Niche Fragrance Magazine

Ensorcelled by Sortilège, Old and New

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When a beloved perfume from the past such as Le Galion’s Sortilège (1936) is relaunched, the logic of perfume marketing demands that the new version be praised as a faithful continuation of the legacy. Meanwhile, those who know the original version can be expected to wail in chorus, “It’s not the same.” But If you love vintage perfumes, you already know it won’t be the same.  At best, you hope that the relaunch shows some respect for the history of the perfume and the memories of those who wore it in its original form.  Ideally, the essential character of the original perfume will be maintained in a new composition that uses current materials and technology. You just do not wish to see a great vintage reissued badly, as in the appalling new Jeanne Lanvin My Sin (2017), which transforms the great animalic aldehyde and its iconic Art Deco black bottle into a fruity floral in a hot pink flacon.

From the start, the Le Galion house could boast of an impressive pedigree, having been established in the 1920’s by Prince Murat, a descendant of Napoleon I’s brother-in-law. The perfume company acquired an even more influential leader when it was sold to Paul Vacher in 1935. Vacher (1902-75) was one of the most successful and talented perfumers of the twentieth century, with a long and highly diversified career.  After training in chemistry, the young Vacher worked at Guerlain and then at Lanvin, where he and André Fraysse, the nephew of Jean Lanvin, designed Arpège in 1927. Vacher left Lanvin when he took over Le Galion. For the next four decades, Vacher produced and marketed his own perfumes under the Le Galion label while continuing to design perfumes for other houses, most notably when he collaborated with Jean Carles to produce the inimitable Miss Dior in 1947. Vacher also designed Diorling for Dior in 1963.  With such success, Vacher was able to move his operations to Neuilly, where he formulated perfumes while also producing perfume essences and ingredients that he continued to provide to the Chanel and Dior perfume labels, among others.

As I learned more about Paul Vacher, I began to acquire older Le Galion perfumes whenever I could  find them, including Bourrasque (1937) an amber perfume whose musky base strongly anticipates Miss Dior, Brumes (1939) an aromatic chypre, and the not-really-soliflores–Gardenia (1937), Tubéreuse (1939), and Jasmin (1940).  They are all beautifully crafted perfumes, but Le Galion’s biggest hit of all was surely Sortilège, launched a year after Vacher took over Le Galion, in 1936.  In a particularly effective promotional strategy, Le Galion partnered with the Stork Club, which generated photos of Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Judy Garland sitting at cafe tables with a box of Sortilège in front of them.

Sortilège is often compared to all the usual suspects: No. 5, L’Aimant, and Arpège, and for a long time, Sortilège didn’t seem mandatory to me as I investigated all of those better-known vintage perfumes in succession. I finally decided to try it and, of course, I thought it was wonderful.  I think I now prefer Sortilège to all of those other lady-like vintage aldehydic florals. The vintage parfum lasts beautifully on the skin, as does the somewhat lighter vintage parfum de toilette. Sortilège’s aldehydic opening is very soft and gives way to a luscious floral bouquet of exceptional quality, dominated by jasmine and ylang-ylang notes, that dries down to a honeyed, slightly animalic musky base. Vintage Sortilège parfum feels inevitably and ineffably gorgeous, and I wish I could go to the Stork Club wearing it.

After Vacher’s death in 1975, the Le Galion company was sold and resold until it was acquired in 2014 by Nicolas Chabot, the current owner and creative director.  Coming from a family of perfume retailers, Chabot worked in the perfume industry and became intrigued by Le Galion’s history a few years ago.  Although many perfume houses are revived as empty facades, Chabot has the spirit of an archivist and true vintage perfume geek. The new Le Galion web site offers interesting tidbits of the company’s history and documents Vacher’s achievements as a perfumer. Charbot has also involved Dominique de Urresti, Vacher’s daughter, in the revival of the house.

The revived Sortilège (2014) is available in an EDP formulation in a tall classic bottle that evokes the shape of the vintage Le Galion parfum de toilette. I don’t detect much of an aldehyde presence in the new EDP, which steers well clear of the powdery notes that can be perceived as dated by many current buyers.  The flowers are just as lush as in the original, with perhaps a little more fruitiness. Worn side by side, the effort devoted to matching the 2014 Sortilège to its 1936 ancestor is evident, and the perfumes smell very similar in their middle stages.  The base of the 2014 version does contain some modern musky ambery aromachemicals, Timbersilk perhaps, but used with great refinement and restraint. The EDP has excellent longevity for a modern perfume although it can’t match the performance of the vintage parfum; nevertheless,  I think Paul Vacher would be quite pleased with the new Sortilège, as am I.

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