Sunday, 19 January 2014

'Perfumista protégé' progress reports: No 1 - Sheila, English teacher turned artist

'Listening to the plants grow' - Sheila's painting of 'a sybaritic bathroom' 
During the past six years since I 'got perfume', my passion for the subject has spilled over into a kind of missionary zeal, prompting me to gently steer friends, family and neighbours in the direction of a wider selection of perfumes than they had previously tried or considered.  In some cases I have even managed to convert non-wearers of fragrance to wearing it at all!  I have been plying away at my campaign of perfume proselytising for a good while now, and decided that enough time had elapsed to take stock of how some of my 'protégés' were faring, and how their perfume repertoire - and attitude towards fragance - had changed under my influence.

So I sent a bunch of these people the same three questions about their own 'perfume j***neys', and here is the first response from Sheila (preceded by a bit of background on the origins of our friendship):


Sheila was my English teacher when I was in the sixth form studying for A-Levels. When she joined the school as a newly qualified member of staff she was only 21 herself, which sounds so very young now, though she seemed perfectly grown up to my 16 year old self!  She was an inspirational teacher and the epitome of 70s style and cool - arguably a contradiction in terms in this, the heyday of Noel Edmonds, Supertramp and unfeasibly tall platfom shoes.  Sheila opted for a more toned down interpretation of the fashion of the times, however, including swingy corduroy pinafore dresses in sludgy shades of blue and grey, teamed with suede wedges and a selection of long silky scarves.  Although I was pretty tuned out to perfume at that age, I do remember catching an occasional whiff of her signature scent, Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass. One night a few years back while watching footage of an old Queen concert from 1975, I was overcome by an impulse to connect with my youth and made this purchase of a vintage bottle from around that time (full story here)!

Anyway, I kept in touch with Sheila down the years: I knitted her oldest son a tortoise (complete with properly frilly shell and jaunty mob cap!), and my never-to-be-repeated attempt at baby sitting her middle son gets a mention here.  Sheila has recently retired from teaching and is pursuing art in her free time, producing some quirky and ethereal mixed media paintings, some of which she also sells in greeting card form. She has also taken a lively interest in my perfume hobby - to the point where, during a visit a couple of summers ago, I handed over a bunch of samples I had picked out for her to try, in a bid to identify fragrance styles towards which she had a leaning.  Sheila soon got stuck in, systematically sampling each and making notes on her impressions, which is how it all started...

So without further ado, here are her answers to my three questions:

My perfume collection before  

"I love catching the whiff of a good perfume in someone else’s wake, so I have always owned a bottle - but it was something to use mainly on special occasions. So my ‘collection’ typically comprised one bottle that took up to a year to finish. I was using Calvin Klein ‘Eternity’ for a few years and then Estee Lauder’s ‘Pleasures’. The tendency to stick with what I knew was compounded by my sons checking what I was using and then duplicating it for Christmas and birthday presents. It hadn’t occurred to me to own more than one scent."

What do I own now?

"I now have a proper collection which appeals to me visually as well as for its potential for creating a tiny moment of pleasure to start each day selecting what to wear. I have Narciso Rodriguez ‘For Her’ – a particular favourite, Hermes ‘Vetiver Tonka’ which I like for evenings or special day occasions, White Company ‘Noir’, Penhaligon’s ‘Quercus’, Jo Malone ‘Pomegranate Noir’, Agent Provocateur ‘Eau Eursticielle’ (? Can’t read this on the bottle…)**, Guerlain ‘Vetiver’ in a beautiful vintage tiny green box, Lidl’s ‘Suddenly Madame Glamour’ – which I love even for its name as it does add a sudden whiff of glamour, but I would also like to get Coco Mademoiselle which inspired this copy."


How have my feelings about fragrance changed?

"As I listed the current perfumes in my collection, I realised that I now have a much more subtle interpretation of scents since you first enticed me by spreading a number of little vials on my kitchen table and encouraging me to try to identify the notes which appealed to me. I must say I am attracted to the actual little bottles and the alchemy of capturing a smell in them. I now regard perfume as something that can be worn every day if done with care.

As I got more interested in scent I realised I like being in shops which are a nice smell – such as The White Company, which always smells as though it has just come out of the wash, and Noa Noa in Brighton which uses a Neal’s Yard ‘Women’s Balance’ oil burner. So I suppose my view of perfume has shifted from something of a luxury reserved for special occasions, to something which can be a little bit life-enhancing on an everyday basis. In shopping terms, just as I would never just casually buy books at the airport to read on holiday, now I don’t view perfume as just for birthday and Christmas presents. 

I expect that has something to do with how the perception and marketing of perfume has changed generally, and not just to a change in my thinking. My mother, when she died in 1982, left a full bottle of Chanel No 5. I cherished it – for years – never opening it, as I knew that she would not have used it except for very special occasions and so I didn’t want to ‘waste’ it. When I finally opened it after many years, I decided – probably quite wrongly – that it had gone off, and threw it out! The experience has served as a metaphor for me ever since."

Source: eBay

'Perfume is for life, not just for Christmas', as the bumper sticker goes - that is such good advice, especially to those of us who are sitting on crazy big collections.  Or 'use it or lose it' might be another one, even if we will never know if Sheila's mother's bottle was off, or just in the process of aging gracefully, much like Catherine Deneuve, the face of No 5 advertising of...coincidentally...1975. ;)

Source: eBay

PS If you would like to see more of Sheila's work, visit her Flickr site here:

** Editor's note: am betting this will be AP Eau Emotionnelle. ;)


Sarah Waite said...

Lovely post Vanessa.
The conversion of friends is a risk; wonderful in that we can communicate our passions and bring forward a new dimension to a friendship in sharing our hobby, but dangerous in that we are encouraging a potentially expensive habit. It makes me feel like a 'pusher'!
Coincidently, last night I introduced my friend Jo to Calypso which was a very emotional experience because it reminded her of the spirit of a time and a person long ago. We had a big sniffing sesh of her own perfume stash which brought up all manner of tangent (and wine)
filled conversation. I took some great photos of her 4 year old son having his first perfumisto moment. He was drawn to Allure but failed to feel the love of Rochas Alchemie..
To Sheila, I've just had a trawl through your flicker images. I adore the folder marked drawings 2012. Your line quality is beautiful! I'll bookmark the page and keep an eye out as you update it.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sarah,

Haha - I know what you mean about being a pusher! In fairness, I have given away some stuff to most of the people I have pushed towards the rabbit hole, and am always on the lookout for samples of things they might like. Hopefully that may cushion the financial blow of increasing one's perfume repertoire a bit! How nice that you caused your friend to have a powerful scent memory - and look at you, reeling in a 4 year old to the perfumista fold as well - that's impressive...;)

Isn't Sheila's work good? I have quite a lot of her cards too.

Tara said...

This was such a great idea for a series of post, V.

It's so cool that thanks to your input Sheila went from Eternity to Vetiver Tonka. I love that kind of transformation. I'm glad she's found perfume to be life-enhancing the way we do and now gets that benefit everyday.

I really like her still life paintings.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Glad you like the idea of the series - I think a lot of us do this to varying degrees with our circle of family and friends, and I thought it might be interesting to track where they are up to - some, like Sheila, have whole wardrobes of bottles now. ;)

Undina said...

From one "pusher" to another: don't feel bad. People who cannot spend any money on perfumes will not be buying any - it's not bread. But most of our friends can definitely afford even a $200-$300 bottle of perfume per year if they really love the scent (and most of our recommendations do not even go that high).

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

You make a good point about the relative harmlessness of our 'pushing' perfume - it isn't prompting people to deprive themselves of the basic necessities, after all. And yes, in the niche market, £60 to £80 can buy you something very special. And some of the indie brands are very well priced. And smaller bottles are appearing more and more, partly thanks to your efforts! ;)

Martha said...

This is very cool! It also reminds me that I haven't pushed perfume on anyone in my neighborhood in weeks and weeks. I need to resume. :)

Natalie said...

What fun to read! Thanks to you and Sheila for this.

Vanessa said...

Hi Martha,

Ooh, I think you should get to it! You have a great collection to go proselytising with...

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Glad you liked it! There will be others in the series by and by.

Parfym said...

Great blog post!