On a cruise of Goodwill a few weeks ago, I made two scores: Amouage Gold for women in its Cristal bottle (no cap, though), and a bottle of Norell Eau de Cologne, each for $9.99. Sure, I was happy to take home the Amouage, but I was almost more excited to have an old bottle of Norell. For a vintage clothing lover like me, Norell is a holy grail of quality and simple but flattering construction.
I'd smelled Norell Eau de Toilette at the drugstore and been disappointed, but surely an older bottle would be different. This bottle looked so promising: a squared-off pillar with a collar of gold-toned metal, and Norell running down its side in block letters. The juice was a classy pale auburn. Would the fragrance itself hold up?
Norman Norell was born Norman Levinson in Noblesville, Indiana in 1900. Unlike many flash-in-the pan designers, Norell made his name in his youth designing costumes first for silent films, then for movies, then moved on to a career teaching fashion design and selling his work first under the label Traina Norell in the 1950s ("Traina" coming from the name of his business partner, Anthony Traina) then under his own label in the 1960s for a long, solid career.
Although now Norell's name is largely forgotten, back in the day he held his own with Dior and Givenchy. A 1964 article in Time magazine reported, "Outside the trade, not everyone has heard his name. For Norell is concerned with style, not the spotlight, and with grace, not gimmicks." But people with money and taste — especially slightly conservative taste — loved Norell. His clothes skimmed the trends, but relied on keen tailoring and a simple silhouette. Some of his famous clients included Lady Bird Johnson, Jackie Onassis, and Gloria Swanson.
According to Edwin Morris's Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel, when Charles Revson was pondering Revlon's first fragrance, his wife, Lynn, a Norell devotee, convinced him to make it Norell. Norell was released in 1968 with fanfare at Bonwit Teller. It grossed a million dollars its first year, and triple that the next. Morris classifies it as a "grand perfume."1
Josephine Catapano was the nose behind Norell. She also made Guy Laroche Fidji, Shiseido Zen, and rumor has it may have even orchestrated Estée Lauder Youth Dew. Catapano reportedly said Norell was her favorite of all the fragrances she created. Jan Moran in Fabulous Fragrances calls Norell a "floral" and lists its top notes as greens, reseda, and galbanum; its heart as carnation, hyacinth, rose, and jasmine; its base as musk, iris, and sandalwood. Moran lists it in the "high range" price category.2
Norell quickly found a cherished place on many women's dressers. In fact, just as I was drafting the last paragraph, a friend called and asked what I was up to. When I told her I was writing a review of Norell, she said, "Oh! That was my mother's favorite perfume." I asked her what other perfumes her mother had, and she said, "Joy, a really pretty crystal bottle of L'Air du Temps, and all the Chanels, of course. But she liked Norell best."
Oh, how the mighty fall. Revlon sold Norell to Five Star Fragrances in 1999, and Norell was swept off the shelves of Neiman Marcus to end up at the five-and-dime. Its packaging took a turn for the cheap, too, and it lost its gold collar. In 2001, The New York Times ran an article praising Norell's class, touting it as a cult favorite that fancy women slummed to Kmart to buy. The 2001 Bombshell Manual of Style listed Norell as one of its bombshell favorites and described it as "all American, very polished, cool and glamorous but with something a little dangerous simmering underneath."3
I wish I could agree. I'd guess my bottle of Norell dates from the turn of the century. At first sniff, I get a retro, bracing snoot of galbanum and aldehydes with a dash of hyacinth. The fragrance quickly diffuses into a green carnation on a bed of soapy leather. At this stage the fragrance is rich with possibility. It could turn animalic. Or maybe some oak moss and patchouli would kick in and give a green chypre with leather, like Chanel No. 19 without the iris. Or, maybe its floral heart would grow to give it a summery body. I smelled the potential of something truly wonderful.
Instead, within 20 minutes the fragrance flattens into soapy, vaguely rosy hairspray. Within 45 minutes it's gone completely. I tried everything to get to the heart of Norell I knew had to be there: I coated my arm in five sprays, snuck up on the fragrance an hour after applying it, and sprayed it on a sweater. After Norell led me to the edge of something great, all I got was flat, chemical soap then a disappearing act.
In the end, today's Norell is a tease. I have to believe Norell was different in 1970, and I do smell a shadow of its magnificence in my bottle. In the meantime, I'll be scouring the thrift stores, looking for the mythic Norell in another, older bottle.
Note: image via Parfum de Pub.
1. Edwin T. Morris, Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel (Scribners, New York, 1984), pp 220-221.
2. Jan Moran, Fabulous Fragrances: How to Select Your Perfume Wardrobe (Crescent House Publishing, 1994), p 172.
3. Lauren Stover, The Bombshell Manual of Style (Hyperion, New York, 2001), p 57.