Sunday 25 September 2011

Going The Puredistance (II): Tea And Dutch Apple Cake With Jan Ewoud Vos And His Team

To mark the occasion of my 200th post – somewhat asynchronously, as it was technically my 206th post at the time – I featured one of the perfumes that has most impressed me this year, Puredistance I. I warmed to the company in the course of our friendly email exchanges, not least because they didn’t seem to have taken offence at my comparison of the packaging to a “top of the range coffin”. Nor had they minded when, in an earlier post (which may have originally alerted them to my blog), I took a potshot at some famous Dutch traditions, such as a mass New Year’s dive in the sea and the nation's pyromaniacal relationship with fireworks.

Given the serendipity of my falling over Zsolt Zólyomi, Hungary’s lone perfumer (and stockist of Puredistance), it was perhaps not so surprising that on the last day of my last trip of the summer - 112 days and some 10,000 miles after I swore under my breath at a crocodile of children endlessly crossing the road in Belgium – the bonkers road ran out in northern Holland.... I had just one last appointment on a Friday afternoon in Veendam (not to be confused with the hunky Belgian actor of that name), and a free morning...

Now as Veendam is 20 miles from Groningen, the European HQ of Puredistance, I contacted Rosanne Schepers - newly promoted to Manager of International Sales and Public Relations - a couple of days ahead, and asked if I could pop in and say hello. I hoped I might also be able to blag a cup of tea, Holland being one of the few European countries where you stand a fighting chance of being offered one.

On the Friday morning in question I chose to walk to their offices, tucked behind one of the many scenic canals in Groningen. I didn’t want to mow down a cyclist so close to the end of my trip, and I knew that if I persisted in driving in Dutch urban areas, it was only a matter of time before I had a handful of fatalities under my bumper and on my conscience.

At 9.30am sharp (well, sharp by my watch, which may be a couple of minutes slow), I rang the doorbell of the impressive wooden door of the Puredistance offices. These are housed in a converted church with a great vaulted celing and a wonderful air of calm. It would have made a good dance studio too, Jan Ewoud Vos observed. I asked them what denomination of church it used to be. Something “apostolic”, apparently.

Rosanne greeted me warmly and immediately offered me a cup of tea! She is one of the numerous Scandinavian blondes featured on the Puredistance website – though a couple had in fact left already, and I am pleased to report that the shade spectrum of the present team’s hair is more mixed – I was beginning to wonder whether my own hair colour might be a barrier to my visit.

After a tour of the offices and introductions to the rest of the team: Jhonathan, Alina and Kateryna - who respectively look after sales in their home countries of China, Romania and Ukraine – we took our tea and sat down at a large pine table in the main atrium and nerve centre of the fulfilment operation. Prefolded cartons were piled high on a table ready to be packed, and a ghetto blaster stood in splendid isolation in the middle of the parquet floor. Music while the team worked? Or perhaps they were going to dance after all…

Some twenty minutes into my visit, Jan Ewoud Vos arrived, bearing two types of cake to be shared amongst the staff. (As you can see in the photograph, I was given some for the road in a rather novel take-away container... :- ) ) JEV (I will use the acronym which neatly gets me out of the quandary of whether to refer to him as Mr Vos or Jan Ewoud), joined us at the head of the table, and the six of us chewed the cud for the best part of an hour about all sorts of issues relating to Puredistance, JEV's own background and the perfume market in general.

Puredistance – the only Dutch perfume?

I asked whether Puredistance was the only fragrance brand that hails from Holland, and it turns out that it is not the only one, but the only high end one. There is the mainstream men’s brand Van Gils (a new one on me), and of course fashion house Viktor & Rolf (of Flowerbomb fame – note the subliminal firework reference!)

Then there is Marlies Dekkers, the Dutch designer of a lingerie line called Undressed. Dekkers has diversified into swimwear, nightwear, sunglasses, slippers and additionally - Agent Provocateur-style - either has her own line of fragrances called "Skindressed" already, or is planning to launch it some time soon.

Lastly, JEV mentioned Ellis Faas, a cutting edge Dutch make up artist who has worked with the likes of Mario Testino, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean-Paul Gaultier, and who according to JEV remains refreshingly unfazed by the world of the rich and famous in which she now moves. I sensed that JEV – who also operates in a luxury world but has clearly not been “spoilt” by it – sees in her a kindred spirit, and they plan to collaborate, whilst taking care to retain their own individuality. They each see their own company as their "baby", which they will continue to take good care of, and in this way have a similar approach to business.

NOTE - does that sleek steel canister not remind you a little bit of the Puredistance test tube phials?

The ascent of Dutch design

We also discussed how The Netherlands is increasingly making its mark in design terms, gradually moving away from its traditional base in agriculture, fishing and industry. One look at the fabulously outlandish art museum in Groningen confirms this trend... JEV explained that Dutch design is like Scandinavian, but is a warmer, “more human version”.

He hopes that one day he and his fellow movers and shakers will “recover the fame of Dutch painters” in their chosen fields of creative endeavour – in JEV’s own case of course, through the medium of his Puredistance fragrance collection.

Jan Ewoud Vos – from tennis ace to photographer and brand entrepreneur

One of the most interesting aspects of our conversation was hearing about JEV’s early life and career. I found him charmingly unaffected and down to earth, and he seems genuinely surprised at where his career path has taken him, viewing himself as a bit of an outsider:

“For a boy with no famous connections or a wealthy background, what are the chances that he would create something legendary one day?! The banks would say the chances are zero zero zero, point zero!”

JEV showed early promise as a tennis player, still plays, and (I think) still teaches the game. He could have turned professional, but took up photography instead, before setting up Puredistance in 2002.

The inspiration behind Puredistance

I asked Jan Ewoud Vos how he came by the idea for the Puredistance venture, and he explained that its origins lay in a vision he had of a lavish society party – as he was speaking, I was picturing a decadent, modern day version of a scene from The Great Gatsby: there were lots of drunken, noisy people, who were showing off, bragging and generally swanning around in flashy designer gear and blinging jewellery.

Also at the party was a beautiful woman wearing a white dress, whose simple, natural beauty stunned those around her into silence. She was not like them, and had put “pure distance” between herself and the other revellers with their coarse exhibitionism.

This female figure is the embodiment of the Puredistance concept: understated elegance and classic beauty.

“It is more about the philosophy and the concept than selling perfume.”

However, perfume remains at the heart of this concept, as its central form of expression.

“Perfume evokes the emotions more than anything else except music. It is on the same level as that.”

A slow-burning business model

I say “slow-burning”, because it took seven years of meticulous preparations before Jan Ewoud Vos got the Puredistance collection together and ready for launch. And if the whole venture bombed, he thought to himself with endearing pragmatism, at least his daughter would get a wonderful, unique signature scent out of it as something to show for his trouble.

JEV openly admits to bucking the trend in terms of his business model, preferring to grow primarily by word of mouth and the sales efforts of a few handpicked retailers. These partners - like Zsolt Zólyomi whom I met in Budapest - are “of the faith”, offering a friendly, honest and well-informed service to customers. JEW has chosen not to advertise or use distributors (except in Russia, where there may be compelling logistical reasons for this decision).

“Find the right people, click with them, and they will tell your story because they love it and not because they’re paid.”

And in similar vein:

“Show me your friends, and I’ll know who you are.”

It is all about growing slowly, but “beautifully”. JEV went on to compare this gradual organic growth to a series of small "Puredistance viruses" in every country, stealthily spreading and gathering momentum until they reach a critical mass.

The role of bloggers

We debated the conundrum associated with this no-advertising approach, namely that you may not reach your target market. Bloggers do a great job of raising awareness of niche brands: JEV praised the blogging community for their lyrical deconstructions of fragrances, and had a far away look in his eyes as he quoted snippets of Suzanne Keller’s review of Puredistance 1, who had perfectly captured the many facets of this scent.

"Sometimes it is the juicy tang of citrus with a brut champagne, presenting a crisp facet; other times a liqueur-like berry infuses warmth into its refreshingly cool and springlike heart; and at still other times, there is a mouthwatering greenness that takes the crispness out of the ozone, like champagne bubbles that deliquesce and become liquid."

Regrettably, however, luscious prose doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. Potential punters may not look at blogs, while the bloggers themselves cannot be counted on to buy the product about which they are enthusing. In the specific case of Puredistance, I suspect the high price tag may well be a deterrent, though I did famously shell out $225 for 15ml of an Ajne scent. And in my own particular case, the company has arguably only itself to blame for their generous gifts to me of Puredistance 1... : - )

This slow-burning strategy applies not only to sales but to new product development: there will be no further scent launches this year, though the company may add one or two more over the next couple of years. Brand extensions into other categories of luxury goods are in the pipeline but still under discussion/wraps. I said I thought silver jewellery or small leather goods might be a good fit, for example, which appears to have worked for Penhaligon’s.

Where is everything made?

The former church is the centre of operations for mail order fulfilment, but I was curious to know where the perfume itself is actually made. I learnt that the perfume oil (ie the composition) is created in London and New York, before being produced in Switzerland and France and transported to Belgium, where it is
processed to the final perfume extrait. Towards the end of last year, the company added leather holders for the scent phials to its range. These are also made in Belgium and come in four tasteful colourways.

Antonia, Jan Ewoud Vos’s mother, and me

It is well documented that the fragrance Antonia, created ten years previously by Annie Buzantian, is a retrospective tribute to JEV’s late mother. I came clean and admitted that I didn’t especially care for it – I find the opening too severely green, too unapproachable. JEV was not surprised by this revelation, and explained that Antonia is more suited to a bigger woman – both in terms of physique and personality. His mother was stylish and sophisticated, with a strong and imposing personality; she was someone you would notice when she walked into a room. Antonia dries up “sweet and soft”, however, which is meant to evoke JEV’s mother’s warm heart beneath the brittle exterior. I was told that I am too “fragile” in terms of my build to carry it off. As you may imagine, I was relieved to learn that I am physiologically unsuited to Antonia, and that my failure to succumb to its verdant charms is not due to a lack of taste on my part!

The fragrance market – “throwaway fashion scents” versus enduring classics

JEV was keen to stress that all three scents in the collection do not follow current trends, but are designed to be timeless classics. This got us onto a discussion of the state of the fragrance market and the plethora of mainstream launches, which are backed with huge advertising campaigns, only to plunge into oblivion a couple of years later like shooting stars - or fireworks, indeed!! JEV drew my attention to Chanel as an exception to this rule – its launches tend to stand the test of time. He is a big admirer of Coco Chanel and appreciates the fact that her iconic bottle design is still around in a near identical form today.

Jan Ewoud Vos’s scented cv, and the maxim of “less is more”

The discussion took an interesting turn when I asked Jan Ewoud Vos what colognes he used to wear before he founded Puredistance. It turns out that he has worn Chanel Antaeus for some 30 years, and still toggles between that and Puredistance M, wearing fragrance typically a couple of times a week. He fervently hopes Antaeus is never discontinued or altered, likening a favourite perfume to a spouse or partner:

“Fragrance is a thing you wear daily, it is around you like a partner, and you don’t like it when your partner changes!”

JEV has also worn Hermès Eau d’Orange Verte And Chanel Allure in the past, and as a teenager, sported one of the masculine scents in the Alain Delon range, hoping that it would confer upon him the smouldering French actor's seductive powers.... And I can also reveal.....drum roll....that JEV also owned a bottle of Brut around that time!

Encouraged by this mood of full disclosure, I mentioned my 70+ bottle count and my perfume fridge, and admitted that I do sometimes feel overwhelmed by the scale of my collection, and rather admired him for sticking to just a few scents. Jan Ewoud Vos pointed out that the more scents I acquire, the more each one in my collection becomes devalued and diminished in importance, and I couldn’t help but agree.

“I wouldn’t mind if someone took away all my perfumes and just gave me back half a dozen - or ten, say - to use for ever. I’d be quite relieved in fact.”

And if they did, I would be happy if Puredistance 1 was in that shortlist, for it, along with the other two scents in the range - is a triumph of style AND substance.

Photo of Puredistance offices from, photo of Marlies Dekkers lingerie from, photo of ellis faas make up from, photo of Groningen art museum from, photo of white dress from, photo of champagne cocktails from, photo of Chanel bottles from, photo of Alain Delon from, other photos my own or from the Puredistance website.


Undina said...

Thank you for the story, it was very interesting.
I like Antonia very much. I do think about a FB of it one day but at this price level it's not something you buy just to have so I want to make sure I actually love it. I haven't had a chance to try Piredistance I yet but now after all the praises from you I definitely will.

Ines said...

I really enjoyed your report on the Puredistance team. :) They really have a nice approach to bloggers and are very generous.

And I love the take-away box!

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Thanks for reading - this one is a bit of a monster post, but there seemed to be a lot to cover!

Puredistance 1 is much more accessible in my opinion, so if you like Antonia, I can't see why you wouldn't care for it too.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

Your reviews were amongst the very first I read on this range, and were instrumental in my curiosity to try the line. And yes, I agree that Puredistance have a nice approach to bloggers. Additionally, there was a pinboard in the main office, with clippings from reviews on blogs, FB, Twitter and the Net generally. I spotted something by Dee Howe on there!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reporting back so thoroughly, I really enjoyed reading it.

Bonny old B is obviously hefty enough for Antonia! ;)

I feel just like you and JEV about the mass of perfumes in our collections. The thought of paring it down to ten or maybe twenty seems attractive at times. But there is a reason we have so many after all, isn't there? The curiousity for new ones is not going to go away.

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

"Bonny old B is obviously hefty enough for Antonia".

ROFL!!!!! I left myself wide open to this charge, didn't I, from any Antonia lovers of perfectly - and enviably - normal proportions? For I would describe my physique more as scrawny and a bit raddled rather than "fragile" in any kind of youthful-and-elfin-Keira-Knightley sort of way. Or am I just digging my hole bigger?

But there again, *you* may like it but JEV might well tell you too that it is not right for you, either physique- OR characterwise. It could be like me wearing Vera Wang or some other super girly floral.

Hmmm, I think I sidestepped that one quite nicely...

; - )

And yes, the curiosity for new scents is not going to go away, I agree, and I wish I oould say the same for my desire to own so many of them in full bottles. I feel excited and satisfied for a few days after acquisition, but it is not long before most of them join the serried ranks of the other albatrosses (tucking their wings in carefully owing to the space constraints of the fridge : - ) ).

Cymbaline said...

I love a "monster post"! I read this berfore bed last night and attempted to comment then, but ended-up feeling like I should mull things over a bit. On first read, I too accepted JEV's comment about large collections of perfumes resulting in the devaluing and diminished importance of each perfume, but have since changed my mind. Maybe people can reach a number where that does happen, it's probably a different amount for everyone. I don't feel that way with mine, yet : )

Each perfume brings something different to a collection and I think if you really get to know each one and own what you love they will probably not loose their importance.

I love Puredistance1. It's an absolutely wonderful, unique perfume and if I were pressed to define it's place in my collection, I would have to say it's the most 'beautiful' one I own and I wouldn't want to imagine life without it!

Thank you, once again, Vanessa for a juicy, thought-provoking post!

Vanessa said...

Hi Cymbaline,

Am so glad you weren't deterred by the monster nature of my post! I toyed with splitting it and then thought it might just be easier to have it in one place, given that it is all about the same conversation, whereas my Hungarian posts that precede it fell rather neatly into "Zsolt Zolyomi the Roja Dove-equivalent", and "What I sniffed in his store".

You make a very interesting point about the optiumum amount of product in a person's perfume collection, and how this will most likely vary by individual. I can say hand on heart that with my 70 odd full bottles, plus 50 sizeable decants and 20 or so minis, I have most definitely overshot my ideal number. This is mainly due to early mistakes, not all of which I have managed to swap, sell or otherwise pass along.

It is a wild guess, but I think I would feel happier with 20-30 bottles all told, but knowing my twin tendencies to hoard and procrastinate, I don't imagine I will set about the weeding process any time soon!

Puredistance 1 is both beautiful and hugely comforting, I agree. When I tried it for the first time I was right in the midst of a major computer crisis, and it acted as a soothing fragrant blanket all day long till I had resolved my problems.

Suzanne said...

Vanessa, wow! Your beautiful report on PureDistance inspires both envy and awe. I don't think there's ever been a more generous and also more open and honest friend to the perfume blogging community than PureDistance. And I think your report accentuates just how generous they are with their time (in addition to how generous they've been with providing bloggers samples of their perfumes) and their willingness to sit down and engage in a real conversation.

Because my own blog audience is small and doesn't have a commenting forum that provides even any evidence of an audience to anyone viewing it, I never imagined that a company like PureDistance would approach me. That they did, I think, is proof that they are looking to build meaningful relationships with real perfume lovers and not just simply trying to get their name out (though of course, they are trying to do that too, but if that's all they were trying to do, they wouldn't be approaching small blogs like mine).

Thanks for the thorough and wonderful report -- and for the very kind mention. In your sweet and humorous way, you made my day with that "far away look in his eyes" statement! Considering how unconventional some of my reviews are, I'm fairly certain a good many of them probably leave people feeling cross-eyed. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne!

I completely agree with you about Puredistance being everything you say in their attitude towards bloggers - open, honest, generous. I am also small (albeit with comments enabled), and I am only speculating that it was my post on the Dutch New Year that caught their eye - Rosanne did mention she had seen it in our early email exchanges.

So just as Puredistance are a "bijou" perfume house (small yet perfectly formed), by the same token they are also happy to frequent some blogs which might also be described as "bijou" - in scale, certainly. Am rather liking the sound of "Bijou Bonkers" - wonder if I could work it into my masthead somehow, if I have one...

Also, even though I - in common with a number of other bloggers - have been fortunate enough to receive donations of free product, I can truthfully say that I would have written the exact same piece had the company's hospitality package extended simply to the tea and cake. Or just the tea, even!

And then I haven't mentioned the fact that after the meeting, Rosanne took me on a walking tour of the city, pointing out architectural highlights such as the cafe pictured at the top of the post. The bicycles I snapped outside the university where she studied. So that was another nice gesture.

Groningen is a bit off the beaten track geographically, and I think they appreciate any visitors who come that far north, and really pull out all the stops in terms of a welcome. I was the first perfume blogger to visit, apparently, though the week before me a Russian beauty blogger called in.

LOL re your unconventional reviews. Trust me, your scrumptious prose had JEV looking more misty- than cross-eyed!

Another nice touch was the use of a spare padded box to put my cake in. It could almost be a metaphor for Puredistance, namely as that rare combination: a luxury goods company, yes, but with a refreshingly unstuffy and approachable manner.

lovethescents said...

Question off topic for now: Is that a small Ajne in front of your Calypso? If so, which one??

Vanessa said...

It is Vanille, and it was a blind buy I regret - too dark for my taste, sadly. Fancy a snifter?

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. What a delightful group they seem to be. And I laughed out loud at the "physiologically unsuited" comment. I suspect I would dwarf you, and yet I seem to be unsuited to Antonia as well. I think for me it is a lack of psychological fitted-ness. I don't have a big personality. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi anotherperfumeblog,

I take it you like Antonia, though? I must say I was pleasantly surprised when I retested it yesterday - still didn't care for the severe opening, but really enjoyed the warm, ambery? greenish yet creamy vanilla drydown. Reminded me a wee bit of Ormonde Jayne Tolu without the herbal aspect I don't like in that scent.

Anyway, I can see that for those of us who already like Antonia - or (like me) think they are coming round to it after all - we may need to get ourselves a personal trainer or a shrink in order to lick ourselves into the right kind of physiological or psychological shape to carry this one off!

ScentScelf said...

Hard for me to disagree with sentiments equating the emotional effect of perfume with that of music, or trying to build an audience organically. Points, JEV.

Hard also to disagree with the musing about punters, bloggers, and price. (Punters might not yet be in full explore mode; bloggers enthuse but don't necessarily buy; my, but that is a significant price point.) Point, Bonks.

Which is to say points "taken," not awarded. I did not find battle on the pitch here (sorry, beefy actor of a similar name), but simply an entertaining and thoughtful (re-)presentation of your conversation and experience. Someday, perhaps, I, too, will have a chance to see if going the Puredistance strikes my fancy.

Am also registering, for no particular reason, my fascination with the fact that JEV is a faithful partner, fragrance wise. I wonder if I shall ever cease subscribing to Big Love and settle down with just one (perfume) partner? Not that I am promiscuous, mind you -- okay, I have periods of dating around -- but ONE? For not weeks, not months, but YEARS at a time? Oh, my.

Meanwhile, a question...because I harbor a not so secret soft spot for it...what of L'Essence de Mastenbroek Eau de Polder? 'Tis provincial, but Dutch, no? I am now confusing myself, a sort of delayed justice for my tiresome jokes to Dutch friends about the "Hollish" they speak....

Who knew?

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

I was very interested to get your take on the "interview", as it turned out to be.

Yes, no battle on the pitch - JEV was so straightforward and engaging that I found myself agreeing with most of his views. Even the significant price point I can get my head around.

Where we both differ from him is in our "promiscuity" or flittersniffing. I am with JEV on the diminished value of my individual bottles in such a large collection, but cannot bring myself to edit my wardrobe to that level of Simon Cowell "black T-shirt" minimalism. ; - )

Re Ruth Masterbroek, I checked her online bio and she appears to have grown up in England and America, though she worked for a spell at Quest in Holland. (I have also interviewed them!)

Don't care for that perfume though - it wasn't a sample I passed on to you by any chance? It strikes me as the sort of thing I might think you would like!