When couturier Jean Patou arrived on the Paris scene, in the 1920s, the world was changing – especially for women. No longer corseted, bound by convention or whalebone ‘stays’, there was a spirit of freedom in the air – and Patou captured it.
After going to work for an uncle in the fur trade, Jean Patou launched his own venture as a dressmaker and furrier, moving into tailoring. And in 1914, just before the war broke out, he established his own couture house. Sadly, his first collection had to be mothballed: Jean Patou left Paris to serve as a captain in the French Zouave regiment, fighting as far afield as Anatolia. But in 1919, Patou returned to Paris – and did indeed launch a collection, including long-waisted shepherdess dresses. He became famous for his knitwear (including the first knitted swimsuit), and for ‘sportif chic‘: clothes designed to move, to flutter, to flirt gorgeously – and to show off brazenly bare legs, in short hemlines.
These were clothes ‘for women on the move’, as Vogue put it. And his most famous muse definitely knew how to move: Suzanne Lenglen, the so-fashionable French tennis star, caused a stir at Wimbledon as she sprinted round the court in 1921, wearing Jean Patou‘s long white sleeveless cardigan and a floaty, white pleated skirt. Radical and ground-breaking, his designs actually contributed to the emancipation of women. And by putting his initials visibly on designs – ‘JP‘ – he was the first to incite logo mania. But his real signature…? Innovation.
In 1922 – a slight career sidetrack, perhaps – the entrepreneurial Jean Patou also opened a nightclub, with fellow designer Edward Molyneux: ‘Le Jardin de Ma Soeur’. The highly social writer Anita Loos called it ‘the most elegant place in which to greet the Paris dawn…’ He went on to create costumes and gowns for nightclub stars like Josephine Baker and Mistinguett. And through all this, in his time, Jean Patou was as famous – and as his designs as sought-after – as Chanel.
From 1925, Jean Patou was also creating the most desirable of perfumes. His debut perfumes were designed to complement women with a particular hair colour: Que Sais-Je? (for brunettes), Amour Amour (for blondes) and Adieu Sagesse (for redheads). In 1927, Jean Patou also delighted women with the introduction of Huile de Chaldée, the world’s first suntan oil.
But it was in 1929, when the stock market crash bankrupted many clients, that Jean Patou launched the legendary perfume Joy, created by Henri Alméras to chase the Depression blues away. Patou’s vision: to create something very strong, yet simple, no matter what the cost – and Joy became known as ‘the costliest perfume in the world.’ Even today, Joy remains the ultimate symbol of quality and prestige: for just a single ounce of this legendary, opulent floral perfume, 10,600 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen May roses must be picked.
A new, fascinating era in Jean Patou‘s history began with the arrival of perfumer Jean Kerléo (who now heads France’s Osmothèque Museum). It took 10 years and literally 1,000 attempts to achieve the perfect formula for his debut fragrance, which accordingly became known as ‘1000’ (pronounced ‘Mille’, from the French): a symphony of precious essences. It opens with whispers of lush apricot, alongside Chinese osmanthus, and with a powdery heart that swells, sensuously, with violet and rose, before warm accords of Mysore sandalwood and patchouli drift in. Then came the equally rich Sublime, a vibrant cocktail of orange and mandarin, florabundant with lily of the valley, rose, jasmine, woods and vanilla pulsing in the base.
But now, there is a new in-house ‘nose’, Thomas Fontaine (right), who is skilfully revisiting some of Jean Patou‘s most famous and historic fragrances, in the Jean Patou Collection Héritage. (And there’s a nice twist to this story, a sense of coming home – because when Thomas Fontaine studied at the ISIPCA Fragrance Academy in Versailles, it was under the patronage of Jean Patou.) Chaldée, for instance: a revisit to that famous suntan oil: an Oriental, flowery, spicy scent which evokes the opulence of La Belle Époque, and such an important time of change and new-found freedom, for women.
Alongside Chaldée, you can also discover Patou Pour Homme, and Eau de Patou, a glorious eau fraîche. ‘Green and fresh, with a clean aldehydic feeling,’ says Fontaine. ‘Lemons and petitgrains, very fresh but not aggressive. Citruses are evergreen in modern perfumery – they are the origin of perfumery, in fact. And it was chosen from Jean Patou‘s heritage as something we could offer to men and women alike.’
He’s truly made his mark, too, with the launch of Joy Forever: a new spin on that so-iconic fragrance, for the 21st Century. (Though don’t fret: the original Joy endures!) With touches of orange blossom, iris and galbanum, the rose de Mai and Grasse jasmine heart – so famous, in Joy – remains in Joy Forever, but here it’s underpinned by woods and musks. A new classic, we’re predicting. (And something to attract a whole new generation of Jean Patou-lovers…)
My role within the company is pretty simple: to create fragrances!’, commented Fontaine, at the time of his appointment. ‘It’s about reinstating the original spirit of this wonderful brand, reinforcing its position as one of the world’s leading luxury fragrance houses…’ And should find yourself at 9 Rue Saint-Florentin in Paris, today – the beautiful new(ish) Jean Patou flagship store in the 1st arrondissement – there’s a true sense of how this legendary perfume name is indeed being restored to its rightful place in the fragrance universe.
And about time, too.
PS Wonderful website, tons of fascinating history. Do visit – and don’t miss the ‘Heritage Gallery’)