‘We both know that it was a girl
back in Bethlehem
And on that fateful day
when she was crucified
She wore Shiseido red
and we drank tea by her side’
sings Tori Amos on Boys For Pele, cementing yet again the iconic status of Shiseido in the western eye, its rarified, aloof and untouchable Franco-Japonicity.
And yet the Shiseido that we know way out west and the one I know here are really quite different. The gleaming, curved beauty of the feline Serge Lutens collaborations such as the groundbreaking and quite brilliant Feminité Du Bois, or the now almost mythical Nombre Noir, have almost nothing in common with the far more homey and almost pedestrian fare that one finds here on your local Shiseido counter. Sweet, and outdated, aldehydic nothings such as More, the original old musty fresh Zen, or Mémoire; or the powdery, green and irisian Chanel N°I9 wannabe, Murasaki. The best of the standard contemporary lineup, available in every high street Shiseido store, is possibly Koto, a fresh floral chypre that has a certain very refined and patchouli-touched atmosphere, though it is nothing compared to the criminally discontinued Inouï (which is perfection) or Kamakura, a beautiful rose perfume whose existence I would probably have doubted ( I can’t find any information about it anywhere), had I not myself physically decanted a little from a Japanese friend’s rare bottle.
The same thing goes for the perfume Concerto. You become inclined to believe that though you are holding a miniature of the scent physically in your hand, that there must be some mistake, that it can’t actually exist, as there seems to be no mention of it anywhere on the netosphere, that if it isn’t written about, somewhere, on the great cosmic spider’s web of information technology that dominates our universe that it is almost as though it had been redacted out of our collective consciousness and cannot be allowed to have ever been there in the first place. But there it is: again, a copy of a western perfume (this time, Jean Patou’s exquisite I000; nice, well crafted, intriguing).
Before I continue with this properly, and illustrate for you my amazing find of a rare, untouched cache of vintage miniature Shiseido extraits, I think I am going to first just pop out now with Duncan’s iphone around the corner and show you my local Shiseido. I think you are going to be surprised. Less than minute’s walk away from my house, the ‘Shiseido Chain Store’ as they are called here, is a zillion, zillion miles away from the glamour of a a Shiseido concession in a department store of Paris or of Tokyo, and is more, in fact, like a Boots or a Walgreens ( except in my local case it is a total endearing shambles: more Sally-Ann, than rigidly covetable cosmetique. The proprietor knits woollen frogs and tunics with ladies from the neighbourhood and puts them in the shop window (and her is the photographic evidence)
oh the glamour
, and you can buy anything there from expensive Shiseido cosmetics and perfumes (so artfully arranged!)
to pens to cellotape, washing powder and glue; cigarettes; magazines; candies, hairclips and medicines .
Let me go now, actually – and I will take along my box of long lost, ‘secret’ Shiseido parfums (one of my truly great ‘recycle’ finds of the last few months, an exhilarating find,) to see exactly what she makes of them.
Just look at the drab dowdiness of ‘my’ Shiseido! Are you not surprised?
As I expected, the lady, whose name I can never remember, was with her Saturday late morning knitting companion. They sit there with the radio on and chew the cud on neighbourhood gossip, as Shiseido perfumes malinger on shelves and the whole feels rather more like somebody’s in-need-of-a-tidy-up kitchen. I got three boxes of laundry detergent, some toilet freshener and some headache pills, and then whipped out my box to see what she made of them. ‘Wow!’ she said, or the Japanese equivalent, and then, ‘natsukashi’i, which is one of my favourite words of the language actually, for its ease of use, and its concise encsapulation of much longer English expressions we use in these situations such as ‘God that takes me back’, or ‘Haven’t seen that for a long time’ or ‘Wow, that really reminds me of the long and drawn out summers of my junior high school days’. As I pulled out the draws with the tips of my nails (though I haven’t really got any in truth as I bite them) – this set certainly isn’t very ergonomic – the ladies broke up their knitting to come and have a peer, and how lovely it is: like a chocolate box with a guide map written to what is within, a selection: mmm………..what perfume shall we wear tonight?
White Rose is the first one she takes out of its felt indentation (each perfume fits snugly into its own), and in fact this also takes me back a few years or two because I vividly remember when I first moved to this neighbourhood – almost twenty years ago – there being a precious big bottle of the extrait of White Rose, a perfume I had never heard of before and was very excited to be discovering, under the counter: a very expensive, made to order, haute couture number that Princess Michiko, now Empress, apparently as she has just told me, wore on her wedding day. Of the collection, this is the one in fact that stands out, probably : transparent and pure – it is in fact the smell of a white rose , and I really like it. ‘Jasmine’ seems like a weirdity, somehow: ‘Shiseido Jasmine’, but it is also quite nice in a perfumey, aldehydic kind of way, a bit like something by Le Galion. Concerto is there, as is Mémoire, with its bathtime heliotrope softness, and the still available More.
More excitingly, however, there is Sylvia (what a great name), which one immediately of course hopes is an olfactory homage to Plath. It could be, who knows, though it certainly lacks her savage wit. The lady at the shop reckons this collection is probably thirty to forty years old or so though and it smells it: Sylvia is a nondescript, but sweet and pleasing woody aldehydic in the manner of Givenchy’s L’Interdit – but nothing to get your knickers in a twist over- while Prior (pronounced Pree-orr, according to the Japanese katakanization) is a dead ringer for vintage Miss Dior (in truth it does often seem that pre-Lutens, and with the exception of Inouï, blatant plagiarism was the order of the game for the perfumery division of Shiseido). Yet, like Koto, Prior is a very well made green chypre and has reall life to it: I can certainly imagine a I960’s well-kempt secretary clicking her heels along a pavement in Shimbashi, a touch of this latest perfume release by Shiseido gracing her neck and wrists, then when it has faded on her post-work skin, changing later into Tonight, described, if I am reading it correctly, as an enchanting and ‘relaxing muguet’ bouquet over sandalwood, and indeed it is (how nice to smell that genuine sandalwood again; still with integrity after all this time, like a genie from a lamp: you do sense that with a touch of Tonight (“Tonight, Tonight, It all began tonight. I saw you and the world went away”, god I love that song) she will be happy and perhaps let her hair down a bit; yes, you can imagine her going to a production of West Side Story at a theatre in Hibiya, snug in her Shiseido Tonight, happy in the economic brightness of the era she has brimmingly and luckily found herself in.
Primax, which now would be like calling a luxurious extrait Walmart, is yet another classical rose jasmine woody aldehyde (you would think that the only perfume ever invented in the history of humanity were Chanel N°5 sniffing this box), while Jyakko, on the other hand, is a more interesting and heady chypric white floral with slightly more lift.
No. In all honesty, while I was certainly thrilled to find this set, dusting away as it was at the back of a Yokohama antiques shop, because it is rare and probably extremely collectible (and I have already collected it), although I was hoping to torture and tantalize you drippingly with the exclusiveness of my acquisition, in truth the perfumes themselves, though pleasing, could never really be described as exciting. Only Deluxe, the final scent in this collection, has that extra, animalic, almost Bal A Versailles like heft and texture (actually, it is quite similar, though not quite as good (but then, what is?)), hinting, perhaps of that brief spell of gloriousness Shiseido was to have soon in the future, in the eighties, when the wizard from Marrakesh Monsieur Lutens melded the f philosophical chic of his art fashion brain with the grande dame reputability of Japan’s most highly held cosmetic conglomeration, and inspiringly opened the magnificent Les Salons Du Palais Royal Shiseido, that mesmerizing magnet of covetable elixirs that puts this anachronisitic little bunch rather in the shade.
And yet. How beautiful it is, nonetheless, to have found it. And to have had the opportunity to discover its contents, and share them with you here on The Black Narcissus today on this grey and cold October afternoon. A portal into another time; housed secretively and hermetically; in its drawer-like, jewellery collection box.