuxième Nuit (the thousand and second night). Dressed in the bejewelled outfit of a sultan, he gave each guest a bottle of perfume. No wonder the couturier became known in Paris as Le Magnifique, after Suleiman the Magnificent. His other moniker was “The King of Fashion”.
The flight of imagination has always attracted me to Poiret’s designs. Their whimsical quality, vivid combinations of colours and deconstructed shapes appear original even more than a century after they were first created. Yet I can also understand why Poiret’s opulence gave way to the simple elegance of Chanel. The first world war eliminated the remnants of the Belle Epoque and its innocence. Poiret and his “delights and amours” in silk and brocade became obsolete. The Poiret fashion house closed its doors in 1929. After years of stunning success, the couturier died in 1944, ruined and forgotten.
The house of Les Parfums de Rosine exists today, but in little more than name. It’s a niche outfit focusing exclusively on perfumes based around rose notes. So I began looking for a perfume that might approach the verve and drama of Poiret’s. Guerlain’s Shalimar (£72 for 50ml EDP), with its similarly baroque character, came to mind, as did Serge Lutens’ Mandarine-Mandarin (€190 for 75ml EDP), a burnished orange set in dark, glowing amber. Even though Tom Ford’s fragrances have a minimalist, un-Poiret presentation, I believe that Le Magnifique might have appreciated the smouldering beauty of Sahara Noir (now out of production) and Café Rose (£162 for 50ml EDP).
As proof that nothing disappears without a trace, the Poiret story has a new twist. The house was relaunched in January of 2018 under the artistic direction of designer Yiqing Yin, known for her intricate pleated gowns and innovative tailoring. The fashion show in March presented kimono coats and billowing capes, taking a page from the Belle Epoque shapes. Yin’s choice of sumptuous fabrics in jewel tones likewise referenced Poiret, but her execution was modern and her tribute subtle enough for her own personality as a designer to stand out. As the first Poiret fashion show after a 90-year hiatus, it was exciting, and only time will tell how the house will chart its course. For my part, I’d love to see the return of Nuit de Chine, even if in a contemporary incarnation.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.