Tag Archives: Fragrance

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent – Somerset House, 24th June 2017

When I first heard about the perfume exhibition at Somerset House I wasn’t that bothered about going. I scanned the list of perfumes to be showcased and didn’t feel tempted. I was totally missing the point though. This isn’t just about the individual perfumes, it’s about interacting with fragrance in a new way.

Rather than a traditional exhibition, this is an interactive experience that seeks to open up your mind and give context to what you’re smelling, as well as chart the evolution of scent through recent times.

“Multi-sensory exhibition featuring ten extraordinary perfumes and their pioneering creators, who have radically changed our perceptions of fragrance over the last 20 years.”

I’m grateful to Megan of Megan In Sainte Maxime for suggesting we went along last Saturday. It was lovely to get to hang out with her and we had a lot of fun.

I know it’s only just opened but it was nice to see a queue of people waiting to go in for the 3pm session.

SPOILER ALERT: I mention which perfumes the rooms represent, so if you are planning on going along, you may want to read this post after you’ve been.

 

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The exhibition’s content was selected by Senior Curator Claire Catterall and fragrance expert/writer Lizzie Ostrom (Odette Toilette).

 

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The first room was a brief run through some landmark scents of the last century starting with L’Origan by Coty from 1905 and ending with CK One in 1994. They included Chypre de Coty, Shocking, Vent Vert, Youth Dew, Georgio and Opium.

 

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Megan sniffing L’Origan by Coty

 

At the start of the 10 perfume rooms we were offered a piece of card and a pencil to write down our thoughts on each scent. What an excellent idea!

 

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Room 1 had a trough of small dark beads strewn with black balls that had scent inserted into them. One of the staff told us we’d go through the first 5 rooms before we’d find out what the scents were and this process would then be repeated with a further 5.

The first perfume turned out to be Comme des Garcons 2 by Mark Buxton which aims to capture the scent of ink used in the Japanese art of Calligraphy. CdG were ground-breaking in developing personal fragrances inspired by synthetic substances.

 

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Those beads felt nice!

 

Room 2 held a big metal cube with vents at each corner, releasing the fragrance. Maybe it was the delivery system which made me note down “hot radiator” but there was a definite whiff of paint and dust. The actual perfume was Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 which I didn’t recognise at all.

 

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Next, in room 2, was a suspicious looking rumpled bed in a dimly lit room and I quickly twigged that this was Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange. What at first seemed like balled-up tissues impregnated with scent, were attached to the covers and I had to push myself to pick one up and sniff it. There was that stomach-churning aroma of bodily fluids and metal mixed with white flowers.

 

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In sharp contrast to the previous room, Room 3 had billowing white linens at the windows and a dream-like video playing on the wall. I recognised Olivia Giacobetti’s En Passant the moment I lifted one of the lengths of white fabric to my nose. A lovely wistful scent of fresh, watery lilacs by Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums.

 

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Room 4 had little scented bean bags and two purple chaise longues which were being hogged by a reclining couple. The perfume was very faint on the fabric but I got an iris-tinted powder. It turned out to be Olfactories Purple Rain by Prada: a high-end reworking of their Infusion d’Iris perfume.

 

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After the fifth room the fragrances were revealed with descriptions, notes and a chance to try them again.

 

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The fragrance I found the most intriguing was up next, although the room wasn’t quite as inspiring. There was a narrow shelf which seemed to be decorated like a desert floor the day after hipsters had been camping out – like a scene from Burning Man. The aroma on the little pyramids was smoky and dusty but I also noted pine needles. There was a cool vibe created by a speaker playing an American voice talking about perfume over the top of a Velvet Underground-style soundtrack.

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El Cosmico by D S & Durga contains notes of dry shrubs, desert pepper, pinyon pine, creosote, dry sand accord, oak and khella.

 

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Scented bean bags were used again in room 7 which contained bark benches and a tree stump. The scent was not too dissimilar to that of the previous one to my nose but nowhere near as complex.  I noted down that I wouldn’t want to wear it as personal fragrance but would love it as a scented candle.  It was Charcoal by Lyn Harris for Perfumer H.

 

 

 

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Charcoal scented bean bag.

 

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Next we were met by a room of people studiously painting away in silence. There were little jars of what Megan correctly identified as L’ Air du Desert Morocain by Andy Tauer and you were encouraged to paint your impressions of it.

 

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We had the most fun in the Avignon room. With its hanging black, leather-look pouches and little cubicles, Megan understandably got a 50 Shades vibe. It transpired that it was actually seeking to represent confession booths at Catholic church. Through the lattice-work in the walls we could hear who I assume was perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, talking about the composition process.

 

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In Room 10 you picked out a scented cuddly toy and had your photo taken with it. We concentrated so much on selecting our toy and getting our photo taken (which wasn’t easy as there didn’t appear to be a flash or countdown) that we didn’t spend much time focusing on the scent.

It was Dark Ride by Xyrena which seeks to replicate the aroma of theme park water rides and includes notes of chlorine and fog machines. Our picture was sadly too appalling for public consumption.

 

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As before, the next room contained information about the perfumes in the last 5 rooms.

 

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It was great that at the end of the interactive experience there was a chance to talk to some perfumers from Givaudan. They were also doing demonstrations of how to put together an accord. People were really interested and one woman even asked if they had any civet for her to smell.

 

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There were some individual ingredients to try from the previous 10 perfumes.

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They were collecting and taking photos of people’s notes at the end.

 

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Of course, you exit via the gift shop but even this was a cut above the rest. You could buy all but one of the perfumes in the exhibition (which is exclusive to Selfridges, possibly Purple Rain?) and lots of fragrance books, as well as a booklet about the exhibition and large scented postcards.

 

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You could tell it was a well thought out project with a great deal of time and effort put into the details and presentation, all with the aim of eliciting maximum engagement.

They’ve done a brilliant job of compelling us to interact with fragrance differently; to think about what we’re smelling and what associations it brings up before discovering the name, brand and notes.

Visitors really seemed to be enjoying themselves, comparing their thoughts and making the most of the interactive opportunities. I was totally impressed.

 

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is on at Somerset House until 17th September.

 

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I got to meet another online perfume pal for the first time!

 

What do you think about the exhibition and the perfumes selected? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

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Perfume, Books and Booze -The Imbibliotheque at Libreria, London

I think it was Robin writing on Now Smell This that said the one thing that all people with a passion for perfume have in common, is a love of books.

Thanks to Esperanza, I got a last minute ticket to an evening imbibing scents, alcohol and literature. This was held at the brand new bookshop, Libreria, on Hanbury Street (incidentally the same road as niche perfumerie, Bloom) in East London.

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Libreria bookshop, 65 Hanbury Street, London

Independent bookshops are having a tough time these days but Libreria is offering something  a bit different. They provide an internet-free zone where you can attend events and of course, browse the books, but you can also take a course on how to use the printing press in the basement and even print your own work.

The Imbibliotheque event was hosted by drinks writer, Henry Jeffreys and Lizzie Ostrom, author of “Perfume : A Century of Scents“. Lizzie runs regular perfume-themed soirées in the capital under her excellent nom de plume, Odette Toilette.

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Looking around the room, it seemed to be more of a literary crowd than a fragrant one (I won’t presume that anyone was there primarily for the booze). We started with a small sherry (to be followed by Marsala and gin) and then Henry and Lizzie proceeded to regale us with tales of literary works that mention either alcohol or scent. As this is mostly a perfume blog, I’ll be concentrating on Lizzie’s contributions.

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Lizzie Ostrom a.k.a. Odette Toilette

Lizzie started by saying that whenever she tells anyone about her interest in fragrance they usually respond with “Have you read Perfume by Patrick Suskind?”. Being the well-brought-up woman she is, Lizzie merely tells them that she has, while admitting to us “I hate it”.

These are the books with fragrant motifs that she prefers.

Wise Children by Angela Carter

Wise Children is the magical tale of two identical twins, Nora and Dora Chance, who were both chorus girls in their youth. The only way you could tell them apart was by their scent: one wore Shalimar while the other wore Mitsouko.

Lizzie points out these are clever choices because like the twins, both perfumes come from the same mother; Guerlain.  In the novel the girls swap scents and so manage to deceive their lovers as to their identity. This is because their scent is their identity.

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In the 1930s, when the novel is set, Lizzie tells us that scent was sold as a way to portray an  “amped-up” version of yourself. Perfume was about role-play.

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

Apparently perfume is mentioned quite regularly in detective novels, sometimes as a plot device. It’s referred to in a number of Raymond Chandler’s works in which it has the ability to betray someone. It literally leaves a scent trail.

In one story, a potential suspect is eliminated because the perfume found on a handkerchief at the crime scene is too vulgar for her to possibly wear.

In The Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe visits “The Gillerlain Company” (Hmm sounds familiar). Here’s an excerpt.

“The cream of the crop seemed to be something very small and simple in a squat amber bottle. It was in the middle at eye height, had a lot of space to itself, and was labeled Gillerlain Regal, The Champagne of Perfumes. It was definitely the stuff to get. One drop of that in the hollow of your throat and the matched pink pearls started falling on you like summer rain.”

Riders by Jilly Cooper

Lizzie had recently done an event for the Jilly Cooper Book Club and found that her bonkbusters are peppered with references to scent. Women are always pouring perfume over themselves in anticipation of meeting their lover. It gives the impression of “putting on the glitz”. It’s also used to show how extravagant a character is when another quips that she pours “God knows how many bottles of Diorissimo” into her swimming pool.

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When describing the character, Mrs Walters, Jilly Cooper writes “Caleche rises like morning mist from her ravine of a cleavage”. We tried some Caleche by Hermes on paper strips, which Lizzie says makes people treat her like a bitch whenever she wears it.

The Loved Ones by Evelyn Waugh

Published in 1948, The Loved Ones is a short novel set in Los Angeles. In it, Waugh satirises how perfume is being sold to women at that time.

“With a steady hand Aimee fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover — dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweatglands, gargled another to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle labelled: “Jungle Venom”- “From the depth of the fever-ridden swamp,” the advertisement had stated, “where juju drums throb for the human sacrifice, Jeannette’ s latest exclusive creation Jungle Venom comes to you with the remorseless stealth of the hunting cannibal.”

The Leopard by  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

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For a book full of descriptions of scent and smell, Lizzie reckons you can’t do better than The Leopard. This novel is set in Scilly in the 1860s, during the upheaval caused by the unification of Italy. Its theme of a decaying way of life is reflected in the depiction of the aristocratic family’s garden with its “oily emanations of magnolias” and a multitude of other scents clamouring for attention.

The garden has beauty but it’s also squalid, with the body of a soldier buried within it. The scent descriptions intoxicate the reader but they also send them reeling from the olfactory cacophony.

Lizzie matched The Leopard with a roll-on jasmine scent from Hyderabad which was indeed both captivating and repulsive, being both fleshy and plastick-y.

Snowball by Brigid Brophy

Snowball is a comedy of manners set at a New Year’s Eve Ball in a fancy house in London. Lizzie read us a description of how a perfume’s presence disappears from a room – it “shrivels like a corpse entombed”. One of the characters also consumes peppermint creams so this was a nice excuse to pass a box around the audience. I have to say I didn’t do any much sniffing before I wolfed one down.

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Books, glorious books: The shelves at Libreria

Doting by Henry Green

The wife of an adulterer in Doting isn’t sure of what she saw, but when dismissed by her cheating husband during a confrontation, she says “I smelt you, Arthur”.  She was born with such a strong sense of smell that she has utmost confidence in it.

Set in post-war London, the writer lets the reader experience the novel’s environment solely through the senses of the characters.

Brighton Rock by Graeme Green

Graeme Green drops in various uninspiring aromas from dead fish to creosote in order to remind the reader of how dreary the setting is. It creates a shorthand for a whole environment in this classic 1930s murder thriller.

Lizzie obtained one of the scents from IFF’s “Living Portfolio” which uses headspace technology to recreate everyday smells. The one that we tried was “Living Motor Oil” and it was incredibly realistic.

Ghost Stories

In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the new Mrs De Winter is haunted by Rebecca’s perfume. There are also references to scent in the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Fragrance can be used to represent the ethereal presence of someone long gone or inspire grief when encountering the scent associated with a lost loved one.

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Have you read any of these books? Do you have any novels with scent references to share?

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a favourite of mine with wonderful descriptions of various aromas sprinkled throughout.

 

 

 

 

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