I was really interested to read these two takes on Shanghai Lily, because I am both soldiers! I first tried it in a big Tom Ford sniffing blitz in Paris last June. As you can see from my scribbled notes, I thought Plum Japonais was a dead ringer for Shiseido's Femininité du Bois, I mistakenly thought there was grapefruit in Rive d'Ambre, and the most salient fact I jotted down about Shanghai Lily was that it was 'épicé' ie 'spicy'. (I assume I was taking dictation rather fast from the sales assistant at this point - I am not given to writing notes to myself in a foreign language. ;) ) Here I clearly fell into the same trap as Robin, because the card amped up the spicy facet at the expense of the floral, and I quickly moved on to other Tom Fords that were also new to me, such as Lys Fumé, Jonquille de Nuit, Ombre de Hyacinth etc. It was Jonquille de Nuit in fact of which I ended up getting a sample from the lovely SA, who was actually called Tom Ford!
Fast foward eight months and I found myself unexpectedly bewitched by the Candy Perfume Boy's sillage when he and his soon-to-be-husband Nigel hopped onto the same train as me, bound for London and the international blogger meet up documented here. Shanghai Lily smelt so seductive on Thomas that, as you may recall, I even offered to marry him.
So on my return from London I was predictably haunted by the memory of Thomas's enchanting aura, and started to stalk eBay with a view to buying a sample of Shanghai Lily, which retails for a whopping £140 for 50ml. In the end I decided to throw myself on the mercy of the manager of the Tom Ford concession at Harvey Nichols in London, playing the 'I don't live anywhere near a major conurbation with a Harvey Nicks in it, so would you be kind enough to send me a sample - I would be happy to pay for your trouble, thank you very much' card, which worked a treat. I deliberately did not play the 'I'm a blogger, gimme swag' card, a) because there was a very real chance that that tactic might backfire and b) because I genuinely wanted to see how they would respond to me in my capacity as a regular punter.
Well, I say it worked a treat...initially the manager demurred, and said that they only usually send out samples as gifts with purchase 'for security reasons' - that old illogical chestnut - but that as an exception, they would oblige me if I would cover the postage costs of £6.
You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I received another of those bombastically big boxes (pictured above). See if you can spot the perfume samples nestling somewhere in amongst the packing peanuts! But I am not complaining, because the samples comprised 8ml, which by my reckoning - on a pro rata basis - are worth a staggering £22.40. So I am already quids in here without having even sniffed the thing again (I mean 'this one'.)
But very soon I did, and can report that on each occasion I still got the initial whoosh of clove of which Robin speaks. Well, 'carnation' was what flitted through my mind, ie something spicy and sharp and a bit medicinal. Crucially not old-fashioned, though, as in Caron Bellodgia, say.
During the opening phase, the clove acted almost like prison bars, behind which I could just glimpse this drop dead gorgeous, sultry, feminine floral with a twist. A bit like spying a beautiful dental hygienist out of the corner of your eye while you are trapped in the dentist's chair, tholing the administration of all manner of clove-based injectables. Then I would never have guessed Shanghai Lily had orange in it, as I now know from the notes, although there was a tangy facet I couldn't quite put my finger on, which may have been that. In fact, true to form I really don't know what I was smelling, and can only begin to convey my overall impression of a teasing, coquettish scent - not unduly youthful, mind, yet gentle and tender - one that is soft and powdery, sherbety and sweet, ingenuous and devious, light and dark...er, all at the same time.
|Source: Wikimedia Commons (via Gaius Cornelius)|
Yes, the scent which eventually emerges from behind the clove is full of contradictions, and may be one of the most beautiful things I have ever smelt, even though I am quite at a loss to describe it. For that there are the reviews above, of course. Then I found this entertaining description on Luckyscent, which explains how Shanghai Lily was inspired by the character played by Marlene Dietrich in the film Shanghai Express, who is euphemistically described as: 'a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast'. At the same time, Tom Ford meant Shanghai Lily to evoke: 'caravans piled high with treasures, surrounded by a multi-sensorial abundance of opulence'. Hmm, that might sound like a big ask of a perfume, and I wouldn't personally describe Shanghai Lily as 'opulent' in the way that Patou Joy or Amouage Gold or YSL Opium might be said to be so. It is spicy, like Opium, but in a softer and much less emphatic style. And is not fat or unctuous like those three either. Shanghai Lily is more in the register of a seriously roughed up L'Artisan La Chasse aux Papillons, say.
I then had recourse to the complete note list to see if that helped me unpack the perfume's progression at all, even in hindsight, and I can honestly say not really! I do love labdanum, rose, pepper, vanilla, incense and gaiac wood, so I am not surprised I have fallen hard for Shanghai Lily. Actually though, I think it is a perfect fusion of sensual lily scents (which feature disproportionately in my collection - eg Serge Lutens Un Lys, DKNY Gold and Penhaligon's Lily & Spice) with the woody / balsamic orientals that are my overall favourite fragrance family (Diptyque Eau Duelle, Kenzo Flower Oriental and Bvlgari Black to name but a few).
Notes: bitter orange, pink peppercorn, black pepper, clove, jasmine, rose, tuberose, vetiver, cashmeran, benzoin, castoreum, cistus labdanum, gaiac wood, vanilla and frankincense
Although like Robin, I was slow to come round to Shanghai Lily, we part company over the later stages of its development which do not feel 'a bit flat' to me. Robin goes on to say: 'The clove lingers far into the dry down, but the florals fade far too quickly; what's left is basically a rather mild spiced wood.'. On my skin, by contrast, at the drydown stage the clove has long since vanished and I get a sweetly vanillic, slightly smoky, yet still markedly floral finish.
Ludicrous layering experiment
Then on a whim the other night, I decided to see if I could recreate Shanghai Lily by layering Penhaligon's Lily & Spice over Cartier's Baiser Volé. It was a car crash, basically. Lily & Spice has lily, clove and vanilla in it, and the requisite dark aspect - it is borderline indolic in fact. The darkness is marred, however, by its pellucid, almost aquatic feel - a bit like CK Truth, say. Baiser Volé, meanwhile, has a similar snuffed out, pollen-y, sweet, sherbety quality to the Tom Ford, but smells more mainstream and Betty Boo-like. It is very bright and in your face and brash by comparison, at least in the opening stages. Yes, Shanghai Lily is not as girlish and fluffy as the Cartier, but nor is it as mature and diva-ish as Marlene Dietrich. If it is suited to a woman who lives by her wits, I'd like to think this wasn't on an...ahem...professional basis. But it most certainly has a lttle sultry kick, suspended somewhere between innocence and sensuality. In my comment on Tara's evocative review on Olfactoria's Travels, I said Shanghai Lily might suit a 30-something on a mission. Or a 50-something woman trying to recapture her youth...
Funnily enough, I do have a dress that might suit. ;)
Hmm...I haven't worn it since I was a 30-something, though!