my grandmother wore Arpège

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About ten years ago, when I started to become interested in colognes, I was at Sephora on Faubourg Saint Antoine in the 12th Arrondissement for a special opening on a Sunday afternoon. I was sniffing a lot of things and grabbed a bottle, sprayed it on a scent strip and was about to move on when… I thought… THIS IS NOT NEW, I KNOW THIS FROM SOMEWHERE… BEFORE. Capital letters just don’t bring home the strength of the shock I felt. This smell was so… nice, warm, reassuring, happy, and it plummeted me back to a time in my youth I could not identify. I felt nostalgic. I took some more strips and literally drowned them in this cologne called ‘Arpège’ so I could keep them with me until I figured out where I knew the smell from.

Initially I was only planning to write about Arpège and the Lanvin bottles. I’ve decided to recount a more personal history thanks to a very pertinent post that can be found here.

After walking around four days sniffing crumpled up strips in the metro, at work and home, that following Thursday evening while reading in bed, I’d actually let go of trying to figure out where I knew this scent from (for me as soon as I stop trying to remember, that’s when I remember) the flash came back crystal clear…

My grandmother wore Arpège.

I remember seeing the black Arpège ball with the golden stopper on her wooden dresser next to her gilded hair brush and mirror and her make-up all neatly laid out on the lace runner. I even remember holding the bottle for her sometimes.

I remember watching her get ready to go out dancing with my grandfather. I’d sit on the edge of the bed talking about school or whatever and watch her brush her hair, put on her make-up, and perfume. It was quite a ritual. She’d put the perfume on the usual places: gentle touches behind her ears, on her neck, wrists. But also she had a black and gold purse spray bottle that she’d let me help her fill -that’s when I held the bottle- and would spray the perfume in the lining of her jacket and coat. Arpège royally filled the room and followed her as my grandfather and she headed elegantly out the door as I stood behind waving goodbye in my pyjamas holding my teddy bear ready for bed…

I remember Christmas mornings when we took turns opening our gifts. She would always get from my grandfather the same-sized, square box with the ever-so-elegant wrapping paper from Hutzler’s (a department store in Baltimore gone bankrupt years and years ago). She always pretended she had no idea what it was and smiled in surprise as she opened it- I suppose simply because she loved it so much!

I remember also going back to see my grandmother for the last time. I was twenty-some. I remember seeing her all thinned and ill. I took time to sit next to her on the bed as we’d done some many times before when I was a little boy. I spoke with her, looked at her, felt her next to me. I brushed her hair and even remembered spraying a bit of perfume -have no idea what it was- just to make her feel a bit less ill.


Unlike the N° 5, today’s version of Aprège is not identical to the original made in the 1920’s under the direction of Jeanne Lanvin. Though when Inter Parfums Inc. took over the production and marketing of Lanvin’s perfumes in 2005 / 2006 they did say that the Arpège they were producing was very close to the original. When I rediscovered Arpège in about 2001, l’Oréal was responsible for the production. They apparently had ‘based’ themselves on the original version and had created something quite nice. It really couldn’t have been that far away from what my grandmother wore otherwise I would not have recognized it.

On the point of history, this very bad habit of changing hands is what actually destroyed Arpège. When Arpège came out in 1927, it left Chanel’s N°5 in the shadows quite difficult to believe today. At certain points in its history, the Lanvin fashion house encountered times of lesser success and preferred concentrating on fashion. The decision was made to outsource the perfumes without really maintaining a sure level of quality control on the production. In doing so, Arpège moved through a large number of companies some of which changed the initial ingredients from natural to synthetic or simply replaced one element with something completely different in an effort to be more profitable. These changes over time destroyed the reputation of the perfume as the faithful public no longer recognized the fragrance they loved and knew from before. To the point today, it is rumored that no one really knows what the original composition was for Arpège -how irresponsible and disappointing.

In their defense, l’Oréal did actually orchestrate a marvelous rendition of Arpège using quality ingredients. In 2003-4, I believe, Lanvin took back the production and marketing of their perfumes and provided Arpège in lots of different formats: two sizes for the pure perfume, eau de parfum in both splash and spray models along with a nice line of secondary products. Two years later, Lanvin handed over the management of their perfumes to Inter Parfums Inc. who still takes care of them today.

On the point of bottles, Lanvin has been generous throughout its history to the perfume bottle collector. All their bottles have up till modern times been top quality and exceptionally elegant. The ‘black ball’ bottle created by Armand-Albert Rateau with the gold ‘melon slice’ stopper is is considered a classic Art Déco creation. There is also the discreet, chic square bottle renewing with Lanvin’s pre-1927 period and the tall imposing octagon bottle used for Lanvin’s colognes. Some examples are in the slide show – sorry for the dust…

There’s some great reading around Jeanne Lanvin, a very strong, determined woman. Equally a visit can be made to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris where Jeanne Lanvin’s apartments can be seen. Of course, the bathroom is my favorite part!

16 thoughts on “my grandmother wore Arpège

  1. Christopher,

    It sounds like Arpège has left a huge imprint on you. I got a little goosebumpy when you wrote, “I brushed her hair and even remembered spraying a bit of perfume -have not idea what it was- just to make her feel a bit less ill.”

    Your grandmother also sounds like a lady of style and glamour. Those memories are so important. I hope they’re fond ones too.

    And also, thank you for sharing the history of Arpège too. I had no idea that what is on the shelves today isn’t what was made years ago. Sad.

    Glad I could have inspired this post 🙂

    1. Hello Christopher,
      Thank you for sharing your memories of your grandmother. Arpège was made by love too, the love a mother, Jeanne Lanvin, had for her daughter, playing the piano and doing her “arpège”. Seems like this fragrance is inspiring!
      I’ve been very much touch by your post as I do work on the olfactory memory. Biographer, I use smells to help people to remember.
      If you have time, have a look to
      Best regards,

      1. Merci beaucoup, Diane! I think Liam already said this but our olfactory sense is the strongest sense that never wears away with age as do sight and hearing. You definitely play a role in a fascinating world.

  2. Hello, my Uncle who was an, ad illustrator as a life career, recently passed away at 94. In this pile of hundreds of ads he did over the years I found one for Arpege. It was such a unique ad compared to everything else ever did. That I framed it. I’ve been looking for a bottle like it but have had no luck. I’m also wondering about what year he did this, I’m thinking the 60’s, or late 50’s. If interested I will gladly send you a picture of it?

      1. Il loved your Arpège Lanvin picture – is it possible to use it in a French book to be published shortly, with your copyright. Thank you for your answer

  3. My grandmother wore Arpege too, that and Joy. I loved seeing my mom’s Rive Gauche bottle with its elegant black and blue stripes. I recently bought myself a bottle of Guerlain’s Samsara…the body lotion. I wish I could buy the parfum but alas it is too expensive. As a child I wore Amazon by Hermes, my sister wore Halston…she was way cooler. Love your post.

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