Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Dreaming spires and spirals of smoke: Ruth Mastenbroek Oxford review

Source: Wikimedia Commons (by Tejvan Pettinger)
At the Smelly Cakey Perfume Meet Up in London the other weekend, we were lucky enough to have perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek in our party, and the day kicked off with an interesting talk she gave in Fenwick about her creative process, materials, and the three perfumes she has released to date, plus a fourth one that is currently in development.

As I mentioned in that post, Oxford is the scent inspired by her reportedly hedonistic university days, when she smoked Gitanes, and generally lived life in the fast lane rather than the library. I do think that perfumes named after places - Oxford, Paris, New York, Moscow etc - though rather Ronseal-like in their way, have an advantage over more obscure and nebulously evocative names such as Skarb, Pohadka, Blamage and Blask. Even if you haven't been to the place in question - and let's face it, who has been to Timbuktu or on an Escale à Pondichéry? - you can often conjure up the scene quite well in your mind. And when it comes to somewhere as squarely on the tourist trail as Oxford, the chances are that many of us will have been there - to visit, if not necessarily to study.

I will come back to my own recollections of Oxford in a bit. As you will see, these are a very mixed bag indeed, but I shall get straight to the perfume itself, which is most distinctive, although facets also remind me of a handful of other scents.

On Ruth Mastenbroek's website there is a brief synopsis of Oxford the perfume's persona:

"Daring, rough and chic...Oxford captures that moment in life that you discover you can make your own choices, your own mistakes.

An explosion of fresh, green, basil and peppery notes bursts from a herbal heart of clary sage with sensuous jasmine; vanilla, amberwood, and oudh bring a cashmere texture to the base."

Before going any further, will you check out that Oxford comma after 'amberwood'! Well played. ;)

Source: Ruth Mastenbroek

In my last post I said I thought Oxford reminded me of Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet, on account of the crisp, herbal opening, not that I have smelt the Penhaligon's scent in ages. I didn't really observe Oxford last time beyond the top notes, but having worn it several times now I can confirm that the opening reminds me more of one of the Eau de Sisleys - maybe No 2? - crossed with a muted version of Puredistance Antonia. Not so sappily galbanum-forward, more a diffuse herbal bouquet. The comparison with Antonia persists into the beautifully creamy drydown, because of the combination of sundry greenery, jasmine, vanilla and amber. Okay, so there is no amber listed in the notes of Antonia, but I detect an amberlike warmth in the base all the same. That is my favourite part of the development of Oxford (or should that be the Oxford Movement?), and the soft, pearlescent, pudding-y quality of the perfume in its later stages also conjures up Cloon Keen Atelier's Castana and a hint of Fils de Dieu (du Riz et des Agrumes) by Etat Libre d'Orange. So lovers of rice pudding-cum-junket scents are in for a treat here. A junket, even!

I can't say I smell anything remotely suggestive of cigarettes, louche behaviour or late submission of assignments - it is more redolent of the refined English rose that Ruth embodies today - hmm, she was wearing what I believe are known in some circles as 'cigarette pants', though.

But enough of the perfume, lovely as it is. What do I associate with Oxford...?

Source: Wikimedia Commons (by SirMetal)

Well, not my university days, for starters. I spent those in the mock Tudor cloisters of Queen's Belfast, huddled in a duffel coat over a bar heater, my bed just feet from a two ring Baby Belling bearing the telltale tomato-y traces of overexuberant tinned ravioli.

But I did have girlfriends who went to Oxford, who snuck me into their room in halls at St Anne's College, which I had to vacate in the morning before I was discovered by a 'scout' (the university word for a housekeeper / chamber maid).  We dined on beef and Guinness pie at Brown's, the epitome of fine dining in 1978, and made daytime pilgrimages to Blackwell's and the Bodleian.

By the early 1980s, I was living in High Wycombe, and thought nothing of jumping on a bus and travelling the 23 miles to Matthew Arnold's city of dreaming spires. High Wycombe at that time was dominated by the chocolate factory of Stewart & Arnold, and was also home to the floppy haired New Wave musician Howard Jones. But I was already a fan of The Monochrome Set by then and spent my 24th birthday at a gig in the grounds of Exeter College, standing on my own nursing a bottle of Heineken, and trying not to look like Jilly No Mates.

During the winter of 1983 I dated a postgraduate music student at Magdalen College I shall call M, whom I met on holiday that summer (the ill-fated and entirely inadvertent one spent in a nudist camp). I did not go out with him till well after we were back, I should add, by which time he had put his clothes back on again.  M was very wrapped up in his work, so much so that an enjoyable weekend in his student digs up the Cowley Road was unexpectedly followed by a six week hiatus in communications. Eventually I summoned up the courage to write to him, asking if the radio silence was because of something I had said, only to learn that he had been so engrossed in the absorbing task of transcribing medieval lute music that it had quite slipped his mind that he had a girlfriend! So that was the end of that.

Source: Wikipedia (by Henry Flowers)

When I moved to Swindon in 1984 to take up my first job, there were other visits to Oxford - mostly with colleagues to characterful pubs by the river such as The Perch Inn, where we made the most of the long summer evenings.

Later in the 80s, the Headington Shark appeared, a draw to rival any of the architectural gems of the city proper. Although living in Stafford by now, Oxford periodically exerted its gravitational pull. My mother died in the Churchill Hospital there a decade later, and sadly I didn't make it in time to be with her at the end.

And then in 2013, The Monochrome Set played in Oxford again, 30 years on from that Exeter College gig on my birthday. Which shows how the band and its music have cast a long shadow, and completes the circle of real and imaginary cigarette smoke.

So yes, perfumes named after place names embody the creator's own story, but they are also an open invitation to the wearer to wreathe them in their own memories, and give them a bespoke spin...

What are your associations with Oxford?  (The perfume or the place.) Do share in the comments!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

'In the midnight hour, she cried: "Myrrh, myrrh, myrrh"': Puredistance SHEIDUNA review

After eight years, I would probably describe my interest in perfume as 'mature'. That's 'mature' in the sense of being in a plateau phase - I don't mean to imply that I am any more knowledgeable about the subject of fragrance than I was when I first got into this hobby. And the recent twitchiness of my skin means that my interest has been going backwards if anything, not helped by the slew of 'nouveau niche' releases that continue to flood the market, many of them a sorry epitome of style and hiked price over substance.

But as jaded and scent-shy as I have become of late, my perfume mojo never fails to perk up at the mention of a new Puredistance release. For while the Dutch brand trades on an undeniably luxury platform, their products are developed slowly and thoughtfully, with quality ingredients and a high degree of attention to detail in every aspect of the marketing mix.

So when a sample package arrived the other day with SHEIDUNA, the latest addition to the still not overly populous Puredistance stable - I know, I know, they are still on a roll with their CAPITALISATION OF NAMES - I fell upon it with glad cries, metaphorically speaking. In the PR material for SHEIDUNA I had noted that the planned colour scheme for this scent was based around orange and red, and was pleased to see the use of 'red brown paper', if that makes sense, for the outer wrapping of the parcel.

Inside the black outer cardboard was the usual white 'padded coffin'-style coffret lined with sumptuous gold satin. The perfume itself was delivered this time in a small, refillable purse spray (as opposed to the Travalo used to present Penhaligon's Juniper Sling); of particular interest to me as a long time bottle splitter and sample maker was the inclusion of a small gold funnel to use when decanting from the full-sized test tube bottle of SHEIDUNA the company is clearly confident we will one day wish to own.

But back to our muttons. Readers, it is a very fine funnel indeed, of sturdy construction with optimum hole diameter and smooth, well finished edges. And I speak as someone who owns a whole clatter of tiny, tinny, sharp and useless funnels I got in a job lot from China. And even some of my better quality ones have such a narrow aperture that perfumes of higher viscosities sometimes refuse to pour through the blessed things at all. So, never mind the perfume, big fat tick for the funnel right off the bat!

On a side note, I have to mention that in her nice little card with the parcel, Puredistance's PR lady, Mary Gooding, wrote Sheiduna in lower case. Yes indeed! I like the idea that she kicks back from time to time and doesn't stand on capitalised ceremony.

And before getting into the perfume itself, a quick word on the name. You can readily see where Puredistance are going with SHEIDUNA: it is another of those sultry desert-inspired numbers, like Ormonde Jayne Ta'if and l'Air du Désert Marocain, for the likes of which I personally have a quite voracious appetite. And if this were a game of Countdown it would be the work of a moment to make 'SHEIK' and 'DUNE' out of the name. Okay, if you had a 'K' and an 'E' admittedly, but bear with me. (Just checked the PR material and the name was in fact invented from the words 'She', 'Sheika' and 'Dune', 'sheika' being a married woman / wife of a sheik. I didn't guess 'she' - not a high enough word score, obviously, to be on my radar, but I was in the right ball park as you can see.)

Interestingly, I read in a Basenotes comment that 'sheiduna' in Arabic means 'female devil'. I cannot find anything to corroborate this spelling in Google, though 'sheitan' comes up. From this it is surely a short hop and skip to SHEIDUNA as female dune-dwelling devil.

Then further to the Billy Idol song of the title (Rebel Yell, slightly adapted), I don't know why, but the song 'My Sharona' by The Knack popped into my head as soon as I thought of SHEIDUNA, and has remained an annoyingly persistent earworm ever since. It is possibly that song title that has made me now associate SHEIDUNA with the VW SHARAN, the Kia SEDONA, and other (not usually capitalised) SUVs of that kidney. That is after all just the sort of rugged vehicle you need when exploring the challenging terrain in question.

Source: Wikipedia

Here is the official Puredistance statement of the scent's inspiration:

"SHEIDUNA is a rich and intense Perfume inspired by the panoramic views and feel of golden sand dunes in the desert during sunset - soft female curves changing from deep gold to warm, orangey red - embodying a promise of sensual comfort and silent seduction."

I must say I had never thought of sand dunes in quite that way before, but come to think of it their globular nature does rather lend itself to such comparisons. The other key aim of the creative brief from Puredistance founder Jan Ewoud Vos was 'to create the perfume marriage between Oriental Sensuality and Parisian elegance'.

Orange and red Persian rug from Central Casting

Then I greatly enjoyed trying to decipher the notes which passed back and forth between perfumer Cécile Zarzokian and Jan Ewoud Vos during the development process. I see that Catherine Deneuve, Eva Green and Charlotte Rampling are cited as muses, and that the perfume should be sensual, veering towards sexual, without tipping over into vulgarity. Or was it supposed to tip over slightly into vulgarity? I can't quite make out the snippet which may or may not say: 'Hint of vulgarity'. So of course I had to write to Mary and ask for clarification, also of the word that on balance probably isn't 'Cabillaud', which is 'cod' in French. Mary told me that my phantom cod was in fact 'Cotillard', the surname of a French actress, singer-songwriter, environmentalist and spokesperson for Greenpeace (Wikipedia informs me).

Marion Cotillard ~ Source Wikimedia Commons (George Biard)

I didn't get any further with the vulgarity issue, mind, for Mary replied:

"I spoke with Jan Ewoud about deciphering the rest of the post card and he explained that the card is meant for feeling, not analysing. Please take the feelings and emotions you have when viewing the cards with the earliest hand-written notes and messages between Jan Ewoud and Cécile Zarokian to bring you a little closer to the development of the concept. 

I hope this proves to be an interesting endeavour for you!" 

It certainly did. I like a bit of mystery at the end of the day.

So how does SHEIDUNA smell?

Well, first up, here are the notes;

Lemon, tangerine, blackcurrant, aldehydes, Bulgarian rose essence, geranium, clove, vetyver, patchouli, amber woody incense, benzoin, myrrh, tonka bean, vanilla pods and musks

Eyeballing that list I was immediately reminded of the notes of Puredistance 1, with which there is a surprising amount of crossover.

Fresh tangerine blossom, cassis, neroli bigarade, magnolia, rose wardia, jasmine, natural mimosa, sweet amber, vetyver, white musk

Diptyque's L'Ombre dans l'Eau and Baume du Doge by Eau d'Italie also sprang to mind, with their crackling tension between (respectively) blackcurrant and orange notes - and myrrh. While the mixture of aldehydes and incense inevitably conjures up Serge Lutens' La Myrrhe.

Tried burning the stuff once but it was myrrh trouble than it was worth

In the opening to SHEIDUNA, the crystalline texture of the myrrh coupled with the amber base convey a simultaneously warm and granular feel, as befits the sandscapes which form the thematic backdrop to the scent. (Purple prose alert!!) The prickly heat effect is further reinforced by a coruscating canopy of spiced aldehydes. To my nose there is a vaguely odd aspect to the scent at this point, possibly because of the juxtaposition of fruit and the amber woody incense accord, or just the latter on its own packing a punch - I can't quite put my finger on it. The feeling of oddness varies from spray to spray - depending perhaps on how liberal I am with the application. But if you are happy to wait a little while, SHEIDUNA soon gets into more classical 'desert oriental' territory. I LOVE the drydown in particular, when the scent becomes a fuzzy caressing tingle of ambery incense. I am sorry, I have tried several versions of that sentence and they all sound a bit louche. Yes, there is a lot going on here that I cannot begin to describe, but as ever with Puredistance scents, you really can't see the join.

Puredistance display in Fortnum & Mason

SHEIDUNA is opulent and elegant and mysterious and completely its own thing: it is not simply an oriental spin on Puredistance 1 as I at first wondered - and if you like any or all of the fragrances mentioned earlier there is a good chance you will enjoy it, singular opening notwithstanding. A perfume with three separate notes that smell of vanilla already has a lot to commend it in my book.

I also tried SHEIDUNA out on the trusty sounding board that is my elderly friend - Facebook friends will recognise who I mean. She didn't want to sniff my skin itself, as she got enough of a whiff some inches away. 'It's creamy', she remarked, adding: 'It's nice', and as an afterthought: 'I wouldn't call it delicate.' Which may have been a reference to SHEIDUNA's powers of projection...or the fact that it does contain a 'hint of vulgarity' after all. ;) My elderly friend seemed to approve either way.

And as well as Rebel Yell, I am minded of a track by The Monochrome Set called Rain Check; it is a surprisingly jaunty ditty about cheating death, who is depicted as a black caped figure swinging his cane and smelling of (presumably) funereal incense:

"The scent of myrrh on your skin..."

SHEIDUNA, the scent of myrrh, and so much more.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Moomin for a day: Pia and Nick's Smelly Cakey - and a bit rainy - Perfume Meet in London: 1.10.16

I didn't make last year's Smelly Cakey Perfume Meet, and sadly missed all the amusing messing about with Bogue Profumo fencing masks, though I could probably fashion something not too dissimilar by slicing off a bit of the wasp's nest in the loft and painting it white. But as we always say, it is all about the people, not the props, and when this years SCPM was announced (not to be confused with Supply Chain Process Management, though there was a bit of that along the way, actually), I signed up with alacrity.

And so it was that the alarm woke me at 6am yesterday, and I staggered downstairs dazed and incredulous that it could be so early and still so dark. From the comfort of her favourite spot on the sofa, Truffle shot me a look of baleful suspicion. I must be up to no good to be moving around with such purpose at this ungodly hour. Then the time-honoured tradition of a last minute outfit crisis before an event, promptly followed by forgetting to bring at least three items, didn't disappoint this year. All the bedroooms were laid waste with discarded ensembles, rejected in turn for being too evening-y, too normcore, too 'Oh God, are those jeans actually acid washed?!!', too constricting / chafing / miscellaneously uncomfortable, too synthetically sweat-inducing, too clashing, too low cut, too potentially warm in a retail environment, too short, too likely to let in water, and too 'trying too hard and fatally failing to look like the cool urban socialite' I am not.

So in keeping with my designated membership of the Moomin subgroup, I settled on a tunic dress from Finland - a charity shop steal at £3.99 - teamed with 16 year old oxblood Camper boots, whose soles are showing surprisingly little signs of imploding despite their advanced age. Oh, and the forgotten items: a handful of empty vials for spontaneous sample making, my Oyster card, a hair brush, a change of top (my back was already running with sweat before I even got to the station!), and a tube of Lovehearts for those moments when only sherbert and a gnomic romantic banality will do.

Pia and Val

I spent most of the journey down listening to the repeated clunk of the toilet door slamming open and shut every time the train stopped at a station, and de-pilling the back of my quilted Hobbs coat. How long had I been walking around with dozens of tiny white puffs of padding making a run for it, like micro-vapour trails from a jet pack?!?

Twice during the trip, a Japanese lady chatted to me while waiting to use the wayward WC. She seemed genuinely disturbed at the time it was taking to get to London from Crewe (three hours). I did my best to 'express' empathy with my comment that it was 'not exactly a bullet train, to be fair.'

Val (CQ Sperrer) was waiting for me at Euston with an emergency comb she had just bought for me, the little duck, and shortly afterwards we rendez-vous'ed with Pia, one of our trusty duo of organisers. The startling coincidence of their matching outerwear and red rucksacks warranted the first photo call of the day.

Fenwick: Ruth Mastenbroek

Our first stop was Fenwick, a store chain I had never visited in my life till last weekend, when I ventured into one in Colchester, on a doomed mission to buy a bottle of water. After a cursory and equally fruitless rummage in the toy department for a small, tasteful toy chameleon (for reasons too obscure to trouble you with) - chameleons of any kind were conspicuously absent, or maybe they had temporarily morphed into teddies? - I walked straight through the ground floor and crossed the street to M & S instead. So imagine my surprise to find myself in yet another branch of Fenwick, a mere week later.

We kicked off our perfume itinerary with a talk 'in the round' by Ruth Mastenbroek. I knew some of her work already, but hearing about the inspiration for her previous scents - and the reason why she creates perfume at all (one of those ineffable urges for self-expression) - really brought her range to life. Well, in truth I didn't catch everything in Ruth's talk - she was softly spoken, and it was tricky with some of us being behind her, but I did glean that Amorosa came about as a result of Ruth's search for a house in Italy; with that scent she sought to capture the essence or quiddity of the area, in terms of its history, terrain, culture etc.

Ruth Mastenbroek, Nick, Suzy, Rachael, Garfield, and Liz Moores

We sniffed a mixture of finished perfumes and materials they contained eg Javanol (an intense sandalwood) and cistus oil. I was especially drawn to her most recent release, Oxford, a unisex perfume which speaks to her memories of a somewhat sybaritic time at Oxford university, where Ruth studied chemistry, punted down the Isis, smoked Gitanes, and by inference only just got her assignments in under the wire. Oxford the scent includes notes of amber and cistus and other things I have sadly not recorded, though the overall impression to my nose was more of a bracing citrus composition akin to Blenheim Bouquet. I have yet to wear Oxford on skin though, and may only have smelt the top notes.

Ruth has another perfume coming out next year: a feminine with a masculine edge - two male perfumers to whom she showed it have said they would wear it - but that is all we know at this point!

Freddie, Val and Rachael probably checking Facebook


After the talk in Fenwick, our party divided into its two subgroups, like trains at Three Bridges. We Moomins stopped by the recently opened premises of Lalique in Burlington Arcade...so recent that - never mind the exquisite crystalware, perfume and humongous floral arrangements - I got immense pleasure simply from inhaling the sublime new carpet smell!

We were ushered into a compact but bijou upstairs room, lined with Lalique vases and ornaments and festooned with what I took to be a mixture of mostly hydrangeas and delphiniums, but please don't quote me on that. Our host, Lalique's UK Director, Frederick Fischer, was absolutely charming. He apologised for the overpowering scent of the flowers, which he had allegedly been trying to tone down before our arrival - I am not sure he mentioned how exactly. ;)

For the next 20 minutes or so, in a captivating French accent, we were treated to a fascinating and detailed account of the history of the Lalique brand and the life of its founder René Lalique: how he started out as an apprentice jeweller, inventing the category of costume jewellery for theatrical productions at the turn of the 20th century. This was bold, chunky and impactful from a distance - think 'tiara with a snake'. Gradually, Lalique went on to win commissions to design brand-specific glass perfume bottles for iconic houses like Coty, Guerlain and Nina Ricci. Branded perfume bottles were a quite new presentational format, as scent had previously been sold in generic apothecary bottles and decanted into the customer's own atomiser. In the early 1990s, with the business now managed by René Lalique's grand-daughter, Marie-Claude, the brand ventured into fragrances under its own name.

Frederick let us sample several scents from the line, all of which I liked, in particular the floral Lalique de Lalique from 1992. (If you are curious, check out this beautifully nuanced review by Kevin of Now Smell This.) Frederick also demonstrated a particularly generous technique for spraying the blotters in a fan shape from a distance, which he had learned from Roja Dove, who coincidentally has a shop in the same arcade. This method bypasses the alcoholic top note you get when perfume is sprayed directly on a scent strip from close range, though you could of course just wait a bit. I sense that this 'nozzle-happy' school of spraying blotters may also go some way to explaining the high price point of the Roja Dove portfolio. I was also encouraged to have confirmed that directly sniffing the nozzle of a tester bottle - a favourite sampling method of mine, that cuts out the middleman of paper - gives you as good an idea of how a perfume smells as any, for some of the juice will have crystallised around the atomiser top.

Frederick also shared with us the rather sweet story of how his mother had managed a perfumery store in Paris when he was a little boy, and brought home miniature bottles, kindling a lasting passion for fragrance in her son at an early age.

At the end of our visit, we were treated to goody bags of samples and a glass of champagne, which owing to our military schedule we had to knock back in five minutes flat - or do I mean 'five minutes pétillant'?! Anyway, for an old lush like me that was no bother at all. On the way out I photographed a hobnail Lalique vase (see the top of the post) that bore an uncanny resemblance to my antique sherry glass below. I sense I might have been doing Frederick a service by minesweeping some of the blowsy Triffid blooms, but desisted.

By Kilian

I also resisted the very real urge to pop into the Roja Dove store, and drop £275 on an 'incredibly masculine, self-assured chypre' for the highly successful Russian Oligarch in my life, and dutifully went instead with my Moomin group to the next stop, By Kilian. Here we were made welcome by the engaging and bubbly Davina, who looked ever so slightly like an upmarket jewel thief or a magician's assistant in her monochrome outfit of white blouse and black gloves. By Kilian is another brand noted for its luxury positioning. I was familiar with the refillable lacquered black box-style of packaging, but was now introduced to the giant decanter bottle, which will set you back somewhere along the spectrum of £2100 - £5000. Readers, I am not on that spectrum, and even if I had the funds to blow on such an outsize thing, struggle to use up a 50ml bottle. However, for someone who loves one particular scent it could well be a case that buying in bulk is the economically sound way to go. Plus you do get to choose your own top and tassle! Though as with Ford cars, it seemed hard to imagine any other colour apart from black. So, you know, that degree of customisation counts for a lot.

Of interest to me (academically at least!) in this new era I am entering of having intolerant, allergic skin, you can additionally buy accessories with novel perfume delivery mechanisms as opposed to spraying on your own skin. In addition to four candles, none of which are now scented with the main fine fragrance line, so as not to debase it with a more functional take in a candle - you can buy perfumed jewellery such as earrings and cufflinks, which incorporate a cunningly concealed ceramic compartment that you spray with your chosen scent - and get this, there is also a tassle with a little trunk concealed within its fibres, similarly containing a perfumed core. Apparently Kilian Hennessey pops them in his wardrobe between his suits, if you needed any further persuasion. ;)

During our time in store we tried an interesting clutch of By Kilian scents, including one which smelt insufficiently of 'weed' for my liking though it was meant to evoke it(!) (Smoke for the Soul), and one that smelt perfectly sufficiently of vodka and tonic (Vodka on the Rocks). A firm favourite with most of our Moomins was Single Malt, featuring notes of whisky, plum and tobacco. It reminded me a bit of Liaisons Dangereuses, but happily lacks the latter's additional coconut note that turned that one into a headache-fest no-no for me. I am fine with coconut in Beyond Love (bewitched review here), and have recently been smitten with Amber Oud, thanks to Undina's compelling description and subsequent enabling. Blotters of that one were also circulated, and I was able to blag a sample, hurrah!

Davina holding a candle to Kirk and Val

Fortnum & Mason

Before our next formal stop at Miller Harris in Monmouth Street, a ragged gaggle of us wandered into Fortnum & Mason, fired up by the 'runaway' desire Val had instilled in us to smell Galop d'Hermès.  Galop proved as elusive as the fire-resistant toy chameleon, but we whiled away an interesting - and at times deeply disturbing - ten minutes in the perfume hall, focusing mainly on that ne plus ultra of 'you could put your eye out with that' fragrance ranges, Xerjoff (which Rachael persisted in calling 'Jerk Off'), and Beaufort London, with which Freddie was comprehensively and frighteningly anointed. Of particular note is Symposium by Xerjoff - I have no idea what it smelt like, but check out the bottle decoration!, which would not look out of place in a Clive Christian kitchen worktop, whose perfume range coincidentally was on an adjacent wall. ;)

The highlight of the flying visit to Fortnum & Mason for me has to be the trip to the Ladies' Powder Room - for the obvious reason you might infer, but also on account of the sumptuous fittings - mushroom grey walls accessorised by ornate gilt mirrors. I would have taken a photograph, but it was a high traffic area and I didn't want to hold the group up, so am taking the liberty (no, wait, that's a different store!) of pinching a snap from the Porcelain Press, which appears to be a dormant blog on rest rooms the world over.

Miller Harris

Starting to feel a bit peckish, I grabbed a bag of upmarket cheesy wotsits (or Organic Chickpea Puffs, to dignify them with their proper name) before the Miller Harris visit. Well, a combination of a store visit in the classic sense of going inside the shop, and a general milling around by people on the street outside. There were about 17 of us after all, for our two groups had coalesced again by this stage.

One of the friendly sales staff in Miller Harris invited us to complete short questionnaires to determine the fragrance styles which would most complement our lifestyle. As a market researcher, obviously I had to have a go at this, given that it was not a formal enough exercise to have exclusions to that effect. But as a semi-unemployed / -retired person, I struggled rather with the questions on fragrances worn during 'the working week' versus 'on days off' - partly because I work from home when I work at all - so the whole principle of office-appropriate scents goes right out the window for starters. I ended up with recommendations of Etui Noir, Feuilles de Tabac and Poirier du Soir, but was actually more drawn to the rose scents in the line, the citrus duo of Tangerine Vert and Le Petit Grain, and that glorious 'eau de Jane Birkin's armpit hair' that is L'Air de Rien, as I may or may not have quite called it at the time of my review. Yeah, maybe I should give up the day job.

I took this opportunity to inquire about the current status of the line Lyn Harris created for M & S, which I have previously championed on Bonkers, but was told it was a limited edition venture that is no longer extant. Miller Harris also generously gave us all a goody bag of samples, including a new one on me, which I look forward to trying - Cassis de Feuille. I would also like to give special mention to the gorgeous backdrop of wallpaper.

Bloom Perfumery

Our final stop was Bloom in Covent Garden, which I had visited before, but not since they rearranged their stock along 'note' lines rather than by brand. In principle I thought that was a rather clever idea, but I found it more confusing than not in reality, partly because it is hard to pigeonhole perfumes in that way, and partly because it made for a rather jumbled looking display both in and out of the cabinets.

Freddie and Tara deep in conversation

But also, to be honest, I was a bit tired by this stage and had almost shot my sniffing bolt, which in the wake of my recent skin woes hasn't been very lively of late at the best of times. The highlight of the visit was without doubt chatting to Louise Woollam of Get Lippie about her horrible brush with parosmia, which thankfully is a lot better now. I had a sniff of Paradox, the perfume Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays created for her, which managed to combine the few elements Louise was still able to smell and enjoy when the condition was at its most acute. Louise also didn't mind me hitting her up for eczema-friendly skincare tips, for which I am grateful.

Nafia, Lisa, Rachael, Suzy, Pia and Phoebe

After Bloom, some of the group - Moomins and Flamingos now thoroughly mixed up at this point ;) - peeled off to go for the Cakey part of the event, while others went straight home. Meanwhile, the Monochrome Set fan / perfumista crossover contingent(!), comprising Val, Rachael and me, holed up in a cafe for an hour to catch up on news, where we encountered our longest tea bag ever. It was positively sock-like. Why, I have even seen shorter Christmas stockings.

And before I knew it I was speeding home on a much faster Virgin train - no sign of the Japanese lady this time, who I feel sure would have been happy with the journey times of that service. I found myself sandwiched between two area managers of the St John's Ambulance on their way back to Merseyside from a conference, so I knew I was in safe hands should my cereal bar happen to go down the wrong way. One of the ladies was additionally a vicar, so even if they fluffed the Heimlich manoeuvre I could at least be sure my soul was in good hands.

And speaking of good hands, it remains to thank Pia and Nick very much indeed for organising such an eventful and enjoyable day. What I would call 'episodic' and ex-Mr Bonkers would have called 'sodding epic', in a good way. And we didn't even get sodden as such, though it rained on and off, as billed. It was great too to meet old friends again and meet others for the first time - you know who you are... Did I say it was more about the people than the props? But props - and perfume - there were in abundance, which will take some time to explore / get through. Here is Truffle, attempting to photobomb the substantial haul from the day, which included Welsh Cakes, and of course my emergency comb, which (unless I lose it) I expect will outlast everything else...

Monday, 26 September 2016

My scented week: from zero to hero (Aroma M Geisha Noire!) via some musty old books

In last week's post about my recent brush with allergic contact dermatitis I mentioned that I don't believe fragrance is a contributory factor. I still don't, yet at the same time, I haven't felt much like wearing perfume lately, whether during the flare ups or the fragile periods of quiescence in between. When the double decker oedemas strike, my whole focus is on calming my skin down, not adding other chemicals to the mix. And when my skin is in a good phase, a bit of me doesn't want to tempt fate on the remote offchance that fragrance might be a trigger. But mostly I have gone scentless in recent weeks because as with make up I have simply got out of the habit. Though I have worn the odd dab of Lancome's La Vie est Belle from my newly acquired miniature, and can report that I do like it as much on me as I did on my friend L's friend S in France. ;)

Then this week wasn't actually free of dermatological incident in any case: I had a bad reaction to raw garlic and/or onion on Tuesday evening while engaging in a rare bout of cooking. That'll teach me! Turns out they are poisonous plants, to dogs at least, so go figure. Luckily, thanks to a timely tip off from Lisa Jones, the immediate deployment of a couple of new weapons in my skincare armoury from the Avene range - specially formulated for 'peaux intolerantes' - had things back under control by the middle of the next day.

Two days later saw the installation of a new dishwasher, seven weeks after the polystyrene cube was deposited by the delivery men in the middle of the dining room floor. The excitement I felt to see the appliance in position at last triggered a completely out of character five hour flurry of kitchen cleaning.  One cupboard leads to another, you know how it is... And in the course of this operation, my hands inevitably came into contact with a wide range of powerful cleaning agents, as I didn't wear rubber gloves consistently throughout. Cue flare up No 2! Cooking, cleaning...why, I have only myself to blame. ;)

Friday saw the visit of an antiquarian book dealer, who had come to appraise a small selection of my late father's enormous collection of theological and devotional books. We holed ourselves up at the dining room table for a couple of hours: I passed the lady each book in turn, which she examined with professional care, noting the type and quality of paper, the lie of the ribbon marker, the pattern of end papers, the clasps, the binding - no aspect was left unturned. She was also looking for any rips or tears, missing pages, faded covers, brown stains or foxing, loose stitching, defacement in the form of underlining / annotations / colouring in(!) by lost generations of Victorian children - and most pertinently in the context of this post, she put the books to her nose and inhaled deeply, on the look out for any which had a musty smell.

For as with old clothes in a wardrobe, a musty smell is not a desirable aspect in an old book, and detracts from its appeal, and ultimately also its value. I watched rapt, as the book dealer conscientiously sniffed each volume. Humidity is the main culprit in causing books to go mildewy, and some cursory research on the Net has unearthed a surprising number of strategies for removing this unpleasant odour, including baking soda, cat litter(!), coffee grounds, charcoal briquettes, clothes dryer sheets, newspaper, and something called 'MicroChamber paper', incorporating zeolite molecular traps, whatever they may be. Unfortunately, my father's books run into the thousands, so the logistics of submitting the mustier volumes to one or more of these ingenious remedies make this pretty much a non-starter.

Then by Saturday, my skin was in a holding pattern of good behaviour, and at a gig that night, I risked both makeup and perfume for the first time in a while. My SOTE was the very addictive Geisha Noire from Aroma M. I shan't attempt a full review of it, as I couldn't possibly top The Silver Fox's glorious paean here. I will just say that Geisha Noire is a smouldering, furrily sensuous, ceremonial cupcake of a scent that did not feel out of place in the atmospheric venue, a converted church, partly dating back to 1270. Interesting factoid - one of the 49 rectors to have officiated in St Mary at the Walls (as it was called in its consecrated days) turns out to be the grandson of Thomas Twining, founder of the tea company of that name, whose 'Everyday' tea bags are standard issue in the Premier Inn where we were staying.

Source: geograph.org.uk

I had several unprompted compliments on Geisha Noire from other audience members, and one of the band pronounced it 'sweet', before adding: 'It's nice', in case I might construe that as a criticism. I am afraid I completely forgot to sniff any of my friends - including Caryne, the diehard Lush fan, and Andy, whom I introduced to Ormonde Jayne. I did at least chat about perfume to my Swedish friend Louise. (Check out this post for the lowdown on Stockholm's perfume trail during my stay with her in 2009.)

Courtesy of Louise Bodin 

As we strolled though the churchyard during the very noisy support act, Louise told me about her recent perfume purchases in a British branch of T K Maxx: L'Artisan Parfumeur Timbuktu and a Penhaligon's whose name escaped her, except that it began with 'z'.  (That was easy to check later - my money is on Zizonia!)

And speaking of Penhaligon's, the band played 'Stick Your Hand Up if You're Louche', with its reference to Tralala mentioned in a recent post. As you can see, the bass player took this opportunity to come clean. We were in a church, after all.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Quick (and slow!) skincare fixes: Part 2 - 'The eyes have (had) it': my brush with allergic contact dermatitis (aka eyelid eczema) prompts toiletries triage and cosmetics cull

Me, on a good skin day, dressed up for a wedding - but scroll on...!
I had been planning to do a post sometime on my overall skincare routine, having spent a couple of years now concertedly experimenting with various high end serums, night creams, eye creams, acid toners etc, and generally trying to up my game in terms of taking care of my skin, albeit very, very belatedly. But since the ill-fated day in April where I needed a quick fix before a gig for dark circles under my eyes, my whole dermatological regime has been thrown into total disarray and is only now starting to fall into (a very different) place...

For as well as buying that Clarins concealer mentioned in that post, in order to qualify for four free handbag sized items and a sponge bag to put them in, the sales assistant talked me into buying another skincare product, and I opted for a cream cleanser with gentian in it. I had forgotten to pack my usual Micellar water, which had actually started to sting a bit lately, so I was on the lookout for other eye makeup removing products that were suitable for sensitive skin. To the SA's credit, she said that this cleanser wasn't formulated specially for eyes, and might irritate some people, but that I would probably be okay. I was so keen to qualify for the goody bag(!) that I recklessly took a punt. 'It's Clarins, how bad can it be?' I thought to myself.

That night I took my make up off with this supposedly 'gentle, water-free formula for oily skin', that offered 'optimum comfort' and promised to leave my skin 'gently refreshed', albeit not necessarily my eyes, though there were no overt warnings not to use it on the eye area.  Well, as the next day wore on, my dark circles may have been history, but I swapped them for swollen eyelids that were both red and weirdly crepey - so-called 'lizard eyes'. It was a scary transformation, and not something I would have expected to happen while using such a premium brand.

Now you don't tend to see pics of women looking like s*** in any of the women's magazines, or even in some actual adverts for / articles on eczema products. Here is an image from an article in Allure magazine on the subject - she really has it bad as you can see...

But thankfully some of the beauty bloggers who suffer from eczema are brave enough to post pictures of themselves to raise awareness of the problem and its possible causes. Some have been lifelong sufferers, others, like me, have only started to have problems in later life.

So here goes - I would like to get the word out that some of the ingredients in so called 'dermatologically tested' and 'gentle' products are anything but. Or they can be for some people, say.

Moreover, this was not the first time I had had a bad reaction to a cleansing product, but over two years had elapsed, and I was fervently hoping the previous occasion was a one-off. I was down in Norwich, also at a gig(!), and had bought some 'emergency' cheapo, Spa brand 'cleansing eye makeup remover pads' the day before, prompting an identical flare up of the red, swollen, wrinkly variety described above. I spent half the evening hiding in the toilets at the venue, but at the end of the night when the lights went up there was no hiding place. I had warned the band of my dermatological crisis, and one of them, on seeing me, tactfully observed: 'You just look...um...slightly engraved?' And trust me, that was being kind.

Spa?!?! Not as relaxing as it sounds

So while I was free of incidents between January 2014, and April of this year, I was starting to be aware of my skin's growing sensitivity in general. And now, since the Clarins 'do' in April, I have had frequent though intermittent problems, including one or two that were so bad friends said they wouldn't have recognised me! (Not that I left the house much at those times.)

I have now been 'under the doctor' since the beginning of August, and have had good results with a very mild hydrocortisone ointment. I know it has form for thinning the skin, but in a sufficiently low dose (0.5%) and used for a finite amount of time (two weeks), it really did help. But I did have a minor recurrence after I came off that, so the doctor put me on an immuno-suppressant called Elidel (pimecrolimus), also for two weeks.

It hurt like hell for the first week, as it is known to do, but my face got used to it after that and the cream has really made a difference. If anyone ever finds themselves in this unfortunate position, and is prescribed Elidel, I can definitely recommend persisting with it. The idea is that the medication turns off the allergic reaction to the affected area.

Irritating preservatives

Meanwhile, the doctor asked me to see if I could possibly identify what ingredients I might be allergic to, although I will also be going for patch tests at some point. Eyeballing the ingredients on the cheap wipes from 2014, my eye immediately lit on 2-BROMO-2-NITROPROPANE-1, 3-DIOL, a formaldehyde releasing microbial preservative, which is also in Simple wipes, would you believe? I have used those a lot down the years, but they were starting to bother me, now I think of it.

Then the Clarins cleanser has a controversial preservative in it called METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE - that I can actually spell now without looking it up each time! I note that people suffering from an allergy to this have their own Facebook page, and it isn't pretty, like that pic of me below. The European regulations changed in 2005, allowing a much greater concentration of this chemical in beauty products, and dermatologists are witnessing an epidemic of cases of allergic contact dermatitis, especially in the past two years - perhaps these things have a cumulative effect, and are now just reaching a tipping point?

Here is a sobering article on the matter - I am that soldier, no question!

Truly shocking 'double decker' scenario - don't remember me this way!!

Now of course I don't know for certain that these are the two offending ingredients, but having done a triage of toiletries that have made my skin sting and those that don't, the pile containing one or other of these ingredients tells its own story. Yes, all unwittingly over the summer, I had regularly been using a hand wash (by The White Company!), a shower gel (by Molton Brown!), a supposedly nourishing shampoo with argan oil and a Micellar water, ALL with MI or some kind of formaldehyde-releasing chemical in it. Anything with 'urea' in the name is a giveaway of the latter. 

I also learnt in my reading up on the subject that there is a distinction between so-called 'leave-on' products (creams and to a degree also cleansers), and 'rinse off' products like liquid soaps, shampoos etc. The latter should be less of an issue in theory, as the residue is meant to be washed off your skin. In practice, however, I ain't so sure, plus there is the risk that you might inadvertently rub your eye with a finger that has just touched something really quite aggressive - which shampoos are as a rule. 

Very elderly shower gel on its last gasp

I should also say that my problem may not just be caused by preservatives in cleansing products, though they were definitely triggers. I sense that I may be guilty of contributory negligence of every stripe over the years, creating an underlying climate of intolerance which has finally blown! The other two villains in my triple pronged campaign of skin abuse may well be:

Using old makeup / skincare products

Hey, I have blogged about this more than once, have even been proud of myself for not being wasteful, and defiant in the face of the dire warnings of bad reactions to bacteria-ridden mascaras. Well, that was flagrant and chronic hubris on my part for which I may now be paying!

Using too many products at once

Certainly in the past two years, I have been testing and trying out loads of products in every skincare category imaginable, toggling between 2-3 serums or eye creams or toners in any given week, complicating my beauty regime to such an extent that my skin may not have known if it is coming or going! Goodness knows how Korean women get away with it, with their 21 step routines - but I think my skin was very possibly registering a protest vote...

After extensively reading blogs by fellow sufferers, I have now switched to a new set of skincare products, which also retains a few tried and tested favourites:

Facial cleanser / makeup remover - La Roche-Posay Toleriane and Fushi Organic Sweet Almond Oil (I also have their Coconut Oil, but have yet to try it.) I cannot speak highly enough of the Toleriane cleanser - it is totally bombproof, however sore my face is feeling.

Daytime serum - Olay Regenerist Daily Regenerating Serum (several years in, and counting!)

Daytime facial moisturiser - Nivea Light Moisturising Day Cream with SPF 15 (on cloudy days) and Paula's Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense with SPF 30 (for sunny days ;) )

Body lotion - Fushi Organic Virgin Unrefined Shea Butter. I would probably use most things, as it is only the face that is sensitive, though I would wash my hands well afterwards.

Shampoo - Dr Organic Vitamin E shampoo

Hand Wash - Marsiglia BioOliva with olive oil liquid soap, but anything wholesome-looking from T K Maxx will fit the bill

Night cream - either The Fushi Organic Sweet Almond Oil above or Dr Organic Manuka Honey Rescue Cream

Washing up liquid (for my dishes, I hasten to add!) - good old Ecover

And that's it so far, but I might gradually - and very tentatively - try to introduce a few other things at some point. Also, I don't think soap is the problem, nor perfume - oh, I do hope not! Nor parabens or SLS or other additives that often come under suspicion. I am just being really careful while I try to figure out if my hunch about the preservatives is correct.

Trusty staple Nivea has never been anything other than benign

And even now, I can't be sure if the dermatological demons were just resting on shoulder for a while or have dug their forks in for the long haul...But with my new armoury of truly gentle products, a policy of wearing only new-ish makeup, and not too often at that, I am least doing everything I can to keep them at bay.

Me today, not a scrap of makeup - first such photo on here in 7 years!

And the good thing to have come out of all of this? The fact that I have had to wear no makeup almost all summer. Unthinkable, really. And to my astonishment, I have still been served in shops and some friends have said they didn't even notice - whereas I thought I looked completely different. I haven't not worn makeup since I was 18. So the summer has been character building, and a real eye opener in a good way, as well as harrowing and depressing at times.

Have you suffered from eczema of any kind? Do share your own tips and remedies in the comments!