Friday, 24 September 2010

The Perfume Diaries At Harrods: Part One - The Exhibition

Having nearly completed my current project, on a last minute whim I decided to go down to London yesterday, to look around The Perfume Diaries exhibition at Harrods and catch one of the few remaining evening events which have been running in tandem. The one I attended, "The Science of Scent", along with a brief encounter with Katie Puckrik(!), will be featured in a separate post.

In advance of the trip, I had read Nina's post on Now Smell This about the House of Guerlain event a couple of weeks ago, and was mindful of observing the implicit dress code. Nina had counselled "no denim" and "good earrings", and her vignette of the audience: "Lots of beautiful people, amazing shoes, Chanel handbags, men in makeup..." told me all I needed to know about the degree of sartorial effort demanded by the occasion.

Given that the most prestigious setting for an evening out in my town is a Pizza Express in a former Nat West bank, an acute wardrobe crisis promptly ensued. As is customary on such occasions, three possible outfits were submitted for Mr Bonkers' approval, and a grey linen shift dress swiftly chosen. In the spirit of full disclosure, the frock in question was a bargain in the Kookai closing down sale in Chester, moreover I have taken to deliberately wearing it backwards, as the official neckline is unflatteringly high and the back disconcertingly low. I knew I ran the risk that eagle-eyed delegates might spot the pockets facing round the wrong way on my backside, but I was counting on the distracting effect of the bright green chiffony cardigan I wore on my top half. Perhaps if more of Kookai's customers had taken the initiative of wearing its garments in eccentricly innovative ways, the store might still be trading.

On the earring front, after much agonising about the precise meaning of "good" (valuable?, classically elegant?, not of the "triple-tier cascading chandelier" variety, or J-Lo-esque gold hoops the size of dinner plates?), I plumped in the end for black lace butterflies purchased in Bruges on the Choco Chanel trip last December. These are the closest I have to signature "flittersniffer" earrings, though in truth if anyone had got close enough to me to clock their butterfly shape, they would have had a worrying chance of spotting the Kookai label inside the front of my dress...

At lunchtime Mr Bonkers ran me to the station, and during the two and a half hour journey to Euston it became rapidly clear to me that linen and long journeys do not mix. As well as saying: "Hand wash with a gentle swishing motion", the care instructions should read: "Do not wear for extended periods" and "On no account sit". After a quick foray into Zara to change some trousers bought in Germany the other week, I arrived on the fourth floor of Harrods sweaty, crumpled, travel-worn, and encumbered with bags and sundry paraphernalia (camera, notebook, water bottle, spare tights, new Zara trousers, copy of the Evening Standard, exhibition programme etc).

And already, a good hour and a half before the event was slated to start, people were starting to foregather, and one quick scan of the room was enough to confirm that the effort spent on my outfit selection was deeply warranted, even if the execution fell short of the mark. I bet half the room had only toddled round the corner from Belgravia and Beauchamp Place, instead of sitting scrunched up all afternoon in a CrossCountry train.

Yes, many of the audience who were now filing in thick and fast - and laying claim to the perspex chairs with upmarket carrier bags - exuded an air of wealth and self-assurance that is unique to the capital. There were patrician-looking men with aquiline noses and polished brogues, and their youthful counterparts in dark suits, with slicked back hair and oversized geek glasses. One young woman wore a clinging black sheath dress with a zip that ran the full length of her back, while others favoured tailored skirt suits in striking monochrome or jewel colours. Precipitous shoe boots and stilettos completed the look. However, I was pleased to spot a smattering of seemingly "ordinary people" like me, who had made a bit of an effort - a smart blouse here, a dressy necklace there - but who didn't look like typical Harrods customers, let alone people for whom it is their "corner shop".

Some readers might argue that this Balzacian preoccupation with outfits and scene-setting in general is irrelevant to the matter in hand, namely the exhibition itself. But the diverse and unfamiliar audience brought home to me the fact that the bit of the perfume world that I inhabit, the blogosphere, is just a tiny piece in the industry jigsaw. I couldn't help wondering who these people were exactly and what specific angle on perfume had prompted them to come. For I assumed they did all have one, and hadn't simply got lost on the way back from Juicy Couture...

I imagined that some of the audience might work in retail, advertising or PR. Others may have been perfumers themselves, representatives of trade associations or industry insiders of some kind. There may well have been a handful of perfumistas from the same blogs I follow, to whom I could perhaps have put a name if not a face. Others might have been beauty journalists or bloggers. Some may have been consumers who liked perfume well enough, but no more or less than handbags or scarves, and who were just curious to learn more about how it is made.

I found myself wishing that the programme contained a photograph of the audience, with one of those white silhouette diagrams next to it, with each person-shaped blob numbered and identified in the key below. You know, like in the Sunday supplements when they do a feature on "Fifteen Up And Coming Young British Architects" or "Who's Who in Independent Film Making Today".

After bagging a couple of seats for fellow fumehead Farah and myself, using some of my more bothersome belongings, I wandered round the exhibtion, in so far as the growing and rather noisy throng of people permitted. It was jolly hard to juggle camera, camera case, pen, notebook and handbag-with-important-valuables-in-it - looking back, the thought of someone harbouring pilfering designs on my handbag seems faintly absurd - so after a while I gave up on the note-taking and concentrated on the photography, even though I knew that I would never remember what was what afterwards.

By way of background, the idea of a perfumery exhibition was the brainchild of Emma Jayne Hockley, Perfumery and Cosmetics Buyer at Harrods. She chatted it through with Roja Dove, whose book "The Essence of Perfume" has already documented the socio-economic evolution of fragrance in print, and together they came up with a way to show "the chronological progression of scent in an exhibition that wouldn't be staid or museumlike."

The Perfume Diaries start with a display devoted to the raw materials used in fragrance and how they are sourced, together with an explanation of the perfumery triangle. The remaining displays chronicle the history of perfumery, bottle making and advertising from the 1800s to the present day. At intervals are little smelling stations, with frosted glass stoppers impregnated with different scents: the first with raw materials, the others with famous fragrances such as Bandit, Jicky and No 5, Nuit de Longchamps, Shalimar and Je Reviens.

The most iconic scents and bottle styles are given particular prominence, as Emma Jayne Hockley explains: "The fragrances featured in the exhibition have been selected for their impact on the perfume industry - perhaps for a groundbreaking and influential scent, an original flacon design or a shocking advertising campaign. Many are enduring classics that will never be forgotten and, indeed, some remain bestsellers to this day."

While the collection has enormous value as a historical and social legacy, Roja Dove's overriding motive in curating the exhibition is to stir the public on an emotional level:

"My hope is that The Perfume Diaries makes you lose your soul to the beauty and creativity that is the world of perfumery."

For myself, I am already sold on the beauty of perfumery, so in that sense he is preaching to the converted. However, I have never before seen so many exquisite bottles gathered together in one place. Some were sourced from Harrods' "brand partners", some from Roja Dove's private collection - there isn't one I wouldn't love to take home and treat with the reverence accorded to a sacred object.

So on the level of "transcendental, non-specific perfume bottle drop dead gorgeousness", I lost my soul completely, and in the heat of the moment the brand and fragrance names seemed frankly unimportant. Over on Basenotes, Grant Osborne adopted a much more business-like approach when compiling his own photographic record of the exhibits, so hop over there if you are interested in chapter and verse...

All photos my own (with permission from the organisers), except for the cover image from the programme shown at the top of the post


lovethescents said...

Sounds like you had a lovely time! Thank you for explaining the event in such detail. Before reading this, I had no clue what would go on at such an event.

Looks like you need to do some clothes shopping. Shouldn't you have one outfit for important occasions that won't crease????

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

You would have loved the exhibition - shame it isn't one of those travelling ones that tour different cities...

And I will write a post shortly on the the "Science of Scent" talk itself.

In answer to your query, I do own a number of outfits for important occasions, though some of these were rejected as being too dressy, or too summery - which is a shame, as a couple of frocks in those categories are in fact pretty crease-proof.

Most useful of all would be some new black trousers in one of those slinky and cunning "technical fabrics" that retain their shape - I don't fit the trousers I own since losing half a stone this year.

Ines said...

I hate it when blogger eats my comment.
Anyway, what I wrote the first time is that I am insanely jealous of all of you who are lucky to be able to visit this exhibition. I definitely live in the wrong place. :)
I can't wait to read about it more and you meeting Katie.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

Sorry that blogger ate your comment and thanks for taking the time to reconstruct it!

I live in the wrong place myself, sort of, but clearly there are degrees of wrongness, and London is less of a schlepp for me than it would be from Croatia!

Mind you, all that beautiful coastline must be a huge compensating factor for the lack of perfume happenings... : - )

Katy Josephine said...

This sounds like an amazing encounter! I so get the wardrobe malfunction - but it sounds like all went well nevertheless.

How far are you from London? Sounds like great perfume access, shopping and events. We're hoping to make it there next year.

Visiting England was one of my mother's many unfulfilled wishes. Perhaps I can do that for her.

Vanessa said...

Hi Josephine,

Yes, you may not be my scent twin, but we could easily be wardrobe malfunction twins - or even triplets with ChickenFreak - I don't think she would mind my saying so. : - )

I am 150-160 miles from London. It is an hour and a half on a very fast train, and anybody's guess on the slow ones. In fact it can be anybody's guess on the fast ones as well - for on the way home last Thursday I was delayed an hour and a half due to signalling problems and a suspect package at Watford Junction!

You should definitely go to London next year if you get the chance - for yourself and your mother...

Unknown said...

I love London, only been twice, but would go back anytime. I wish I lived near (or in New York) for the perfume, and the chance to go to things like this. Can't wait to read the second part.

hebe said...

Excellent writing as always. It sounds so beautiful and I love the idea of a captionned picture of the audience. I wish I could have been there, not least because I would have made you feel so much better about your outfit. Half of my clothes are on (accidentally and un-chicly) both back-to-front and inside-out these days, generally with a "Well done!" or Charlie and Lola sticker on the back of my left shoulder too.

Looking forward to the second entry!

Vanessa said...

Hi Hebe,

I love the idea of your captioned clothing and randomly affixed stickers, and it would have been lovely to see you - Grant and Nick from Basenotes were also there, whom you know.

I have one T-shirt with an illegible Flemish poem on it in scrawling cursive script, a couple of perfume-themed ones, and of course the obligatory "Bass Player's Girl"...