Like many perfumisti, I have a slightly ambivalent attitude towards Jo Malone. While there is something undoubtedly crisp and attractive in the packaging’s neat simplicity, the unfussed, clean brightness of the company’s scents quite appealing in a day-wear, easy-urban kind of way, every time I personally try them on I am never fully satisfied in their conclusions. But if any established perfume house’s success is based on wallet-opening top accords and immediate, commercial appeal, then it is probably Jo Malone. Which does, I realize, perhaps, sound like damning the company with faint praise. Yet, in my opinion, this is no mean feat (how many current perfumes, the ones you find at the airport or in the high street, actually do smell nice? Most of the fragrances in this shop undeniably do). Plenty of perfume lines come and fall by the wayside over the years, yet Jo Malone is still going strong after two decades on the scene, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. I remember the UK launch of the brand in 1994 and all the features they were getting in magazines; how appealing their Lime, Basil, & Lime Cologne (now a deemed a modern classic) instantly seemed: there was a pared down luminosity there that contrasted favourably with the concept-heavy presentation of the contemporary perfumes, and it is this streamlined, pure-in-daylight vibe that seemed to be reeling in the shoppers mid-Saturday afternoon in the expensive Tokyo shopping area of Marunouchi.
It was something of a strange coincidence that following my very personal, almost vicious attack on the often painful process of perfume shopping in Japan the other day (centred particularly on the Hermès boutique that is in fact just a few shops down from Jo Malone), I should, out-of- the-blue, get an invitation from a friend to go and have a free hand massage and fragrance testing session at the main Tokyo store, back in Marunouchi, this Saturday. I hadn’t seen Emiko for a long time, and I thought it might be a nice way to spend the afternoon together before going to a much more surreal and bizarre event in Roppongi planned later for that evening.
Killing time before our rendezvous in front of the store, I ventured, a touch apprehensively I will admit, into one of the stores along the street – Baccarat – wondering if there might not be something affordable for my mother’s upcoming seventieth birthday. I was bracing myself for the inevitable, detestable froideur of the assistants, but no, they were very personable and helpful in fact, though I did end up leaving the store empty handed (rather pricey, shall we say…)
But the potential, incremental, rehabilitation in my mind of this area, following my overblown Hermès trauma, did, delightfully, continue at Jo Malone where Emiko and I were seated in a corner by the bright n’ breezy staff, presented with drinks, and received our relaxing, scented massages while getting a good chance to properly look around and sample what was on offer. Emiko’s introduction to the brand had come from a friend’s birthday gift that had included some Lime, Basil & Mandarin products she had really liked (“..because that’s what girls do. We give each other soaps and creams…”) She also, besides that scent, however, knew nothing of the fragrances available in the shop and was anticipatedly open to suggestions, thus giving us a wide spectrum of scented possibilities and a fun afternoon of exploration ahead.
The complimentary massage, which apparently is available to all customers at all the Jo Malone boutiques ( I hadn’t realized ), is an interesting way to get acquainted with this English company’s famous layering/ blending philosophy, typified interestingly in the in-store massage, which requires you to select a body wash, body crème, and cologne, all preferably in a different scent, to test this philosophy out in person.
More familiar with the Jo Malone range than Emiko, I was therefore more in a position to reject the possibilities I didn’t want (Red Roses, Pomegranate Noir, Vanilla Anise, none of which I like; also the possibly over-fêted Lime, Basil & Mandarin in truth, whose play-out I find a little bit sour and unconvincing). For Emiko I think the choice was almost baffling, initially. With over 25 colognes, including the just-released-in-Japan Cologne Intense series, to choose from, it was difficult perhaps to know where to start. On the counter, initially, were some current Japan-friendly favourites, including English Pear & Freesia, and the shampoo-tastic Nectarine Blossom & Honey, which I have even considered buying in the past as a work scent for its bubblicious, blossom-soapy, hair product-smelling sheen. Emiko certainly liked that one, as well as the Pear, which I have also sampled before, enjoying the fresh, brief-lived pear note before being irked by some woody/plastic/oudh note that turned up most unwelcomingly later in the dry down. Emiko was also quite intrigued by the Cologne Intense Rose Oud that had been placed alongside those two on the counter (though tellingly didn’t try any on). This was, I think, the first time that Emiko has been exposed to Oud, but as she is to be going on a business trip next month to Dubai anyway, I told her that there would be a lot more of where that came from over there, and probably of richer, finer quality too. She will probably smelling such scents wherever she goes.
I myself also thought this perfume was quite well done; rounded, velvety, with just the right balance of deep and sweet, though that particular genre of scent at the moment just leaves me feeling suffocated, perhaps because of the much discussed recent oud overload in the perfume market. Saffron Cologne Intense has a gorgeous initial opening of very palpable iris and saffron, but, predictably, the tightly-woven, obviously synthetic ‘blond woods’ et al that surfaced in the blend quickly bored me, and I know this isn’t something I could personally wear.
We couldn’t decide which scents to try, and I wondered if our assistant was possibly getting a touch restless. What layering combos should we go for? I thought for a moment. Emiko is someone with hidden depths, I feel, and so I suggested, on a whim, rather than tying ourselves to the more conventionally girly and pretty, trying something entirely different. How about something tauter, dry, spiced: ‘masculine’?
I have always liked, and almost bought on a number of occasions (a recurring theme, here, you notice? I keep almost buying their perfumes) Jo Malone’s Nutmeg & Ginger, as I am a very big fan of nutmeg as a spice and a scent and find that it is somewhat underused in perfumery. Duncan loves it too, but we have usually found that the bottle we have of Cacharel Pour Homme (with added nutmeg essential oil by me) has sufficed for all our nutmeg needs. The Jo Malone interpretation is also very good, if a touch too straight – as in just nutmeg and ginger, linear, almost flat. The Body Crème was something of a revelation, though, quite gorgeous actually; thick, heavily scented, with a convincing, subtle, spiced profundity that would do very nicely in the coming winter months.
We both said yes instinctively to that one, and so Emiko’s massage began with the frothy, highly pleasant Nectarine Blossom body wash, followed, almost counterintuitively, by the Nutmeg, which I thought suited her magnificently, giving her aura a pleasing, slightly distancing, modern female gravitas. Finishing off cleverly with her selection of Wild Fig & Cassis, a very green and sharp fig scent, brought out even more focus and clarification to the ensemble, which we both agreed was very pleasant indeed.
Now it was my turn. I just decided to go for the Grapefruit body wash for the initial stages, as I was feeling lazy, and I found I liked this detergentish variant better than the cologne, which I find somewhat uninspiring and a bit of a dud after about ten seconds. Here the grapefruit was given more room to laugh and breathe, and though I felt a weeny bit embarrassed having my hands and arms frothed up in a room full of Japanese shoppers (not to mention the people passing by outside), I did find the experience quite relaxing. The assistant doing the massage routine was very sweet and vivacious; in fact the entire shop had a very lively, almost laid-back buzz to it that I was very pleased to witness. It’s still Marunouchi, and you can definitely smell the money in the air, particularly during peak shopping hours on a Saturday afternoon, but this was fun, and I felt the store had achieved something like the ideal balance between friendliness and casual luxury.
But, decisions, decisions. I had to now decide on the crème. Perusing the list of options, I found that for some reason I just couldn’t face any of the recommended possibilites except Orange Blossom, not a note I often wear but do quite enjoy on occasion for its pillowy, summery ease, and this did smell really quite nice on me, almost like orange infused chocolate, which is in fact one of my favourite indulgences in the world. I decided, then, to finish it off with Vetiver Cologne, one of Jo Malone’s most pleasant and easiest to wear of fragrances; light, vetivrish, citrussy, and a combination (with the orange blossom) that the assistant had never seen before. It was very good, actually (Emiko emphatically approved), even if the light, briskish, vetiver was being somewhat drowned out by the lovely, but almost bosomy, white, bouncing orange flowers that were now emanating from my arms and hands.
It was time to leave. There were others to be massaged. By this point Emiko’s blend had settled in nicely into her skin, and she was happy, if not enamoured with it. Was it too…..dark? Too serious? Did she think that a smell like that would bring her mood down? She didn’t think so, necessarily, she said, but then added, a touch mischievously, “I’m not sure it would bring it up though either”.
Just before leaving, I decided to just sniff just a few more perfumes. The musk note in Iris & Musk was way too strong (and vulgar) for me, and I couldn’t smell any amber, nor any patchouli, in the Cologne Intense Amber & Patchouli, just a generic block of something strong and purportedly ‘oriental’. The new Peony & Blush Suede struck me as quite effective, though: the body crème in particular hinting of late night business affairs in some London boutique hotel, with a suggestive, middle ground sass of very light, skin-caressing suede like-centre, and a floral, modern, urban top. I don’t think I would get on very well with a woman who wore this, but I would very happily stand behind her on a department store escalator.
Finally, as a last sampling, perhaps because I was smelling a touch chocolatey anyway ( I was also wearing Shalimar as my scent for the day, with some Chanel Gardénia for good measure stroked strategically on my clothing), I unwisely decided to then drench myself in the Blue Agave & Cacao Cologne, which did in fact have quite a pleasant cocoa-ish dusting in its finish, but which also had that same, generic flatness that does seem to run through so many of the company’s fragrances, a two dimensionality I am not happy in sporting myself. But tough luck, I was stuck with it now, and Emiko said it smelled quite nice anyway so I decided to just take her word for it and let the perfume work its course over the rest of the day.
Before leaving, Emiko got her friend some Lime, Basil & Mandarin soap and bath oil for her friend’s upcoming birthday (thus perpetuating the girly soap traditions of her generation; and Japanese girls do love to carry around designer bags). It was nice to physically buy something in the shop, though, after the fun we had had there (we almost felt obligated), and all in all, this was a very enjoyable way to begin my weekend: I would definitely recommend trying this layering experience to anyone who has dipped into the Jo Malone range but isn’t the kind of person comfortable lingering in shop while trying everything on. The massage experience offers a chance to go deeper into a series of fragrances whose lack of depth, ironically, is unfortunately perhaps their ultimate weakness, but whose fresh and appealing easy, pleasant- smelling immediacy it would be almost difficult, and churlish, to deny.