“Dear Diary”: my week in perfume

Les Indémodables founder Valerie Pulverail and her partner Remi Pulverail, founder of L’Atelier Francais des Matières with Claire, Daniela and James!

SUNDAY:

Pack up for the return to London. Very hot. Reluctant to leave my tower lilies, now in full bloom in a pair of pots framing the back door. This is their second year, and they’ve put on a massive growth spurt. The taller lily is well over six feet, with a stem as sturdy as a young sapling – “no need to stake”. At the summit – rather as in a belfry – hang twelve trumpet blooms. Each is the size of a eccentrically-shaped soup bowl, and the colour of a very rich cream custard with scent to match. Ginger, lemon, tonka, vanilla, musk and jasmine accords attract swarms of insects – and me. Why does no perfumer produce a fragrance to replicate this heavenly smell? I’m always asking this question. Never get a satisfactory answer.

 

 

MONDAY:

My office day. Pop down to Richmond. Queen Elizabeth 1’s favourite palace once stood on the river bank. All that remains now is The Wardrobe. Officious person tells me, “..that doesn’t mean a cupboard in which to hang your clothes, you know.” Elizabeth Tudor died here – not in the Wardrobe. I always think it was a foolish place to bring a sick cross old lady in wet windy March weather; but I suppose the Queen insisted. The Thames at Richmond intensifies winter cold and damp; but in July all is idyllic. Dancing in the streets and flowers everywhere. Office is filled with the scent of a bowl of ripe mangoes. Am shown a new eau de parfum from Mizensir with the provocative name of Tres Chère – masses of orange blossom and vanilla; comforting, seductive and a great booster of spirits. Mizensir perfumes are all great fun – an essential quality in scent. Clever Mr Morillas!

 

TUESDAY:

A very warm night. Troubled dreams of Myrna Loy; and of pugs. A dear former colleague writes that she is visiting the H.Q. of Aspects Beauty, “custodians of luxury cosmetic and fragrance brands”. Aspects live in a gorgeous old house – Balneath Manor – in East Sussex which once belonged to Queen Anne of Cleves. The property was part of her divorce settlement from Henry VIII. A pleasing irony, because one of Old Harry’s grouses was that Anne smelled funny. Now her lovely home is filled with wonderful scents. A pub quiz mentality kicks in here, and I think about other divorced Queens of England – Catherine of Aragon, Sophie Dorothea (locked up by that old brute George 1st); and, of course, the scatty Caroline of Brunswick, barred at the Abbey doors from George IV’s coronation. She too “smelled offensively” – too lazy to wash, her own parents said. The English Ambassador put in a word, but all in vain.

 

WEDNESDAY:

So hot that I draw across the curtains upon arising to keep out the cruel glare. Am pleased to recall the ancient Egyptians personifying the angry sun as the “Lady of the Chamber of Flames”. Interesting weather for smelling scent. All the oils come shimmeringly, blazingly, to life and open up like so many peacock tails on hot damp skin. A pyrotechnic perfume show. Go marketing for dry goods and beverages to adorn tomorrow’s Les Senteurs Event. Lemons, limes, mandarins and raspberries make a wonderful splash of colour – a Frida Kahlo still life. Put on a splash of our new Paloma Y Raices ‘en hommage’. The Edgware Road seems endless in this heat – “a long long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams…” But there’s no white moon beaming at the end of it. Return to shop with my loot. Pascale says I’m making funny noises. It is possible.

 

THURSDAY:

Meet the wonderful Valerie and Remi Pulverail who fly in from Annecy for our Event. The kind, gracious, generous and richly informative Pulverails have come to talk about Valerie’s new brand Les Indémodables. Five scents inspired by the classic perfume families – and now exclusive in the UK at Les Senteurs. Just For Us!! We are blessed indeed. Become very excited. Each fragrance has a silky smoothness, profound depth and a jewel-like brilliance. The names add to the sense of rich colour and luxury: Fougére Emeraude, Chypre Azural, Iris Perle…A fragranced wardrobe of dreams. Shop fills up wonderfully for Event: Remi and Valerie speak thrillingly and persuasively. A great success. Home very late, by taxi.

 

FRIDAY:

Rendezvous with Valerie and Remi at 11am at Les Senteurs, Belgravia. The Pulverails both look fresh as daisies, crisp and immaculate, full of energy and knowledge. Valerie is the epitome of French chic in a cunning white lace jacket. Fascinating two hours of training. Our shop manager says, “I have never enjoyed a training more, nor learned so much”. Finally understand exactly why Calabrian bergamot is the BEST bergamot: often stated, never before explained. Here’s the reason. Thanks to the proximity of Mount Etna across the straits, Calabria has its own micro-climate. Night temperatures consistently warm, balmy winters. The volcanically-manured soil feeds and nourishes the temperamental bergamot trees and their fruit.  Remi makes reference to the fact that few flowers bloom for longer than three weeks. (Jasmine is one exception). We agree ruefully that, as we grow older, these weeks seem to shrink. Dissect Cuir de Chine and discover the radiance of natural Chinese Osmanthus Absolute. A miracle! Never smelled anything like this. Les Indémodables demonstrate that, even at my age, revelations in perfume can occur. Ask Remi about fragrances celebrating lilies. He is kind and sympathetic but we come to no definitive conclusion.

After work, take late train home to Leicester. As I step onto my native heath, the Heavens open – am soaked as I dash across London Road. Had almost forgotten this refreshing sensation.


SATURDAY:

Drink chilled redbush tea all day – a new craze much recommended by my neighbour. Flowery, delicate and refreshing. Find a Chinese pot pourri dish – still filled and fragrant – at Oxfam. Buy a yellow orchid and an Italian plate. Tower lilies still holding their own. Still pumping out perfume. They have one week left.

 

 

Roman Holiday

In this continuing oppressively muggy weather our intellectual energies are sapped. Consequently I’ve returned to a degenerate old habit. Every night I’ll watch the same DVD: time after time. For the last few weeks I have been hypnotised by ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone’ (1961). It’s so relaxing to pick a familiar film to pieces, knowing that no shocks or surprises await you; but that new innuendoes are still there to be understood. Tiny overlooked details are yet to be found in the corners of the frame. Very similar it is to exploring the outer limits of your favourite perfume. And so, only two nights ago, kneeling before the set with my sharpest specs on, I spotted the flacon of Shalimar to the side of Mrs Stone’s dressing table: the same prop and bottle previously noted in Diana Dors’s beauty shop in ‘Yield To The Night’. Guerlain, your magic spell is everywhere!

‘Mrs Stone’ – adapted from the Tennessee Williams novella – is as disturbing as anything you might expect by that upsetting writer. The film is a study of – I suppose –  sexual desire, loneliness and moral decay. Abruptly widowed in the skies over Rome, the “proud…arrogant” – and to use a modern euphemism, “troubled”  – stage legend Karen Stone comes to live in a palazzo apartment on the Spanish Steps. Here the angel of death and his troupe of unlikely heralds in the costumes of low cafe society come to stalk, court and seduce her.

What twists the knife, is the unnerving casting of Vivien Leigh in the title role. The whilom Lady Olivier is compelled to play out her own tragic story in the unattractive persona of Karen. There is not a sympathetic character in the movie: not even among the servants where a more sentimental piece might have discovered a little warmth. Mrs Stone’s maid has a smirking knowingness to her; her chauffeur (Warren Mitchell, would you believe, in a bit part¤) is perfunctory and gruff. Alone among assorted birds of prey – though she is ironically the only one so stigmatised by the script – Karen Stone begins to lose her bearings, to drift.

She “was becomingly alarmingly conscious of a sense of drifting if not of drowning in a universe of turbulently rushing fluids and vapours.” ¤¤

As the narrator intones this, we pace with Mrs Stone in her sealed airless pastel bedroom with its huge empty sateen bed and closets of Balmain couture on padded hangers. These were the days when bags, shoes and gloves were dyed to match the dress. Karen sits at her dressing table loaded with its extensive armoury against age. The “fluids and vapours” materialise – not rushing, but torpid – as luxurious lotions, creams and perfumes. Unguents for the embalming. There stand Shalimar and Miss Dior, for sure; those with keen eyes will probably identify other famous names. Here, too, as throughout the film are endless arrangements of flowers. “Floral tributes” might be more appropriate: there is something funereal about the stagey profusion of waxy magnolias, freesias, lilies and indecent anthuriums. Their scent may be invisible but the claustrophobic painted sets seem saturated by it. When Karen buys a posy of muguet in the street, she fidgets and sniffs with it while lying to old stage colleagues that she has an incurable illness. And we then remember “Flores para los muertos!” – the ominous flower seller in the earlier Leigh vehicle A Streetcar Named Desire. We gradually notice too that Mrs Stone’s soi-disant best friend (Coral Browne) is clad exclusively in shades of black, white and grey whenever they – uncomfortably – meet. Colours of premature mourning.

This sense of doom is intensified by the modern audience awareness of Vivien Leigh’s own precarious health, neuroses and early death. One of her many preoccupations was with hygiene and her fear that others might find her evil-smelling. She worried about her breath; and kept a series of silk embroidered squares which she threw over discarded intimate clothing. Mind you, there may be something exaggerated about this last report. I remember reading it out to my mother some 40 years ago, and she said “oh, we ALL had those cloths then. Maybe not silk nor embroidered – but everyone had them…”

Vivien Leigh’s signature perfume was apparently Patou’s Joy: that wonderfully intense and exaggerated heady animalic jasmine that either delights or repels. It’s an old favourite of mine although – or is it because? – within the rainy damp loveliness you can detect the faint whiff of imminent decay.

And that’s how poor Vivien looks on film: a wrecked beauty at age 47; garishly made-up, atrociously coiffured. Kittenish still, sometimes, but now a spiteful hard-eyed kitten who has been teased too much by life. Her tormentor-in-chief is the Contessa who is obsessed with – amongst other things – food. With “fine dining”, as we might say now. In the original story, I remember the Contessa as being consequently obsese. Here in a stroke of casting genius she’s played by the angular and voracious Lotte Lenya – forever famished for caviar, lobster and money. Here we go again, back to the predatory birds and the smells of meat, flesh and blood – life and death in Rome, ancient and modern.

 

 

This September – 50 years after her death at the age of 53 – Sotheby’s are holding an auction of Vivien Leigh’s personal possessions. And right now in this “red raw moment”¤¤¤ we have at Les Senteurs a sensational new perfume. Andy Tauer’s L’EAU conjures up an aura of a happier Roman holiday with all the languorous delights of la dolce vita. L’EAU is a glorious paradox. This rara avis is a sensual citrus, an erotic hesperidic. It smells of sunshine on ancient balconies, terraces and verandas. Ancient stones soaked in a light and warmth that melt your bones in joyous languor as you open a second bottle of Limoncello. L’EAU wraps itself around the wearer in a cloud of lemon blossom, orange, bergamot and iris. The wonderfully persistent base lingers on for hours thanks to what appears to me to be beautiful infusions of amber, musk, sandalwood and tonka. It really is blissful: so sexy, stylish – and, unparalleled for a citric scent, sumptuous. Why not pop round?

¤ the whole cast is extraordinary: amongst others we meet –  Ernest Thesiger, Jean Marsh, Maria Britneva, Edward de Souza, Jill St John, Warren Beatty, Mavis Villiers, Elspeth March, Sam Jaffe and – toast of the early silents – Bessie Love.

¤¤ shooting script by Gavin Lambert

¤¤¤ Molly Keane, passim.

“All By Yourself In The Moonlight” – Rosa Greta at Les Senteurs

 

My grandfather was a great Garbo fan. Whenever the Divine One’s latest movie opened in Leicester he’d be off into town on his motor bike. It was after one of these outings, on a dusky summer’s evening, that he claimed he’d had a supernatural encounter; that he’d driven right through a spectral monkish shade gliding across the road. I am always intrigued to hear to which great stars my venerable ancestors were addicted. Their preferences provide thoughtful and unexpected insight into their characters. One’s adoration of a certain actor is as revealing as one’s choice of perfume. I remember my grandfather as bluff and sporty, always gardening or racing, a glass well to hand. But he painted, too; loved Swinburne’s poetry and the novels of Balzac. He had served right through the Great War and was wounded twice. He was acquainted with the shadow side of life. His first meeting with his future bride was unorthodox. He, on his motor bike in a narrow leafy lane, ran into her mother’s funeral cortege. Miss Elliott raised her crepe veil – gazed into the eyes of Mr Craven – and that was that. A scene that might well have come from an early Garbo silent.

She was a funny one, that gloomy Swede, with her family of trolls under the sofa. Greta Garbo always had far more of a following in Europe, in the Old World from which she sprang. Americans found her just too nutty, too glacially and disturbingly beautiful; too much of the outsider. As David Shipman put it¤, she signally failed to muck in. It was to Europe that Garbo regularly returned for her holidays – to England and Sweden; and to the Mediterranean which provided the heat, sea and sunshine that she loved so much. She was once one of a cruising party on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. Fellow guests included the Winston Churchills, Callas and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. One of the company later complained of the extreme ennui of the glittering party. Garbo had easily the most boring conversation of any of them, her remarks being mostly about the price of dry groceries in New York.

(But is this in itself not strangely endearing? Rather like Marlene’s homely recipes for sardine sandwiches and boiled potatoes).

The new and exquisite ROSA GRETA by Eau d’Italie now at Les Senteurs is inspired by another, earlier, holiday: this time at the Villa Cimbrone at Ravello. The Villa is noted for its rose terraces and still very much on the tourist route today. Garbo arrived for a stay in 1938, on the arm of her current lover, the conductor Leopold Stokowski¤¤. He was over a quarter century her senior with a great mane of white hair. The fan magazines were baffled. Their editors would have been even more foxed had they been privileged to see Garbo unpack her luggage upon arrival at the Villa. From her one small and shabby suitcase she took a selection of pots of jam. The jam went down to breakfast with her every morning. Afterwards it was returned to the bedroom and locked in the case. I would like to know whether a.) G.G. had made the jam herself and b.) whether Leopold was allowed to try it.

Stokowski was then beginning to make a big splash in Hollywood. He worked with the new teen sensation Deanna Durbin; and was later to be spliced in with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’. Despite his name, Stokowski was English: in fact he was born a short walk from Les Senteur’s Seymour Place store, in Upper Marylebone Street. He was schooled in Marylebone High Street. So it feels as though ROSA GRETA has a strange and unexpected link to Seymour Place. It seems to belong with us, in a very esoteric way.

G.G. had an affinity with roses. Roses have thorns. Unlike her compatriot Ingrid Bergman, there is no rose specifically named for Garbo but the flower is part of her myth. In the 1929 silent ‘A Woman of Affairs’ she emerges distraught and dying from a hospital room to embrace a vast bouquet of white roses as she would a lover. The title card reads:

“I don’t want much – only you!”

In the next decade her bizarre on-off affair with Cecil Beaton began at a Hollywood party. Garbo drew a yellow rose from a vase, kissed it and presented it to Beaton who dried, pressed and framed the petals. The shrivelled – richly symbolic! – rose hung by his bed for the rest of his life and was auctioned off after his death in the 1980’s. It was knocked down for only £750 which – whatever anyone says – wasn’t that much, even then. G.G. is not to everyone’s taste. That’s part of the appeal.

ROSA GRETA is packaged in the bright blue and pink that featured largely in Garbo’s private wardrobe. She was especially fond of a certain shade of blue to set off those huge blue eyes, never seen in colour in any of her 27 films – and rarely in photos. The Garbo image is essentially a creation of black and white. It takes a bit of practice to imagine her in clear cheerful shades flattering that honey-tanned skin and the silky hair described by Beaton as ‘biscuit’. And always smelling clean, sweet and delicious in a Nordic natural rural way. If she bothered to wear scent at all, it was usually some vaguely masculine cologne.

ROSA GRETA is sexually ambiguous and intended to be enjoyed by everyone. I love it. It’s a scent into which one can sink: as into a pool or a bath or a bed of roses. This refreshing graceful creation by Fabrice Pellegrin¤¤¤ is a summer confection of white tea, damask rose, lychee (very discreet; not at all gloopy) and ambery woody accords. It has a dewy dampness about it, and a soft mossiness. Rose perfumes are always chancy because they carry such a weight of association and expectation, inherent in the choice of theme. Everyone thinks they know how a rose smells, and how it SHOULD smell when translated into a fragrance. It’s the one flower everybody can identify and name. Every perfumer wants to have a go at creating the definitive rose. It’s the odour of universal myth and symbolism, the fragrance of prayer, myth, fairy tale and passion: “the raptures and roses of vice”. Very apt therefore for associations with Garbo. Like the famous closing shot of “Queen Christina” – “think of nothing at all: make your face a blank” – we each of us read whatever we desire into a rose perfume. You’re likely to find your Heart’s Desire in GRETA.

¤ In “The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years” – that seminal work of 1970.

¤¤ he was married to – amongst others –  Gloria Vanderbilt of designer jeans and perfume fame; and the Johnson & Johnson heiress Evangeline Love Brewster Johnson. Interesting tangential fragrance connections!

¤¤¤ Pellegrin is already well known to us at Les Senteurs as the creator of By Kilian’s Smoke For the Soul.

Dryad

 

I love trees yet I am wary of woods. Trees have so much natural magic in and about them. Consequently, when they grow en masse, they can be intimidating. Trees are homes to elves, witches, trolls, goblins, dryads, nymphs and all manner of faery grotesques. When you plant many trees together you are playing with fire, tempting outbursts of the supernatural and the paranormal. I fancy that maybe Lewis Carroll thought the same. Think of that terrifying Jabberwocky – turn the page quickly when reading in bed! –  the Cheshire Cat up in the branches, and that deafening aggressive Pigeon. There are a lots of dark woods and their disconcerting denizens in the Alice books.

Then come Babes in the Wood, The Tinder Box, Hansel and Gretel, The Wild Wood, Mr Tod. Our mother filled her children’s heads with stories of The White Monkey who sat high in the tree tops, gazing down with glitter-eyed malevolence and malice. Not to mention the Wooky Witch who lived in a blackthorn alley behind the gas works and who flew after us – and the pram – as we raced, panic-stricken, up the bosky tunnel of leafy twigs. And there was also the Giant Budd who ate ice cream from the convolvulus flowers twined around his poplar trees.

Now a dryad is the spirit of a tree; the life of a tree. She is the nymph who lives and presides within the bark. Sometimes an unlucky woodcutter will see blood when he fells timber and knows with terror that he has killed the dryad: evidently with consequent fatal consequences to himself. Old dictionaries of mythology describe dryads as usually benevolent but apt to sometimes boo out and terrify unwary lone travellers. This happens especially at noon and midnight –  the hours when the world is brightest or dimmest; when humankind is blinded by light or night. That’s when the dryad strikes.

Many old stories are told of mortal maidens transformed into flowers, shrubs or trees to protect them from lecherous admirers. Daphne, for instance. To save her from the advances of Apollo, she was turned into the sweet-smelling flowered laurel bush that bears her name. Did Daphne then become a dryad herself, by divine intervention? Or must one be born into this blessed but precarious condition?

We must ask Elizabeth Moores, presiding genius of Papillon Perfumes. Her new perfume is named DRYAD and it’s a fragrance of an intense weird beauty. Elizabeth was kind enough to send me a sample to wear on my holidays. As my mood relaxed and my senses sharpened DRYAD smelled more and more divine – and increasingly subtle. I’m wearing it right now, on a glorious midsummer Sunday afternoon. To this old synaesthesic it is like a weightless mantle of gauze woven in lilac and dull gold, the colours of the orange, apricot and lavender which play such a bewitching part in its elaborate formula.

Am I picking up these particular notes because I’m lying at ease in a warm and balmy garden? As the year moves on – when I return to the bricky glare of London – will DRYAD rustle her wing cases and shake out her heavier earthier robes of galbanum, vetiver, oak moss, musk and clary sage?

I suspect she will for, even at this early stage, one is well aware of the unfathomable dense intricacy of this treasure. The rich resonant depths which have the critics comparing Elizabeth’s magic touch to that of a Guerlain or a Daltroff. And the connection is not only to these revered old masters. There is also a certain touch in DRYAD which reminds me of the gorgeous dressiness of Editions de Parfums’ new release SUPERSTITIOUS. Both perfumes hint at the smell, feel and texture of sumptuous fabrics. Ms Moores and Dominique Ropion have discretely caught the Zeitgeist most exactly – though in contrasting ways. Ropion dazzles us with the sweet shiny glare of satin, the sleekness of silk. SUPERSTITIOUS is buoyed up with a profusion of whalebone, and taffeta underskirts: the innermost wiring seen in the Balenciaga X-rays at the new V&A exhibition. Elizabeth Moores is more interested in the feral warmth of fur, the bite of leather; ells of creamy damp velvet wound around the stems of narcissi, jonquils and lilies. SUPERSTITIOUS has all the gloss of the atelier. DRYAD speaks more of the secrets of The Golden Bough, the seance and the innermost sanctuary of the shrine. It is a fragrance crammed full of Sybilline riddles and enigmas which I feel I am only just beginning to understand. And that’s the key to true perfume magic: the expert creation and manipulation of illusion.

Make no mistake: DRYAD is the very peak and pinnacle of a truly great perfume.

“To the woods!”

DRYAD is launching on the 10th of July right here at Les Senteurs.

Image credit: Thomas Dunckley of The Candy Perfume Boy