Sunday 30 January 2011

The Top Sniffs - And Nasty Niffs! - Of 2010

Having checked last year's archives, I see that I put up my "Best Of 2009" post on 18th January. I am even later to the party this year with my lists - so late in fact that everyone has already upped and left, and only the overflowing ashtrays and empty beer cans testify to the fact that there ever was a party. But I shan't let that small matter of timetabling concern me. After all, I am not CNN (though I wouldn't say no to their Google page rank! : - )), and there will be no up-to-the-minute ticker tape bulletins scrolling past your eye at the bottom of my posts...

Now in last year's scent round up I was careful to manage readers' expectations, and it might be worth repeating the passage here, not least for its media analogy:

"...regular readers of Bonkers about Perfume will know full well by now that they are not automatically going to get a considered and impeccably researched review of the latest releases, whether at the time of the launch or indeed ever. What they can count on is a lucky dip, a potluck supper - albeit one made with a packet sauce. For I am arguably the convenience food equivalent of the perfume blogs, the redtop newspaper..."

So what I am offering (then as now) is simply a list of scents that have appealed to me - or not - over the past year. Some were launched in 2010, others in 2009, however it took me until 2010 to catch up with them. I will make a separate note of one or two happy discoveries in 2010 of scents launched before 2009.

There is an interesting analysis over on Persolaise about the validity and usefulness of these sorts of "Best Of" lists. For example, Persolaise takes issue with the following statement: "...the unwritten principle seems to be that if enough people mention a certain scent, it must be good."

I agree that this yardstick is flawed, whether the reviewers in question are highly regarded scent critics or ordinary consumers on and similar sites, whose collective feedback also consitutes a large body of opinion. My own approach in reading other bloggers' lists is to correlate the frequency of good reviews with whether or not I happen to have much crossover with the taste of the people in question.

The latter variable is very significant, and one which I am constantly refining. Robin of Now Smell This is the reviewer with whom I have most common ground - somewhere around the 65-70% mark at a guess - while my "taste congruence" with other female reviewers ranges from 10% to 50%. I shan't be more specific for fear of hurting anyone's feelings, although the fact that I don't share these bloggers' preferences in no way diminishes my enjoyment of their blogs or my "virtual attachment" to them as individuals.

So by the same token, I hope that the scents I have selected for my "Best Of" list will help round out the composite picture for anyone conducting their own cross-comparison of the various lists out there. This could either be in a positive sense, or to help people steer clear of scents I like because they know I normally lean to the gentle and understated side of things, while they may prefer fragrances with a more robust character - the perfume equivalent of a hearty Barolo, if you will.

Returning to Persolaise's post for a moment, he welcomes the diversity of viewpoints in the fragrant blogosphere, because of this difficulty of eliminating subjective judgements in assessing a perfume's merit:

"We need different conversations about perfume in just the same way that we need different perfumes. Indeed, we probably need the conversations more than we need a limiting, reductive sense of good and bad..."

And at the end of the day, even if the lists below aren't a blind bit of use to anyone, it is at least a helpful record for ME of what I have tried in 2010, and what is still out there on my list....


Two perfumes tie for top place - it's a cop out, so shoot me!

Diptyque Eau Duelle

"Transitional* snuggler" - not one but two types of vanilla, plus wisps of incense in the base.

*in the seasonal sense.

Parfumerie Générale Bois Naufragé

Calming, milky, woody skin scent with figs and a hint of salt - perfect for Pilates!

Last year Penhaligon's Amaranthine was my overall top sniff, and though a much more "in your face" kind of tropical floral than my usual style, it also shares this comforting, creamy aspect.


Diptyque Eau Duelle
Parfumerie Générale Bois Naufragé
Guerlain 180 Ans de Création (all together now: "Please release this, let me buy!")
Atelier Cologne Oolong Infini
Atelier Cologne Bois Blonds
Serge Lutens Bas de Soie (Perfume Shrine captures this one beautifully)
Van Cleef & Arpels Collection Extraordinaire: Lys Carmin (two other favourites from the range made it onto my 2009 list)
Guerlain Tonka Impériale
Ormonde Jayne Tiare
Maison Kurkdjian APOM pour Femme
Penhaligon's Orange Blossom Cologne
The Different Company Oriental Lounge
Floris Snow Rose


Mary Greenwell Plum (Museinwoodenshoes has the ultimate review)
Balenciaga Paris (musky violets with austere greenery)
Vivienne Westwood Naughty Alice (Balenciaga Paris's rosy-cheeked kid sister)
Hermes Eau Claire des Merveilles (a clean Shalimar meets a less weird Eau des Merveilles)
YSL Belle d'Opium (since the incense left the building, my attachment has become largely sentimental)
Estée Lauder Sensuous Noir (not "noir" by a long chalk, but dusky pink at least)
Calvin Klein Beauty (hey, everything's relative...)
Paco Rabanne Lady Million (nice on someone else)

As ever, it is interesting to me to look back at this list of favourite fragrances and identify what they reveal about my taste. Not surprisingly, they are all pretty polite, with some "skin scents" again in evidence. The most frequently occurring note is probably vanilla, but I also seem to be ineluctably drawn to musk, iris, lilies, rose, woods and incense; I also have quite a high tolerance of sweetness these days (which seems to be increasing with age). OJ Tiare and Penhaligon's Orange Blossom cover off the citrus segment to which I will be drawn again in warmer weather.


Ormonde Jayne Orris Noir (thanks, Sarah Vine & Ormonde Jayne)
Sonia Rykiel Rykiel For Woman Not For Men! (thanks, Wordbird)
Stéphanie de Saint-Aignan Royal Palm (thanks, lovethescents)
Rancé Laetitia (thanks, Potiron)


Guerlain Plus Que Jamais (my HGS, no less!)

And now, moving on to the ones which I didn't care for...


Thierry Mugler Womanity (hold the popcorn accord, puh-lease!)
Parfumerie Générale Papyrus de Ciane (forbidding, bitter, dank grasses)
Nina Ricci Scarlett - (syrupy Jammy Dodgers)


As before, here are some of the (mostly niche) releases from 2010 that were too "difficult" or just not my style. The list also includes a number of scents which I hoped to like but didn't, for each of which I have included an explanatory note.

Maison Kurkdjian Cologne Pour Le Matin (insane levels of soap)
Maison Kurkdjian Cologne Pour Le Soir (discordant mix of notes - I have blanked this one out, it was so disagreeable)
L'Artisan Parfumeur Nuit de Tubéreuse (weird Juicy Fruit & herbal / medicinal issues)
L'Artisan Parfumeur Traversée du Bosphore (too much opulent fruit and powder, but deserves a retrial)
L'Artisan Parfumeur Havana Vanille (surprised to find the vanilla too rich, maybe in combination with the tobacco?)
Ajne Vanille (overly gourmand, sweet burnt toast - shame as I bought it unsniffed!)
Ineke Gilded Lily (the name says it all)
Andy Tauer Une Rose Vermeille (Tauer-ade alert!)
Jo Malone English Pear & Freesia (a niche version of Armani Idole, sadly)
Annick Goutal Ninfeo Mio (stridently sharp, though I did persevere with it)
Hermès Voyage d'Hermès (spoilt by sharp lime note)
Gucci Guilty (lilac is not a contemporary note, I have decided)
Marc Jacobs Bang (probably great on a man, but too spicy/woody on my skin)
Prada Infusion de Tubéreuse (indistinct white floral - bland even by my relaxed standards)
DKNY Pure (felt physically sick - heliotrope combined with the P & O Ferry I was on at the time?)


Ajne Sublime
Ajne Bella
Ajne Nectar
Christian Dior La Collection
Floris Amaryllis
DelRae Panache
Hermès Hermessences Iris Ukiyoé

I am sure there were lots more on this last list, and I may come back and add others in as I remember them, indeed the same applies to any of the lists. The Nasty Niffs one seems exceptionally short this year.

Also, in terms of what I tested, having checked against the list of new releases in Now Smell This - some 90% of which I have not tried - it is plain to me that I should get out more. Next month I am off to London and hope to make up some lost ground.

Photo of driftwood heart from, photo of vanilla pods from, photos of Eau Duelle and Bois Naufragé from Fragrantica, photo of Plum from, photo of Womanity from, photo of Ninfeo Mio from

Friday 28 January 2011

Making Waves With Guerlain Après L’Ondée - New Post On Ça Fleure Bon

Head over to Ça Fleure Bon today for my latest post, on the subject of the turn of the century classic, Guerlain Après L’Ondée. It is entitled "Guerlain Après L’Ondée And Virginia Woolf: Who’s Afraid Of Melancholy Scents?" and features a surprising web of watery connections...

Photo of The Waves from

Wednesday 26 January 2011

California Dreaming: Another Bonkers Road Trip - The Scented Bit: Part 3

I was very tempted to call this post: "Visit To The* Scent Bar - 'I Should Be So Lucky / Lucky, Lucky, Lucky'...!", but editorial consistency prevailed, and this last instalment has defaulted to Part 3 of The Scented Bit instead. I know what, I will create a sub-heading instead...

Visit To The* Scent Bar: "I Should Be So Lucky..."

I believe I left off the saga at the point where I returned to my hotel in Venice from the Strange Invisible Perfumes store to select an outfit for my sniffing session that afternoon at the Scent Bar in West Hollywood. I had taken advice in advance from Qwendy/Wendy about dress code, because I was aware of that general neck of the Hollywoods being the affluent epicentre of LA. I didn't want to look too much of a hobo, though at the same time I knew I had zero hope of competing with the top-to-toe designer-clad "ladies who feebly push their lunch around their plate with a fork" brigade. You see them striding purposefully down Beverly Boulevard, long golden locks bouncing over razor-sharp clavicles like those flappy streamer things that smear rather than dry your windscreen in a car wash. They are invariably clutching six rope carrier bags in each hand - or five bags in each hand and one beribboned Yorkie - a pink I-phone cupped to one ear in the crook of a surprisingly supple elbow.

So anyway, Qwendy said the uniform at such events was pretty much de rigueur skinny jeans and T-shirts, adding - to put me at my ease - that she routinely flouted the trouser convention. Now I don't own any skinny jeans as such, but instead donned my least bootleggy Gap jeans, which are called "Real Straight" - see photo (legs not my own).

I teamed this with chocolate brown suede high heels, a chocolate brown lace trimmed cardigan and this T-shirt: perfume-themed, accented with a bit of bling, and a steal at £12 in New Look! Then I did my best to style my hair in the artfully mussed way to which I so often find myself referring on this blog, and jumped on the I-10 freeway, heading for the Scent Bar and the worldwide HQ of Lucky Scent...

Regular readers may have inferred from my many posts about road trips that I am not averse to a bit of driving. I do, however, suffer from parking phobia, and allowed an extra half an hour to scope the vicinity of the store looking for a legitimate parking spot. It took me 20 minutes of cruising round and round the block to spot a free parking meter associated with a space into which I felt comfortable manoeuvring my sub-compact - yet to my mind still rather large and boxy - car. And though I lacked the requisite quorum of quarters to pay for my projected stay, I was ecstatic to find that the parking meter accepted foreign credit cards!

I arrived at the Scent Bar a little ahead of schedule, and was surprised at how tiny and bijou it was! But they had maximised the available space all right: each wall was shelved from floor to ceiling, and on each shelf sat dozens of bottles of niche scents - all jumbled up together for the most part - though a few houses were grouped by collection eg Xerjoff from memory.

Qwendy was unavoidably held up and arrived fashionably late and full of apologies - or rather the couture version of "fashionably late" - which is slightly later. But it is a measure of how welcoming the staff were and how un-conspicuous I was made to feel, that I was perfectly happy to browse the rich layers of stock on my own until Qwendy was able to join me. I also had sporadic chats with Rachel and Steve, the two sales assistants, when they were in between serving the serious punters, who came not just to sip champagne (just one small flute in my own case, obviously) and "sniff till they dropped", but to...yes, strange to tell...actually conduct themselves like proper consumers and buy stuff...

And then Qwendy arrived, and there were rapturous greetings, as though we had known each other much longer than one phone call's worth and a mutual trip to the Post Office with our respective swap parcels way back whenever. As I expected, she was wearing a distinctive and stylish skirt-based ensemble, but we needn't have worried about our outfits, for there was one lady there in red Wellingtons.

So what did we smell? Oh dear, I was worried you might ask that... May I fall back again on my "Witnesses sought to a fatal car crash" excuse in trying to reconstruct a list of what we smelled, never mind an impression of said scents. As I recall, the majority of perfumes I tested fell into the "okay" category, with "possibly worth a retrial" in one tapering section of the bell curve, and "meh" in the other. There were only a couple of outright scrubbers in the "very thin bell end", so to speak(!) - as noted below - and only a couple I really liked, or which otherwise impressed me in some way.


(Rachel kindly fetched these out for me from under the counter? And that is a good tip in The Scent Bar - given that this is the shop front of Lucky Scent, you can ask for pretty much any perfume you want to try and they should have a tester tucked away somewhere...)

Eau Radieuse
Multiple Rouge


Hasu-no-Hana (retro sneezy scrubber! Grossmith by name...)


Lua (tested on skin)

Notes: bergamot, orange, lemon, melon, Bulgarian rose, Florentine iris, pink pepper, lily, cedar wood, vanilla, musk

This was a very pretty floral woody musk, with many of my favourite notes in it, though I would probably lose the melon and swap the cedar for sandalwood. It is almost certainly not worth the money, mind you. I didn't even bother to inquire! Update - I just peeked at the Lucky Scent website - I was right not to bother to inquire!


Jasmin (very full-on indolic jasmine, squarely and headache-inducingly in the A La Nuit, Jasmin de Nuit tradition. I would have to call this a scrubber, which in no way diminishes its authentic jasmine-ness. If it did, I might actually like it...)


Figues et Garçons


L'Antimatière (cousin of SIP L'Invisible - in name only!)


(Smelt on another lady's skin who was deciding which of these two to buy. The in-store consensus - we were all getting quite pally by this stage and sniffing one another uninhibitedly - was Peau de Pêche, which was deemed (relatively) more intense and interesting, on her arm, anyway.)

Peau de Pêche
Bois de Santal


Traversée du Bosphore (tested on skin)

I could not better Boisdejasmin's summary of this one as a "take on violet-orris in a gourmand oriental manner". She goes on to say: "It is opulent and voluptuous, and yet the signature dry amber touch of Duchaufour lends it a surprisingly diaphanous effect." It was possibly too opulent and voluptuous and even a little scratchy to appeal to me on that warm, sunny afternoon, but the drydown was smoother and quieter, and I would try this again. Stylistically I was reminded a bit of DelRae Bois de Paradis, though it is a long time since I last tried that one - the L'Artisan strikes me as more wearable on the basis of this cursory trial.


Love and Tears (tested on skin)

Notes: bergamot, petit grain, cypress, jasmine, orange blossom, ylang-ylang and cistus. Lucky Scent also detects lily-of-the-valley and gardenia.

A completely OTT feminine white floral in the style of Fracas or Joy or Roja Dove Scandal, but even more so. Even more what? Even more everything. It has that molten perfumey quality conjured up by soft porn ads for motor oil. I liked it and thought it very well done, but couldn't quite see myself wearing it.

Qwendy, who is currently morphing from my evil scent twin and lover of darkly robust compositions to someone unexpectedly gravitating towards feminine florals, gave Love and Tears the thumbs up. We also had major new crossover territory in APOM pour Femme by Maison Kurkdjian, which may conceivably be the bottle producing Qwendy's blissed out state in the shot above. : - )


Orange Star - no discernible Tauerade!
Rose Vermeille - Tauerade alert!
Carillon d'un Ange - as above!

So, after spending an incredible 1hr 40 mins in this small store, without feeling the least bit in the way, and given unlimited licence to take photographs, I said goodbye to the helpful staff and the charming Qwendy and drove back in the dark to Venice, navigating (rather well, I thought) by my rough sense of direction alone, as my GPS blacked out somewhere on Wilshire.

Visit To Ajne, Carmel: "The Road Not Taken"

My final scented stop on this trip was Ajne in Carmel, if you discount a fairly low key visit to a branch of Marshall's, where I copped for a bargain bottle of Juicy Couture Dirty English and promptly regretted the purchase (as you do).

I had a couple of morning meetings in Santa Barbara one day during the second week, and after doing some quick calculations, figured that if I really put my foot down on the 240 mile journey north I might just make it to the store before they closed at 6pm. To this end I opted to take the inland route, which is more direct but considerably less scenic than the famous coast road (Route 1).

Accordingly, on the afternoon in question I drove like a bat out of the proverbial hot place, parked up, and was outside the Ajne boutique in its pretty courtyard by 5.45pm, only to find the place in darkness and clearly shut. I have since made contact with the company, and found out that they had closed early because it was the night of their staff Christmas dinner at a location just down the street!

As I peered in the windows at the Louis XIV furniture within, I couldn't help but feel a sense of anti-climax, yet it was just one of those unfortunate things... If only I hadn't needed petrol and a comfort station at Kingsburg, pausing fatefully to examine the (to me curious) display of beef jerky, and choose a bar of confectionery with what now seems, looking back, to have been unnecessary care. Yes, if only I had shaved those vital 5-10 minutes off the journey, I would have bumped into the Ajne team in the act of shutting shop, and stayed their hand long enough to sample their latest releases and purchase a parfum petite of Printemps.

There again, knowing my track record with Ajne purchases, my "buy the smallest retail format available" resolve might have crumbled and I could have walked out with the half oz black heart flacon @ $200 instead of my intended mini, a fraction of that size. Though ml for ml, the larger sizes represent significantly better value. See - I clearly wasn't meant to be let loose inside that store!

That concludes the report on the Californian Road Trip - I am still trying to figure out if I am a closet travel writer who likes perfume or a perfumista who travels. You decide...

*NB The name of the store is "Scent Bar", but "I am going to Scent Bar" sounds so peculiar I can't bring myself to forgo the definite article.

All photos are my own except the perfume bottle shots which are taken (most fittingly) from Lucky Scent's website, the exterior of the Scent Bar (from Osmoz) and the photo of jeans from Gap's website.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Lindt and Fluff - A Bonkers Cat Litter Hat

I have been busy preparing swap parcels today - all three of them destined for bloggers called Carol. The Post Office clerk who served me was also called Carol, and thought this slew of Carols (is there a proper collective noun for Carols - a "concert", perhaps?) most amusing.

Barring work interruptions, I hope to get on to the final California trip instalment tomorrow, but meanwhile here is a shot of Charlie Bonkers the cat being forced to wear a festive mob cap fashioned from a chocolate wrapper. You won't be surprised to learn that this humiliating headgear was Mr Bonkers' idea. He did try piling up the wrappers on top of each other, and actually got as far as four, before Charlie jumped off the sofa in disgust. This photo was taken at a guess in between the construction of Layers 1 and 2.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Guerlain Plus Que Jamais: RIP

I have yet to write the final instalment of the scented aspects of my Californian trip - at least I hope it is the final instalment, and I bet you do too! - but meanwhile I have just learnt officially of the sad demise of Guerlain Plus Que Jamais, and felt moved to write about that. Plus Que Jamais was the closest approximation to my Holy Grail Scent, and yet it is one I did not own. This is partly down to the extortionate retail price of knocking on for 300 euro for a 60ml bottle of the EDP, but may partly also have been an unconscious protest at Guerlain's absurd distribution policy. For you could buy Plus Que Jamais, along with other scents in the Exclusives line, in Paris and Montreal, but not in the UK. I have already vented my spleen about this in a previous post.

In my view, this latest news of the axing of Plus Que Jamais - to be known henceforward as "Plus Jamais" ("never more") - only confirms the folly of Guerlain's distribution policy. For I firmly believe that this scent, which had a foot in the both the vintage and modern Guerlain camps, as I mention in my other post about it, could have been a much bigger success.

"It has the trademark powdery trail of a classic Guerlain, but not cranked up to the max as with the sneezefest that is L'Heure Bleue. This is Guerlinade for the 21st century, which I would place in complexity somewhere between the behemoths of Mitsouko, L'Heure Bleue and Shalimar, and the rosy musk crowd-pleaser that is Idylle."

And I am not alone in thinking this - Marina of Perfumesmellingthings is another fan who believes Guerlain missed a major marketing opportunity with PQJ - see her full review here.

"Plus Que Jamais is the kind of scent, which, were Guerlain to release it for wide distribution alongside L’Instant and Insolence, could have become their biggest modern bestseller. There is nothing about it that 'an average customer' would not understand or like."

As well as opening up the distribution channels, they would probably have needed to bring the price point more within reach of the average customer to have truly kickstarted sales (and I am assuming of course that it IS lack of sales which has prompted the decision to discontinue PQJ). And maybe they couldn't have done that without compromising quality. But the other great classics like Mitsouko et al are all much more affordable ml for ml. So I don't know. But I do know that I am sad that Plus Que Jamais is no more, and I think Guerlain shot themselves in the foot there.

I should also give credit to my informant, my sister-in-law, Hazel, who was over in Paris last week, and whom I dispatched on a reconnaissance mission to Guerlain HQ. As well as finding out the current status on PQJ, she was also charged with the delicate task of tackling Guerlain staff about their non-commercialisation policy for 180 Ans de Création. Developed to commemorate 180 years of Guerlain scents, it is not unlike an innocuous version of Shalimar, which is probably why it appeals so much to me, the Queen of Bland and All Things Middle-Of-The-Road. This fragrance was never intended as a commercial release, but was given away to industry insiders and selected loyal customers. But some of us outsiders who have managed to get our hands on a small decant of it (thanks, lovethescents!) are disappointed at that decision too.

Interestingly, the sales assistant to whom my sister-in-law posed the question, was unaware of a scent called 180 Ans de Création, and pointed her instead in the direction of a boxed set, containing what Hazel described as a collection of Guerlain's "greatest hits". If it is the one pictured here, which retails in the US for a staggering $3,750 a pop, I think it may not be long before this release too is quietly withdrawn...

But going back to Plus Que Jamais, I think those who love it as much as I do should get together and lobby for its reinstatement. Not so much a case of "Guerlainade" as a call to arms for urgent Guerlain-AID.

Photo of Plus Que Jamais from, photo of Père-Lachaise cemetry from, photo of Guerlain's commemorative scent collection from

Thursday 20 January 2011

California Dreaming: Another Bonkers Road Trip - The Scented Bit: Part 2

At the end of my first week in Southern California - or SoCal, as I am learning to call it - I found myself in Redlands, San Bernadino County (which I am learning with difficulty not to call the greater LA area), sitting on my enormous hotel bed. Poring over the ancient and battered Rand McNally road atlas spread out before me, I tried to recall where the fragrance meccas of the West Coast were located, and how many of them I could comfortably fit around my work schedule over the next week or so. Aware that my geo-olfactory map of California was sketchy at best, I decided to "phone a friend". Or more correctly, a complete stranger with whom I had once done a fairly sizeable swap on Makeupalley, where she goes by the name of Qwendy (aka Wendy).

By profession, Wendy is a designer of her own range of flamboyant couture shoes. Through a weird coincidence, it turns out that we have both visited the same little shoe museum in Romans, France - she for professional reasons, me because I had an hour to kill before a meeting in town - and we have both also been to see this bizarre edifice, built by an eccentric postman over the course of some 30 years. What, you may well say, are the chances of that?!

So anyway, by the following morning we had arranged to meet up at 5pm at The Scent Bar, aka the nerve centre of Lucky Scent's worldwide operations. Wendy explained that the staff would be "pouring champagne" all weekend, so it sounded like rather a good time to go. She also suggested that I check out Strange Invisible Perfumes, whose own "worldwide headquarters" were within easy striking distance of my hotel in Venice Beach.

Saturday dawned hot and sunny. I know this, because I watched it dawn myself. New York may have earnt the moniker of "the city that never sleeps", but I can confirm that LA isn't big on lie-ins either. This is the first and possibly the last time that I will ever be awoken by a pre-dawn chorus of rumbling skateboards.

After a fortifying breakfast of ginger scone and creditably hot tea at the Rose Cafe (another of Wendy's recommendations and the only eaterie graced with my repeat custom apart from Denny's : - ) ), I set off for Strange Invisible Perfumes via the Post Office on Main Street, picking my way as I did so over the crouching forms of joggers engaged in cool-down stretches.


At the Post Office I spent a harrowing half an hour in a restless and faintly menacing queue, before being grilled by the counter clerk as to the exact background behind my request for four stamps for inland Christmas cards.

"Are you sending any explosives, firearms, flammable solids, knives or sharp implements?" Ignoring my blankly incredulous stare, he went on, barely pausing to draw breath: "Any nonmailable plant pests, injurious animals, or illegally taken fish or wildlife?" (These may not be his exact words, but it was a long list along similar lines.) "Any motor vehicle master keys or locksmithing devices?"

Resisting the urge to make some flippant comment about the envelopes I was sending being thin enough to floss with, I mumbled a subdued "No" and was issued with the correct postage. Handing the envelopes back to the clerk, duly stamped, I was reprimanded for not writing a return address on the envelope (a practice not customary in the UK). "Oh, do you need that, then?" I inquired feebly, my spirit all but broken. "Yes, ma'am" came the grave reply. "It's for safety reasons." But of course it is! Why didn't I think of that?

Slightly rattled by the Orange Threat Level in operation at the Post Office, I started ambling up Abbot Kinney Boulevard, in search of the Strange Invisible Perfumes boutique, whose exact address I had omitted to check. Abbot Kinney Boulevard was worth a visit in its own right for the colourful and eclectic jumble of cafes, yoga centres, vintage shops and art galleries. Eventually, I asked directions of a passing male couple, who knew the store well, just as I had hoped they might, and who were able to confirm that I had massively overshot it. So Strange And Invisible that it is incredibly easy to miss!

I found the following background to SIP on the company's Facebook page:

"Strange Invisible Perfumes is a completely botanical fragrance house presenting uncompromising luxury, stunning craftsmanship, and absolute purity. The company was founded in 2000 by botanical loyalist and perfumer, Alexandra Balahoutis. Based in the creative hotbed of Venice, California, Strange Invisible Perfumes has spearheaded an avant-garde movement of narrative botanical perfumery."

"Creative hotbed" is good - Venice is certainly a hotbed of something. And "narrative botanical perfumery" is an intriguing phrase, which is expanded on their website:

"We make narrative perfumes with certified organic, wildcrafted, biodynamic, and hydro-distilled essences." Okay, got it. I can just see Mr Bonkers dismissing some of my less successful knitting projects - you know, the ones where you have to ask what sort of a garment it is meant to be before attempting to put it on - as "wildcrafted".

Once inside, I made myself known to the glacially cool sales assistant and asked to try a few of the scents that were new to me (which was most of them). I explained that I already liked Magazine Street and L'Invisible, notwithstanding the medicinal opening, which I assumed was due to their all-natural ingredients? My question was left hanging in the air. But I was required to field the inevitable quizzing about how I had managed to try any of the line , which I always counter by saying that friends who owned full bottles had "let me have a little bit of theirs". And as I said above, we are all friends on Makeupalley...

So, under the guidance of the sales lady, I tried Peloponnesian, Aquarian Roses, Fire & Cream, Musc Botanique, Arunima and Essence of IX. I know this because I have the paddle-shaped smelling strips to prove it, labelled in the SA's neat cursive handwriting. It will be harder to recollect my exact impressions of each, but I know that Peloponnesian and Aquarian Roses were ruled out of the inquiry immediately. Peloponnesian, while perfectly evocative of scrubby Mediterranean hillsides, citrus groves and vineyards, failed to appeal because it was too masculine. Uncharacteristically for the house, whose marketing is typically more fluid in gender terms, Peloponnesianis positioned as a men's scent, so I was on the right (as in wrong) track there. Then Aquarian Roses was a pretty but unremarkable rose, though this is the one out of the six which I remember least clearly. Possibly for that very reason!

Fire and Cream I wasn't sure I would like because I was aware of its notes in advance and feared it might be a bit orange and tuberose-heavy: in my experience overly orange scents can be as wrong as overly orange makeover artists at the Clarins counter:

Fire and Cream: oranges & orange blossom, tuberose, frankincense, white lavender, vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla & patchouli.

I needn't have worried though, as the lavender and vetiver cut through the juicy fruit and white flowers, while the woods and incense made for a dry base, balancing the composition. I quite liked it, but the combination of orange, lavender and vetiver was rather offbeat, and I think a retrial is called for.

Musc Botanique: Egyptian geranium, frankincense, notes of white amber & botanical musk

This was an interesting one - a cold, sheer, vegetal, earthy musk - dry and aloof rather than sweet and "come hither" like Musc Ravageur. If this musk were a person, it would be a booted and suited businessman sitting on a bench in a leafy London square, engrossed in a newspaper. He exudes a quiet, masculine power, and if you choose to sit next to him he will most likely ignore you. Another scent that deserves a retest.

The two I ended up applying on skin were the ones with the most obvious appeal based on the sales assistant's descriptions - and their behaviour on card: Arunima (which, like "anemone", is crying out to have its consonants carelessly transposed, and apparently means "glow of dawn" in Sanskrit), and the only one of the six in parfum form, Essence of IX.

Arunima: blue lotus, Madagascan vanilla, frankincense, cardamom, key lime, lavender, ginger.

I recently encountered the blue lotus note in a Scents of Time fragrance, Nenufar, which sadly left me underwhelmed. Arunima packs much more of a punch, but I didn't care for it nearly as much on skin for some reason. I just got an intense, dark, vaguely oriental vibe with minimal floral notes. Though as I say, recalling these scents now after 5-6 weeks (especially the four that were only tested on card) is not unlike driving past those signs by the side of motorways that say: "Accident. Can You Help? Witnesses sought to a fatal car crash on..." before going on to mention a time and date from at least three months ago.

The other scent I tried on skin, Essence of IX, had an appealing "narrative" - it is named after Colgin Cellars' famous IX Estate vineyard in the Napa Valley, and seeks to bottle all the scents associated with its terroir and winery.

Essence of IX: white sage, roses, black currant, California lavender, French oak & wild honey.

I absolutely LOVE SIP's own summary of this scent - "Brambly. Floral. Stirring" - which captures its character perfectly. It is a boozy rose scent, bright and sappy and fruity with a hint of oak vats. It was so vivid and realistic that I would liken it to the olfactory equivalent of HD TV (that'll be the parfum aspect, no doubt). Ultimately though, I couldn't see myself ever loving it, and the ones I am really curious to retry are in fact the more quirky but not overtly masculine Fire and Cream and Musc Botanique...

The men who directed me to the store also mentioned the fact that SIP does bespoke perfumery, of which there were no obvious signs front of house, but as I now learn from their website, this is because it all takes place in a "private custom blend carriage" (like a railway carriage!) somewhere within its Tardis-style premises.

And although I am not the least little bit in the market for a SIP custom blend - the off the peg fragrances are already a stretch at $130+ a pop - I was interested to read more about the service on the website. After the usual personal profiling business to enable them to draft your "Perfume Portrait" (which seems to be the in-phrase at the moment for determining someone's preferences), "a tasting of rare hydrosols follows, during which the client’s feedback is noted in detail." I had to look up hydrosols, which turn out to be the aromatic water that remains after producing an essential oil via steam or water distillation, otherwise known as floral or distillate water. So I am guessing that the clients might actually get to drink these, and that they might offer health benefits on a par with those other Venice beverage classics of pomegranate juice and mango smoothies.

Sadly, as in the Space NK store in Bath, I was not allowed to take any photographs of the interior of Strange Invisible Perfumes. No reason was offered, but it may have been either for Intellectual Property reasons (the issue with Diptyque on that occasion), or fear that, unable to afford their scents, I was casing the joint with a view to returning one night with ten of my closest cat burglar friends and a jemmy wrench. I can report that the interior was narrow and dark, with plain, minimalist decor and sparse furnishings, mainly comprising a long, sleek grey counter running the length of the shop, and a few stools. I seem to remember a lot of dark wood, and the perfumes themselves were sitting on a little wooden tray more or less in splendid isolation. Or not quite isolation, for there may have been a display of SIP's collection of "life-changing body washes" on the shelves behind them.

I did toy with NOT putting a pack shot in this post, on the basis that the SIP line likes to be invisible, but that would have been frankly silly. I do think I will end this post here, as I scurry back to my hotel to choose an outfit appropriate for a champagne-tippling sniffing date in Beverley Hills with a well shod stranger.

Writing this has put me in the mood to wear L'Invisible, the ylang-ylang scent in the line. But hold on a minute, for some reason I can't seem to see where my sample has got to...

Photo of Venice Beach Post Office from, photo of Fire and Cream from, photo of bench from, photo of Essence IX from SIP's website, photo of stone relief from Colgin Cellars' website, other photos my own.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

California Dreaming: Another Bonkers Road Trip - The Scented Bit: Part 1

I realise it is not ideal to report on olfactory memories five weeks after the event, but when you are endowed with a nose as rudimentary and prone to abrupt volte-faces as mine (or volte-nez, perhaps, since we are speaking of a single facial feature), it may make less difference than you might imagine. I still have the usual clutch of fragrance blotters (all smelling identically of "Eau de Card At The Bottom Of The Handbag"), which may serve as useful reminders of what I smelt, if not of what what I smelt smelt of.

So back in early December, on my outward journey to the States, I made a beeline for the duty free at Birmingham airport. It must be said though that my M.O. in duty frees has changed markedly since the early days of "sudden onset perfume mania", when I vividly remember spraying up to 10 perfumes on all available limb space in my febrile eagerness to try a whole clutch of things that were new or unfamiliar to me. Fast forward two years or so, and I might test just one scent on skin, if that. This is mainly because I have sampled the "back catalogue" of most designer houses now, and while I am open to trying the latest releases, it is on a much more selective basis than before. Just as doughnuts are "not worth the calories" in my book, by the same token I consider many designer scents with a high potential to disappoint not worth a slot on the precious runway of my forearm.

But one scent made the cut that day, Vivienne Westwood's Naughty Alice. I had more or less tuned out to the Vivienne Westwood range ever since an offputting trial of Boudoir in June 2008. In the notebook I kept at the time, documenting my early sniffing experiences, I described Boudoir as "a huge, peppery, spicy, sweet, pyrotechnic powderfest, that catches you offguard with a shocking blast of civet as you stand there open-mouthed, watching the fireworks." I gave it a dismissive two stars out of a possible five. But that was then, and my taste has changed so much in the past two and a half years that I decided to give Naughty Alice a prime site spritz, and am glad I did.

My first thought was that it reminded me of Flower By Kenzo Oriental, but without the robust woody base. My second thought was that Naughty Alice smelt exactly as I had hoped YSL Parisienne would smell, rather than the "disgruntled purple talc" it actually smells of. And it also reminded me slightly of a rosier and more biddable version of Balenciaga Paris, Parisienne's brainy and standoffish older sister. It was only when I got home a fortnight later, and scurried to the Interweb to locate note listings for the scents in question, that I realised there was a common theme of rose + violet + musk in the Kenzo, Parisienne and Naughty Alice - and violet and musk in Paris. I didn't detect the ylang ylang in Naughty Alice, but as a card-carrying "ylangoholic" I may have been reeled in by the fragrance equivalent of those high pitched whistles audible only to Alsatians and knots of disaffected teenagers loitering outside supermarkets.


Notes: Rose, Violet, Ylang Ylang, Powdery Notes, Musk, Oriental Notes

Following this fairly low key testing session at the airport, the next perfume event of note was just two days into the trip, when I hooked up with Katie Puckrik at a shopping mall north of San Diego on 8th December. I was in between appointments in the area, while Katie had come straight from recording two TV interviews on Fox San Diego on the subject of scents to wear to holiday parties or to give as gifts. It was plucky of her to agree to meet, I thought, for she knows I have been stalking her hairdo (with very mixed results) for some time now: with hindsight, my recent post on the subject here seems imbued with a certain dramatic irony...

So anyway, I arrived at the perfume counter in Nordstrom's - a failsafe rendez-vous spot, we figured! - with a few minutes to spare, time enough to recce the fixture and take a few photos. As soon as Katie arrived, we headed out into the brilliant sunshine. It was warm enough to sit outside at a pavement cafe, and the butternut squash soup we both ordered came positively bejewelled with dried cranberries as well as pumpkin seeds and little bits of nuts, a novel touch serving as yet another example of Californian fusion cuisine!

I sniffed the vestiges of the new FM Portrait of a Lady on Katie's pashmina and handed over a small decant of Floris Snow Rose for her to try later. For now though, Katie proceeded to sniff Belle D'Opium on my wrist and we puzzled over how "Belle Dope" could have lost the "significant incense and resinous mystery" I had enjoyed on first discovering it in Germany in September, and morphed into this juvenile, sub-Chinatown fruitchouli number we were undeniably smelling on my arm now. At the time, I concluded that Climate Change was at the bottom of this discrepancy, and that the incense note must only emerge in cold weather, but I have since worn Belle Dope in bitter conditions back home, and the resinous mystery continues to elude me...

I did wonder whether my respect for Katie's critical opinion could possibly have had some kind of effect on my nasal receptors, a bit like the time I ordered lime ice cream on holiday as a child and was given pistachio by mistake. To avoid waste or the embarrassment of sending the dish back, my father persuaded me that the ice cream was lime after all, and I ate it all up with relish, only to have him tell me afterwards that it had been pistachio all along, incorrigible Svengali-esque hoaxster that he was! Now I say "a bit like", because obviously Katie was not trying to pull the wool over my nose - the similarity lies in the fact that the perfume smelled as I believed it should smell, and probably does do to most people. Anyway, these are deep psychological waters, and we might need the combined skills of Luca Turin, David Blane and Paul McKenna to determine exactly what is going on here.

After lunch, we wandered in a happily aimless fashion around the mall, pausing in The Body Shop to sample Love Etc, a Dominique Ropion creation aimed at the teen market, along with Moroccan Rose, Neroli Jasmine and that old stalwart, White Musk! And I stepped for the very first time inside a branch of Bath & Body Works, but before the sales assistant could intercept us to give us her spiel about the special offers on scented candles, we had stepped outside again sharpish, as the sickly stench was overpowering. And soon, after browsing in a few more stores, and shooting the breeze on topics as diverse as the Hampton Inn hotel chain, windmills and my brother's eyebrows, it was time for us to go out separate ways.

And while I didn't get the hookah accord this time in Belle Dope - and have failed to register the merest wisp of incense ever since - there was something about the incongruously glorious weather (as Mr Bonkers shivered back home in temperatures of -10 C), and the parallel strangeness of meeting Katie in the middle of my working day, which combined to produce a feeling of pleasant discombobulation. The sort of pleasant discombobulation that usually comes from smoking - and smoking something a little less innocuous than tobacco at that...

Coming up in Parts 2 & 3: visits to Strange Invisible Perfumes, The Scent Bar and Ajne...

Photo of San Diego from, photo of Naughty Alice from, photos of Nordstrom, Westfield UTC mall and Katie Puckrik my own, photo of woman relaxing with a hookah from

Monday 17 January 2011

Report Writing Rabbit Hole...

I am just coming up for air following a very strenuous - or, as Mr Bonkers would call it - an "exhaustifying" four day stint analysing the findings from my recent US work project. The last, perfume-themed(!) instalment in the California Dreaming series follows shortly.

And meanwhile here is a fine display of empathy on the part of one of my cacti - or "pathetic fallacy" as I believe it is correctly known. But there again, I've been so busy and distracted may just need a drink.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

California Dreaming: Another Bonkers Road Trip - The Travel Bit: Part 3

I am thinking it is a good job I have been using different photos for each of these travel posts, because the titles are starting to look a bit samey. And should anyone be wondering why I called the series "California Dreaming", the answer is twofold. Firstly, the nature of the project was quite surreal - the companies I visited ranged from wind farm operators as featured in Part 2, to municipal waste water treatment plants, to an array of manufacturers of all manner of weird and wonderful things. One of them even made "arrays"(!), fashioned out of "epitaxially grown wafers", very possibly involving silicon, given the shiny-looking facade of the plant. Something tells me that I will remember these wafers for many years to come, even though I wouldn't recognise one if it fell on my head - or my tongue?

Then the other reason the trip felt surreal is because it was December, yet the weather was mostly hot and sunny, with blue skies and wraparound vistas of palm trees. I had the sensation of being on a film set a lot of the time, indeed I just learnt last night, whilst watching the first episode of America's Next Top Model (Cycle 15), that I WAS on a film set. The models' communal house was right on Venice Beach, a couple of doors down from the hotel where I holed up for the first weekend. So, you know, I came this close to being in America's Top Model! Well, maybe not - I am not nearly bitchy enough to win... ; - ) But on to the matter in hand.

The food and drink

The dearth of indigenous tea-brewing skills in the state - or indeed, the country as a whole(!) - has already been documented and discussed in Part 1.

Moving on to the local food, Wikipedia gives a pretty good summary of Californian cuisine:

"..a style of cuisine marked by an interest in 'fusion' – integrating disparate cooking styles and ingredients – and in the use of freshly prepared local ingredients. The food is typically prepared with strong attention to presentation."

I think of California and I think of jumbo shrimp, mango salad, sprouts, blueberry muffins, seared tuna, jalapeno peppers, tofu, wild rice, sushi, avocado, bell peppers, all that type of thing. It is pretty healthy food on the whole, and Californians have a healthy attitude to it and an "Eat Responsibly" bumper sticker to match.

However, I ended up eating in a branch of Denny's most nights, a chain of diners offering pretty homogeneous menus across the US. My hotels were invariably on out of town retail parks, and if you didn't fancy driving somewhere to eat, Denny's was often the only option. One night in the greater LA area, fancying a change from the chain's homely fare, I nearly stumbled into a steakhouse right across the road from my hotel, called "Tony's Spunky Steer". Then I noticed the blackout blinds in every window... So, worrying that there might be quite a different type of meat on offer, I high-tailed it back to the nearest Denny's. I just thought to check on Tripadvisor, and it was a regular steakhouse after all! Boo!

Now Denny's is best known for its All-American breakfasts, and my "gut feel" told me that to eat there in the evening would have a bit of a loser feel about it. The interior is too plain and plasticky, the lighting too bright. In short, too much of a cafeteria ambience. And since when did red go particularly well with yellow, (current colour blocking trend notwithstanding)? A cursory trawl of the Internet only serves to confirm my impression - take the title of this thread from

"Denny's - Great for breakfast, OK for lunch, Avoid for dinner."

But beggars can't be choosers, so I persisted in going there for dinner, and was (in fairness) quite pleasantly surprised. The sizzling barbecued chicken and the spicy tilapia in a skillet were both winners, and I had them more than once. You can sort of tell from the illustrations which dishes might be a bit sad and school dinnerish, and there were a few...

But as well as the recurring hot tea issue, I had other drinks problems at Denny's. Note the careful use of the plural. Firstly, what's with the iced water? Or more correctly, giant tumblers of ice, with a dash of water. If I want to bump my nose continuously on large frozen objects, I'll come back in the next life as a seal. At least the ice tumblers are free, as the Weights and Measures people would have a field day with them otherwise!

And there is another thing you need to know about Denny's: some of them are "dry" - as in not serving alcohol - while others are not. Then some of them are not dry, but think they are, like the branch in Fresno, where they said they didn't serve alcohol. I pointed to the Budweiser decal on the window. "Well we have beer and wine?" to which I replied: "Beer and wine will do nicely, thank you."

And there again you can be in a branch of Denny's, which knows it is licensed to serve alcohol, and still encounter problems, like the one which asked me for photo-ID when I tried to order a bottle of Corona. "Photo-ID?" I queried incredulously, "Why on earth do you need to see my photo-ID?" "Ah well" explained the waitress in a sombre tone, "we've had trouble with the authorities to do with the Protection of Minors legislation and we have to follow the rules." "Protection of Minors?" I answered, my voice quavering with exasperation. "Do you see this menu here for Seniors? Smaller portions for the 55 and overs? A few years and I'll be eligible for that menu - and you want to see my ID???"

This prompted the waitress to summon the Manager, who reiterated the rules, before inquiring: "So how many are you planning to drink?" I thought of coming out with some smart alec reply like: "Oh, just a dozen or so, enough to get totally rat arsed, before running amok and smashing the joint up", but instead replied meekly: "How about one?" I am pleased to report that the Manager waived the rules and I got my beer.

But my finest stunt in a Denny's was picking up a 20-something airforce mechanic in a remote village in the desert. No, I will rephrase that - I did nothing of the sort - he merely struck up conversation with me from the next booth, and after we had both finished our meals, cordially invited me to accompany him to find a bar (this was a dry Denny's, to go with the local terrain).

Reader, I declined, pleading paperwork, but thinking that that would be too much excitement on a school night, while my inner Health & Safety Representative said I shouldn't be getting into any strange men's cars whom I had only known long enough for them to eat a customised French Toast grand slam. My heart, on the other hand, said he was a perfectly decent young man and a credit to his country, and the innocent invitation had been prompted by the inevitable loneliness that comes with chronic solo dining.

When I told Mr Bonkers about this encounter, he seemed quite proud of me for showing that I can still pull someone young enough to be my son. A feat even more impressive when you factor in the American Eagle Outfitters cable knit sweater and 9 yr old boot leg jeans - an ensemble strictly confined to in-home comfort wear (which of course Denny's had more or less become by that point : - ) ). And the non-deterrent effect of the outfit reminds me in turn of the time I was mistaken for a hooker down by the Hudson River while wearing a full length camel coat and aran bobble hat.

Not that I did "pull", you understand. Oh, perhaps I should have gone after all...

What else is there to report on on the food front? Oh yes, the breakfasts, which were sometimes but not always included in the room rate. The more I sampled, the less I minded their absence. A traditional nasty is scrambled egg that has been slumped under its steel dome since 6.30am. By the time you come down to breakfast it is stone cold and leaching a colourless fluid – you suddenly remember the word “albumen” from Third Form biology lessons, and wish you hadn’t. Up there with the cold egg is cold, blackened - and oddly frilly - streaky bacon, along with the concrete Frisbees that pass for bagels, runny grape jelly and garish Froot Loops, which cascade out of Perspex towers in a sugary avalanche.

It wasn't till week two that I dared interact with a waffle iron: you dispense the batter into a cup, pour it into the iron, close it and turn it to a strange angle - imagine the hands on a clock showing 10 past 7 and you will get the general idea. My first and only attempt at waffle making produced a limp circle still molten in one quadrant, which rather put me off the rest.

In total contrast to all of the above, I did manage to sample true Californian cuisine in the 36 hours I spent in Venice Beach: I had breakfast twice at the Rose Cafe, a favourite haunt of real Venetians, who bound in as early as 8am, gleaming with sweat from their morning run - or less gleaming, but with a rolled up yoga mat tucked under one arm. At the Rose cafe they serve a variety of snacks and salads along the lines I mentioned above, with a mind boggling "array" of permutations.

I also ate out one night at a vegan restaurant, where the waiters hug you on the way out, and come and sit next to you to help you make your selection. Even with the limited menu on offer, it was just as well they did, as the restaurant was in near total darkness. This may have been to save energy or to create a tranquil, womb-like ambience - it was hard to tell. In the end I plumped for the special - a cashew nut korma with pitta and salad, washed down with pomegranate juice. (I thought I would go a bit wild - it was a Friday night, after all.) The waiter pressed me to a complimentary boule of rose petal ice cream. I demurred, then crumbled - and it was delicious. He was from Poland, as it turned out, and I told him I knew a few Polish words, including the one for a specific road deformity. He said he didn't get many clients in like me.

There were only two other sets of diners in that night: at the next table were two women and a man, in so far as I could determine gender in the gloom. Suddenly the man jolted in his chair, and asked his companions: "Hey, are either of you guys working on me, because I swear I just felt something!" I carried on munching my korma, thinking to myself that to hear the word "working" used in that context makes a change from that familiar inquiry from wait staff, sometimes when you are only three bites into your meal: "Did you want to get a box for that or you still working on it?"

And finally, a special award goes to a coffee house in Venice which took the art of tea making to a whole new level. It provided not just boiling hot water, a high calibre tea bag and a small jug of cold milk on the side, but a trio of egg timers to ensure you got the perfect brew - light, medium or strong. Only in LA, I thought. Yes, my experience of eating out in California lurched from the plain and homely to the elaborate and chichi via the oddball and worthy. I don't doubt that there is a middle ground - and the Italian my friends in NorCal took me to was the closest I came to it - but mostly this was a trip of extremes. So yes, on balance, the food was a bit surreal too.

And meanwhile, back home and left to fend for himself, the two week period while I was away was a bleaker time for Mr Bonkers on the catering front...

Photo of epitaxially grown wafers from, photo of ANTM house from, photo of Denny's my own, photo of seal from, photo of Denny's menu from, photo of French toast from Denny's website, photos of Venice Beach, cup of tea and Starving Musician shop all my own.