Saturday, 4 January 2014

"You smell nice! What's that perfume house you're wearing?"

Ye olde Manchester pub - Source: Wikimedia Commons
The other week I was in a pub in Manchester with Sarah Waite of Odiferess.  We were perched at a long trestle table and had done that upending of our handbags thing - the table was littered with a messy heap of vials, decants and even the odd full bottle.  These we replaced with more receptacles from several stuffed bags at our feet, as we steadily worked our way through the tabletop stash.  At some point I went to the bar, and by the time I made it back the curiosity of the gaggle of ladies sitting next to us had got the better of them and they were leaning intently towards Sarah, exclaiming that they were catching pleasant whiffs of unidentified perfumes from our direction.  Or as Sarah herself described the session in her post on our mutual love of vermin and associated fragrances:

"We spent a long and joyous afternoon waffling about scent and swopping samples and decants (gaining the curiosity of drinkers in the packed pub who caught thick wafts of the rare and the quirky)."

Not only that, but in my absence Sarah had seized the moment and was moderating a veritable mini-focus group, quizzing these ladies about their own perfume preferences.  The conversation went much as follows:

Sarah: "So what do you like to wear?"

Lady 1: "Chanel."
Sarah: "Okay....but which particular ones by Chanel?"
For after all, for all we knew, Lady 1 may have been a Chanel loyalist, with a scent wardrobe running the full gamut from No 5 to No 19 Poudré to Chance Eau Tendre.
Lady 1: "Coco."

And you just know what is coming next -"Coco" turned out to be shorthand for the ubiquitous, but nonetheless agreeable "Coco Mademoiselle".

Sarah, turning to a younger member of their party: "And so what about you, then?"
Lady 2: "I like Givenchy."
Sarah (patient to a fault): " what exactly by Givenchy?"
Lady 2: "Irresistible."

When we were on our own again, we mulled over this curious phenomenon whereby 'normal' members of the public (ie non-perfumistas) often choose to denote their chosen perfume in brand rather than in specific product terms.  Like saying you drive a Ford, rather than a Fiesta or a Focus, though the two cars are not remotely alike, or saying you had 'carbohydrate' for breakfast rather than porridge or toast.


Fast forward to Christmas Eve...when I was round at my friend Gillie's for her traditional pre-Christmas get together, and got chatting to a friend of hers I often see at such events.  His mother is a well known figure in the local community, and for some reason he volunteered the fact out of the blue that he didn't care for some of her perfumes.    

"They are really - you know - big", he explained.  "Knock you out they would."  

"Oh," I replied, my interest piqued: "I'd love to know what ones you mean". 

"No problem - I'll find out for you and tell you the next time I see you."

Well, that could well have been next Christmas, but as luck would have it we ran into each other at a party just a few days later, and so this same chap bounced up to me with the news that he had now asked his mother what she wore.  

"Oh good", I said, instantly anticipating a reply that might feature some combination of Aromatics Elixir / Giorgio Beverly Hills / Opium / Youth Dew and/or other heavy hitters of that ilk and maternal era.

So you may imagine my surprise when the bald answer came:

"Jo Malone."

Scary sillage monsters?  Source:

Nooooo, I thought.  Here we go again... Too little information!  So I have despatched him again to find out which Jo Malone scents in particular he takes objection to.  He was astonished to learn there are in fact knocking on 30 perfumes in the range...;-)

"Really???  I thought there was just the one called 'Jo Malone'."

So while we wait, have you come across this phenomenon of people referring to 'the whole for the part' when it comes to naming perfumes?  (A kind of fragrant synecdoche, if you will.)

And can you think of a Jo Malone that could possibly be construed as an 'elevator clearer' or anything approaching it?  I would have thought that was a contradiction in terms, but perhaps there are powerhouse florals in the line that have managed to pass me by.  Is 'English Pear & Freesia' a stealth Flowerbomb?  Or is Blue Agave & Cacao complete choco-overload?  I have smelt both - albeit a while ago now - and wouldn't go that far.  Then Orange Blossom is a bit of an in-your-face tangfest, and Plum Blossom teeters on the brink of shampoo-dom - or doom, even - but still.

Yes, for as long as it takes till I bump into this bloke again, I am agog.


rosarita said...

Hi! Yes, my mother wears "Nina Ricci" but I believe that's because she's intimidated to attempt to pronounce L'Air du Temps, despite wearing it for 60 years. How nice to meet a fellow perfume lover over drinks and exchange scents! I live in a tiny rural community and haven't had that opportunity yet.

Vanessa said...

Hi rosarita,

I loved your story about your mum and Nina Ricci, and can understand her diffidence around French names, albeit that is a good long time of wearing the scent as you say, in which she might have got to grips with its pronunciation. ;)

I have been lucky to meet quite a few perfume lovers all over the US and Europe, and am on a mission to clock up as many more as time and travel plans permit! I hope you manage to hook up with some likeminded fumeheads in your area one day - or when you are somewhere a bit further afield, say.

Sarah Waite said...

Vanessa, that brought back some entertaining memories, the pop-up pub focus group was fun indeed!
I've really noticed the brand significance in men's scent recently, who seem to be even more impressed by a cult designer tag than a lot of women are. I hear a lot of "It's Tom Ford" in Manchester. They haven't a clue which Tom Ford it is in most cases and I'm sure it's popularity is down to the fact it's the first concession you see when you step off the elevator in Selfridges. It's less intimidating for a novice than hovering by the wall with the Robert Piguet and Evody. Plus, the expense of the bottle elevates it to 'premium purchase' which helps get the testosterone fizzing!
Curiously, on new year's eve at a party, only one man gave off a great scent trail, upon asking him what it was he replied "Spicebomb". Which is designed to look like a hand grenade of the plastic type that little boys play. Oh the joys of marketing..! It smelt really good though.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sarah,

Yes, it was a fun moment! And how interesting about this phenomenon being if anything more marked in the male sphere, and I can understand why. Actually, I have just remembered that a friend said her son wore 'Hermes', which was all the information he had volunteered...

I am not sure I have smelt Spicebomb, but in similar vein (incendiary device-related name, novelty bottle!) I remember thinking Bang was all right too. ;)

Tara said...

Identifying by brand is strange, particularly as those are easy to pronounce, well known perfumes. I wonder if a lot of women just pick a brand they aspire to and choose a perfume that they like within that brand, so they identify more with the brand than the specific perfume? Not sure but very interesting.

Have no idea what that Jo Malone perfume could be either. Perhaps it's Lime, Basil and Mandarin sprayed very liberally. Hope you bump into him again soon with the missing info.

Carol said...

Hey Bonks! I think it's just the case of non-perfume addicted people just stating what is most recognizable within their circle of friends? What do you think?

Carol said...

For instance: A: "What perfume are you wearing?" B:"Coco Mademoiselle" A: "Huh?" B: "Chanel" A:" Ooooo" *smiles and nods, knowing the brand Chanel*

Undina said...

In many cases brand is a much easier pronounceable and remembered than perfume names and it's much easier recognizable. I noticed that I myself tend to start answering questions of my non-perfumista co-workers with first circling on something that I hope they will recognize: "It's Dior but not their mainstream line..." and then I can try throwing in "Mitzah" or "New Look."

Anonymous said...

When you go out it is often accepted that a person will wear jewellery, make up, and perfume. All of these can be commented on eg I love your necklace/lipstick/that's a lovely smell etc. so perfume is often a status symbol rather than a genuine love, particularly for Tom Ford costing £140 for 50 ml. Jo Malone is I find a very safe bet for women who feel they ought to wear a perfume but who really don't connect with it. There are very few Jo Malone perfumes with any degree of sillage or longevity, but I do like Red Roses as a stonking good LOUD rose, also the ginger lily one. Holly

Kafka said...

Hilarious! Never -- not in a million years -- would I have associated Jo Malone with something "really - you know - big" that would "knock you out." Given my taste in perfumery, one of my LIGHT scents would probably send him to the hospital. *grin*

sunnlitt said...

Yes, the answer of 'Jo Malone' made me laugh out loud. When I think of really heavy Orientals and then compare them to Jo Malone's line of nice and office-appropriate scents, I am a bit astounded.
Thanks for the wonderful story. Can't wait to hear the name of the actual scent.

Bee said...

A Jo Malone powerhouse - how I laughed!! I can understand people saying I wear Jo Malone and to me it signifies how similar they all are in their own totally underwhelming way; but I have met people who seem addicted to them and have a whole collection of them including the associated bath and body products. A triumph of image over content I feel....

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

I think you may well be right about the ease of pronunciation aspect - as also evidenced by rosarita's comment earlier. And I do exactly that thing you do when speaking of the Chanel Les exclusifs line - or the equivalent from Tom Ford or Dior as in your example. It does help to mention the brand first before wading in with some obscure name. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Holly,

Although it may sound strange to us fumeheads, I am sure you are on to something with your point about scent being a status symbol rather than a genuine love. Tom Ford is a great example of that with its eye watering prices, and Sarah reckoned it was particularly true of men.

I could write a whole other post about Jo Malone as 'safe bet' or 'lazy choice' for the chattering classes. The other day a friend said she had spied some scented candles on her neighbour's mantlepiece. "Are they from The White Company?" she inquired, which for me is a pretty aspirational brand already. "No", came the withering reply, "Jo Malone".

And you have reminded me that Red Roses is a bit of a stonking good rose, so that could be the villain here maybe?! The ginger lily one is my absolute fave, I must say.

Vanessa said...

Hi Kafka,

Haha - I did reckon that you of all people would find the idea as funny as it is preposterous! Yep, pretty sure you could lay this chap flat out cold with whatever passes for one of your 'inoffensive courtroom scents', as it were. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi sunnlitt,

Glad you enjoyed the story - on the face of it it does rather beggar belief, unless this lady really does apply scent ridiculously liberally!

And like you, I can't wait to hear the culprit(s)...though it may be a while now that the party season is over.

Vanessa said...

Hi Bee,

There is a veritable cult of Jo Malone and all things related - particularly over here, I sense - it is the Boden of the bodycare world. I have never understood quite how it got that status but you have got to hand it to the marketing. I expect most customers would be surprised to know that Jo Malone herself has long since left the building.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

I can understand the pronunciation issue being a factor in some cases, but agree that in these specific instances there would have been no problem in that regard, and that it was more likely that the ladies identified more with the house than the individual scent. I agree that whatever the reasons, it is a rather interesting phenomenon!

Now what a good suggestion of Lime, Basil and Mandarin, which is not good on me, it must be said. I can imagine that Blackberry & Bay, which I do like, might also be a bit much at too loud an amplification. Well, you could say that is true of most or all perfumes, but some have the potential to annoy more than others, I sense, if liberally applied!

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

Yep, that could be the case - ie what would register most easily in *their* circle - sometimes in a status related way, but not necessarily.

Vanessa said...

PS I like your little example!

Sally M said...

Hilarious! As a Brit living in the US, I could just hear his reply "knock you out they would."!!! I'd think it must be more to do with his sense of smell rather than the reality that any Jo Malone would be a valid knocker outer. Even so, I'm waiting with breath a-baited to know the answer.
A possible reason for using the House name may be connected to recognition - my "normal" friends (ie those that don't spend until 4am reading every comment on every perfume blog like me or upending their 'fume filled bags on pub tables like you and your friend {what fun!}) would recognize Chanel but would have no clue about Cuir de Russie. That being said, I've just had a hideous flashback to the SAs in Maceys before Christmas who hadn't heard of Guerlain but one of which knew Shalimar. Hmmm - a conundrum indeed...

Merlin said...

I once asked a woman who worked in and owned a nail salon which also sold Bond no.9 perfume which perfume she actually wears. She replied some-particular Bond, because it went well with her usual perfume. I then inquired (being both friendly and curious) what her 'usual perfume' was and she answered 'Chanel'. Now I'm used to that kind of answer from the usual non-perfumista crowd - but from someone selling perfume! I correctly guessed it was Number 5. In fact, 'Chanel', in my experience, is shorthand for Chanel no 5 when discussing perfume. If someone wears another, they will say 'Chanel, but one called Chance'. The 'but' indicating that it is contrary to what one is liable to expect!

The cologne Intense series of Jo Malone is a little heavier than the others so perhaps one of those was the offending fragrance. Otherwise this guy has a more sensitive nose than a tracking dog, lol!

Vanessa said...

Hi SallyM,

Maybe this chap is just super sensitive - love your phrase 'knocker outer', btw. ;) You spend that much time on blogs? I did have a spell of doing that - trying to be an American and staying up till at least 3am, say, but it caught up with me in the end. ;) We bloggers are appreciative of your reading and commenting efforts, mind...

Oh, and I think you are quite right that for some reason Chanel has much greater awareness - even amongst SAs - than Guerlain. Which may be down to the pronunciation issue again, hehe.

Vanessa said...

Hi Merlin,

What an interesting story about the lady who owned a nail salon and her different approach to naming the fragrance (or not!) from each house. You introduce another possible avenue in this debate, namely Chanel as synonym for No 5, which I find easy to believe, given the massive marketing campaign behind No 5, designed to underscore its iconic status.

It's true that the Cologne Intense range is a bit more heavy - or as you and the previous commenter mention, maybe his nose is just super sensitive. There again, this same fellow once caught a whiff of me wearing Ajne Printemps - an all-natural foghorn lily and linden scent, to be blunt - and he said he loved it!

Merlin said...

Sorry, I was a bit unclear - she did indicate the particular bottle of Bond 9 that she wore. Its just that I can't remember what it was because I'm not very familiar with the range. It was the brand that she was not herself selling(Chanel), but only wore, that she was quite so airhead-edly vague about! Perhaps she didn't want me to go shopping elsewhere for perfume, but honestly, this woman did not have testers and did not know the notes of any of the Bonds! Just not very interested in perfumery, I guess. And perhaps not used to customers asking questions???

Vanessa said...

Hi Merlin,

I don't think my comment was very clearly worded, as I did understand you right the first time - I meant that the lady was specific in naming the Bond scent but not in the case of the Chanel. My use of 'each' may have been the culprit. ;). Sorry for any confusion caused!

Vanessa said...

As for the lady's attitude to selling, she really didn't seem too bothered - or interested in her chosen product line!

Merlin said...

No, she wasn't. If there is any shade of ambiguity in anything I always choose the wrong meaning - its almost a gift, lol!

Vanessa said...

Haha, that's two of us then. ;)