Houbigant Apercu


I spend, on average, 30 hours a week doing glorified secretarial and bookkeeping work for our family company. It is boring. I am not In Touch With My Inner Genius doing my job (that’s what the blog is for!) The best things about my job are: 1) no commute in this absurd D.C. traffic, which would probably leave me dead from sheer misery behind the wheel of my minivan; and 2) it allows me to avoid getting a real job, leaving me more time for things like reading books, museum-going, sniffing decants, and playing with my kids. But until a few years ago I had a series of real jobs, and I understand that, no matter how much you love them, they are at their base a way to make money to survive. I have nothing but respect for workers toiling all day to survive, from sweeping the floor at McDonald’s on up.

Having said that, what is the problem with the Department Store Fragrance Counter Ladies? I have never done it, and maybe it just sucks. I am assuming their insane aggression is because they are commission-based, but what do I know? Maybe department stores only hire crazy people to work in the fragrance department. Maybe spraying people all day with Calvin Klein Euphoria makes you crazy. But it drives me crazy to be accosted so relentlessly by SAs who know nothing —nothing — about the product they’re selling, and don’t seem to care. It’s like … going to the wine store for a recommendation and being waited on by someone who only drinks tea. Three different SAs in three different stores last week were insisting I try the “new” Christian Dior — Miss Dior Cherie — which was released a year ago and thus isn’t really new anymore, is it? I mean, it’s new compared to, say, the original Miss Dior. Or Poison. Is Christian Dior offering some huge sales incentive? A couple of months ago they were flogging Boucheron Trouble. No wonder so many women — and men — avoid buying fragrance like the plague. It’s not the fragrance that gives you the headache. It’s the process.

Why can’t I buy Houbigant Apercu at the department store? I was lucky enough to have a sample fall into my hands recently (thanks, Pam) and I am still playing with it, like a wonderful new toy. My only regret is that it’s been around since 1925 (although re-released, based on the “lost” original formula, in 2000) and I’m just discovering it. Notes are: Bergamot, Neroli, Jasmine, Tuberose, Lemon, Green Leaf, Bois De Rose, Geranium, Cinnamon Bark Oil, Ylang-ylang, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Oakmoss, Patchouli, Clove, Cassis.

Apercu is everything a fragrance should be, and nothing that it shouldn’t. It is vaguely reminiscent of Guerlain Mitsouko in its ebullient complexity, but it isn’t anywhere near as strange. If you have been trying, and failing, to work up much enthusiasm for Mitsouko, but you think you might like the genre, give this a go. Of course, you’ll have to find it online, because at your local store all they’ll have is Calvin Klein, Trouble and Miss Dior Cherie (they are sold out of Estee Lauder Azuree. Don’t even ask.)

Apercu is a fragrance for a woman, not a little girl. It is a scent that demands that you rise up to it, embrace it, adore it. There is nothing tentative about it, and yet it is absent any French-farce blasts of cumin or camphor, or trendy marine accents, or anything that would detract from its luminous, transcendent beauty. It is perfection, and it knows it. It changes shape, constantly, to enthrall you. It has the velvet skin of Apres L’Ondee, the ripeness of Guerlain, the assertiveness of Patou… then back to the delicate whisper of the velvet skin, stroking you. Are you listening? Do you speak its language? It says, I am beautiful, I am beautiful, over and over. P, have you tried this? Cait, my lovely Nez, this would suit you right down to the ground.

Why is every woman on earth not wearing this fragrance instead of Calvin Klein Euphoria? More to the point, why are so many of the classics I love so out of style? My father assures me that I can feel nostalgia for a time and place that I have not actually lived through. I want to walk the streets of Paris and New York in the 1920s. I want to sit next to Dorothy Parker, who apparently wafted such a sillage of Coty Chypre that the smell lingered for hours after she’d left. What an era — an era of Dangerous Perfumes. Did the women who wore Chypre choose it as a rebellion against their mothers’ delicate Victorian lavender waters? Did they think it was sexy? Did the men think it was sexy, if they thought of it at all? When the first woman bought the first bottle of Mitsouko, what was she thinking? Did she buy it because it was different and strange and new? Or because she thought she couldn’t live for another minute without it?

I want to smell the original Cotys, all the ones long gone. I want to smell the old Diors, and the non-reformulated and discontinued Guerlains. I don’t want to smell the vintage bottles; I want to time-travel back and smell them new. I am aching, aching to travel to those eras when women wore in-your-face fragrances like Ma Griffe, My Sin, Djedi, Vent Vert, Bandit, Jolie Madame… I want to smell them all, and then sit in a corner of a quiet cafe in the 6th arrondissement in Paris, over a coffee, contemplating their strange, powerful beauty.

Yes, there are wonderful scents today, and I love them, but they are not of that time and place. Fragrances are so much a reflection of their era; think of assertive Charlie, which smells like 1970s Sisters-Doing-It-For-Themselves empowerment. Perhaps we can’t go back. We can only go forward. But when I survey the vast sea of new releases that the average woman is going to run across, because she’s not going to look a lot further than the local Dillards, I want to weep.

Here’s a link to Now Smell This for another review of Apercu. (Robin, if you read this — I came up with the Mitsouko association before finding your review!)

image of Cafe de Flore: www.nottingham.ac.uk

  • Sands says:

    Just wanted to say belatedly that I adorrrrre this post. Very to the point…perfume is an addiction of sorts for me and a medicine, pleasure…I think part of it nears trying to understand the meaning of life, seen from many different perspectives at the same time. Thank you so much for giving us this food for thought.

  • Beba says:

    Dear March, I didn’t answer yesterday because I was having an outpatient procedure, came back home and still dizzy, slept the next 16 hours.
    I remember my first time with Ma Griffe: It was something close to loosing your virginity, it was on December 31, 1953 going to a New Year’s Eve Party and I felt like the most gorgeous girl in the world. Ma Griffe makes you feel (I had to stop to find the right word) RAVISHING, very WOMAN, not just femenine.
    I own a 1/2 oz parfum bottle that was given to me around 1987 here in Miami, at that time it was hard to get. It is 3/4 full and I keep it only for out of this world ocassions.

  • BBliss says:

    Thanks Mimi – I almost fell for the bottle, too. Thanks for the save!

  • Just wanted to say that Minette’s theory is beautiful and makes sense to me.

    Regarding Demi Jour, I fell for the bottle, bought unsniffed, thought it was a winner – it smelled so exquisite – then…headaches, chills even. I had to trash the bottle.

  • BBliss says:

    Ohh, also wanted to say, I haven’t tried this, but will put it on the endless list. Been curious about another Houbigant, too called Demi Jour – ever tried this one?

  • BBliss says:

    Lovely article and the comments bring an amazing dimension – spanning a lot of ages and experiences! I use my perfume for transporting myself…to another time (in my own life), place, mood. Actually same way I use books – to suit a mood or bring one on, or to just escape! But your post made me really think about what it might really smell like – probably sharper all around good and bad, less camouflaged…I’ll keep thinking about this one for awhile.

    And good grief, you *are* doing a real job if you’re working 30 hours, raising kids, *and* doing this on the side – I need whatever you take for a little more pep!\:d/

  • March says:

    annE– you’re right, 60 is the new 40. Some of the most youthful ladies I know are approaching the big 6. They amaze me — they are at such good places in their lives, and they laugh so much.

    Vi — escape the humidity? What is not to love about a day that is like a hot, wet towel, beating you over and over again in the face?:-j

    I have all sorts of product I use to subdue my hair. My skin, however, is grateful for this climate. When we lived in NM I was constantly slathering myself with ultra-moisturizers.

  • March says:

    Beba — I had to re-read your post three times, just because the emotions I felt running through it for me were so strong. I am trying, so hard, to picture what it would be like to have smelled those fragrances firsthand… incredible.

    Okay, I just went back and read it again. Go ahead, laugh at me. Balmain … Havana … Rochas … it’s like the most beautiful erotica to me! I am wondering: how did Ma Griffe make you feel? I mean, to you, was/is it more about power? Raw emotion? Allure? I can never decide. Of course, what I have smelled doesn’t approach the original.

  • March says:

    Minette — that is a great theory. If you are not letting all your, uh, wares :-” hang out, how do you advertise your allure? And now, the reverse is the trend in fragrance. Certainly at their base, many of the classics are frankly sexual. In fact, now that I think on it, one of the things I find so alluring ABOUT them is that they can be worn most beautifully with something vintage. I love vintage clothing, it’s wonderful to wear something that is cut in a way that provokes rather than reveals.

  • March says:

    Amy — yes, to time travel to different eras and smell the most daring scents — particularly the early 1900s. I would love to smell the earliest formulations of Jicky.

    Chaya — yes, less moody is a perfect way to describe Apercu. Certainly it has turned out to be less moody on me, as well. I find the drydown after several hours to be particularly delicious. Now you are another one arguing for the artistic nature of these fragrances … hey. Wait a minute. You have … Coty Chypre? 😮 What … what does it SMELL like?!?!? I have all sorts of wild ideas in my head.

  • violetnoir says:

    March, I would love to go sniffing…I would love even more to meet you. I was born and raised in DC, but have not lived there on a full-time basis since I graduated from high school! 😉 Yep, the heat and humidity finally got to my brain and I had to get out of Dodge.

    I have lived in LA for many years. One of the reasons I moved out here (well not one of the reasons, but certainly a great benefit) was to escape the oppressive humidity of the East Coast.

    Well, guess what? The humidity found me! Yep, this is the worst summer in LA since 1880-something, replete with monsoonal moisture coming in from NW Mexico. My hair is maintaining, but if this humidity-thing keeps up, it’s just a matter of time before it turns to frizz, just like it did “back in the day.”

    The next time I am in DC to visit my mom, I will give you a holler.


  • annE says:

    March, I do hope a CVS fate does not await Mitsouko and Shalimar! But I also remember buying Chanel No 5 for my mother in Walgreen’s when I was a kid, and that seemed to have successfully re-invented itself and survived. Who knows?

    btw, isn’t 60 the new 40? 🙂

  • Beba says:

    There was a line missing from my comment it should have been: “I come from a four generation family of Guerlain’s addicts and that I remember my young aunts”

  • Beba says:

    Yes March, I was there because I am 73. I was there when Pierre Balmain opened his Boutique in Fin de Siglo Department Store in Havana (must have been around 1953 when I was a sophomore) and we discovered Jolie Madame and yes, I adored Femme, La Rose and Mousseline all from M. Rochas. My favorite was Carven’s Ma Griffe, eventhough I come from a four generation young aunts smelling so richly of Fleur de Feu and Ode, but I don’t remember Candid Effluve that my grandmother Lela missed the rest of her life.

  • Lisa S says:

    70’s perfumes – I call them the “John T Molloy” fragrances. Dress for success and take no prisoners while doing so. Oh how I miss Max Factor’s Geminesse. That was a strong statement of utter independence. None of the spike-heeled shoulder-padded primary-colored tight-skirted 80’s sham strength about it. This was uniform pumps, a modest suit, and a nuclear reactors worth of real power underneath it all…and no need to be a Giorgio neutron bomb.

  • March says:

    Gail — thank you very much.:”> Wow, your emoticon is really cool — it registers as three-dimensional to me. Please let me know when the time machine is ready.

    Teri — well, there you go. Now I feel even worse — “Sell 50 bottles of Dior Cherie or you’re FIRED!” What a ridiculous way to sell fragrance. PS Good work with your daughter-in-law. I am hoping she will find something that is “her” and not a million other people.

  • March says:

    Robin — I will be at Tysons tomorrow, I am going to bother the minions of Satan at NM and see if they will produce a bottle … and then it’s time for another scent bender at Art With Flowers!

    Mimi — oh!!! Surrounded by women wearing Shalimar and Mitsouko! I’m sorry, my mind can’t even grasp it. I think you would very much like Apercu.

  • March says:

    Patch — you can sneak up and spray all sorts of things on errant husbands. Your aunt sounds wonderful — I didn’t have anyone like that in my life, and I would have loved it.

    Angela — I think this one sounds like the sort of thing you will love, then. I am sniffing it right now on my wrist and smiling.

  • March says:

    P — Nah, 50’s the new 40. Hope you are holding up okay this week.

    Vi Noir — Let me know if you ever want to go sniffing. At least it’s not so 9th-circle-of-hell today… what, only 89?

  • March says:

    Ina — oh, what a scent bender that would be! I would be in heaven, heaven, heaven.

    Marina — you are worrying about 30?!?! Hon, you are barely out of diapers. IMO each year has actually gotten better, as I sort of figure out the world and my space in it.:)>-

  • March says:

    Patty — can you imagine smelling those stunning fragrances on the women around you? Maybe sitting in some cafe — what were those funny places called… lunch-o-mats? Oh, for those days….

    annE — REALLY?!?? I had no idea about Apercu, but of course it makes sense. That’s the direction Mitsouko and Shalimar are already headed — the bottom shelf of CVS. Maybe this one’s been “out” so long it will come back in…

  • March says:

    Sariah — I keep meaning to rent that movie. I think Jicky would be an excellent choice. PS See you tomorrow night!

    Dusan — I missed you! Welcome back! Glad you are enjoying the Guerlains.

  • VeronicaV says:

    March, I can get you Apercu if you want. It should be available 02Aug in EDP, 1.67 and the 3.3 oz sizes. You know, aren’t folks looking for Fath de Fath too? I’m still an Ebay virgin, but on a site I go to, the mini’s and lotion should be available at the end of this month. Chaos is available too, but only in lotion. Anyhow, just let me know.

    Me, I’m just venturing out after reading various blogs. I just got samples of Andy Tauer (orris is on the way too), OJ, and the 100% Love. So far, nothing is completely blowing me away and I’m bummed. One of the Taurer’s is a possibility. Need to get that western one sample too. From the site I mentioned, silly me……last night I ordred Eau de Merveilles, Aimez Moi, and Chevrefeuille…….unsniffed. I know, I know. It’s insane. I’m a fiend right now! I’m always so rushed for time that I haven’t figured out how to order from Patty’s Fripperies. That’s next on my list. Hey Patty! One order coming your way!

    But anyhow, I’m hoping I don’t have crazy chemistry. I was truly surprised on how Ta’if and Ormonde Woman smelled on me. You know what I’m liking? Coriandre. Well, enough yakking. If you want some Apercu, let me know. Think I’m going to buy it….unsniffed and I will gladly send some your way. Gosh, I didn’t even like the Seve Exquisse (sp) Miss Patty was so nice to send me.

    Verbose Veronica

  • March says:

    Elle — that is an interesting observation. I agree with you that they could be sold at MOMA — they are, after all, works of art.

    Pam — I have you to thank for this. I am re-wearing it today, even in this crazy heat, just a dab of it. I love the way it shape-shifts all the time. I expect I’ll have to get a full bottle at some point.

  • minette says:

    Here’s my theory… I believe women wore those devastatingly sexy scents when sex was less in your face and much more mysterious (and dare I say, interesting). Their look and demeanor said classy lady, their scent said oh, yes, and I’m incredibly sexy, too.

    Nowadays, sex is so out there, the scents are designed to give the opposite message. They give off sweet, innocent, naive, even childlike vibes in attempt to temper the visual sexual message: Yes, I may look and dance like a slut, but my scent promises that there’s still a little girl under here.

    I know many of us still dress and act like the women of years gone by – with class – and maybe that’s why we appreciate those full-on, animalic, mysterious and sexy scents.

    I ran the short version of this theory by Jean-Michel Duriez when I got to talk with him – and he agreed. Not that that matters, but it was nice to hear a Nose agree with a theory of mine!

  • chaya ruchama says:

    Dear March-
    Weep no more- call the C.O.Bigelow in Copley Place, Boston-they stock Apercu.I’ve been looking for the # for you, but can’t readily locate it…

    I can see why some might prefer Apercu to Mitsouko- it’s easier to wear,maybe a little less moody, but has the plush warmth, spice, and woods.Oriental-floral-woody-spicy-chypre.

    I fully understand your longings. Except for Djedi,I have all of the vintage fragrances to which you refer,and I cherish them.

    I WANT to be that woman- and perhaps, you and I , and many others, ARE that woman- possessed of lively curiosity,exuberant sensuality, intelligence, fearlessness, brimming with vitality, and not afraid of mystery…
    We want perfume with curves and breasts and hips, perfumes who stride confidently ,and those which float languidly, fragrances for women who LIVE! No namby-pamby smell-alikes with tony names and trendy notes.

    Like any work of art, good design is eternal and doesn’t date itself, and it never bores…
    Be it architecture, music, writing, perfumery,sculpture, furniture, et al.

    How beautifully you write! Thank you for your candor, as always.

  • Amy K. says:

    “My father assures me that I can feel nostalgia for a time and place that I have not actually lived through.”

    Your father sounds wise. I would love to be on the Time Travel Perfume Bus with everyone here, checking out fragrances in the early 1900s and even earlier, before mass-produced Guerlains and Cotys and the rest.

  • Teri says:

    “When the first woman bought the first bottle of Mitsouko, what was she thinking? Did she buy it because it was different and strange and new? Or because she thought she couldn’t live for another minute without it?”

    This is precisely why every woman should buy a fragrance. I’m in the process of trying to educate my new daughter-in-law regarding that very thing. Perhaps the aroma-du-jour at the fragrance counter may be just right for you, but more than likely it will not. And how tedious to smell exactly like 80% of the population on any given day! All the ‘spritz girls’ at the local department stores avoid me now….I’m the one who brandishes the large cross and waves the string of garlic at them when they attempt to approach me. Spritzers, begone!

    Sadly, fragrance counter ladies receive little or no fragrance education. They get marketing information on the ‘hot’ products and that is pretty much the extent of it. Some are paid on commission, but many are not. Most are given quotas (in dollars) of what they must sell per week in order to retain their jobs. Hence both the high turnover rate and the aggressive behavior. (A big thank you to Irena, my elegant Croatian friend, who works seasonally at one of our local stores for this information)

  • gail says:

    I adore your writing. I think you and Dorothy Parker would have had a delightful and cackling time together sillage wafting toward the other round table members.

    I’m working on ironing out some gitches in my time machine. I’ll let you all know when it’s done.

  • Well, I do remember an era in Paris when many women were wearing Mitsouko and Shalimar. Do they still make the 8 oz bottles? I loved them!

    Sadly, I’ve learned that they recently closed down the Guerlain store near the Bon Marché. This is the place where I used to shop for my Guerlains.

    I will put Aperçu on my list as well.

  • Robin says:

    Hey, you can buy Apercu in a department store: Neiman Marcus. And I know they still have it as I saw it there last week. It is lovely stuff!

  • AngelaS says:

    Apercu goes right on the list. I’m a sucker for an old scent–I love the packaging, the ads, and the sometimes “hold no prisoners” presence of the fragrance itself. Sometimes I think I was born 50 years to late….

  • patchamour says:

    Great review, March. Sign me up for that time travel! “The first woman to wear Mitsouko” — just by saying that you put such a great picture in our heads. I see my aunt, who lived to be almost 90 and was vigorous, fun-loving, fearless, adventurous, generous — though childless, she took care of her large extended family — and utterly sui generis. I can still hear her laughter. She wore Shalimar when all the women around her were wearing pale florals. If she’d ever had access to Mitsouko, I bet she would have loved it. Patty, I’m loving the samples from Fragrant Fripperies. L’Air du Desert Morocain is brilliant! Everything I like is in there — I think I detect the faintest trace of anise. It’s beautifully dry but not too dry. If I can bring myself to share, Mr. Patch, hunched unsuspectingly over his computer, may find himself getting anointed!

  • violetnoir says:

    And I hope to be sitting in that cafe with you, my DC sister. 😡

    Beautifully written post, as always, darling!


  • Patty says:

    Marina, you are a child. 🙂 30s are nothing, 40s are nothing. Wait until you are on the downside of sliding to 50. Then you may cry. 🙂

  • Marina says:

    Great post! …everything a fragrance should be and nothing it shouldn’t…I love that. Must try Apercu.
    However, further you say that: “Apercu is a fragrance for a woman, not a little girl.” In view of the impending 30s, in less than a month, I feel tempted not to wear or sniff anything mature or womanly. I am considering buying Baby Doll…Or Curious. *cries*

  • Ina says:

    Bravo, March! I loved reading this! Can’t remember if I smelled Apercu but must do so soon. Take me with you to the 20s!! I so want to go.

  • annE says:

    March – I, for one, am glad that you don’t have a “real” job, since not having one gives you the opportunity to share such wonderful stuff with us!
    I agree with you completely about most department store “perfume ladies.” It’s a travesty. I think it’s all about money, of course, but I won’t go into my usual rant. There are, of course, some SA’s who know and love what they sell, but they’re awfully rare.
    I would love to time-travel with you – what a great fantasy! As for Aperçu, however, getting women like me (of a certain age) to change their conception of a fragrance that they used to see all the time on the bottom shelf at Walgreen’s is going to be a tough one. :-\

  • Patty says:

    Beautiful post. I do wonder what it would have been like to walk around the streets not smelling a sea of Angel on women, but instead a sea of Mitsouko and Djedi.

  • Dusan says:

    Such a beautiful post, March! Really, who was the first woman to buy Mitsouko? You know, you’ve revealed to me an entirely new dimension of beauty by including M and Parure in your care pkg. And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for introducing me to the wonders that they are. Sadly, but true, they do belong to a bygone era I would very much like to have been a part of.
    Patty, I got what Treasure you sent me, but I’ve been down a bit lately which is why I still haven’t replied and I haven’t finished preparing The BTS either. Forgive us, pls! Hugs

  • Sariah says:

    What a lovely post. I have always had a hankering to time travel, my first choice would be to Vienne to hear Beethoven play the moonlight sonata or conduct a symphony. And find out who his Immortal Beloved really is (I would take some Jicky for her)…. very off topic but this is an awesome movie, any music lovers out there you should definitely see it.

  • Pam says:

    March, this is so beautifully written. Houbigant should hire you for its PR. Was going to wear something else today, but after reading your post, it’ll be Apercu, instead.

    I know. I know. Trying to talk shop with SAs is like trying to talk quadratic equations with a pre-schooler. Once I was at a Guerlain counter (Dillard’s in Baton Rouge) and was bemoaning some of the threatened formula changes. When I mentioned oakmoss, birch tar and coumarin, the SA just looked at me like I had spinach hanging off my nose. I have yet to run across an SA who knew squat about what she sells. And I’m with you 100% on smelling all the old Cotys. . . and all the old Lanvins. . and so on.

    Beautiful post, March.@};-

  • Elle says:

    You now have me obsessed w/ wondering who the very first woman really was who bought Mitsouko – obviously someone w/ great style and intelligence. Apercu is absolutely divine. I actually think a lot of vintage scents smell remarkably modern – not modern in the sense of what is on the market today, but just smart, sophisticated, urban (*not* suburban) and very interesting. I could see them being sold in MOMA.