I am oddly unfamiliar with London, considering I once lived there. I had never before been to Grosvenor Square, a rather beautiful, wide, open space not far from Oxford Street where I came down from Birmingham only the day after arriving back in England to be a judge of the Best Independent Perfume category at the upcoming Fragrance Foundation Awards, and where I walked around for a while in the grey, melancholy air before meeting up with Persolaise and Neela Vermeire (name dropping! she seems rather lovely) and then getting down to business in a recording suite at the Marriott Hotel, sampling and commenting on and debating all the merits and demerits of the perfumes (like a stuttering deer in the headlights, I was also interviewed, snippets of which will possibly be flashed up on the screen at the event like an absent, or dead, actor at the Oscars).
It was quite exciting, though. Twenty five perfumes were appraised by we five judges, one of whom was Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat, the others bloggers and perfume writers, and we were to give scores and comments, the winner – the short list will go up soon – simply the perfume with the highest score. Although I am very quick in my judgements of perfumes ( I just know how I feel immediately) it was still quite difficult to decide what kind of perfume should win this important category, ultimately. As these are all houses that have not yet been vacuumed up by the big conglomerates, you want the winner to be an example of real originality and creativity and if possible, a true exemplary of the perfumer’s art. So should you be just choosing one that you personally like and would wear yourself, or one that brings perfumery forward? Some of the entries, in truth, were dull as dishwater, predictable and merely pleasant, while others more daring, but simultaneously made my stomach churn. Balancing the subjective and the objective is almost impossible, though, and I think that in the end we might have chosen one that was less original, but which made us all, ultimately, go ooh.
From there, saying our goodbyes to the camera crew and the Fragrance Foundation organisers, Persolaise and I walked quickly through Mayfair down towards Hermes ( I wouldn’t have had a clue how to get there, but he was gliding through the streets as confidently as if he owned them); past several perfumeries but no time to stop if we were to make it on time for the 4pm meeting with Christine Nagel (pronounced with a soft g like a j – I had thought it was like the German for nail, but she is in fact very French), an intimate event in a presentation room upstairs in the boutique with other perfume and fashion types, the Hermes people all milling about along with liveried waiters serving rose tea, champagne and luxurious tidbits – gorgeous raspberry chocolate, ganaches, meringues, and duck egg sandwiches : (I was glad I had gone emergency shopping the day before with my mother in the rain to get some new clothes – I think I just about looked the part..)
Personable, gentle, and very appealing, Ms Nagel is almost shy and modest as a speaker. There was a translator on standby just in case, and also – which I thought was quite novel – a storyteller poet (who you can see in the picture next to the display of the exclusive , and very expensive, snakeskin bottles), who recited a poem inspired by each scent as an accompaniment to the perfumer’s descriptions of her inspirations and technical processes. What could have been embarrassing and really squirmingly self conscious (the Candy Perfume Boy said that it would probably have been unbearable if it had been someone English), was actually quite effective, I thought, giving another aspect to your experience of the perfumes, as I sat there, the rain visible outside, seeing myself in this cosseted world of luxury and realising just how superfluous, privileged, yet enjoyable this honeyed chamber of perfume actually was.
With each description of the five new fragrances, the polite, and genuinely charming Hermes staff would come round and either apply some of the scent (in the case of the ‘essences’, which are liquid perfumes) to your hand, or hand out scented papers, as the poet in the background proclaimed her verses. Cardamusc, one of two bright, luminous, aldehydic white musk oils that Christine Nagel developed as homages to the original Tonkin musk, is in fact very clean, clear, relaxing, with a pronounced initial cardamon note that fades fairly rapidly but does eventually leaves a warm, gently animalic tone on the skin (the story of a woman who as married to a lake, which eventually evaporated and condensed to the point that she simply scooped him up in a bottle) : linear, simple, but nicely done. Musc Pallida, which I think I prefer, is similar, but with a comforting almost violety iris accord that puts me in mind, somewhat of White Linen, but done the Hermes way, and far more smooth and opalescent. I said to the perfumer when we were talking afterwards that I would love to wear this one to bed, as it has that pure, post bath and soap calm that would go deliciously with freshly washed pyjamas, but I can imagine it equally going well, worn with a white shirt, or white dress, on holiday somewhere new, on a balmy summer night.
Myrrhe Eglantine, which was presented next, is to me the obvious ‘star’ of the collection in terms of commercial potential – a very arresting modern wild rose/rosehip accord that is slightly redolent of perfumes I have smelled before by Montale such as Roses Musk, and an almost marine (though the perfumer told me there actually wasn’t any marine notes in it) aspect that held memories for me, somehow, of Calvin Klein’s Escape. With quite a rasping note of Somalian myrrh beneath all of this modernity, Myrrhe Eglantine, for me, is therefore quite an interesting blend of the contemporary populist (given the continual popularity of fresh roses – I can see this selling quite well in Japan) and the ancient curious, as the meeting of the resin, which eventually becomes more prominent on skin, is, as Christine Nagel stated and intended, combined with the sheer freshness and alacrity of the wild rose notes, quite ‘troublant’ and unusual.
Cedre Sambac is definitely a more challenging affair. By far the most ‘difficult’ of the five new perfumes, it is a very bold, and initially quite strongly statemented heart of pure Moroccan cedar wood oil (I have always preferred the Virginian, unless it is softened and sweetened a la Lutens in perfumes like Feminite Du Bois) blended cleverly and seamlessly with an equally potent note of natural jasmine sambac essence, and which from the bottle or on paper is almost too harsh for me: like CB I Hate Perfume’s Where We Are There Is No Here – see review – it makes me feel as if I am trapped in a sawmill, or a home furniture store – though I think this is ultimately because of my natural aversion to this essential oil. On skin, however, trying it last night while watching Dunkirk with my parents back at home, the perfume was very much warmer, more skin loving, and torrid. Heated and present and very woody, Ms Nagel told me she loves perfumes that are enveloping – that really surround you, and this is perhaps the main difference between her style and the more delicate scents of Jean Claude Ellena. Despite my reservations towards this one, I can imagine Cedre Sambac being quite provocative and perturbing on the right (woman’s?) skin. It would hold you like a shield.
Agar Ebene, the last of the poems (in this case the story of a gazelle rubbing itself sensuously against the bark of a tree in a forest) would also be better, I feel, worn by the right woman (not that I believe that perfume is gendered, obviously, but sometimes it is just more stimulating and subversive when going against the grain of male/female cliches), as its suave and defanged oudhness, tempered with a beautifully supple, but twilight dense accord of forested fir balsam that is as soft and warm as Hermes kid leather gloves, would be less expected and obvious than it might be were it worn, for example, by the typical, moneyed patrician male Hermes client (in which case its more palpable masculinity might take on the form of subtle arrogance). There is a glow and an understatement to this scent – very smooth and effortlessly elegant – that is rather sensual; a suede like ease; yet with something pulsating and concealed underneath – on the right person – that holds the possibility of a quietly unspoken eroticism.
The event, and the mingling, and the conversations all soon coming to an end, The Candy Perfume Boy, Persolaise and I asked the waiters for some champagne, continued with some nibbles (the rhubarb cake you see in the picture was divine), had a peruse of all the other Hermes perfumes as we were in the store, and then, before heading to Oxford Circus to go our separate ways, made a beeline for Louis Vuitton, which was just down the street, to sample their six recent perfumes and smell the natural essences from the perfume organ that was on display (in truth, more interesting than many of the perfumes themselves). Fun though, anyway, chewing the cud with absolute perfume people, a chance, I rarely get to have in the flesh.
Walking the streets now, the light quickly fading, and with a definite chill in the air – the looming, cold stone edifices and the solidity of the shut-out historical grandeur of the city just confirming my deeper instincts that, when all is said and done, I don’t belong there, my complimentary box set in the classic Hermes bag swinging ostentatiously at my side (quite a novelty in a way for me, it’s weird what that confers on you…) I then, having said goodbye to the boys, made my way keenly towards the darker, more daily realities of North London, on different Tube lines and buses, lost in contemplation of when I once lived there – so many years ago now, it feels like an alternate lifetime – to have dinner and stay the night at Olivia and my brother’s.