I’ve always prided myself on not being influenced by commercials. As a girl, I made many of my own clothes, summer dresses and skirts especially, and would tweak the model, so it would be slightly different from the pictures in fashion magazines. Whenever a sales assistant tells me that a pair of shoes, a perfume or a coat I’m interested in is “very popular” and that “many people buy it”, I look for something else. I mean: why would you want to blend into a crowd? Also, I never wear anything with an visible designer logo on it – why would you actually pay for an item of clothing, then advertise someone else’s business for free?
Having said all that, there was one time, back in the mid-late Eighties, when I was not only influenced by an ad, I became almost obsessed with it. I was in my early twenties. It was the music. A flute solo, a simple, gentle, wistful melody. I remember the music caught my attention and I immediately focussed on the television screen. A very pretty young woman, French, with a beret and a long coat. She leaves a film set and as she walks away, she removes her beret and reveals a short, glossy bob. Meanwhile, there are voices asking if anybody’s seen LouLou. The next shot is of the young woman sitting at a dressing table. She has pale-coloured eyes, and the heart-shaped face I always imagined typical of a Frenchwoman. “LouLou?” a male voice asks.
“Oui? C’est moi,” she replies, delicate, yet uncompromisingly confident.
Then the camera zooms in on a blue and red bottle of perfume. “LouLou, le nouveau parfum de Cacharel,” the male voice-over says.
I began watching commercials in the hope of catching this one. I couldn’t get enough of it. I had my hair cut in a short bob, except that my hair, although a dark brown with reddish tones – but naturally wavy – didn’t follow the fluid motions LouLou’s straight and possibly conditioned hair did (I’ve never used conditioner: it’s always made my hair feel too soft, like cat fur). I did have and wear French berets, but my figure, although slim in those days, was a pronounced hourglass with broad shoulders and wide hips so, much to my sadness, long, straight-cut coats didn’t hang on me with the casual grace they did on LouLou’s waif-like, appealingly androgynous haricot frame. Above all, though I wasn’t able to admit it to myself, deep down I knew I didn’t have the self-confidence that flashed in LouLou’s eyes as she said, “Oui? C’est moi.”
I saved up and went to La Rinascente department store to buy myself a bottle of LouLou. I planned my shopping trip with excitement as I kept playing and replaying the music from the commercial in my head. At the Cacharel perfume counter, the sales assistant placed the small bottle on the glass surface. I felt a twinge of disappointment. I’d been so carried away by LouLou’s assured grace and the haunting music that I hadn’t really taken in the picture of the actual perfume and here it was, a bright, cyan blue base with a kind of barn-red top. I’d somehow visualised something delicate and made of crystal. Then came the perfume on the inside of the wrist test. I cannot remember its scent, only that I jerked my head back, overpowered by its boldness. Perhaps it was too self-assured for me. I thanked the sales assistant and left La Rinascente downhearted, my dream of gliding down the streets of Rome, hearing a man’s voice calling “Katia!” down Via del Corso and turning towards him, my bob swept off my face by the wind, replying, “Sì? Sono io,” had been shattered. Perhaps I didn’t know who I was yet.
For several years, I continued to use my mother’s favourite eau de toilette, Cabochard by Grès; its gentleness with a soupçon of bitterness was not only pleasing, but – given how difficult it was to find in the shops – pretty unique. Eventually, I discovered other perfumes I liked. Still, even after I stopped wearing my hair in a short bob and gave up on straight-cut clothes, I could still occasionally hear in my head the music from the commercial. Gentle, understated, simple, but with layers of colourful undertones: indigo blue, forest green, moonlight silver and flecks of burnished gold. I realised that it was that, more than the image of a waif-like Frenchwoman, that had made me dream. I asked friends if they knew what this piece of music was called. No one did. How do you find out the title and composer of a few bars that get under your skin, except by humming them to people in case they might recognise it? That, or else you wait and hope.
There it was, one day, on my beloved BBC Radio3. That unmistakeable solo flute introducing the melody, soon joined by a like-minded oboe, before the rest of the orchestra flows in. I held my breath and waited for the presenter’s voice at the end of the piece: Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane in F-sharp minor, Op. 50. I had been given the title, the key to my dream.
I now have three recordings of Fauré’s Pavane: orchestral, choral, and for solo piano, as originally composed. Each conveys slightly different sounds, emotions and colours. Only last night, while writing this post, I discovered another gem: a piano roll of Fauré himself playing it. It’s much faster than any of the recordings above, and perhaps the brightest and most exquisite. The gold in it gleams, and gives you a little wink.