Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Lyn Harris La Fleur, La Rose & La Poudrée For Marks & Spencer - Part 1: "Remember Preston" - An Extraordinary Tale Of Customer Service

Lyn Harris
I admire the Miller Harris brand.  Its contemporary Englishness appeals.  As does the fact that Lyn Harris is a northerner and wears trainers round the lab.   Then I like the way that - as far as I can detect - her fragrance collection doesn't adhere to any tidy overarching categories or theme; I am also amused by the fact that she famously created a scent for dogs.  Lyn Harris's bespoke perfume prices are relatively affordable compared to Roja Dove's (if not by me), and I have a soft spot for the scrolly designs on the bottles.  Additionally I love the Miller Harris teas, and having finished my stocks of Thé Pétales, I have redeployed the elegant grey canister to store Earl Grey tea bags of more homely provenance.  What else?  I love the lacquered oriental gloom of their tea room in Bruton Street.  I love the bracing citrus kick of Citron Citron shower gel.  In fact I am drawn to many aspects of the house, yet so far the fragrance line itself has failed to exert a visceral pull.   I have yet to develop a Miller Harris perfume lemming as it were.  Hence why I don't own any bottles from the range - or rather, I used to own Fleurs des Bois, but sold it on.  Okay, maybe L'Air de Rien (review here) has come quite close to flexing my solar plexus, but I am managing quite well with my small decant.

The Bruton Street tea room
Then last year I read in the press that Lyn Harris had been approached by Marks & Spencer to collaborate with them on the development of six fragrances: three for men and three for women, to be sold in their new perfume halls in the bigger category of store.  In a fascinating article by Vicki Reid, published in The Daily Telegraph magazine, Lyn Harris explains her creative vision:

"I was thinking about the M & S customer and who they were, and how I could help them come into fine fragrances.  I didn't want them to be so refined nobody could get near them, so they had to be sophisticated and accessible."

For the benefit of readers outside the UK, your typical M & S shopper leans to the conservative - and older - side.  In the cafe attached to my local branch you would be hard pushed to spot a customer not sporting a perm.  Well, amongst the women, anyway.  Their food hall is a whole other ball game, as M & S is synonymous with the ne plus ultra of ready meals, amongst other things.  "This isn't just food porn, this is M & S food porn", as the adverts used to go (well, the subtext, anyway).  Then there are also a couple of individual brands under the M & S umbrella which appeal to a (somewhat) younger demographic, namely Autograph and Per Una.  Famously, one in three British women still buys her underwear in Marks, where they cater to every taste from boudoir chic balconette bras to big - and magic - knickers.

As far as perfume is concerned, I'll be honest and say that I have studiously tuned out to the M & S offering.  The few scents I have tried in the past smelt cheap, old-fashioned, or both.  I was reminded of that trio of later releases by Sarah Jessica Parker: Dawn, Endless and Twilight, in terms of the quality level where  I felt they were pitched.  Though this is all kneejerk stuff, I might add.  I have been so indifferent to the M & S ranges in fact that I haven't even clocked any of the names, though I think there may have been one under the Autograph label on the theme of New York.

But when I heard of this joint venture between Lyn Harris and M & S, I was very, very curious, and equally optimistic.  It has become quite common in the fashion world for a leading designer to create a budget range for a high street chain or supermarket: Amanda Wakeley for Principles, Barbara Hulanicki for Top Shop, Matthew Williamson for H & M, and Gok Wan for Sainsbury's, to name just four examples of the strategy.  However, I don't recall anything like this happening in the world of fragrance - or certainly not bringing niche fragrance to the mass market on such a large scale. The plan apparently is to roll out the range into 126 stores eventually, but as my local branch is small and a bit time warp-y there was no point looking for it there.

M & S HQ in Paddington - a sample-free zone

Ever the market researcher, towards the back end of last year I rang M & S's head office in London and spoke to someone in Customer Services.  I was informed that there was no store within easy striking distance of Stafford where I could test this range first hand.  I inquired about the possibility of samples, explaining my particular interest as a British-based perfume blogger.  No samples were available, but the lady in Customer Services was hopeful of having the lab make some up specially.  "That sounds great", I said, and offered to supply empty vials if it all got too tricky, like that memorable occasion with Ormonde Jayne and Tiare.  The samples never came.  I rang back, and was referred to the M & S PR company, where I spoke to the person handling the account.  She asked me to write in, explaining why I wanted the samples, mentioning the name of my blog etc etc, but thought that in principle it should be possible to rustle a few up somehow.  The samples never came.

M & S Preston - a serendipitous beacon of customer service!
Months passed, when by chance I found myself the other weekend in the M & S store in Preston, buying one of those exotically fancy salads they do so well.  I spotted a sign to the beauty department, and decided to check out the perfume selection on the vague offchance that Preston might be a sufficiently large store to carry the Lyn Harris range.  My expectations were immediately raised by the sight of a dedicated Fragrance Hall.  And towards the end of the fixture, there was the complete Lyn Harris line, together with coffret sets of fragrance and body cream and various sizes of scented candle.  I had struck perfumed pay dirt!

I made myself known to one of the sales staff, Christine, and explained my interest in the range, and how I was dying to try the perfumes and review them on my blog.  In no time I had sprayed all six on my hands and arms, while Christine and I chatted amiably about the Lyn Harris venture, about her own favourite perfume (L'Heure Bleue), and her training from, and admiration for, Roja Dove.  Saturated in scents, I asked after the possibility of samples, though I wasn't terribly hopeful.  They had Scratch 'n' Sniff cards (or "Peel 'n' Sniff" to be precise) of La Rose, but that was the only one.  Christine promptly handed me a whole clutch of these.  But that still left the other five, notably the two remaining feminine scents, La Fleur and La Poudrée.

Almost the M & S logo fashioned from La Rose Peel 'n' Sniff cards
Nothing daunted, and keenly aware of my desire to test these perfumes at more leisure - and equally of my frustrating catalogue of failed attempts to acquire them so far - Christine conferred with her colleague Hannah.  Hannah proceeded to rummage in a drawer by the till and fetched out a handful of little clear perspex pots, of the type usually used to give customers a sample blob of a face cream, say.   Before I knew it they had a two-woman production line going, and were spraying, taping, labelling and bagging all the scents in the range, with the exception of Le Sauvage.  I think they may have run out of pots, or depleted their pot stocks to perilously low levels, so we called it a day after five of the six - I was more interested in the women's ones anyway.  After thanking the duo profusely, I hotfooted it back to my hotel, taking care to keep the bag upright in case the sticky tape wasn't hermetic, and the jostling pots leaked into one another.  But apart from a bit of evaporation, I managed to transport my precious cargo all the way back to Stafford without incident, and have been quietly trying them this week, once my sense of smell gradually returned following a pesky cold.

Mini-reviews to follow in Part 2!

Meanwhile, for readers who didn't live in Britain in the 80s, here is the advert to which the title: "Remember Preston" alludes...; - )

Photo of Lyn Harris from M & S website, photo of M & S HQ from artofthestate.co.uk, photo of M & S Preston from Google Maps, photo of M & S underwear from Ebay, other photos my own


Unknown said...

Just the mention of Preston is a source of horror for me. I spent probably the unhappiest year of my life living there.

However, I am a huge M&S fan (they are a damn sight cheaper than Boden and often better quality - there, I've said it!) And I'm also a massive Miller Harris fan, so you can imagine how excited I was when this collaboration was announced. I've been itching to get my hands on these scents to try them, but like you I live near a little M&S where they have many knickers and few scents. (Though I was peased to see that they sell those plain cotton gloves you can wear in bed to make your handcream work.) But I digress.

I scored a bottle of Le Noir on ebay and I just tried it today. First impressions are that it's somewhere in the department of Miller Harris Feuilles de Tabac, but I haven't done a proper side-by-side test.

I'm really looking forward to your reviews. I think the Cologne might be gorgeous in the summer - Lyn Harris does great things with citrus.

Vanessa said...

Hi Birdie,

Sorry about your bad time in Preston - what took you there, may I ask?

I also have quite a bit of M & S clobber - particularly shoes and the slightly edgier things from Per Una. There are a few! Oh, and pyjamas and underwear of course.

You've reminded me that I need more plain cotton gloves - my friend Gillie tipped me off about those when she was recently massaging my hand with hemp oil.

I will get back to you on Le Noir, as I am still sampling the women's ones at the moment. I wouldn't be surprised if you spotted some kind of house resemblance, though. I do with La Poudree in particular.

And yes, Lyn Harris does indeed do great things with citrus. I liked Le Pamplemousse, for example, and normally I can't abide grapefruit in a scent.

Tara said...

Really looking forward to your mini reviews of these, V. Thanks for persevering, as ever.

They have them in Ealing so may have a spritz in anticipation.

Kafka said...

That advert has the wife from All Creatures Great and Small!! The second Helen! And I remember "Marks and Sparks" so well. As a child, we all had tons of pajamas from there. LOL.

Er... sorry, for the complete tangent.

I admire your persistence with regard to these scents and look forward to your reviews. :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

I do seem to do a lot of persevering - it's bizarre! I wonder if there might be any other career options for a persistent chaser-upper of things?

Look forward to swapping notes about your impressions. My favourite is La Fleur, FYI.

Vanessa said...

Hi Kafka,

I never watched that series, but good call on spotting the actress in question - the lovely Linda Bellingham - who for many of us will be best remembered for those few seconds of on-screen smouldering.

Never apologise for a tangent. 'Tangent about Perfume' would be a perfectly acceptable alternative name for this blog!

Carol said...

I have such a fondness for Miller Harris/Lyn Harris, and also cannot wait to hear what you have to say about the scents.

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

Ah yes indeed, and I have you to thank for my decant of L'Air de Rien!

I hope to get to the review part at the weekend, assuming I don't get hijacked by work work. :-(

Carol said...

:) I love that stuff!!

No hurry! I know that you are busy with work work.

(I haven't updated my blog in weeks - oops!)

Undina said...

I'm with others who admire your persistence. But I can't believe you didn't have your own vials with you! What kind of perfumista are you?! ;)

The only perfume from Miller Harris I've tried so far is L'Air de Rien. Eventually I'll get to other perfumes from the line though I'm not sure if these six from will ever make it to the U.S. So for now I'll wait to read your impressions.

Suzanne said...


This question, I realize, has nothing to do with the main topic of your post, but I had to ask, since you italicized it and everything ... what is *magic* about big knickers? Whatever is magic about them, this did give me a chuckle, as it made me think of the scene in Bridget Jones' Diary where she is about to get it on with Hugh Grant, and she's wearing granny panties! Which I guess turned out to be magical for her, since they didn't turn him off.

OK, putting this comment back on topic, I'll look forward to your mini-reviews of these Miller Harris scents for Marks & Spencer, even though I'm largely unfamiliar with her regular line. I don't know why I haven't investigated them further, since I do really, really love L'Air de Rien. So fantastic of Christine and Hannah to get out those plastic pots and make you samples on the spot!

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

I am indeed caught up with work work - just finished for the day after a 14 hour shift. I am grateful to be working really!

I thought you updated your blog more recently than that - only 10 days or so ago, I would have guessed?

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

There was a crucial bit of info I omitted from this tale, namely that the visit to Preston coincided with a two day headache. I only left my hotel room to buy some tablets for my head and a salad, as I figured I should eat, but in the end it was left untouched. Visiting the fragrance hall in M & S was the last thing on my mind that day and hence why I was woefully unprepared on the decanting tackle front! Conversely, I took all the gear down to London with me on Monday, but didn't have any chance to visit a perfume store. Sod's law...

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

I am sure I will be able to clear up the mystery surrounding 'magic knickers' if I mention the magic word 'SPANX'. That is what we mean by 'magic knickers', which are also known as 'control pants' or some such. Because of course our knickers are also pants, though they are your trousers.

I am getting the impression that Miller Harris hasn't made huge inroads into the US market - is that right?

Natalie said...

Oh, I miss M&S. :( This just gives me another reason to visit, however. And I'm with you - love that Lyn Harris created a fragrance for dogs.

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Glad to give you another reason to visit!

The dog scent amused me, and I am not even a dog lover, though I am coming round to whippets.

Ari Weinberg said...

Dearest Bonkers, I wasn't aware that Miller Harris had teas! I may have to ask Drew to pick some up for me. I visited a M&S as a thirteen year old and thought it was the height of glamour (felt the same way about the NYC Macy's at 12, which I wouldn't get within three blocks of now). I am very much looking forward to Part 2!

Vanessa said...

Hi Ari,

They do indeed, though I only like that particular one I think. They are not cheap (major understatement alert!), but the tins look so stylish they are almost worth the outlay on their own.

I know what you mean about store chains having more of an aura of class when we were little. I felt like that about C & A, and I think I made a purchase in BHS as late as 1985! :-)