Interviews Smell Like a French Courtesan: Les Cocottes de Paris

Smell Like a French Courtesan: Les Cocottes de Paris

05/23/16 12:00:22 (12 comments)

by: Miguel Matos

Les Cocottes de Paris is a recent perfume line that brings back to discussion, and to our imagination, the women that rocked the capital of pleasure more than a century ago. Scandalous icons of beauty and mischief, these were women that knew no rules. Creatures that inhabited the secret chambers of Paris, from cabarets to palaces. Anaïs Biguine (Jardins d'Écrivains, Gri Gri) is the woman who rescued them from the back shelf of French culture and society. Welcome back to the Queens of Paris with three scents dedicated to La Castiglione (1837-1899), La Belle Otero (1868-1965) and Melle Cléo (1875-1966): Les Cocottes de Paris.

Miguel Matos and Anaïs Biguine, owner of Les Cocottes de Paris at Esxence 2016, Milan

Dear Anaïs, would you tell me the stories that made you create a new line of perfumes called Les Cocottes de Paris?

The idea is to talk about the history of the courtesans of the 19th century. These courtesans are very interesting in my point of view. They did a great job for the liberation of women and they were the first free women actually. They were the so called “demi-mondaines” among the rising bourgeoisie. They are so interesting because they made fashion go forward, they had a very superior boldness. They demanded very much from the creators because they wanted to go beyond what was done in perfume and fashion design. I've chosen to work on three demi-mondaines that had an artistic career. For example, La Castiglione was the first Kate Moss of this genre. She invented photographic styling. Because of that I decided to create a narcissist perfume, neurasthenic, gloomy and very enveloping. She lived the night to the fullest. She was also an aristocrat from Florence who came to Paris to seduce Napoleon III. So there is this aristocratic dimension, of someone who looks at things from above and this phychological flaw. I love this. But you have to wear this perfume only when you feel well. If you don't feel all right you can doom yourself with it.

La Castiglione

It's very elegant...

This was someone who didn't follow the fashion trend. When she arrived at a party in Paris you could never figure out what she was wearing. It was like a costume, she invented everything. She was very mysterious and she didn't want to talk. If she talked with someone, it was with men. She hated women. La Castiglione was a woman who left quite an impression.

La Castiglione

And she was the first of these women to whom you pay hommage. Who are the others?

This one was the first. Let's go further in time. La Belle Otero is the most vintage perfume of the three. Absinthe and violet represent the joie de vivre. An opposite of La Castiglione; she was a gipsy. She was born in Galicia, Spain. This little gipsy had a bulimic apetite for life. Her energy was not normal, it was excessive. She was a dancer and she had every prince and king inside her bed. Nobody had such a “tableau de chasse”. She arrived from Russia and she captured everyone's attention from Paris to New York. There was an enormous rivalry between the Cocottes. Each one wanted to have the most powerful men. Not the artists, they didn't have any money. They wanted the kings, the princes... Most of the scenes took place at the Maxime cabaret in Paris. One day she arrived from one of her trips and she came to a party at the Maxime. She was going to dance and she was very well dressed but she wants to win the glam battle. And so she arrives without a single piece of jewelry on her. Just a white dress. Instead, she brings her “femme de chambre” who wears all the jewels and precious stones. She was trying to say, “It's so vulgar to wear jewelry. Let the others wear it." She lived a very long life and even after being 97 years old, she still went to the casino to play. Maybe it was because of the drugs...

La Belle Otéro

This is an example of the pleasure business in Paris at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. How does this translate into fragrance in the case of La Belle Otero?

I wanted to do a perfume that was more about fabrics than skin, but I know she liked spicy fragrances. So it's a mix of a gipsy theme with violet, which was a trend at the time, and the craziness of absinthe, the pepper she loved... It's a vintage-style fragrance.

La Belle Otero is more of a timeless perfume. It seems more modern to me and doesn't read vintage so much.

Yes. It is almost within the modern trend of masculine perfumes.

I would agree. It's the most masculine of the line. What about Melle Cléo? It seems very rich now that I am smelling it for the first time...

It's not within the olfactive family that I normally prefer to wear, but I love to wear it. Cléo de Merode was a dancer at the Opéra de Paris. I wanted to work with this elegance of a “vrai belle”. She was considered the most beautiful woman of the world in 1896. Leopold II from Belgium fell in love with her. But she had a flaw. She had to, otherwise she would not be a Cocotte. There is a side that is very elegant, classic, “très opéra”. She was a very feminine woman. For the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris, she danced with a flower called Belle de Nuit, which is the flower that grows from the dragon fruit. I wanted to work with exotic fruits by adding lychee, ylang, dragon flower and cotton flower for the couture, textile element.

Portrait of Cléo de Mérode by Georges Jules Victor Clairine 

It's maybe my favourite, it's richer and I love the floral accord.

I wanted to create perfumes with a vintage inspiration, but adapted to the modern taste. That is what's most difficult: to find the balance.

You always like to “adopt” the outcasts. Take the writers you worked on for the Jardins d'Écrivains line, for example. People that escape the norm fascinate you. Why is it?

I love to work on the narrative creation. I love the historic aspect too. Maybe one day I make a perfume of the future. The girl that does not live in the present.

Hiding from the harsh spotlights and smelling fragrances under the table. You gotta have some fun, right?

La Castiglione

Top notes: Citron, Mugworth

Middle notes: Copaiba, Liquorice, Patchouli, Cedarwood

Base notes: Ambergris, Myrrh, Styrax

 

La Belle Otero

Top notes: Neroli, Pepper, Absinthe, Fig, Ginger

Middle notes: Violet, Musk, Buchu, Lavender, Narcissus

Base notes: Frankincense, Sandalwood, Iris

 

Melle Cléo

Top notes: Rosewood, Bergamot, Lychee

Middle notes: Night Blooming Cereus, Ylang Ylang, Rose

Base notes: Cotton Flower, Lichen

Miguel Matos is a Portuguese journalist obsessed with perfume. Miguel likes to see himself as a fragrance curator, investigating perfume as contemporary art. He directs his own cultural magazine, Umbigo, and writes texts for museums and galleries. He is a vintage perfume collector and organizes regular talks called Vintage Perfume Sniffing. He also writes on beauty and grooming for Beauty almanac.comHe is a Fragrantica writer, translator and editor of Fragrantica. com.br

 



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Angela Agiannidou
Angela Agiannidou

I personally wouldn't call it 'sexual exploitation', though I do understand, some of them, like Belle Otero, made the best out of a personal tragedy. I find these women remarkable and exciting, maybe flawed, but, still amazing.

May
25
2016
La DameDeNoir
La DameDeNoir

@Samberg:

Agree, sexual explotation is not funny or glamorous. Although La Castiglione was not exactly a cocotte: her family was wealthy and she was a countess, better known for being a fashion icon and a socialité. Also, she worked as spy for her cousin, the Italian statesman Count of Cavour, who wanted to know what Napoleon III was likely to do (they were the years of the Italian Unification, and both France and Austria had much to do about that).

As about La Bella Otero...when she was ten, she was raped (ten years...think about that) and she had to run away from her village, because nobody wanted to have any to do with her. She became a prostitute, and later a courtisan in order to support herself. She came to be one of the wealthiest women of her time (kings and rich businessmen were her lovers)...and she lost fortunes in the casinos of Monaco and Montecarlo because she was a compulsive gambler. She was called, also, the Suicides'Siren, because it was said that six men took away their lives when they didn't get her favours. At the end of her life (she died at a very old age) she was totally ruined.

Melle Cleo -or Cleo de Merode- was a dancer and model who inspired many artists of her time. She was very famous for being the lover of the king Leopold II of Belgium.

May
25
2016
VanillaTabbyCat1963
VanillaTabbyCat1963

Wow! So many grumpy serious people here...I like the marketing strategy. It is about a place and time. So what if there are some flaws?

May
24
2016
samberg
samberg

Courtesans, comfort women, putas, geishas, whores; perfumery advertising has been here before many times and it was already stale then. It's hard to imagine truly creative juices coming from such contrived beginnings.

This overwrought and conflicted prose does not help, "They did a great job for the liberation of women...She hated women."

May
24
2016
greydove
greydove

Bad bitches of history. I love those old pictures!

May
24
2016
migueldematos
migueldematos

@LaDameDeNoir thank you for the correction regarding the image. It is now changed by a more interesting painting of her.
:)

May
24
2016
La DameDeNoir
La DameDeNoir

@Jomoves:

Agree, and poorly documented. I am fed up of hearing that La Bella Otero was a gipsy -which she was not, she was born in Galicia, in the North-West of Spain -a land conected with mysteries and sorcery-, although she used to tell various stories about her life (all of them fake), like that she was born in Cadiz and his father was a count-. The story about the jewels and the glamour battle is not accurately reported. And one of the pictures in the article is not Melle Cleo, but Lina Cavalieri, a famous Italian opera singer and actress, who has reached with time an unexpected fame, because her face is the one which appears in the Fornasetti items.

@bibibling:

There is an interesting book about the life of the Bella Otero and the courtesans of her time: La Bella Otero, by Carmen Posadas.

May
24
2016
bibibling
bibibling

Now I want to go read a book about these ladies, they sound so interesting.

I had tried Worth's Courtesan, which is supposed to be inspired by another famous cocotte: Cora Pearl but unfortunately on me it smelled like rotting fruit salad!

Anyway, it's good to see this company isn't going down that 'the secret recipes for these perfumes were presumed lost for generations but were recently discovered and are the actual perfumes these ladies wore!' thing and just being upfront that these are definitely "INSPIRED BY" and nothing more.

May
23
2016
Jomoves
Jomoves

In all honesty the creator's comments read like a whole lot of marketing bullshit to me but I want to smell the perfumes anyway.

May
23
2016
VanillaTabbyCat1963
VanillaTabbyCat1963

Thank You Miguel for you very informative article! You piqued my interest into reading about the setting that provided the backdrop to the stories of these and other fearless ladies of the Belle Epoque. Great way to sell perfumes in a day when niche competition is fierce.

Of couse the fragrances as well!!Off the top, I might gravitate toward La Belle Otero. Have to look uo some of the trio's notes, such as Buch. Mielle Cleo might be (or not) too sweet. I have been having difficulty lately with detecting individual sweet notes!

May
23
2016
Angela Agiannidou
Angela Agiannidou

Great article Miguel, as usual! Anais Biguine is a very talented lady and this is a great inspiration for perfume. I would love to try all of them as I find the notes as exciting as the personalities of the ladies they represent. If I had to pick just one though(difficult decision!!!!!!***) it would have to be the spicy and sultry Belle Otero (though I don't care for fig, yet the rest of the notes are spot on for me...). Please, more from this superbly creative lady.

May
23
2016
SumoTigerCat
SumoTigerCat

I have Melle Cleo and adore it. I'm going to have to try the others.

Darn, I thought I was going to be one of the few to have any of these scents. Oh well... enjoy, everyone!

Really lovely article and photos, Miquel! Thank you.

May
23
2016

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