Joy in the Morning, M. Kerleo in the Afternoon

M. Kerleo’s career was spent behind a curtain, choreographing some of the finest prestidigitation of French perfumery.  He was the man in the booth at Jean Patou for some thirty two years and in that time he not only kept Joy at its ebullient best, but also created the enigmatic 1000, the satiny Sublime, and what many consider among the best masculines ever created, Patou Pour Homme.

These are only the best known of his works.  He also orchestrated a revival of the most famous Patou scents for the Ma Collection series in the 1980′s including the green floral Caline, and the much praised gourmand/chypre Que Sais Je.  He did Ma Liberte in 1987, and Eau de Patou, Voyageur, also Patou Forever.  He composed a number of scents for Lacoste, including Land, and the first perfume for Yohji Yamamoto, simply called Yohji. He won the Prix des Parfumeurs in 1965, and the Prix Francois Coty in 2001. He is still the honorary president of the Society of French Perfumers, and the founder of the museum of historically significant perfumes, the Osmotheque in Versailles. It’s quite some record, you must admit.

I wonder if many other people can have had such a pervasive influence upon a field of endeavor in their lifetimes as this mild gentleman from Brittany has had on perfumery?

Perhaps I’m prejudiced in his favor. I own a bottle of Ma Liberte and wear it from time to time, as well as a collection of the re issued Patou fragrances from the 1990’s.  There isn’t one among them that hasn’t got a following somewhere among perfume enthusiasts.  But perhaps his greatest contributions were his continuous quality control of Joy and 1000.  He carefully created different strengths of the perfumes, so that the eau de toilettes had something to recommend themselves outside of relative affordability. They are separate fragrances composed with all the care and attention to detail of the original perfumes.  Not many perfumers work up to such standards today.

Even his slightest creations are arresting. Take Ma Liberte as an example.  Liberte is a perfume that straddles the pratfall pitted ground between masculinity and femininity. Anthropomorphized, Liberte is Groucho Marx in a pale pink peignoir and marabou trimmed high heels, continuing to smoke his cigar while making Margaret Dumont’s life a hell and dropping ash on the carpet in the process.

Cross dressing perfumes are the least of it. Every one of Jean Kerleo’s scents are highly complex.  Not easy to know, and, once you think you do, apt to reveal a facet you didn’t expect.  They are wonderful works of olfactory art that speak a language of their own, and that language is highly inflected.  You don’t get a Kerleo perfume at first, and even if you think you have – trust me, you haven’t.  I haven’t even learned to follow  Sublime yet, and I still need sub-titles for 1000.

Anyway, off and on this month, I’m going to write about M. Kerleo’s work and Jean Patou perfumes because this is May the pre-eminent month for flowers, and to my mind no other perfume house does flowers as well as Patou.  May they come back onto the market soon, and enchant another generation of noses.

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