On Saturday afternoon we decided to walk into Kamakura.
It was a chilly day, with strange light.
It was also extraordinarily bustling, with people everywhere in festive mood, even though to my knowledge it was not a national holiday or local festival. There was, however, a wedding at the Hachimangu Shrine, which probably accounted for the large number of people out in formal wear.
In full public view, the couple staged their nuptials in the central shrine, as onlookers took pictures. I was thinking to myself how strange it was to want to have one’s private ceremony seen by so many strangers.
Then I suddenly remembered that we also once went to a Shinto wedding at Hachimangu ; many years ago…..just one shrine along in the complex – closed off. I remember waiting in the inner tatami-floored chamber before entering into the room of the wedding ritual feeling a little apprehensive about whether we would make any mistakes. Fortunately the priests and the staff were unfailingly polite and it all went very smoothly.
After strolling the grounds of Hachimangu, we went along to my favourite incense place down Komachidōri to re-experience some perfumes by incense maker Koju on display in the space at the back.
The seven perfumes in the Juemon series are all nuanced, warm and atmospheric, the majority soft and woody with just the right amount of austerity. Standouts for me included Kou (‘Lord’ , or ‘Emperor’) which is a fine byakudan sandalwood that I would consider getting for myself as sometimes I feel precisely like that Japanese incense iteration of the wood : to me it had a feeling of authenticity.
‘Hana’ – one of three florals – was a jinchoge soliflore, a convincing rendition of the bright smelling daphne odora flowers that blossom here in the middle of winter. Perhaps a little too enthusiastic, I still found it cheering for its specificity.
If I enjoyed these two, I fell in love with the striking outlier in the collection. — Tou (‘transparent’).
There is a peculiar uniqueness to a lot of Japanese incense : the poignant contrast between the crushed powder of the balsamic bases of the sachets slipped inside kimonos to release perfume quietly, and the sharp, dark crystalline medicinality of the shōnō, or camphor, with its sting of the foreboding ancient to which I have always had a deep and puzzling attraction.
In this singular and delightful scent, a penetrative top note of Japanese hakka mint is entwined with a grave apothecary camphor, spiked warmly with dried chōjū clove buds – over a soft ambered, vanillic fade-out lingering sensuously on skin. Unusual as a perfume, this is an absolute must-buy for me and I will be going back again next week to get a bottle: I can imagine it being very distinctive on a cold winter’s night around New Year wrapped up in a long coat. Kamakura is a beautiful place, filled with historical savour, and this perfume definitely captures something of its quintessential atmosphere.
Firstly, thanks Neil for hosting this interview on your excellent blog! Let me introduce myself – I’m an artist by profession and an occasional perfume reviewer for L.L.M. Edinburgh. Last month I interviewed Imogen Russon Taylor, owner and founder of Scotland’s first perfume house, Kingdom Scotland. Since L.L.M. isn’t specifically a perfume magazine I wanted to feature the full interview here, where it can be appreciated by fellow perfume aficionados!
Imogen takes much inspiration from Scotland’s landscape – its flora and geology. As an artist attempting to capture the atmosphere, scent and light of Scotland’s landscape I hoped that Kingdom Scotland perfumes would speak of that experience.
Imogen and I met up last month on a sunny Autumn day (despite Covid restrictions we both live in Edinburgh and sat on a bench on the banks of Edinburgh’s river, the Water of Leith). I hadn’t yet sampled the perfumes, which worried me since I wouldn’t have known how to deal with it gracefully if I hadn’t liked them! Luckily that fear was put to rest with one of my first questions …
Rose: Can I ask what perfume you’re wearing at the moment? It’s delightful. I: (laughs) I can’t smell it as I’ve had it on a while … R: … and the nose gets used to it … I: Yes, it’s Portal R: It’s lovely, it’s green … a sort of crispness … I’m not an expert, but – vetiver? I: Vetiver – it’s got a beautiful Tahitian vetiver R: Ah yes, it’s more smoky isn’t it? I: Yes, a touch of smoke, and tree bark .. R: Yes that gives the crispness, or not exactly crispness, the edge? It’s lovely I: Thank you. For this interview – you mentioned it’ll be on Neil Chapman’s website, the Black Narcissus? Rose: Yes, because I noticed he’d reviewed your perfumes and I think he liked Albaura .. I: Albaura yes. He’d really considered them, it was excellent that’s he’d got the concept because that particular perfume was about independence and about a solo experience because she’d (botanist Isobel Wylie Hutchison) travelled alone, and he got all of that in the scent. R: Amazing, he’s a poetic writer. Someone said, a friend of mine who’d read his blog, that it was a bit like reading Proust – I’ve not read very much Proust (laughs)- I’ve attempted a book and it’s very authentic – this rich inner world he expresses. It’s interesting Neil picked up on the story. I: I really enjoyed reading his piece. R: Ok, I’m going to ask about your background and inspiration, but first your name is Imogen Russon Taylor? I: Russon (pronounces it Rooson) R: Rooson, thanks! Tell me a little of your background and how you got into perfume-creation, what inspired you? I: Ok. I’ve always loved scent. Even from a little girl – and I think this is a common story with people involved in perfume – I made perfume from petals in the garden, you know … I was obsessed with that! And then, my grandmother was very glamorous, she was a model in the 1950’s and she had a gown shop – called The Gown Shop, with amazing dresses. Then, just watching my grandmother get dressed – she would use Youth Dew, the bath oil from the 50’s… R: Estee .. I: Lauder yes, they brought it out in 1953 and it was a perfumed oil – it became a scent but it began as a bath oil. She used it to the end of her days and whenever I smell that I’m taken back to watching her get dressed. She had incredible hair, she’d have hair pieces, pearls –it was quite laborious, the way she’d get changed (laughs) but it was amazing… R: Yes, watching that as a girl, just thinking ‘I want to be that glamorous when I grow up’! I: Yes! But then my mum, in contrast – she was an academic, she loved perfume but in a much more demure way. She was more into Nina Ricci L’air du Temps … R: Oh yes, my grandmother wore that I remember, it’s very elegant, delicate, isn’t it? I: Yes a lighter sophisticated scent. There were two extremes of perfumery – my grandmother with Youth Dew then Magie Noire and she wore Poison (laughs) whereas my mum was into softer, more delicate ones. So yeah, I was fascinated with that, and then fast-forward in life to what you end up doing. I did geology at university … R: Ah that explains the interest in Metamorphosis in your perfume; Metamorphic?! I: Yes. I loved rocks, crystals, landscape … I studied physical geology at Edinburgh University for four years and I just loved it – I desperately wanted to study it at Edinburgh as it’s the best university in the world to learn geology and to learn in Scotland as well. I’ve got Scottish and French family but I’ve been brought up all over the place. So geology – obviously there were the sciences at school and at this point in my life, bringing everything I love into perfume … the concepts. It’s a personal journey and I approach scent as art. Because I had a science background I never really had the opportunity to express myself in that more creative artistic way, and perfume provides that opportunity. R: Yes, and it is an art I agree – and perfume houses – Maison Francis Kurkdjian in particular – who create art and perfume installations – it’s something I’d like to chat with you about later on … I: Yes that would be amazing … R: But more about your inspiration …
I: Geology was something I absolutely loved. We went off to Iceland, spent a summer as a team in Iceland looking at Glacial movement and volcanic activity because it’s built on a fault line, as is Scotland. But in Iceland it’s a live fault line, it’s growing. That was incredible. After that I ended up working in Arolla, which is in Switzerland, looking at glacial landscape change and we were boring into the glaciers a mile down to get the capsules of air that would have been in the composition to see if there’d been a change in the atmospheric composition. So really looking at climate change. Then after I graduated I went to South West Africa looking at geomorphic mapping … you know in an Atlas when you’re looking through the first few pages? You obviously see the nations but then there’ll be another page with the rocks of the world? South West Africa was inaccurately mapped for its rock type: Cambridge and Edinburgh universities were working together to map the rock types. We were looking for quartz veins which are often found when you see the white veins through metamorphic rocks or rocks of a great age .. R: Would that be like – serpentine veins through marble? I: Yes exactly.
R I’m very interested in geology as a layperson, this is fascinating … I: We were collecting rocks and we found rose quartz, smoky quartz and white quartz – and that was taken to a lab in San Francisco were they could look into the age of it and how long it had been exposed to the surface. I loved it. Then when we were in South Africa and we were working on the Skeleton Coast which is actually owned by De Beers and … I had a lot of life-threatening experiences where people thought we were diamond dealers, because we had Namibian Government on side, and it freaked me out! … R: Yes, that would! (laughs) I: Absolutely – being held at gun point, just because you’re looking for rocks (laughs) they thought we were looking for diamonds. And, I just came home after that experience, that whole six month trip and just thought ‘I’m going to work in an office’. R: Yes, I suppose just a bit too much adventure! I: I think it was! And so then, my cousin at the time was a director of the Clothes Show, do you remember Clothes Show on TV, years ago? R: Yes! I: She worked for the BBC and she said; ‘Well, why don’t you try PR?’ and she knew Wayne Hemmingway, so I ended up working for Red or Dead, which was just a stint, it was great! R: Oh yeah, I bought some Red or Dead shoes once! … I: Yes, d’you remember? They were really cool! So I worked there and I decided to go back to university where I did PR and marketing, because I thought ‘I don’t know anything about this world’. I took a year, a Masters and then I ended up getting a job in a really big agency doing environmental PR. It felt important to me and it was translating my geology – I worked on environmental causes in early stages .. R: So that tied in and was meaningful? I: Yes, that was interesting but it was a big agency and it was in London and they had this thing on the notice board saying they wanted to do a competition where everyone had to pitch because one of their clients wanted them to go in-house. And I had a look and though ‘I’ll have a go’. I didn’t know who the client was and we had to pitch them and give them an idea, and I won it! It was to go and work for Paramount and Universal Films. So, bizarrely I won it! R: Paramount Universal, that’s amazing! I: Yeah, and TV, Nickelodeon, Star Trek, and I was Head of back catalogue for Europe. I used to go to L.A. to work for a team but I was based in Universal International Pictures (UIP) I was there for two years – it was amazing – I went through all their back catalogue, I brought Barbarella back, Jaws I and II, the Godfather Trilogy… I ended up doing film PR for ten years. R: You must have met some fascinating people, could you name drop now?! Laughs) I: (laughs) It’s not as glamorous as you think. Some of it was – red carpet was fun – but behind the scenes it’s a lot of hard work. A lot of stress … R: A different kind of stress from being mistaken for a diamond thief!? I: (laughs) Absolutely. I learned publicity, but there was a low moment where there was a really big star from the Dorchester and we had all the journalists queued up for this new film and she’d come from the States with all her entourage. Basically you realise the entourage are trying to justify their existence. One of them said ‘She won’t do this interview because there’s bits in the orange juice’ … R: That’s like a scene from Spinal Tap or something … I:I remember thinking ‘what am I going to do’ – we had the journalist waiting, so I thought ‘Egyptian cotton’, so I got the pillow case that was new and clean and thought ‘I’ll sieve the orange juice’. (laughs) I was thinking ‘what am I doing?! I started applying for other jobs, I thought ‘I think I’ve had my fill now’. You sort of plateau. I ended up working for Brands then – whisky brands and wine brands. The agency I worked for had Rolls Royce, Chivas Regal – all of the whiskies from there – Macallan, Famous Grouse, Glenmorangie, Highland Park and you know when you’re younger and you try different drinks? So whisky became part of my portfolio in my early drinks life and I loved it! I was taught how to ‘nose’ it, how to taste it. The company sent me on a course, by an organisation called the International Wines and Spirits Trust. I did the course and went up to Diploma (the next stage is Master of Wine). I did a lot of training in ‘nosing’ and wines and spirits. And that’s how my nose was trained. Also the different distillation, maturation processes, the different nuances. R: Tell me more about training and the ‘nosing’ process … I mean, to me it’s memory, it’s the connection between scent and memory that’s difficult. Quite often if you’re smelling a perfume you haven’t tried for ages, or only a few times in life, you’ll know it, your nose knows it! But your brain doesn’t remember the names of notes, or the name of the perfume. Do you get training in strengthening that? I: You do, and I think it’s really interesting – that sort of cognition of recognising a scent and verbalising it. It’s actually stopping and, it’s almost like mindfulness isn’t it? Where you stop, you recognise the scent, you label it you give it a name and often I find that if you actually speak it, it goes into the mind and then you have a better recall. Apparently, you can improve your recall, or recognise scents by forty percent in one week. So if you engage your brain – we’re so not used to this because we lived by scent… R:.. scent where it was a survival thing?… I: ..and we’ve lost the knack and I think some other cultures still have it? And I think our language, the English language doesn’t really take it on board. They say that the more sophisticated a culture, the less they rely on their sense of smell and they kind of forget that connection. R: So it’s almost seen as primitive but it’s actually sophisticated? I: Totally, cos your sense of smell – for me I think it’s your sense of self because it’s defined by your whole life experience ; what terroir you’ve been brought up in, what you’ve eaten, what crops are growing… R: What’s evocative, what’s emotional …
I: Mhm, and that’s very personal, and then it goes into the different layers of memory of smells and experiences. So it’s not only food, landscape, geography … it’s also those emotional things. I was talking about that cognition. Because we live so much in a digital world, that now, even more so it’s all about sight and vision and sound. R: Yes, and it’s very scattered, on top of everything, it’s not mindful – there’s tonnes of information so it’s quite difficult to stop that all from coming in. You know, you have to consciously stop all that input just to process life – mindfulness yes. I: Mhm. I think that process of improving your sense of smell – they were talking about this in the drinks industry and I remember they were saying that because 80% of taste, at least, is smell you have to able to ‘nose’ properly and you have to protect your nose. All of the master distillers, for whiskies are insured. And I know that just now they’re all in isolation because they’re terrified they’ll get Covid. R: Of course because of the loss of smell. I: Mm, and there’s not yet good enough research to know if it comes back properly. R: And it’s an incredibly emotional thing – I’ve had two friends who lost their sense of smell for some time due to illness and they described the absolute joy and relief they felt when it returned. For one it was some months after cancer treatment, when he uncorked a bottle of Shiraz and smelled the cork, the first thing he’d been able to smell for months. For another friend, who’d recently had Covid and recovered it was when she was cycling and noticed the scent of a grass verge. They both described tears of relief. I: Amazing, it’s interesting about Alzheimer’s, that focussing on scent therapy can actually calm people because if people are anxious because they’re losing memories, apparently certain scents you know, ground you, calm you, which is wonderful. Also if you lose your sense of smell for reasons you’ve just described, or for example a knock to the head, it often comes with depression. R: Yes, unless you’re born with anosmia and don’t know what you’re missing … but sorry, taking you off on a tangent! – you were working with whisky brands … I: Yes, it was just a very interesting way to learn, and after working on different brands I was approached by Hennesy/Louis Vuitton – the biggest luxury goods group in the world. They had bought Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (leading whisky companies) and at the time it was the first Maison they’d bought which was non French. To fast-forward, this all played into setting up a perfume house. There were several years of research. I wanted to take my time with it and we asked people what words they associated with Scotland; the word ‘magical’ came up most and then my experiences of Scotland, going to the west coast as a child with family – we holidayed in places like Ardnamurchan – with beautiful forests, which I wanted to capture. I’ll talk you through the perfumes (Imogen brings out samples)
R: As you talk me through the perfumes shall I try them? (Imogen sprays Portal on to my wrist) R: Aaah. I love this already – its greenness, it’s a forest yes! I: Yes, it has the sweetness of herbs, and the sweetness of wild flora, like a carpet of bluebells R: I’m smelling all of that as you say it, it’s verdant and foresty but I love that it’s a perfume, you know, it’s abstract, it’s a mood – sophisticated, green, Galadriel might wear it! That’s my first impressions… I: In all of them the signature is the complexity as well. And it has a reveal in the top mid and base, that reveals with time. The opening is very much the sweetness of herbs, and a ‘verdant flora’ I call it. Then it gets mossier and woodier and deeper, like you’re going deeper into the wood. And it has earth as well, a grounding earthiness, which is the vetiver. And a touch of amber in the base. R: And there’s a sort of sunshine as well? It’s not dark as there’s a sunlight coming through.. I: There’s a lovely magnolia as well, which brings a kind of floral, very green – almost like a green flower? Which I think is a bit sunshiny as well, but there’s bergamot and neroli in the opening which sort of dances in the light.
R: I love this and it’s a winner for me as I just love green perfumes. The queen of green being Chanel 19 in parfum. This has a contemporariness to it of course but a depth as well. I: I absolutely love some of the classics, you know, Mitsouko, I suppose L’Air du Temp, and all the Chanels – Cristalle, 19, 18 as well is lovely, it’s quite woody and spicy. I wanted to bring something of that into them as well. I had the idea for the business eight years ago and set it up four years ago and then spent two years in research before I even launched a product, so it took a long time. R; So this is something you want to take you through life? I: Yes, but I suppose I wanted to be proud of it, so it was true, and I didn’t have huge funds so I had to be careful and clever. I didn’t want to rush it. Interestingly, one of the first things I did, was to speak with Scottish Enterprise. I asked them if there was a Scottish fragrance house, because I thought there must have been one but I just didn’t know about it. They had this initiative called Interface, which was a conduit between academia and businesses, start-ups. I managed to get a grant and worked with University history departments and I was introduced to a Post Doc – a lady called June Hollis, and we researched into Scotland’s perfume past. I went through the National Record, the National Archives, the National Library. We were looking for stories, you know, about perfume and perhaps a brand, ingredients, you know – rituals – the way people perhaps used scent. We just thought let’s start a bit of research … R: And did you find anything significant? I: We didn’t find a perfume brand. In the whole history we couldn’t find a brand. R: It’s astonishing! I: It is astonishing, and June Hollis got frustrated, because she couldn’t believe it herself. So through all the national records and archives and everything she found chemists and barbers selling brands, and some of them were doing very basic toilet waters, like lavender waters and rose waters that were recipe-based, but they weren’t branded. They were selling English, French, Russian (or areas of what’s now Russia) and also Italian brands. R: So perfumes were being traded but there was no Scottish brand? I: Yes, so that’s when June said ‘You can say you’re Scotland’s first fragrance house’. R; and you can say that truly with no exaggeration! I: And so I thought ‘well, here we go!’ In some ways I was disappointed because I thought I might be able to bring something back to life, but then I thought ‘well actually, this is the opportunity’ and I can start as I thought perhaps a brand should have been, if it were there, but do it now. So that’s how it started. I had three months left of June and she said ‘Ok, what shall we do now?’ So we turned to the Botanical Gardens and went through their archive, because it’s such an amazing place – 350 years old and the ingredients, Scottish botanists and the wealth of knowledge. I’ve got so many stories, as a bank really, that I’ll tell in the coming years of the different perfumes, the different ingredients. R: And of the botany you’re discovering in the Botanic Gardens, are you looking at plants indigenous only to Scotland or everywhere? I: Everywhere. Because the British garden as we know, it very much down to the pioneering of the Scottish Botanists. Scottish Botanists were the most prolific in the world – travelling and bringing things back. Rhododendrons, lily, hyacinth, passion fruits, lots of apples and loads of species from Africa, South America – all over the world and now we know them as species in a British garden! It’s an international story. So I learned huge amounts because I’d never studied botany before. I worked with an archivist and the perfume Albaura was a particular result because I said ‘Tell me about the botanists, show me some of their life stories’. We were looking at Balfour, Sybil, George Forest lots of different characters, and then a lady called Isobel Wylie Hutchison jumped up at me, in what was a sea of men, so I was like ‘Tell me about her!’. (laughs).
I learned about Isobel Wylie Hutchison, and she didn’t have any children and she didn’t marry, so a lot of her materials and work were given to the Royal Botanic Gardens. I was able to read her letters and her journals and go through lots of the samples she collected. She loved the Arctic, she was an Arctic explorer and a Scottish botanist. She was the first woman to get the Royal Geographical prize. R; A pioneering woman.. I: She travelled – her first expedition was in 1926, I believe, and she travelled all the way to Greenland and she basically hitched rides. R; I was just assuming she’d be part of some huge expedition with big funding! I: (laughs) She was born in Carlowry Castle in Kirkliston (west of Edinburgh) in 1889 and she lived right through to 1982. She had two older brothers and they both died in accidents. She was the third child with two younger sisters, so the estate and the responsibility was falling on her shoulders. Her parents were basically bringing in suitors and she really didn’t want it! Hence she ran off to the Arctic, became a botanist and worked for the National Geographic. She worked for Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (RBGE) so she could be free. She had lots of expeditions to Iceland, Greenland – she travelled the Arctic and brought back arctic poppy, arctic peony. Arctic poppy is a yellow poppy – the seeds come over they’re very fleeting and they’re very fragile. You see the yellow poppies about July/August time and they have a very delicate, sophisticated and quite intense scent because they only live for two or three days R: They really have to put out all the perfume to attract the insects fast and work overtime?! I: Yeah! So that’s at the heart of this fragrance. This is icy, fresh and cold (sprays Albaura on my right wrist). It’s a tribute to Isobel Wylie Hutchison and her work and her life. Also, she travelled alone generally, so I wanted the opening to be, almost like petals on coastal ice, glaciers, a coldness to it … but then it becomes more sophisticated. I tried to bring to life the Arctic poppy note, which is a fantasy accord. R: Mhm, there’s something very white, almost powdery about it, there’s an iris? .. I: Yes! R: I love iris – iris, vetiver and leather are probably my favourite notes … Gorgeous. I: (laughs) they’ve all got one of each! This has a herbaceous, herby iced juniper … R: Ah, now you’ve said that, I get it – and that makes you think of gin, which makes you think of ice and white spirits, brilliant, this is clever (laughs) I: Yes, there’s a gin accord within that, which works because it makes you think of iced botanicals, and then it will get more sophisticated as it develops. In the 1920’s when she was at her height there’s a reveal to it, and quite a sophisticated heart, and if you like Chanel 19 .. R; Well I love it in all its forms… I: This has a galbanum note R; ah that sort of green bitterness, beautiful
I: Then it has artemisia as well, it’s used in absinthe and there’s a hint of mint as well. She travelled alone, she was bold, she was independent, and incredibly creative. She wrote poetry, she created lovely art. At the Modern Art Gallery there’s a whole collection of her watercolours. R; Oh, I’d love to see those! I: And, bizarrely, as I released this perfume, they did a talk and one of my friends is the curator there and she said; ‘Your perfume! You’ve got to come and bring it’. She was doing a talk and had all the paintings out and there were some sketches of her (Isobel Wylie Hutchison) as well, and because she died without any children that was why a lot of it was given back to the nation. R: I had read a little of the story on your website but it’s great to hear the whole story. I: Yes. That’s the one (Albaura) that Neil Chapman (of Black Narcissus) liked and it’s quite interesting he’s picked this … R: Well he loves Chanel 19, I read, so this would immediately appeal. I: Aaah, and then the base has cedar absolute and rock moss to bring the lichen aspect to it, and ambergris as well – it’s an aromatic ambergris rather than animalic because it’s vegan. It gives it more of a 3D aspect. Ambergris I’ve found, with the different types I’ve worked with, tends to give a solidity. R: And sniffing Portal on my left wrist, it feels more – watery? Like green river-y? I love that they’re landscape – inspired. I: Yeah, if you have a Scottish perfume house you have to, don’t you? R: Yes! I’m so glad you’ve created this because – you know they say; ‘everyone has a book in them’? I feel there’s a perfume in me, but you’ve made it! I had an idea that if I was going to make a perfume it would maybe be called Ariundel, inspired by Ariundel oak forest up in Ardnamurchan (remote area on Scotland’s west coast). These ideas are just great – though for me it’s gone into painting instead of perfume! I: (laughs) And perfume is an artistic pursuit. R: Absolutely. I: In my first collection, I had to have something about rocks, because I’m so a rock nerd, it’s such a deep love of mine and I love the word ‘metamorphic’ – it’s just such a fabulous word. That’s the most complex of rocks. Scotland is built on two fault lines and has the most complex geology in the world, in such a small place of earth. R: A geologist’s dream … I: It’s a fabulous place to study it. Metamorphic is the most complex of rocks, created under intense heat and pressure. So, gneiss – Lewiston gneiss. R: Did you have that in mind when you were making Metamorphic?! I once painted the Stones of Callanish on Lewis, which are made of gneiss. I: So you know exactly what I’m talking about! R: And I’m dying to try Metamorphic now … I: (brings out bottle of Metamorphic). This is about Lewisian Gneiss, but its creation, not its static result. It’s imagining heat and pressure and smouldering, minerals and heat and earth. It’s also got tobacco and leather – there’s a lot going on in this, it’s very rich and it’s spicy as well, to represent that heat. A lot of metamorphic rock is on the west coast. I thought, I’ve got to have an eye on the malt because a lot of its ingredients – smouldering, tobacco, peat, earth are in Islay malt whisky, and I love Islay malt – you know the peated malts. It has at its heart and Islay malt accord. R: So it’s sense of an island like Lewis, or the Hebridean islands and the incredible process of the making of metamorphic rock. I: And it actually smells in some ways a bit like a fine malt by the fire … ( sprays Metamorphic on my arm). This one really settles on skin, it has rose absolute at its heart, which softens it because it is quite woah! To start with, then it softens down. It’s interesting because I’ve got quite dry Celtic skin, which tends to be drier R: Me too. I: And it means that you go to the heart notes more quickly R: (sniffing arm) Oooooh I love it! It’s peaty and smoky – it’s got loads of character. I suppose speaking traditionally, people might say it’s masculine? I love it. I; Yeah I love it, it’s interesting because it depends what mood you’re in, this is my ‘bold perfume’. R: Yes absolutely, it would go well with an avant garde sort of dress in winter! I know that my partner is going to love this too: I might have to get it for Christmas! It’s quite animalic, maybe leather? I: Yes, it’s got a tiny touch of oud. I think sometimes oud can overpower, and as a western nose being brought up in the west most of my life I only like touches of it. So there’s a touch of it, but there’s a beautiful sandalwood in it, leathers, tobaccos, because I didn’t want it to overpower I wanted to able to smell all the different elements of it and the minerals. So that’s interesting, that’s the really polarising one, people either love it or hate it. There’s not much middle ground. R; I should have recognised the oud straight away because I’ve been smelling quite a few recently– you know the Gucci Alchemist’s garden series? In the black bottle? I: The Snake one … Voice of the Snake. R: Voice of the Snake, that’s it! I’d imagine you’d enjoy the presentation and depth of quality. Yeah I’ve never been drawn to Gucci perfumes before but that series was amazing. I: Yes, I was proud to be displaying next to them (at Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh) it was great!
With Kingdom Botanica; once I’d made Albaura with the Royal Botanic Gardens, they said ‘we love doing this, it’s our 350th anniversary coming up and would you consider making a perfume to celebrate 350 years?’ and I said I’d love to. They said ‘we’re a public body, we can’t fund you but we can open doors, help with our staff and the archives’. Again this was two years in the making and that journey’s been incredible because, well to start with I thought ‘where on earth do you start?’ 350 years; you’re going back to 1670 when the Botanic Garden opened as a physic garden in the Royal Mile, in the Palace of Holyrood, which was basically a healing garden for the nobility, then right through to the present day. I met with the people who were recreating the physic garden (which was supposed to open this year but because of Covid it’ll be next year) and they were talking about Blackcurrant stem and bud. I love that note, love it. So all the time I was going around thinking ‘what ingredients, what story shall I pull together for Kingdom Botanica?’ It was quite a tough brief because you don’t want something to be … linear, or one dimensional. This was basically about biodiversity in a perfume and all the stories of healing, the physic garden, right through to conservation. So this, I call it Botanical maximalism ; every time you smell it, you’ll smell something else.
I’m going to tell you a little bit about it before you try it because we started with the heart. Rhododendrons are the most prolific (in the Botanic Gardens) they’ve got over three thousand different varieties that were discovered by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh by the botanist called George Forest, in the Yunnan peninsula in the Himalayas. Mostly rhododendrons are non-scented but the varia variety is scented, so we would work in the glass houses and we managed to identify this by the scent which is very similar to lily. So we created a fantasy lily accord that brought the rhododendron work to life. Also George Forrest brought really beautiful jasmines, iris and also this rose – the heart is quite narcotic, exotic floral. They’ve got huge amounts of work in terms of conifers, sequoias which they got from the states, redwoods, so there’s a beautiful sandalwood, there’s cedarwood, there’s amber. The Botanics also have some middle eastern projects where they’re looking at conserving and protecting middle eastern plants. They’ve got a whole glasshouse which isn’t open to the public , for the middle eastern plants – boswellia, or frankincense and myrrh, so it’s got frankincense and myrrh in it! Its top notes have something of the physic garden, so it’s got blackcurrant stem and bud and pink pepper. I wanted it to smell, when you first smell it, like you’re walking into a glass house. R: I really love that glasshouse smell! I: This is the one Neil Chapman described as going down the High Street at night on the pull, or something like that (laughs) R: (laughs) He usually seems to like big florals! I: He did like this, but he really liked Albaura. (sprays Botanica on my arm) R: Oh yes, I get the humidity, greenness yes . I: Yes, it’s got a warmth to it R: Warmth absolutely… I: And then it’s very floral. So that was quite a brief, it took a long time to bring to life. That will get woodier and frankincense and myrrh comes out in the base R: I’m enjoying this … I never used to think I was a floral lover but as I’ve became more obsessed with perfume, there are certain florals I love … I: It’s interesting, I think that florals are having a little bit of a renaissance. I think smoky, woody perfumes have been so in vogue for such a while. So there’s so much going on in Botanica, I call it a green floral, woody oriental. R: A green floral, woody oriental (laughs) There’s a lot going on in this yes, I do love this humid – you know Songes by Goutal? That had a tropical humidity, this is cooler. I: Green, but then I thought because they brought back so many heady florals I thought I’ve got to have that at its heart. It has a hint of nostalgia because it’s got that hint of orris and jasmine absolute. It was a compliment to the first collection, so they’re going to release that at the Botanics on Friday (9th October) which is exciting .. R; So this is a new release? I: Yes, brand new. That’s being quite hard getting that over through the Covid pandemic, but in some ways it kept me sane because it was a lovely project to work on through that – we had lots of Zoom meetings to plan what we would do and it’s taken longer than we thought because…everything just takes longer at this moment. The Botanic Gardens have created this gorgeous glass house thing – which I’m going to go and see – to house the perfume, and a big display. R: How does the launch work, will people be able to go? I: Well, the launch sounds quite glamorous because we’re not going to do a party, we’re starting with social media; we’ll do something live online, we’ll do some interviews, we’ll do some ‘nosing’, where you go to a ticketed event and … we’re just working it out.. R: Yes, because the sand keeps shifting and we don’t know quite what we can do .. I: Yeah, and we can’t do a real live event. I didn’t mention that plum blossom was in Botanica and that’s a massive part of its opening because that’s the symbol of China. There’s a fruitiness to it. R; Yes I’m getting that (sniffing arm). It has that elegant floral scent yes and such complexity I won’t keep you too much longer as you must be busy, but something I’ve always wanted to create is a painting in response to a perfume so if at any future point you found that an interesting idea, I’d be interested in responding in painting. I: That’s lovely. R: I don’t know how that would work. It would be perhaps the landscape the perfume evokes in the mind – a landscape of imagination? I: That sounds great! I think that’s a lovely idea. Next year, though, cos if the world were to be … open again! It would be a lovely exhibition. R; And it could be in Edinburgh, so, fingers crossed, things will be improving soon. I: Yes. It’s nice to meet you, I can’t believe we’re in the same city! R; I know, imagine that! I’m so happy that Scotland has a serious and talented perfumer. The one last thing I was going to ask is, when you’re putting your perfumes together – I know that you are a ‘nose’, but do you work with a perfumer or somebody in the perfume industry? I: That’s really interesting – at the start I did it myself, I tinkered myself and I realised I wasn’t getting the complexity I wanted. I got really frustrated… R: It’s an incredibly complicated art … I: Also access to the ingredients, the ingredients you wanted – it was very tough, you know as an independent, so I started to look for perfumers to work with. That’s why it took so long to get my first perfumes right, because you want to work with people that are happy to engage in the creative process because there’s a lot of perfumers that say , you know; ‘give me the brief and go away’. I was thinking ‘no, I want to get involved!’ (laughs) R: So more collaborative … I: Yeah, I wanted to be involved in a collaboration, because I understand notes and I knew what I wanted……for example Kingdom Botanica, I knew which ingredients and how I wanted it to reveal. That was the journey. I can’t work with people that can’t allow me into the creative process. I’ve worked with three perfumers so far and I love it, it’s really interesting – it’s like working with a different artist. With Kingdom Botanic I worked with Stephanie Anderson who’s from Falkirk and she’s classically trained. She did a chemistry degree, she’s done 18 years of training and she’s a protegee of Dominic Ropion … R: Oh wow. I: Yeah, ‘Portrait of Lady’ – ‘Carnal Flower’. And Stephanie Anderson, who’s just been brilliant. She’s come over here and she was pregnant during the process and it was quite interesting how her sense of smell was heightened. She came round all the Botanics glass houses and the herbarium. The herbarium has got around three million samples and we went through some of them, we saw samples from Charles Darwin and the Beagle – amazing. The Botanics opened every door for us. R; Very few people will have had that experience, that’s wonderful. I: Yes! R: Well, thank you Imogen. This has been fascinating! I hope it also will be for people on Black Narcissus … I: Thank you!
I feel like Linda Blair at the end of The Exorcist: de-possessed.
As if a wieldy and bulky malign computer chip had been removed from the back of my neck.
While this year has not literally been Armageddon, it has frequently felt like it: masked populaces hiding indoors, police brutality, street wars, beheadings, looting, menacing dictators removing freedoms – and a vast sense of general oppression.
It is thus perhaps not surprising to find perfumers who are exploring precisely this in their creations : some solace, even glamour among the ruins; defiance in the devastation. Flowers growing angrily through the charred cracks of toppled buildings, refusing to be held down. The glowing embers of narcotic flowers caught on the warming breeze, as the smoke from burning cars and city buildings loiters menacingly in the air.
Both Flame and Fortune (“Pulp fiction as a fragrance. A bouquet of white flowers, spice and citrus heated until it catches fire. Deep smoky notes in the dryness of the fragrant desert. Dramatic.”) and Tyger Tyger ( “A Post-Apocalyptic scenario, where traces of a highly sophisticated civilization survived in the dark and fearful conditions of collapsed and destructured world”) are extroverted perfumes to wear copiously at this time, whether it be for the celebration of liberation from tyranny in having a private disco in your own home; or just clambering alone out onto the balcony in your metallic tiger chain dress and leather mask and dancing ferociously to Rihanna (or…. Duran Duran : though Bianchi’s inspiration for her perfume came from the eponymous poem by William Blake, ‘Tyger Tyger burning bright’…….I have to say I love to think of it also being an ode to ‘Tiger Tiger’ – the b-side of New Moon On Monday).
Flame and Fortune – such a great name for a perfume in 2020 – is a dry yet immediately voluptuous high-sex woody neroli that is perfect for an outfit with heels (if you are not fond of the oud/amber note popular in many a fragrance out there these days you may not like this, but with the addition of an apricot honey facet, squinting in the flames you can almost imagine a glimpse of Serge Lutens’ Miel De Bois; the accord in the base of the scent representing the burnt incineration of steampunk society à la Mad Max Fury Road.) Otherwise, this is a tart, glamazon spritz that works perfectly from top to bottom : a green, sharp neroli/ petitgrain opening warmed through with tuberose and a shot or two of whiskey and incense for good measure – which reminds me of the good old days of going out ( if you can still remember those…………..); the fun and grandiosely footloose feeling of taking the proper time to get dressed up, while listening to music in your room, as you grab the perfume you have decided on, applying it liberally, and head contentedly out the door into the humming air of the cold starry night.
Coming home late yesterday evening, jubilant, triumphant, to find the sample of the ultra-narcotic Tyger Tyger by Francesca Bianchi waiting for me on the kitchen table, in opening and spraying it I was almost delirious with all the white flowers (jasmine, tuberose, frangipani et al) dripping into themselves polyamorously into peach honey, heliotrope, sandalwood and an underbelly of of smoky oudh leather. Disconcerting but mesmerising, not sure, at first, about the balance, I kept nevertheless repeatedly inhaling this sweet and intoxicating perfume from the card that I had sprayed it onto (and went to bed last night in it, waking up with the more sedate, oakmoss/patchouli dry down effect still on my hand eight hours later) – feeling high. As with Flame and Fortune, both of these perfumes made me somehow think of my old compilation tapes: neat chunks of experience; songs that you loved in the charts as a teenager in the eighties that you cleverly segued back to back on your favourite playlists of the day, sealed into forever in the ribbons of radiowaved, magnetic-coated polyester in white or black plastic (I still play my audiocassettes at home all the time). The Bianchi, with its warm and luscious Colour By Numbers, made me think of the gleeful exuberance of my childhood favourites Culture Club (the Sarah Baker maybe Madonna’s Burning Up); all oozing lip gloss, rouged cheeks and chequered disco floor abundance. What Francesca Bianchi’s perfumes might sometimes lack in delicacy – her scents are always wilfully potent – she certainly doesn’t lack in generosity, soul, and fullness (there is so much stinginess these days in niche perfumery!). In contrast, this new, very timely, perfume, like her recent vanilla- patchouli-honey number Sticky Fingers, based on the classic naughty Rolling Stones LP, is packed to the rafters with goodies – almost ludicrously abundant and erotic. If you are drawn, therefore, to the rich, unstingy perfumes of the past, when perfumers poured in floral absolutes into their fragrances like lush bartenders on a bender (the original Panthère de Cartier, say; Guerlain Mahora extrait; Montale Tiare Intense, which this perfume brought to mind in terms of glimmering richness and texture) and you feel like celebrating this weekend in a giant ruched up ballgown on the flame-licked pop video movie set conflagration of a scaffolded construction site near you while downing trayfuls of shots and letting off fireworks (I will join you if I may ;Burning Bush will also be wearing these) I don’t think you will regret it. Both perfumes are fun – and marvellously unapologetic.
A cafe that is next to an Indian restaurant I just went to after work alone to celebrate the political demise of this unconscionably heinous carcass of a pouting ex-casino lowlife
It is all over. At least for a while. And the windbag will naturally run out of steam, be deflated, now that it is not in the hot seat.
I am exhaustedly elated. For the world. For myself. Although I have been told recently that I have been overreacting (like hundreds of millions of other people who have been in an unbearable, unrelenting state of tension, as that is the power of this ingenious instigator of cortisol ), in my own view – despite admitting I have almost gone crazy over it all – this is emphatically not the case.
Yes, from the Japanese or UK standpoint, in other words at the national/ one person micro level, this might all just be all far away and irrelevant, just American Politics, not close to the bone. But for me, at the personal, macro, general humanity level, it has all represented something far realer, insidiously dangerous ; the approach of a new neo-fascism – an unfathomably ludicrous shallow banacrocy :and even more importantly, an incredibly terrifying (and for me utterly unforgivable) denial and re-ordering of what constitutes reality ( if he had succeeded in his admittedly outrageously, almost impressively audacious gambit, ignoring election results, and denying the popular vote, this could have become the norm all over the world and led to the end of democracy as we know it, let alone an Orwellian oppression of reconstituted ‘news’ and ‘alternative facts’ and ‘information’ (there was a reason that 1984 became a bestseller as soon as he was elected); something I find repulsive, and deeply petrifying, in the very marrow of my inner being. It would have been like dominoes : all of us would ultimately have fallen( been eventually negatively affected. Of this I have no doubt.
As documented before in earlier posts,, I am not sure of my religious or spiritual beliefs. But for all I know, we could be reincarnated within any national boundary : as a man or a woman, or any gender of any societal placing or ethnicity (which is what any books on the subject always say – people were a completely unexpected human in a previous life and which makes me deplore racism and all nationalism than I already did): I believe that we all come from the same place, ultimately: and who would want then to be reborn into a spiritless place, into a zone of futile and vacuous, meaningless Twitter hatred shackled senselessly by a McDonalded, conscience-less dictator (because make no mistake ; the actions and the events of the last few hideous weeks have demonstrably shown us that that is exactly what he is: a wannabe Robert Mugabe or Putin or fill in any dictator gap – it is such a, boring, well trodden psychological trope – just on an unimaginably richer scale : charlatan, a vacuum of a spoilt little infantile asshole that just happened to have come into possession of quite mindblowingly destructive, hitherto unknown capabilities. No, this was an administrative cancer this that HAD to be removed before it was too late.
THANK GOD !
Yes, he will continue to rant and rave ( but I will not : I hope that this can be my last word on the stupid subject and I can get back to some semblance of how things were on The Black Narcissus before : I can’t bear for any more wasted space in my head to be taken up by this crude and abased, foot -stomping boot-stained orange toddler).
Yes, he might establish TrumpNews for his lamentable fans; yes, he might personally become a ‘kingmaker’ for all future potentially Republican autocrats, and yes he might still attempt to dominate our minds as he has done for half a decade ( or far longer, depending on the way that you look at it), but the point is he WON’T BE THE PRESIDENT.
He is already, instantly diminished.
And, as the Trump so finely once said himself, if he loses this election (which he has…… FINALLY: hallefuckinglujah!!! ) he will probably just disappear :::::: and ‘you will probably never hear from me again’.
Just retreat, while harrumphing, back to Mar El Lago.
This really did tell us everything.
He never cared about the people.
He never cared about anything .
And I think even himself.
It was all just a power trip. A narcissistic tantrum. A piece of astonishingly potent and mindfuckingly intense (and in many ways highly impressive) cynical, and from the future perspective, probably hilarious, evil performance art.
Clap fuckity clap.
But for the time being : fuck you Donald : really.
Although the nightmare has had the audacity to linger – I feel like a fresh start. The pandemic continues to surge as autumn cedes into winter; yesterday I watched my younger sister walk across North London as we caught up by phone : it hasn’t been easy at all for her or my brother, to put it mildly, during this strange and dragged out time for a number of reasons, not the least of which has been now not having work in such an expensive city : struggling with how to get through it ; long strolls in isolation being one of the necessary respites for sanity and health. For the hour that we talked, aside a couple of police cars passing by the forbidding, dark brick buildings and grey skies, I saw hardly a soul walk by her on the pavement ( did I see anyone at all ?)
We ourselves, D and I, had a quiet weekend ; three days at home just quietly marking, reading, and making simple, fresh food: I just feel like a reset. Some calm. The world may roil and rage outside, but it doesn’t have to destroy the sanctity of the individual ; the couple nesting quietly with their cat. You can peer into the kaleidoscope for a second or two – but then just decide to say no.
Last night I tried Lyn Harris’ latest perfume creations for her Perfumer H brand, Cucumber and Pear, both very nicely done curative, refreshing colognes that went well with my mood. Pear is a soft, clean floral musk, with notes of white iris, rosewood, bergamot and mandarin on a bed of vanilla and ‘sugared musk’ : if you are looking for a private prime pyjama perfume – the general air of this skin scent reminds me a little of Hermes Cuir D’Ange (but more angelic) you might want to think about trying this one – I found it quite cosy and gentle ; comforting.
Cucumber is what the perfumer describes as being in the ‘fern’ category – presumably a new British take on fougere – and the base of green woods, vetiver and a salinated sea moss do settle on the skin in a quite contemporary masculine manner while up top, the fresh cucumber sap and cedar wood / lemon rind and violet leaf are realistic and refreshing : placatory to hot minds. In perfume, sometimes the anti-intuitive can yield interesting effects : although probably more suited to summer, watching my sister striding through the streets, morning her time, (evening ours), wrapped up warm in the cold air as she paused to smoke a cigarette outside park gates or leaning up against a backdrop of imposing, civic buildings, I could almost imagine her wearing this scent : the brisk London late November air parsed lightly against the cool notes of crisp green : a pairing : incisive – cutting through the grime of this last year ; keeping calm…………..carrying on.
Bitter Peach is a fun name and concept for a fragrance – particularly one by Tom Ford. I love the presentation : a confitured venom, encased in a sealed, vitreous cyanide chamber like a nectarous poison. Or high gloss nail varnish. A bitter peach is an oxymoron : we expect the flesh to be sweet, unless we bite into the kernel of toxic amygdalin.
I am not immune to bitterness (nor averse to the taste in food or liqueurs); there can be strange pleasures to be had in that involuntary shudder. I also love the smell of peaches : fruit tones that can be found in many a classic chypre or aldehyde (the best perhaps being Femme De Rochas), lending flattering curves and inner sunshine – from MCDI’s lovely Peche Cardinal to The Different Company’s White Zagara via the Body Shop’s classic Peach Oil. They are girlish ; carefree.
The new Tom Ford release Bitter Peach, which I tried yesterday at Yokohama Takashimaya (¥41000 – about $400 for the small bottle pictured), starts promisingly, like peach pot-pourried wood shavings (blood orange, cardamom); lighthearted and easy; upbeat, but then quickly, for me at least, becomes cloying and sickly; a peach skin without pores, as davana-infused cognac and rum meld with labdanum and vanilla…………an overly sweetened confection that on most of us will smell overboiled and tongue-rotting trollope;, but which you can certainly imagine more readily – in measures doses —— on one of his gap-toothed, inveterately nubile young models.
It is evaluation time for me right now in my company, the students giving us ratings out of 5 and adding comments about our teaching and the quality of our lessons in the locked-up manual (to be taken out of the cupboard only by the most senior staff, and to be read alone in a small room down the corridor). Not being especially good at accepting criticism, I find this period – the crescendo from June to November – rather straining, and as soon as it is over and I know what is what I traditionally enter into my ultra-dreamy pre-hibernation stage where I start to detach from everything and everyone around me and just autopilot it until the second week of December, when I have a whole paid month off to hide away and do what I like.
Yesterday I realized, from the hubbub in the final class of the evening, a group of twenty very high level students who are trying to get into the nation’s top institution, Tokyo University (Todai), that these superficially very overserious young people have definitely now eased a lot around each other and that the infernal stiffness and frostiness of those initial lessons at the height of the coronafear (when I was in mask and plastic visor, shouting out like an intoxicated beekeeper and getting nowhere with them) has thawed out into something almost resembling mutual affection. They can now at least manage normal eye contact. One strategy this year has been to have them keep a notebook for writing their exam essays, which I collect and mark every week, but which I also encourage them to write anything they like in, how they are feeling; a confessional – we write back and forth, I give some written advice; and that way I have come to know some of them better, the barrier between us becoming slightly more invisible.
All the teachers are on edge at this time – it doesn’t help that everything is written in one book all together so you can see everyone else’s scores and comments as well (Japan is nothing if not egalitarian; there is very little privacy in a company setting) – the usual student/teacher power relationship here inverted: rather than doleing out report cards to nervous students worried about their parents’ reactions at home it is you, here, who are being judged instead – so I was happy, yesterday, to just get out of the more than usually pressurized building for my lunchbreak and have an amble round in the beautifully warm November sunshine.
It will not be hard for you to now guess that after fuelling up, I then couldn’t quite resist taking a quick peek in my usual secondhand megahardware store – packed with everything from washing machines to floors of old clothing and records to ornaments and useless odds and ends – even though it is a bit of a walk – to see if any olfactory oddities had washed up onto their unpredictable shores: and sure enough, there, on the perfume shelf, was a bottle of Guerlain Eau De Fleurs De Cedrat (which I love), even if it is probably the most short-lived perfume in history; at 4400 yen and not quite pristine I thought I could live without it for the time being as I would rather have a brand new bottle with the freshest citrus oils. A 15ml extrait of Madame Rochas for 860 yen, though (about £6.40)………………just clasping the box of this gem by Guy Robert (Hermès Calèche, Doblis, Amouage Gold) makes me feel as though I were gallantly riding a horse in a Jane Austen novel.
I love Madame Rochas. Cool, glassy; clear as a bell in its elegant compression of top notes, ylang ylang and muguet and rose over aldehydes and jasmine tuberose and a phalanx of other delicate ingredients ingeniously unfurling over sandalwood and musk; unperturbed, assured – yet effortlessly comforting ; No 5 blowsily coquettish in comparison; Infini oblivious; upright and unemotional confronted with Arpège, Madame Rochas is a beautiful, unshowy monument, the very essence of deceptive simplicity. Women of the day would have added a touch of this scent to finish their ensemble before heading out the door. I myself usually wear it after a bath at night to go to sleep.