Do you remember that chapter in What Katy Did in which the Carr children spend the afternoon with a picnic in their secret retreat of “Paradise”, each explaining her ambitions for the future? Clover says she will have a pond of eau de cologne (changed to “scent’ in modern editions)in her backyard into which passers by may dip their handkerchiefs. The most enthusiastic proponent of Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs that I ever knew was rather like this: she was tall, lovely and stately like a child’s best wax doll, with enormous blue eyes and cascades of ringleted hair. She had this alluring fantasy about her wedding: dressed in white and mauve (the colours of the packaging) in a cathedral filled with fountains of Quelques Fleurs, the aisle running with conduits of the perfume; all the guests to be sprayed with it on arrival and given bottles as wedding favours. Her child-size bouquet would be a plantation of every flower represented in the scent. Customers listened entranced and she shifted a lot of stock.
Houbigant had been in business for nearly two centuries before hitting the jackpot with this scent that has become their signature and trademark. They began trading in Paris in 1774, the year of the accession of Louis XVI and the nineteen year old Marie Antoinette who marked the start of her reign with an orgy of compulsive shopping and decoration of her person. Naturally, tradespeople generally came out to Versailles rather than the Queen go to the shops; but Marie Antoinette caused great offence to her courtiers by receiving her modistes, jewellers and perfumers in her private apartments, those dark and gilded little cupboards that can still be seen today, hidden behind the cavernous State Rooms, and to which even the greatest nobles in France were not admitted.
In a way one might see this as an important milestone in the development of retail: the tradesman for the first time (and in this case with the ringing endorsement of royal patronage) not only seeing himself as a creative artist but also being treated as one. Marie Antoinette’s couturiere Rose Bertin bossed the Queen as she did all her clients, and the royal hairdresser,Leonard, was indulged in all his caprices. Indeed it was Marie Antoinette’s fatal trust in him that was to be one of the many factors which contributed to the failure of the royal family to escape France during the Revolution. This new reverence for the creators of style (to be enhanced by the attitudes of Marie Antoinette’s Imperial successors, Josephine and Eugenie) was perhaps as important as the 19th century’s innovations of the department store and the decent public lavatory. The latter enabled elaborately and impractically dressed ladies to stay away from home all day if the fancy took them: a breakthrough in the art of shopping.
Quelques Fleurs first hit the shops in 1912, within a few months of another two legends, L’Heure Bleue and Narcisse Noir. After 198 years in the business, this creation by Robert Bienaime was Houbigant’s greatest coup, never since surpassed, and hailed by some authorities as the first multi-floral fragrance bouquet – the “Grand Hotel” of scent. A mixture of flowers, rather than a single floral note with or without woody and animalic accords. It coasted along over the years as long-lived perfumes do, undergoing various formulaic adjustment, attributes and price points: regarded in the 1940’s as the only respectable scent for débutantes, it had fallen to the lower end of the chemist’s range by the mid-70’s before making a triumphant come-back in the early 90’s – cleaned, varnished,restored and re-framed like a French old master.
How closely today’s version resembles that of the original it is hard to say but it certainly has the indefinable but authentic feel of Edwardiana: essentially BIG, like those padded pompadour hairstyles and vast hats which now look so poignant and incongruous in blurred photographs of the Titanic’s traumatised survivors. All the original notes are intact. Quelques Fleurs has a green appley freshness lacking in its contemporaries but it displays the same thick, dense quality of musky slightly dusty richness and gravitas: despite its inspired name it is not a playful scent – “this is not a toy”! Notes of lilac, lily of the valley, rose and jasmine pile up as on the shelves of a gorgeous conservatory topped with violets and orchid. A fascinating and magnificent centenary scent for 2012.
Image scanned from an advert supplied by Houbigant.