Profiles: François Coty & Lucien Lelong

François Coty. Photo: Wikipedia

Fascism is the common thread that ties two important early 20th century figures: the perfumer François Coty and the haute couturier Lucien Lelong who, as fragrance director, made a number of excellent fragrances with the legendary nose Jean Carles. The critical point, however, is how each man responded to fascism.

The biography of one of the great noses of the time, Coty, is typically white-washed of his extreme white supremacy ideological beliefs, his raging antisemitism, and his support for fascists like Mussolini. That gap in his coverage is something I mean to fix today.

I also want to talk to you about one of my 20th century fragrance heroes, Lucien Lelong, who has been relegated to the deepest shadows of time despite having saved both Jews and the French fashion industry from the Nazis during the latter’s occupation of Paris in WW2. To put another way, he was the Oskar Schindler of Parisian haute couture. Plus, he had an intriguing personal life, like marrying a Romanov princess whilst secretly being gay.

Lucien Lelong, circa 1932. Source: Pinterest.

FRANÇOIS COTY:

While François Coty is generally well-known in terms of his perfumes, the dark side of his personal life is either ignored, unknown, or glossed over. In fact, It wasn’t until a long, long time after I first explored vintage Coty fragrances — starting with my favourite, L’Origan, a template for Guerlain‘s subsequent L’Heure Bleue — that I learnt about the other side to François Coty. He had a few great achievements outside of perfumery, yes, like the fact that he started as a salesman but ended up as France’s first billionaire (in monetary terms back then), almost ninety years ago.

But the dark side is, well, it’s pretty vile, as you will soon see. I was truly shocked. I’ve long known and fumed about Coco Chanel, but François Coty?! The few articles I’d read about his life as a perfumer had left me with the impression of a sweet, cuddly, but perfectionistic, genius teddy bear.

So I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that my jaw dropped to read that he was a raging lothario who was wretched to women and who, more importantly, wrote vicious screeds against Jews in his pro-Nazi newspapers, advocated for the overthrow of the democratic French republic, and even declared himself the French Mussolini.

But it was true, alas.

In case any of the rest of you are in the same position as I was, I thought I’d share a brief summary of Coty’s pro-Nazi ideology and actions which I wrote on Twitter in 2019:

As a side note, I plan to post Twitter reviews in the upcoming days for two vintage Coty fragrances: Émeraude and the lovely lilac, mixed floral, vintage Paris. They’re both lovely, as is Coty’s vintage Muguet des Bois, but my great enjoyment of the fragrances always carries a footnote in my mind due to what I’ve learned about Coty. And, thanks to his great wealth at the time, his celebrity, and his media ownership, the resulting impact of his Nazi support was not inconsequential.

LUCIEN LELONG:

Lucien Lelong is little known nowadays, so it’s not surprising that his incredible life is never discussed but he was an absolute rockstar in his time with a life that was just as flamboyant, messy, and also somewhat sad.

Not as sad, however, as that of the Romanov princess he married, Princess Natalia Paley. My god, her life was really quite tragic, starting with a childhood rape during the Russian Revolution to being so traumatized that she later engaged in the safety of purely platonic relationships with famous gay men, one of whom was Noel Coward’s ex.

Princess Natalia Paley.

Princess Natalia Paley

All that, plus Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy as Lelong’s apprentices (that’s how significant and major Lucien Lelong was!) and other issues are covered in the detailed thread below.

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