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 quwest.com, photo of Marlies Dekkers lingerie from staticlookbooks.com, photo of ellis faas make up from witoxicity.com, photo of Groningen art museum from cruising.org.uk, photo of white dress from classifieds.weddingbee.com, photo of champagne cocktails from southernliving.com, photo of Chanel bottles from pinkmsg.wordpress.com, photo of Alain Delon from rujon.blogspot.com, other photos my own or from the Puredistance website.