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.


Angela Cox said...

Snort ! "Strange" they are !!

Haunani said...

I'm having great fun reading about your trip, and now I'm going to have to try Essence of IX and Fire and Cream!

ScentScelf said...

You met Qwendy! You met Qwendy! (I know that Katie Puckrik is a celebrity of media magnitude, particularly for you Brits...but I was a bit fan of Qwendy's posts, back when she blogged. I also secretly yearned for a pair of her shoes, but I don't know if my dogs are suitable for her mules. y'know.)

As for perfume...SIP is an interesting line. I understand why some people have issues; goodness, Black Rosette, while sending me down the rabbit hole, was one weird ride. Especially for a newbie. But to have something start out so...camphorous, plus other somethings...then become something entirely *this very moment* it dawns on me that their offerings are like some sort of western equivalent of ouds. Hmm. Gonna come back to that.

Wait, there is more? Will the jimmy [sic--that's how I learned it; must be a cross-Oceanic thing?] wrench come out? Cat bugled, was it, that sample? You didn't drop it in a parcel and then realize the USPO is going to ken to your nefarious scented holiday greeting plot, what??

Oh, dear. Meetings with strangers, custom shoes, sniffage, a good post. They all mess with me. I'll be back to voyeur myself to the next installment. (That's a kind of Velcro™ action with eyes wide open, typically mouth shut, but hey, it's me, and I'm sure I'll yak up your comments box again...)


Vanessa said...

Hi Angela,

Thanks! That's a good snort, I infer? Like the good saliva on Facebook? : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi Haunani

Well, I seem to remember that you like Cielo, another Napa Valley-inspired scent, and you do live fairly close to that area, so I think Essence of IX in particular might appeal. Fire and Cream was interesting too, and contains some of my favourite notes, albeit in a slightly odd combination!

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

Yes, I met Qwendy! - coming up in the next part, which I am hoping will be the last one, as this title is getting a tad repetitive... It is only now that I realise she is a bit of a legend in LA (actual LA, even) both on the perfumista and footwear fronts.

Black Rosette was the first SIP scent I tried - from a Perfumed Court sample way back - and it struck a Proustian chord with a friend of ours whose first GF was a Goth who chain drank tea, smoked and chewed gum. : - ) I love the phrase from a review on Perfume Posse(?) which likened Black Rosette to a dragon with a stick of Wrigley's tucked behind its ear.

Now I think "jemmy" and "wrench" are in fact two different tools, and when I googled "jemmy wrench" as a combination I only got my own post! I could have just said "tool" I suppose, but that tends to mean "gun" these days - at least it does in Guy Ritchie films. : - )

olenska said...

As the daughter of one mailman and the wife of another, I extend our deepest and most heartfelt apologies for the postal ordeal you endured on our shores. The last 10 years have witnessed an explosion (so to speak) of postal safety regulations that are as annoying to us as to you. It wasn't always so, I assure you. Way back in history, you could MAIL YOURSELF and no one would bat an eyelash.

Vanessa said...

Hi Olenska,

I consider the ordeal well worth it for having prompted your hilarious comment! The gratuitous grilling most definitely fuelled the restlessness and lengthened the queue.

JoanElaine said...

Your frankness and humour make for excellent posts. I always enjoy reading your blog and this California series is just excellent. Forget "Lonely Planet", this is good travel writing!

Vanessa said...

Hi JoanElaine,

You are very kind to say so! I have been wondering through this process of relating my US experiences whether I am fundamentally a travel writer who likes perfume rather than a perfumista who travels... : - )

lovethescents said...

That was so fun to read! You can't find your l'Invisible sample??? I'm on the's the only SIP I've tried that I like.

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

It's okay thanks! I haven't really lost it - that was just me being silly again...invisible L'Invisible... : - )

lovethescents said...

ooopppps! Sleep deprivation

Yves Fey said...

Really fun posting! Thanks.