Stepping off the bus and into Roullier White was a magical experience. Perfume bottles from all over the world stood on racks of tall wooden shelves, alongside candles, soaps and shampoos, jars of preserve and chutney, pajamas and many other lifestyle products [sidenote: Roullier White bills itself as a lifestyle boutique where you can find all sorts of interesting thingamabobs for the house, but they've got a pretty extensive and impressive stock of perfume that takes up about half the shop space]. The très chic bust models with pouffy hairdos and '30s swing music playing in the background felt like an homage and throwback to the past, and transported me back in time to a different era.
Blast to the past notwithstanding, I remained utterly cognisant of the fact that I was in perfume heaven. If you've ever witnessed a young kid running amok in a candy shop, you'll know exactly how I behaved in the first few minutes I spent in Roullier White. Houbigant! Evody! Histoires de Parfums! E. Coudray! And a good number of other brands I didn't recognise (if you were sharp-eyed, you would have noticed the big HEHE of gleeful joyous laughter that I sneakily slipped in - that was pretty much how I felt as I rubbed my hands in delight).
Despite my heady euphoria, my eyes quickly settled on the Slumberhouse fragrances, which were perched innocuously on a glass stand in the corner of the counter. Of the lot, my favourites were Pear + Olive and Norne. The former was a unique but extremely wearable pear-centred perfume with an oily, savoury undertone that didn't really come across as olive to my nose, unfortunately. The pear opened somewhat green and under-ripe but gradually ripened as the perfume developed. Underpinning all of this was a boozy wood accord that added depth and nuance to Pear + Olive.
The latter perfume, Norne, noticeably stained the tester strip a rather dark green, and understandably so, because the first whiff was a blast of fir evergreens and tree resins that knocked me off my feet. Why, if The Smelly Vagabond won't go to the forest, bring the forest to The Smelly Vagabond! Norne was a whirl of balsamic and herbaceous notes, and lots and lots of moss. If anything, it was dense, dark and mysterious, exactly the way I love my forest. It eventually dried down, on paper, to an earthy incense with remarkable longevity.
It seems that Pear + Olive is actually Slumberhouse's bestseller, according to an interview with the perfumer behind Slumberhouse, Josh Lobb:
Pear + Olive has outsold everything else. I'm very proud of that one, not only how it turned out but the process of creating it, the isolation, where my mind was at during the process. It opened my eyes to how I should approach making fragrances. The level of focus you need to make a good perfume is impossible to explain, and the process of making Pear + Olive involved a very intense kind of immersion into my head, nothing but myself and my thoughts and a total disregard for anything outside of what was happening inside my mind.
I'm not surprised, actually, seeing as how it is indeed the most wearable fragrance from the line while remaining wholly original through and through. But where Pear + Olive remained on the side of effortless wearability, Sova and Jeke unfortunately crossed the line for me.
I was most definitely less enamoured with Sova, which came across as no less than dried Chinese sour plums (酸梅) - a feat in perfumery, no doubt, but unfortunately absolutely unwearable to me, to belabour the point further. Forget the purported notes of sweet clover, beeswax, poplar buds, genet flowers, sap, golden grains, hops, hay and tobacco - all I got was a huge dollop of sour plums and cloves. Those go in my mouth, not in my nose. Still, it's definitely worth a sniff, since it presents an interesting experience for the nose.
Additionally, I found Jeke to be an intellectual perfume that sadly didn't make the cut for wearability. It opened somewhat similarly to Serge Lutens' Ambre Sultan, with woods and straight-up amber, but with a strange fizzy cola note pervading the entire concoction. As time went by, more clove surfaced until eventually it became suffocation by cloves. I guess cloves are my downfall, but if they are your thing, go for Jeke.
I was also glad to find 4160 Tuesdays perfumes in Roullier White. Having met independent perfumer Sarah McCartney before on a number of perfume meet-up sessions, and being the proud owner of two of her perfumes, Lady Rose Lion (Monkey Unicorn) and Evil Max, I must say that I very much enjoy her creatively-blended perfumes that somehow always seem to tell a story. And indeed, Time to Draw the Raffle Numbers didn't disappoint - "Minty peanut butter!" sprang to my mind and immediate comparisons were made with L'Artisan Parfumeur's Bois Farine, another nutty concoction. I also couldn’t resist a spritz of The Sexiest Scent on the Planet. Ever (IMHO), for the sheer pleasure of being able to say that I was wearing the most hilariously tongue-in-cheek fragrance around.
But before I get caught up in my various perfume musings, allow me to introduce some of the excellent staff at Roullier White:
I was primarily attended to by Mila, the most recent staff to join Roullier White. Through my conversations with Mila, I discovered that she was a budding perfume lover. She wasn’t very familiar with perfumes but as a child had been exposed to the perfumes worn by her mother, leaving her with many pleasant scented memories. What really struck me, however, was Mila’s enthusiasm to learn everything about perfumes – it was extremely refreshing to be taken through the various fragrances by someone who didn’t rattle off senseless ad-copy or a given list of notes. Instead, Mila asked me what my impressions of each fragrance were before sniffing the tester strips and giving me her opinions of them, without attempting to ‘hard-sell’ any of the perfumes. Now that’s what honest perfume discourse is about! My advice to Mila, in response to her question on how to better appreciate perfumes was: smell as much as you can, be open-minded, learn the perfume vocabulary by reading blogs and comparing scents, but most importantly of all to trust your own nose! I reckon she’ll fall headlong down the proverbial perfume rabbit-hole sooner or later!
And of course, we mustn't forget Lawrence, the founder and owner of Roullier White. Although he was extremely busy, he stopped by to say hello and to have a quick chat about the perfumes I was trying out, as well as his favourites. This gave me the opportunity to properly rave about the shop (seeing as I was still dizzy from excitement) and to request for an interview, which will be published in due time, so do keep an eye out for it!
Sadly, I had other destinations to head to prior to my dinner appointment back in Central London (I highly recommend visiting Crystal Palace Park, which is about half an hour from Roullier White by bus), and I hadn't realised that I'd spent a good two hours in Roullier White engaged in an intense sniffing marathon peppered with lots of lovely conversation, so it was time to leave. Time certainly seems to fly like an arrow (and fruit flies like a banana) when one is having fun!
Before leaving, I grabbed a bottle of Caldey Island's Number One Cologne (I'd originally intended to get a bottle of their acclaimed Lavender Water, but it wasn't in stock), a jar of the yummiest onion chutney I've ever tasted, and a jar of strawberry preserve. They were worth every penny of the £5 I paid for each of them.
Unfortunately, Roullier White didn't happen to have Slumberhouse samples on hand, which was a pity seeing as Norne and Pear + Olive had gotten my heart aflutter. However, I was gifted with a generous helping of fragrance samples, including those of Zurich-based Sentifique, Calé Fragranze d'Autore and another niche brand I'd never heard of before, Maison des Rêves. Having tested the samples out at my own leisure, I must say that I'm rather floored by Maison des Rêves’ Poudré and Mousse au Cafè, so a full review is definitely in order in due time. I would spring for a bottle of each, if only the hefty price tags didn't make me hesitate. But perhaps a couple more wearings will cause heart palpitations that will make reaching for the wallet impossible to resist...
In short, I have nothing but fine praise for Roullier White, from the impeccable service by their friendly staff to the excellently-curated selection of niche perfume brands that can't be found anywhere else in the UK, many of which I was encountering for the first time. It's definitely a perfume pilgrimage worth making for any perfume lover seeking to discover new fragrances, and do say 'hi' to Lawrence, Mila and the rest on my behalf if you do make the trip down. If long bus rides aren't your thing, however, Roullier White does UK-wide standard deliveries for £5, and to the rest of the world at varying postage rates. Personally, another trip is due very soon because there were just too many unexplored perfumes to sniff in one sitting... if only I weren't so addicted to perfumes! Well, you can't stop a Vagabond from wandering to the place where his heart lies.
Interview with Lawrence of Roullier White
Ever since I was a child I have had a very physical response to smell, triggering very powerful emotions. The smell of sand and salt immediately whisks me back to happy childhood memories of long family holidays; conversely polished wooden floors remind me of the first day back at school – it still turns my stomach to this day. The smell of cigar smoke reminds me of being curled up in bed on Christmas Eve with my parents and grandparents chatting and laughing downstairs, the sweet tobacco aroma drifting through the house. When my father was away working I would creep into my parents’ bedroom and smell his cologne and my mother and I would make rose water out of crushed rose petals – so it all dates back to a very early age. I think I probably wanted to collect and keep some of these ‘happy’ smells. Much later when I became interested in products I was attracted by the provenance of the classics and more obscure perfume houses. I would get a buzz from discovering exquisite packaging I had never seen before and the anticipation of smelling the secreted scent.
Why did you decide to open Roullier White?
I had been working specifically on range plans and product development for new shop launches for other people for about five years. I worked with the client’s target customer audience in mind, which is very challenging and quite a complex skill, I think I wanted to indulge myself a little. The first rule of buying is not to buy for yourself, but over the years I had collected so many amazing brands I felt compelled to showcase them.
What was your inspiration for the look and concept of Roullier White? I must say I love everything about it, from the shop’s interior design to the website down to the look of the bag you use.
Thank you so much for your kind words, I am really glad you like the shop. I wanted to create an experience that was comfortable and familiar. I decided to use old shop fittings for that reason as I did not want anything that was jarring or harsh. I also knew that what we were selling eight years ago would not be what we sell in eight years time so I wanted the adaptability you cannot really get with modern shop fits. I chose the black and white house colours because I wanted something that was elegant and timeless. The use of the 1930s icons we use on our website and packaging was a continuation of that notion and reflects the era of my Great Grandmother on whom I based our Mrs White’s range.
What was it like when you first started out?
In many ways the shop is very similar to when we launched. The range has increased as I discover more, and more is brought to us, but many of the original products are still happily working well for us. E. Coudray, Rigaud, Caron and Rancé all seem like family as they have pretty much been with us since day one. But I am always delighted to make new friends such as the remarkable Ex Idolo, Slumberhouse and 4160 Tuesday ranges. That is the fun for me: finding new ‘happy’ scents. I am delighted with our new collection from Union Fragrances. In particular, Celtic Fire sends shivers down my spine.
What is the clientele of Roullier White like?
Our clientele is very diverse; we have a very loyal local customer base which uses us because they know they can always find something new, unusual and exciting. We also have perfume devotees who seek us out from all over the country to sample some of our exclusives such as Slumberhouse and then we have people from as far as Australia, Japan and Southern America who would not come to the UK without a trip to our store. This fills me with immense pride.
How do small shops like yours stay in business, especially when compared to giant department stores? What other challenges do you face?
It is always a struggle for the independent retailer, but the wheels move slowly in the big department stores. We can discover something in the morning and have it on the shelves and website by lunchtime. The advantage of buying from a boutique is that the staff are passionate about the product and are familiar with all the ranges we sell. Over 50 perfume houses are represented, so you get a completely different experience from visiting one of the perfume counters in a department store. If you are looking to find a new fragrance, this really is the only way to do it.
The key to surviving in business is to rise to any challenge and turn it into an opportunity. You need to work with people who are keen, always positive and optimistic – with a good team you can face any challenge.
Tell me more about the rest of the Roullier White team. Who’s who and how do you work together?
We have two shop managers, Richard and Mila who work tirelessly to ensure that everyone who visits Roullier White is guaranteed a fun experience. Chris Coles, our highly efficient operations manager, oversees our customer service programme for remote shoppers and we are lucky enough to have our web content managed by freelance journalist, Raymond Murphy.
What made you decide to stock only niche fragrances that have very limited distribution? How do you decide which perfume brands to stock? Which perfumes are the bestsellers in store? What would you do if a certain perfume didn’t sell? Would you stop stocking it?
Because I was always attracted by the provenance I sought out perfumes with a history or story, which largely tend to be from the niche perfume houses. I adore working closely with the makers, it is so inspiring, and you can only get this from the smaller or artisan houses. Hopefully I only select fragrances which are remarkable for one reason or another, they must be of high quality and there is little point stocking something which is available everywhere.
Perfumes tend to sell across the board. We pride ourselves on striving to have something for everyone. We have a lot of modern, very wearable brands such as Carner Barcelona, Atelier Cologne, Maison des Rêves, and these are very popular as are the stunning scents from older houses such Farmacia SS Annunziata, Rancé and Houbigant – Fougère Royal is one of my favourites.
If perfumes start to appear on some of the mainstream third party sites or become overexposed, then we know they are no longer for us – for that reason we would move on and find something new.
If a fire broke out in your home and you could only rescue one perfume, what would it be and why?
That would have to be my bottle of the discontinued Hermès Equipage.
Which perfume are you currently wearing?
I have never had just one fragrance. I believe in a fragrance wardrobe from which you can select to match your mood. I have worn Pour un Homme de Caron for over twenty years, for me it is like pulling on a favourite sweater. Slumberhouse’s Pear and Olive is almost narcotic in its heavenliness and is a bright cheerful day fragrance as is Eight and Bob. I also like the greenness of both Frederic Malle’s Geranium Pour Monsieur and Byredo’s La Tulipe and I cannot tell you how much I adore Union Fragrance’s Quince, Mint and Moss. In the evening, the sophistication of Ex Idolo’s Thirty Three cannot be beaten.
If you weren’t so busy with Roullier White, what would you be working as?
That’s a hard question, Roullier White is so much part of my life it is all wrapped up together. Every time I pick anything up, I do so in the context of whether it would work for the shop. I cannot really imagine doing anything else. There are bits I enjoy doing more than others but I cannot really imagine anything better than creating a retail space full of things I love to share with others.
What are your plans for Roullier White for the future?
That is the exciting thing – waking up each morning with a fresh idea of something new to do. Hopefully our customers will continue to enjoy our work and we will reach more and more people. I have so many plans, I am never quite sure where they will take me!
- Do spend some time browsing Roullier White's website, if for no other reason than to admire its excellent design and ogle at its impressive perfumery section. Prices for the fragrances mentioned in this article can be found there.
- Roullier White can be found at 125 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, London SE22 8HU. They are open Mondays to Saturdays, 10am to 6pm and Sundays, 11am to 5pm