My father used to tell this joke. He would ask me and my brothers (all aged ten and downwards) if we knew what the term ‘savoir-faire’ meant. No, we would say – what?
A man is busy making love to his best friend’s wife one day. In walks her husband. He takes one look and says politely, “Oh, so sorry to interrupt you. Please do carry on,” and leaves. Is that savoir-faire?, Dad would ask us. We would nod, awestruck at the husband’s cool, unruffled response.
No, it is not, Dad would say. If the man is able to continue his lovemaking after the interruption, then that is real savoir-faire.
(It occurs to me now that perhaps this was not the most appropriate joke to tell young children.)
I’ve been wearing Le Parfum de Therese for several days now, and let me tell you – this is a perfume with savoir-faire. Everything in this perfume is pulling in exactly the right direction at the same time, and with a whole host of tricky elements to manage – melon ripe with incipient rot, sour tangerine, salty plums, grassy vetiver, and leather – it is no small feat. Le Parfum de Therese pulls it off with aplomb.
Everything falls right into place here – click, click, click is the sound you hear as each of the elements take up their assigned place. The bitter tangerine dropping in beside the ripe melon, ready to tame its excessive sweetness. The bite of the black pepper anchoring the boozy purple plum. The texture fizzing with a twang and a snap, but also smoldering with ripe fruit, rose, and leather. Dewy fruit is balanced by an almost meaty, savory feel. The jasmine smells thick and heavy, and yet the perfume as a whole never loses that watery, citrusy, green-yellow timbre that brings it close in feel to both Diorella and Eau Sauvage by Dior.
What these wonderful perfumes all have in common is, of course, the perfumer – Edmond Roudnitska. Considered to be one of the greatest perfumers that ever lived, Edmond Roudnitska developed a famous chord based on the pairing of jasmine, citrus, moss, and slightly overripe fruit, and he deployed this chord with great effect both in Diorella (citrus and rotting fruit) and Eau Sauvage (fresher, mossier, more citrusy). The genius of this chord was to suggest summer freshness and incipient decay in one breath. I prefer Le Parfum de Therese to Diorella because it strikes me as deeper and more carnal, and also because I don’t want to waste any tears on tracking down a good vintage bottle of the stuff. Eau Sauvage is truly excellent – a benchmark in its genre and still fabulous in its current form today – but it has belonged to my father since forever, and it’s his version of savoir-faire, not mine.
With its plum notes and slight leather feel, Le Parfum de Therese reminds me of a restrained, cool, and fresh take on the sultry Femme by Rochas, also by Roudnitska. Femme takes the jasmine-plum-leather chord, strips it of any freshness, and sets it to vibrate at sex levels. Femme is basically a rich, luridly-hued pile of plums, peaches and peach skin, dusted in warming spice and set against a backdrop of lacquered woods, leather, and damp moss. There is a fair amount of cumin or civet in it, too. Femme is much raunchier than Le Parfum de Therese, but also much cruder in execution, as befits its intent to seduce.
Le Parfum de Therese clearly contains the Roudnitska DNA and therefore belongs to this ‘stable’ of scents – fruity leather chypres with varying degrees of lemony freshness, innocence, and plummy carnality. I think I like Le Parfum de Therese the best out of this group, though, precisely because it strikes me as the perfect middle ground between Eau Sauvage (high on citrus, low on carnality) and Femme (low on citrus, high on carnality).
Most alluring to me in Le Parfum de Therese is the slight smell of salt grass wafting through the perfume. It brings to mind a woman reclining on the reeds of a salt marsh after a tryst with an illicit lover. Le Parfum de Therese is the smell of her nape as she drowsily pulls her loose hair up into its habitual bun – salty droplets of moisture that have gathered there during intimacy, as well bits of crushed grass, flowers, and the imprint of her lover’s plum-stained mouth. In a few moments, she will button up her white silk blouse and become again the respectable, bourgeois French wife and mother that she always is. But right now, she is a woman come undone – her body loose and relaxed with love.
And this is a perfume that famously speaks to love. Roudnitska composed it for his beloved wife, Therese, in the 1950s, and she was the only person in the world allowed to wear it. After his death, Therese allowed Frederic Malle to take the formula and make it into a commercial perfume for all of us to enjoy. At first, l wondered if I could ever feel comfortable wearing a perfume made for another woman – it might feel like I am intruding on a private expression of love between a woman and her husband.
But then, my sample of this came to me from my friend and wonderful writer, Conor, more widely known as Jtd, whose husband had bought it for him as a present for his fiftieth birthday. It touches me that he sent me something that is part of his love story with his husband. So maybe Le Parfum de Therese is just an exquisite expression of love that we can all share, and continue to hand down from generation to generation, irrespective of gender, sexuality, age, or race. I like the thought of that. Perfume as a hope chest.
On, and needless to say, there is something very French about Le Parfum de Therese. Something about the balance between sweet, salty, sour, fresh, prim, and carnal that reads as both deliberate, and a happy accident of nature. It is sophisticated and yet effortless. In fact, if Le Parfum de Therese was a person, she would be the man who is able to continue making love to his mistress after her husband has interrupted them mid-coitus. The very definition of savoir-faire.