Out + About

Let me recommend a really good comical read; no longer in the shops but undoubtedly out there on Amazon: the works of Betty Macdonald, author of The Egg and I + that anecdotal account of the Great Depression “Anybody Can Do Anything”. In the latter she describes the morning commute on the Seattle street-car: a woman wearing a coat that looked “as though she’d dipped a collie in water + slung it round her neck”; and inhales the “crowded morning smells of wet raincoats, hard-boiled egg sandwiches, bad breath and perfume”.

Anybody Can Do Anything

Some of our most memorable encounters with scent are fleeting olfactory glances in the street: I remember a Nile cruise in 1992 and disembarking at a midnight Luxor to find the wharf in a blue cloud of the scent of the moment, Volupte. Yesterday’s sprint into M + S (I only wanted the loo) was enlivened by a waft of Youth Dew insinuating itself through the main doors: like running into an old childhood friend. And remember poor old Al Pacino bewitched by Caron‘s immortal Fleurs de Rocaille in the movie “Scent of a Woman”?

The moral maze: if you are bewitched by a passing scent, should you stop the wearer and say something? I mean: should you praise, or enquire? Most women ( and men too for that matter) love to be asked: whether they will give you a truthful answer is another matter. My mother was a great ambassador for Serge Lutens‘ pearly jasmine masterpiece A la Nuit, attracting attention with it wherever she went…but she could never remember the name. Others prefer to keep their own secret and will fob off the questioner with temporary memory loss or deliberate misinformation. I love the way that perfume encountered on the wing can spring a surprise and alter your whole perception of a scent. Chance encounters with two very famous but tricky scents metamorphosed for me in a magical and unexpected manner that stays with me still: a beautiful mahagony-haired girl in black fur and Samsara buying postcards at the National Gallery about 12 years ago. And even more distant but just as bewitching, a trail of Chanel No 5 wafting across the stalls at an otherwise uninspired afternoon at the ballet, traced to a pair of honey-tanned shoulders above white linen.

My favourite anecdote is of Frederic Malle‘s pre-launch testing of Musc Ravageur: famously, he sent out his P.A. sprayed with the prototype and found her pursued on the Metro like a vixen by hounds. Paris had voted on her feet: formula confirmed!

Image from Amazon.co.uk

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Dream Factories

We know scent and smell have legendary properties in stimulating our memories: I was amazed and greatly moved this weekend to inadvertently recreate a smell that I had lost touch with decades ago. A liberal polishing of the dining room furniture followed by a generous dousing of the room with cedar perfume was laid down to soak for an hour and on re-entering the room I was transported to my grandmother’s house of 55 years ago, the scent of which I had consciously long since forgotten: but it surged back, like an emotional tidal wave with all its associations – the wine velvet curtains; the bolts of wartime black out material (invaluable for dressing up as Anne Boleyn, vicars, the public executioner); the curious smell of an Edwardian can-opener and concomitant traces of tinned grapefruit juice; fifteen minutes of television twice weekly; the slightly sinister innards of the two grandfather clocks; and the faintest hint of horseradish.

And that last note led my memories on to the school library, ten years later, where the dessicated dusty leather book covers and dried ink seemed to emanate a century of Victorian roast beef dinners.

No wonder that perfume shops and fragrance departments in the big stores are such strange, exotic and other-worldly places: crystalline caverns where the emotions, memories, impulses and desires are in a constant state of arousal and stimulation, in a precarious state of control, as unruly, instinctive and feral as ill-trained dogs. Working in such an environment or visiting such magical environments are akin to intensive visits to an over-enthusiastic and prodigal aromatherapist: staff and clients alike need to plan and prepare if they are not to be overwhelmed. Open a window; and “take your heart in both hands”, as the old song says. This is why we have always advised patience and time as key tools for scent selection; as the late great Mona di Orio always said, since a beautiful perfume is created by instinct, so must it be chosen in the same way.

And instinct needs clear channels and confidence in oneself: a freeing of the mind, a delicate concentration, a sublimation of the mundane. Instinct is not impulse, it is recognition of what is right. Rigid self-control and for the beginner expert advice is essential to clear the decks and enable you to smell minimally: grabbing at every bottle in sight is fun but leads to disaster. Ponder on what you desire – whether is be reassurance, self-confidence, sexual allure, the reflection of a loved one or idol, the evocation of place, the finishing touch to a new outfit. Analyse yourself, not the perfume. Watch, wait and listen like the old road safety ads. Wait the perfume out, watch it go through all its phases and tricks, observe what it does to your heart and mind…then pounce!