For me, Billie Holiday’s voice, her recordings, are going to be a zillion times more beautiful, moving and interesting than any perfume in a bottle. True, there are perfumes that surpass the human singing voice in beauty (when the voice in question is Jessica Simpson’s, Taylor Swift’s, or Justin What’s-His-Name’s), but a vocal genius like Holiday can achieve heights of passion no perfume can match. (Perfume has never made me cry.) I didn't expect the Holiday-inspired fragrance by Serge Lutens, Une Voix Noire (a black voice), to have the impact of the iconic singer.
Who knows what Holiday smelled like? I can only imagine the scents of cigarette smoke, booze, sweat, make-up and perfume that surrounded her in the warm, crowded nightclubs where she often sang. Surely there were flowers in her dressing rooms as well as pinned to her hair. She owned a beloved dog, Mister, who would accompany her to gigs. Not many of these elements, as I imagine them, infuse Une Voix Noire. One can respect that Lutens and his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake avoided the obvious (well, the dog’s not “obvious”…why didn’t they put a little “Mister” in the bottle?) but what they’ve come up with could have been used to represent any number of women in modern times: singers, accountants, even teenage cheerleaders in Dubuque.
Une Voix Noire goes on smelling like a strange fruity-floral. The opening presents an engineered “flower” (a neon bright, plastic-petalled creation) that smells like a mix of candy, aerosol (retro hairspray perhaps) and faux-smelling jasmine. (If you are expecting “gardenia” in Une Voix Noire, you’re out of luck; go to a florist.) As this high-pitched opening mercifully begins to fragment a little, I smell whiffs of cigarette smoke and strawberry musk (one friend said Une Voix Noire smells like the Strawberry Shortcake Shampoo she used as child).
After the smoke (that momentarily masks the too-bright, too-sweet fruit and flowers), Une Voix Noire begins to smell like a beauty parlor, with its combined scents of chemicals, shampoo/soap, blow dryers and hot (almost scorched) hair. There is a roundness to Une Voix Noire’s overall scent; it has no sharp edges or jolting pulsations; it’s a weird ‘balloon’ of enduring aromas — the majority of which I can’t stand.
When Une Voix Noir is smelled up close during the dry down, I detect notes that remind me of salty caramel/immortelle, benzoin and warm honey, but these play second fiddle to the opening fruity-floral accord that never fully disappears. Une Voix Noire is a subtly brash feminine perfume, more Gaga than Holiday. This perfume does not bring to mind ‘a black voice’ as much as it does a 1970’s nylon Afro wig — purple, ill-fitting and a little bit tacky.
A 75 ml bell jar of Une Voix Noire is available for purchase in Europe (online and at the Lutens Palais Royale shop) for €130 ($168 US); you can also buy it in the U.S. (same juice, same size) at the Serge Lutens U.S. online boutique for $300.
Note: top left image and top right image of Billie Holiday and her dog Mister were taken by William P. Gottlieb in 1947; these photos are used courtesy of the Library of Congress archives.