I have been to Berlin about five times in as many years and I always find it an exciting, energising city to visit. It is young, hip and edgy, radical, grungy and a bit dark. Don't ask me what exactly I mean by "dark", but I know it is the right word. It may be a reference to people hanging out in underground clubs or the graffiti-defaced courtyards of tenement buildings till very late at night. It may be a way to describe the austerity and bleakness of some of the buildings, especially the derelict ones - or the patches of waste ground, piles of rubble and random artefacts you come across here and there.
Between my hotel and the train station, for example, was a grassy area where someone had "installed"/abandoned?? a long length of old gas pipework that had been painted a hot pink with a cartoon picture of a sperm swimming up it. The pipework was still there from my last visit in September, though there was less of it now and some of the paint had flaked off since the photo below was taken. This suggests to me that no one in the Stadtwerke had seen fit to dispose of it in the meantime, possibly because it was in fact not detritus - not even facetious detritus - but rather street art, which, given what else passes for art in Berlin, seems eminently plausible.
But Berlin is not just about grunge and dereliction - it is about regeneration, as exemplified by the gleaming glass facades of the Reichstag cupola. It also boasts several major department stores, notably Quartier 206, Galeries Lafayette and KaDeWe (short for Kaufhaus des Westens). Now, just as the remnants of the Berlin Wall are a palimpsest of torn posters and graffiti, so it is that I merely scratched the surface of the fragrance offering of these stores - and only found the perfume department in two of them! But in my defence, I shoehorned my visits in at the end of the day, and even so managed to more than sniff my socks off, such that I probably couldn't have faced an even larger selection of brands than I came across in the course of my random wanderings.
First up was the über-chic Quartier 206 in the Friedrichstrasse (thanks are due to Lady Jane Grey for the tip off!). With its graceful spiral staircases, black and white Italianate tiles and elegant armchairs, it oozed sophistication and luxury. I am sorry to say that despite repeated inquiries no one was able to direct me to a perfumery department or individual perfume shop within Quartier 206 - which appeared to be a collection of designer boutiques rather than a department store in the normal sense of the term. Instead I was despatched next door to Galeries Lafayette, where I spent most of my time in the concession of Sahling best of beauty, a chain specialising in an intentionally small selection of high end cosmetics and niche fragrances. These included Penhaligon's, Floris, Lalique, Annick Goutal, Costume National, Caron, Comptoir Sud Pacifique and Amouage. From the off I was captivated by the enthusiasm of the sales assistant, a lissom young man from Cuba called Alain.
Well, Alain was from Cuba to start with, certainly (I don't know if it was Havana specifically, but you can always rely on me to stretch a point in pursuit of a good pun!). His mother was a chemist and wore Hermès 24 Faubourg, of which he has fond memories. She instilled an appreciation of fine fragrance in her son at an early age, explaining that perfume is not just a luxury item, but that there is a secret behind each scent for the wearer to unravel... Then, when Alain was 10 his family relocated to Sweden, where he lived up until five years ago (so for at least 10 years, at a guess - maybe 15!). He learnt Swedish (no small feat) and worked as a fragrance SA in Åhlens, the mid-range department store chain, before moving to Germany about five years ago. "Right, so that is Spanish, Swedish and German you speak", I remarked admiringly. "And do you speak any English with that?" "But of course!" he replied in English, grinning broadly.
During the 40 minutes or so we spent chatting, Alain introduced me to a couple of Laliques I hadn't smelt, namely Equus and White. I particularly liked White, a light, peppery citrus, of which he gave me a sample. I also retested Fleur de Cristal, a pretty, powdery lily scent, and although he didn't stock it, Alain recommended I hunt down Flora Bella, created in 2005 by Bertrand Duchafour, and which he described as a hauntingly beautiful tropical floral with heady flowers like frangipani and tiare combined with a cold, salty vibe. Alain said that for him this scent conjured up a mysterious recurring dream set on a remote island paradise. It involved a surfer with long black hair and violet eyes whom - even in the dream, never mind in reality - he is not quite sure if has actually met... At least I think that is what he said: my German was starting to wilt a bit by that stage. : - )
Anyway, I ended up being completely caught up in the hypnotic effect that Flora Bella exerts on Alain, and on a whim tonight I went and bought it unsniffed from Cheapsmells! Haven't done such an impulsive thing in a long while... It was a snip (Schnäppchen) at £16.95 - and I'd say it will be well worth seventeen quid just to find out why the man is so bewitched. And if he loves Lalique White too, as I do now myself, the odds are surely good that I will like Flora Bella. And it is a Bertrand Duchaufour... Interestingly, 80% of Alain's scent collection are feminines. He suggested I try Bazar pour Femme from Lacroix, jointly created in 2002 by Jean-Claude Ellena, Bertrand Duchaufour and Emile Copperman. Well, if two of my favourite perfumers had a hand in it, how bad can that one be either?
This talk of Bertrand Duchaufour and Jean-Claude Ellena led on to a review of our all-time favourite perfumers. The others Alain particularly admires are Francis Kurkdjian, Christine Nagel of Encre Noir fame ("soft but present" was his summary of it), and Karine Vinchon Spehner, who wasn't on my radar at all, but turns out to be the nose behind Amouage Memoir Man, Opus III and L'Artisan's Coeur de Vétiver Sacré and L'Eau de Jatamansi. I have found a photo of her on the L'Artisan website, and as you can see, she doesn't look old enough to have even one perfume creation under her belt, never mind a handful!
What else? Well, I tried Annick Goutal's Le Mimosa which had been recommended to me - and it was quite pleasant, with an adorable polka dot bow, but it was not love: a sort of fruity, warm, woody, powdery floral - not as bright and sherbety as L'Artisan Mimosa pour Moi - and veering a little to the oriental richness of YSL Cinéma, the EDT version of which also features mimosa, come to think of it.
We also discussed the recent launches from Penhaligon's with Bertrand Duchaufour at the creative helm, and the way the brand is reinventing itself and moving away from its "traditional English" image in new and interesting directions. I tried Castile for the first time, a neroli scent of which I had read good things in a recent post on Katie Puckrik's blog, and found it fresh and soothing in a high quality soap kind of a way.
We also chatted about the imminent Royal Wedding, and agreed that on her big day Kate Middleton should go ahead and wear whatever perfume she feels good in, for example one that brings back memories of happy times spent with William. The olfactory equivalent of "our tune", if you will. I don't believe I asked Alain what his all-time favourite scent was - maybe it is Flora Bella - and, given our mutual appreciation of Bertrand Duchaufour, it was remiss of me not to ask if he likes Havana Vanille!
From Sahling best of beauty I popped next door to the concession of Intertrade Europe, which had a rather unusual selection of brands, including the more familiar Piguet and Miller Harris, but also Memo, Nez à Nez, Profumi del Forte and Ruinart, more famous for its champagne. I tested both the EDP fragrances in the Memo line and their selection of room scents (or "scented sprays", as they are known on the website). These were presented in regular perfume bottles and boasted whimsical travel-themed names ("I Miss Miami", "Ibiza Buzz", "Paris Passion" - and my personal favourite, "Kinky Kyoto"). Memo scents also come with helpful listings of the main notes on the bottle. I couldn't tell you which ones I liked best now, though I do remember a few scrubbers amongst the room scents: "Mad about Gstaad" (too piney?), "Back to Dubai Amber Ambush" (self-explanatory!), and the tuberose bombshell "Sexy St Tropez".
The Memo range, though extensive, doesn't have a scent set in Berlin. Elsewhere on the same floor, however, there was a display of Majathi "His and Hers" Berlin fragrances. The blurb on the back of the scent strip read:
"Open-minded like Berlin both fragrances start with fresh citrus notes. Berlin's variety and change are reflected in the fragrances after short time, too: the scent for women becomes sensual-feminine (eg vanilla, white musk, pimento), the scent for men aromatic-woody (eg sandelwood, lavender, thyme)."
I am sorry to report that the women's version of Berlin was crashingly generic and non-descript, and as ill suited to summing up the city as Swiss Army Perfume was to conveying the steeliness of a knife!
Time was running out by now, so I hared across to KaDeWe in Tauentzienstrasse for a quick whizz round their very well stocked perfume hall. There were too many brands to mention, including Les Parfums MDCI, which I had never seen in-store before. I was able to try La Belle Hélène at last, and gave it a resounding thumbs down - two treacly, I am afraid. Well, I am not even afraid, as MDCI are of course notoriously expensive. Then I tried Ananda and Black Ananda by Micallef, a duo of rich, fuzzy vanilla orientals that I didn't care for especially, also Clair Matin by Les Parfums de Rosine, a fruity rose floral I can't really bring to mind now, ditto Julia by Teo Cabanel. Finally, I scored a carded sample of Vivienne Westwood Naughty Alice (the peppery rose violet scent to which I am currently quite partial, and the only other sample of the day apart from Lalique White!).
So, if there isn't a Memo scent for Berlin, and the Majathi range is a poor attempt at civic branding, how would I describe my own scent associations with the city? Well, I will give that some more considered thought, but on the day itself I did so much sampling that I was a veritable patchwork quilt of perfumes as I headed back to my hotel. Indeed I was pretty much a scented version of this...
Photo of Berlin tenements from redbubble.com, photo of sperm pipeline from jamesberlin-whatintheworld.blogspot.com, photo of Quartier 206 from flickr.com, photo of Havana from studylanguages.org, photo of Flora Bella from parfumsdascher.com, photo of White from perfumezilla.com, photo of Karine Vinchon Spehner from artisanparfumeur.com, photo of Castile from luckyscent.com, photo of Memo Kinky Kyoto from ameblo.jp, photo of Majathi perfumes from ausberlin.de, photo of Berlin doorway from stamping-art.typepad.com