Vintages Parfums Babani: A Blast from the Past

Parfums Babani: A Blast from the Past

01/13/15 05:03:23 (6 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki


Although many versed in the fashion and perfume lore already know that Paul Poiret was the first designer to attach his fashion brand to perfume launches (Les Parfums de Rosine line was named after his own daughter), few are cognizant of Maurice Babani, a revered couturier of the first decades of the 20th century who also commissioned perfumes to accompany his fashion griffe. One of the pioneers, in fact, alongside the likes of Chanel and Poiret. But the world of Babani designs goes even further back with his father, Vitaldi Babani, a native Middle Easterner, founding a boutique in the prestigious Boulevard Haussmann in 1894, numero 98. 

What would an impressionable visitor to the Babani boutique find to feast their eyes on? The adjoining shop on 65, Rue d'Anjou was a cornucopia of embroideries and silks, rugs and furniture coming from the lengths and the widths of the Silk Route, from China, India, Iran and Turkey on to Paris and the trend-setting gents and ladies of the era. The handcrafted objets d'art and the artwork which was added to the imported exotic goods preempted the vogue for oriental-themed fashions which catapulted the design scene in the throes of La Belle Epoque, before WWI. Is it any wonder then that Maurice Babani, the son and successor of the enterprise, created exclusive names to market the perfumes he commissioned to the foremost perfumers of his times? Perfume names such as Afghani (1920), Yashmak (1924), Abdulla (1926) and Sousouki (1921) gives us a glimpse of the exotica which still reverberates in the body of the fragrance scene today. According to fashion historians R.Martin and H.Koda (1994, Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art), the importing of exotic wares at some point defined the brand to the extent that they produced fashions and perfumes directly influenced by the artworks and handicrafts they were reselling. 

The perfume ads, mostly illustrated by Michelle Pichon, attached the slogan "parfums inconnus d'orient and d'extreme orient" ("unknown perfumes from the East and Far East") suggesting the sourcing of native ingredients and recipes accounting for an experience that would intrigue the westerner consumer. It is debatable whether Maurice Babani actually sourced eastern "recipes" for his fragrances, although there is data to indicate that they did have embroidery workshops in both Kyoto (of the Far East), which was very simpatico to the buyers of their robes japonaises (one of their highlights), and in Istanbul (in the near East) where the gold chain stitch embroidery was made using the special sewing machine called the "Sphinxia."

The "Niu Tse" style, echoing Japanese aesthetics, became a trademark of Babani fashions, especially at a time when Le Figaro chronicled the trend for Japanese nagajubans (traditionally undergarment for the kimono) worn as a peignoir by the French and by women across Europe. Babani's reputation rose with actress Eleonore Duse ordering several gowns and American icon Katherine Hepburn being wed to Ludlow Ogden Smith in a white Babani dress with gold embroidery, according to her autobiography published by Ballantine Books in 1996. 

Babani Ambre de Delhi, photo from liveauctioneers.com

A 1920 ad indicates the many versions of Orientalism that had taken the Parisian fragrance scene by storm, leading to the apotheosis of Shalimar (1921 and en masse 1925) and Mitsouko (1919): Babani's Ambre de Delhi (1919) is a parfum Hindou, Rose de Gullistan is a Persian perfume, Saigon a Chinese one, Afghani is of course of Afghan origin and supposed to be colorful, riotous and untamed, while Shogum derives its name and concept from Japan. Yasmin de Coree (a Korean fragrance that poses a challenge with its provocative character) and Yasmak (a Syrian one) comprise the rest of the impressive list of parfums Babani.

The brand had been successful enough to have ancillary body products issued in the scent of L'Ambre de Delhi, namely powder and soap, and to be active in exportation. Sousouki had also been tagged as "a penetrating fragrance," for incense-burning. In fact scent for incense use—as well as scent for cigarettes and for furs, trajectories that parfums Weil and Habanita by Molinard had already explored successfully—was another field that Ambre de Delhi explored, as evidenced in ad from 1931, beautifully rendered by illustrator Yan Bernand Yul in the Art Deco style of the times. 

The tremendous (and seminal) success of Coty's Chypre in 1917 gave rise to several other Chypres. The notion of chypre well predates the Coty fragrance, Guerlain being one of those who had been populating the genre in the 19th century, extending the historical preference for face powder made in Cyprus (Cipria) and scented with the resinous-mossy scents of the Eastern Mediterranean. But the commercial resurgence and the paring down of the formula into something both contemporary and fresh, as rendered by Coty, made an impact. Hence Chypre Egyptien (Egyptian chypre, 1919) by Maurice Babani, accompanied by the illustrations suggestive of an exoticism to rival Poiret and his harem pants. 

Chypre Egyptien was one of the line-up of around 10 Babani perfumes that the American brand of Elizabeth Arden tried to market to the United States in the mid-1920s, alongside Sousouki, Ambre de Delhi, Yasmin de Coree, Rose Gullistan, Mon Ami Elisabeth and Ming (an elfin gardenia fragrance with a playful sweetness). The distributing offices were opened at 521 Fifth Avenue in New York City and the fragrances were encased in oriental motif bottles of rich gold & black finish produced by Maurice Depinoix. Ligeia from 1920 is "attractive like the voice of sirens, the essence of warm and intoxicating isles," referring to the Philippines. A languorous, romantic perfume that was also marketed to the American buyer. In fact the slogan by Elizabeth Arden was "blend Babani perfumes to increase your charm". The concept of layering perfumes wasn't new (and Arden certainly implied that it was at the core of European sophistication, even then very marketable to Americans) but the US company used it to further market the interesting complexity of the exclusive French perfumes they pushed, "a fragrance that no one identify or imitate". The combination of Chypre with smoky Sousouki was recommended, as well as the combination of ambery Ambre de Delhi with the oriental essences of Ligeia. These were part of Arden's Venetian Toilet Preparations. 

Parfums Babani was quite prolific, with more fragrances issued throughout the first decades of the 20th century with an emphasis in the the decades of Les Annes Folles (1920s) and the 1930s: Giardini (1920), Chinoise (1920), Secret de Babani (1920), Oeillet de Japon (1920), Narcisse d'Or (1920), Muguet (1920), Daimo, again inspired by Japan (1921), Fleurs d'Annan (1921), Pao Pe (1922), A Blend (1925), Ecaille Blonde (1925), Nandita (1925), Extrait d'Ambre Gris (1926), Just a Dash (1928), Japonais (1930), Pin Fleur (1930), Secret Princesse Nefertiti (1938), Tombak (1940) and Elusive (1942). There is also the elusive Nuit de Bosphore (Bosphorus Night), recalling their Istanbul workhouses. 

Sadly, the lack of sufficient recognition in the United States (which kept Jean Patou afloat during the difficult years preceding WWII and during its course) meant that the valiant effort of Elizabeth Arden went somewhat unrequited by the American public. And in perfume, like with many things of pop culture, the American market is the defining mark of sustainability. It is enough to consider that the predilection of the American consumer for Narcisse Noir (Caron), Habanita (Molinard), Joy (Patou) and Fracas (Piguet) helped these brands stay afloat (or launch successfully) in the aftermath of WWII when Europe was crumbling and French businesses were gathering their pieces after the Occupation. It was already late by 1941 for Parfums Babani, when only Ming was still in production, the rest of the range disappearing, to the chagrin of collectors and historians such as myself who appreciate the nuanced weave of perfumery's tapestry.

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.

 



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Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Ranchorita,

back in those times the elaborate bottle design was indicative of high care in the stakes of luxury, because each company consolidated its profile and luxury that way. They went to extremes sometimes! The illustrations are no less intricate. The scents are also researched and must have smelled good in order to be considered fit for such an ambitious export. I hope we will see resurrections like Grossmith's.

@Aschroft87,
thanks for reading and for saying so!

Jan
28
2015
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@NerbaskaLovesScent,

thank you for commenting. I think some of these old lines are ripe for a resurgence. All it needs is someone adventurous enough!

@knit_at_nite,
you're welcome, glad you enjoyed. I think half the fun is in the illustrations as they're so evocative of the era they hail from.

Jan
28
2015
Ashcroft87
Ashcroft87

Such a nice and suggestive article.
Thanks for sharing.

Jan
14
2015
ranchorita
ranchorita

Thank you for this interesting article. What exquisite design obviously went into every aspect of this fragrance. The bottle alone would predispose me to love any perfume it contained!

Jan
14
2015
knit_at_nite
knit_at_nite

What a sumptous scent profile and the illustrations are so sensuous. Definately makes one wish this line had survived. Thanks for a splendid trip back in time.

Jan
13
2015
NebraskaLovesScent
NebraskaLovesScent

Such beauty, now lost to the ages. :-( Thank you for this well-researched article, Elena! Makes me wonder how many other beauties we have missed out on.

Jan
13
2015

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