As the year draws to a close, my thoughts wander to holidays and trips that have taken me into foreign climates in the past year or two. As the nose bracing chill of January looms up ahead and everywhere the damp, mushy odour of rain soaked vegetation litters my local journeys, I try to recapture the warm, mellow smells of a sunshine soaked road trip around California and Nevada. Or draw comparisons with a particulary icy February weekend in Berlin. Or struggle to recapture a mild spring working trip in coffee drenched Milan. As I think about the destinations and skim through photos and momentos, I find that the way to really get into these memories and find myself transported back to any given trip is to smell the perfume I wore, the shower gel or shampoo my various travelling companions used or the suncream that protected me from searing desert heat. As I (shamelessly self-indulgently, I admit it! It's cold outside!) piece together these memories using olfactory stimulation as the glue for my mental collage, I realise how ridiculously, flukily lucky I have been in meeting some of the most fascinating people involved in fragrance today.
2009 in particular was an incredible year of discovery for me. This year was an explosion of meetings and destinations and smells, all inextricably linked to forge a whirlwind introduction into the world of fragrance - it's creation and the appreciation of it.
New York – West Side, Bond No.9 – Chandler Burr
Like so many millions before me, I have been magnetically drawn to New York since my adolescent incarnation decided she wanted to be an independent writer, living in a warehouse flat with concrete walls and a bath slap bang in the open plan living space. I am sure this fantasy has it's roots in a 1980's chocolate bar commercial, but it was cemented through my addiction to schmaltzy 1990's sitcom Friends. When I eventually got there, with Basenotes founder Grant Osborne, in 2009, it was for my 30th birthday. The dream of New York had been with me so long, I worried that the reality would be a flat, grey let down. How wrong can one be?
From hailing a yellow taxi, to having brunch in a downtown diner, to visiting a British theme pub, everything felt like it was happening on film. I am a city girl - originally from urban, East End London, trips to the bustling West End were my recreation, working in the grimy, crawling ant's nest of the Docklands was my early employment experience and everything about the immediacy, lack of privacy and yet total anonymity of city living feels like home to me. New York takes everything I know about city life to the next level. The smells are sharper and more varied, the traffic is louder, the lights are brighter, the people are either 100 percent more pleasant or a million times as morose as those back home. Everything happens at the speed of light and you sit down on your little loft hotel room bed at the end of the day feeling like a spinning top that is trying to catch up with itself.
The one thing I have found when I'm in my urban, get it done, non-stop, don't be intimidated by anyone, frame of mind is that fragrance is everything. Not for me a floral, delicate, barely there or sweet and fruity summer hit. I need to power dress in this mood. It has to have body and be unexpected - usually a fragrance aimed at men. I went through a phase of wearing Guerlain's Vetiver, who's earthy, grounded green notes hit the spot. Tobacco and cedar make people look around with the expectation of a city boy, not a suited girl. The bottle says it all, as I pick it up with it's heavy square shoulders, broad enough to take on the world and it's ridged, opaque/see-through striped body half hiding what it's thinking. But as a scent for New York this was too masculine. New York was down time - nice dresses in the evening and slick sophistication as I pretended not to be intimidated in Tiffany's. So I looked to a New York Brand for my New York fragrance. West Side by Bond No.9 says it all with the name - it says what us foreigners think of when we think of the city. The scent itself is, for me, expensive, feminine, unruffled. West side can shop and sup where she likes and won't have trouble hailing a taxi, but is still approachable and womanly. Though superficial and sweet, sandalwood tempers the vanilla and stops it being a dessert for your pulse points, whilst musk gives it a sexy edge.
So, spritzed with West Side in this snap-of-a-finger-fast metropolis I went for a birthday dinner with Grant and Chandler Burr. I felt incredibly nervous about meeting Burr. Where the hell will he book for dinner, I remember hand wringing at Grant. "What if it's somewhere terribly swanky? What will I wear? What will I talk to him about? I have only just learnt what sillage means and this guy is the perfume critic for the New York Times. He has written a whole book about Luca Turin - I didn't even know who Luca Turin was until six months ago!" When we turned up the designated eatery, every ounce of anxiety melted on the well worn doorstep. We entered into the dark, crowded interior of the wooden clad bar-come-restaurant. A frenetically friendly waitress led us to Burr and a friend he had brought. Within three acerbic, clipped, hilarious observations I was completely at ease and could sit back and enjoy a fascinating few hours with one of the fastest, wittiest, most relaxed yet alert people I've ever shared a meal with. Despite being horrendously intelligent and well-read, The Perfume Critic never makes one fell inferior or afraid to show stupidity by asking what he means or what he is referencing. His breadth of knowledge and opinion is vast and never boring or repetitive. His razor sharp wit is, as I have learnt on this and subsequent trips, typical well travelled New Yorker. His knowledge of fragrance, the industry and the substance, is unparalleled amongst those I have met and it infuses much of what he has to say. Which is perhaps unsurprising as he began his journey in the field in 2003 with The Emperor of Scent, Burr's account of Luca Turin's theory of the sense of smell. There followed further articles and books, including 2008's The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, which is an addictive behind the scenes account of the creation of Un Jardin sur le Nil by Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermes and Coty's Lovely under the name of Sarah Jessica Parker. In between times he was The Perfume Critic at The New York Times for three and a half years, giving sometimes unexpected, sometimes downright shocking critiques of an industry wide array of scents. His recent project was the creation and curation of the Department of Olfactory Art at New York City's Museum of Arts and Design, which focuses on the juice and nothing else. For him, that is the art. For me I'll never forget his last words until we met again in Düsseldorf the following month "If you aren't taking that salmon with you, may I?"
Düsseldorf – Amyitis, Mona di Orio – Dr. Silvio Levi
In March of the same year I went on my first trip as a Basenoter. I have had a long-term love affair with Germany since childhood, when it seemed to be the home of some of the best fairy stories and confectionary. These feelings have grown into a deeper, lasting affection since I learned the language (ish) as a teenager at school and visited the country several times as an adult. The differences between the traditional and fairly isolated areas of Bavaria and the open and accepting melting pot of Berlin, or the contrast of the dockside history of Hamburg against the swanky department stores of Königsallee in Düsseldorf hold so much excitement for me and I have never, ever been disappointed in the treasure trove of culture, history and Euro-eccentricity that this vast country has to offer. So my delight at finding that I was off to Sniffapalooza Düsseldorf was boundless.
The event took in some of the industry's biggest brands such as YSL, Lancome and Chanel. Little did I expect however such a rich and varied education in brands I had heard of but little experienced - Mona di Orio, Montale, Ulrich Lang. Nor did I expect to enjoy a beautiful interactive history lesson in nearby Cologne, home of eau de Cologne or Kölnisch Wasser. Fans of everything from Dallas to Romeo and Juliet will revel in the tale of the Farina family and arch rivals 4711. We were given strict advice before the visit to the 4711 store that we would not be permitted into the Farina store if we were to put our fingers in the 4711 fountain or spritz on any of our purchases…
In keeping with my burgeoning interest in niche fragrances I wanted something different for this trip. The Düsseldorf Sniffapalooza came at a time when lots of things were changing for me and travelling to Europe on my own was the first independent thing I had done since I had given birth to my two children. The new fragrances that I was discovering were a mirror reflecting the new, unmarked territory that was occurring in my personal and professional life - their experimental, unusual and intriguing nature, represented what life was laying out for me and I loved their sense of adventure and explorative attitude. One brand in particular spoke to me in a very personal way. This brand captured my interest and senses with it's history, it was born out of personal passion with beautiful individual signature touches in the packaging, and with the incredibly different combinations of smells that hit my nose like a new breeze when one steps off of a plane in a foreign country. Mona di Orio was a complete revelation. Not just the brand but the person. I have been incredibly lucky to have met her and her beautiful business partner Jeroen Oude Sogtoen on more than one occasion. Mona was not at all what I had expected - I thought to find a precious artist, a delicate genius who must have her tea at precisely this temperature and who would only wish to discuss her creations. The reality was an aura of warmth and friendship that has made me feel undeservingly fortunate to have met her. Her genuine delight on meeting my children and subsequent enquiries as to their wellbeing at every meeting with Grant or myself ever after were imbued with genuine concern and an infectious smile and sing song French lilt that brought sunshine into any conversation. I may be remembering this beautiful woman through rose tinted glasses since her horrifically early demise last year. But I don't think so. And I believe anyone you ask who had the pleasure, would say the same. It was wearing one of my favourite Mona di Orio fragrances, discovered only months before, that I wafted through Düsseldorf on an avant grade whiff of Violet. Amyitis is a sparkling, green translation of the Violet note that is as far removed from Parma Violet sweets as is possible, standing it apart from any other violet scents I had yet smelt. As such it was a perfect conversational opener with Dr Silvio Levi.
Dr Levi is an Italian distributor and fragrance creator with a scientific background, who has used his knowledge and experience to become a sort of spokesman for niche perfumery. His exuberant European expressionism is so animated and his machine gun, Italian-tinted English is so fast, one better sit down and buckle up if one wishes to follow him on his impassioned, prolific and provoking trail through his favourite brands. The knowledge and artistic sympathy with which Dr Levi approaches niche perfumery - or art perfumery as he prefers - is infectious and culminated in the summer of 2009 in an extravaganza of olfactory experimentation: Esxence. Using his contacts and experience as a distributor and brand manager Levi began to tell me about his vision of a forum for the expression of different, exotic, unusual fragrances, small brands who otherwise would not find a voice, or established brands trying something left of centre. In this heady new world, in one of my favourite countries, under the incredible influence of Levi, di Orio, Sogtoen and Burr, I discovered fragrance as something three dimensional. It lept out of the gift set in my Christmas stocking and launched itself into a tangible, quantifiable substance, to be discussed and evaluated and discovered and appreciated beyond it's wearability and price. And that was before i even got to Milan.
Milan – Fleurs d'Oranger, Serge Lutens – Jeroen Oude Sogtoen
Having met so many fascinating people and fragrances in Düsseldorf, the thought of the first presentation of Esxence in Milan in the spring of 2009 planted itself as a seed in my brain that flowered into a garden of uncontainable excitement by the day of arrival. I had only been to Italy once and never to Milan, so I wanted desperately to soak up the surroundings and see as much as I could outside of the fragrance fair too. Milan, though a major European city, bursting with tourists and commuters, has a quiter, relaxed feel in my memories. This could be because some of my favourite memories are of sitting alone on the edge of the Piazza Duomo, with a fraction of a cup of eye poppingly strong coffee, watching people of every description move through the ever changing shadows of the cathedral under a slowly sliding Italian sun.
At the fragrance fair itself I bumped again into Jeroen Oude Sogtoen of Mona di Orio. We fell to talking as though we had known each other for many years and whiled away far too long at the bar in the exhibition centre, though it felt like minutes. We talked of everything and the integrity and care with which he spoke about his brand was nothing short of touching, as though he were speaking of family. We had been around the stands several times, together and alone, and spoken to Montale, Humiecki and Graf, Heeley, representatives from Floris and Clive Christian… amazing day. Deciding that we had both had enough coffee to keep us going for several weeks, Jeroen told me he knew of a bar that served an amazing alcoholic beverage called Zucca. So we headed out into the early evening sunshine as Jeroen told me, with characteristic enthusiasm, of the story behind the Campari family and the bar for which we were headed.
As we strolled we spoke of Mona and the brand of perfumes that have been exciting and challenging people's perceptions since 2004. I learnt of Mona's tutelage under Edmond Roudnitska, whom she first met in 1987. I heard about Mona's reluctance to be the face of the fragrances but how everybody wanted to know the story of the woman who brought such early influences as the 20's and 30's to modern fragrances and seamlessly bound them into a new creation. We spoke about her passion for wine and his passion for design. We arrived at Zucca relaxed and smiling and squeezed in amongst the locals jostling at the packed bar. Jeroen ordered us two drinks - a delightful long cocktail made with the signature liqueur - and encouraged me to elbow my way to the bar to enjoy some of the delicious canapés that sit atop all alcoholic serving bars in Milan. As we sat outside feasting on over-sized olives and prawn stuffed pastries, sipping this delightful bitter aromatic, the sun began to slip across the square and lengthen shadows. Not once did our conversation falter, not once did I stop smiling and not once did I wish to be anywhere else in the world , or with any other company. As the evening deepened and the canapés disappeared Jeroen told me of a nearby restaurant that had never let him down in quality or friendliness of service. As we made our way across the Piazza, my perfume, Serge Lutens Les Salons Du Palais Royal Shiseido Fleur d'Oranger, rose off of my skin in waves agitated by the breeze and imitated all of the elements of the afternoon and evening, the slightly bitter neroli element resembling the rhubarb cocktails, the warmth and sweetness of the cumin and orange foretelling of the delicious meal we were about to enjoy and the warm amber whole reflected in the sinking sunshine. Every time I wear this fragrance I close my eyes to enjoy two seconds of being back in an ancient Piazza in Milan.
Olfactory travel. There's no better way to fly.