Friday, 28 February 2014

Clove at first sniff: Tom Ford Private Blend Atelier d'Orient Shanghai Lily review

There appear to be two main schools of thought about Tom Ford Private Blend Atelier d'Orient Shanghai Lily, to be referred to henceforward in this review as 'Shanghai Lily', 'it' or 'this one'.  One school sees Shanghai Lily as breathtakingly beautiful and/or the sort of perfume you might instinctively reach for on any given day in the absence of specific scent-wearing plans eg Victoria of Bois de Jasmin, Patty of Perfume Posse and Thomas of The Candy Perfume Boy.  Another school considers it to be one or more of the following things: unimpressive on card, pretty on skin if overly clove-y, and with an anti-climactic - to the point of totally absent - drydown eg Robin of Now Smell This and Victoria of EauMG.

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, 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).

Source: Luckyscent


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!


Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful photo of you! I love it!

Carol said...

Hey Bonks! Yes, I love that photo, too, and I laughed out loud at "I am not given to writing notes to myself in a foreign language. ;)", and how cool that you got such a nice response from your sample request!!

Vanessa said...

Hey B,

Thanks - kind of you to say so. My early 30s were quite a sociable time, it would seem! ;-)

Vanessa said...

Howdy Carol!

Yes, for though I do speak a bit of French, I didn't want people thinking I take the old foreign lingo thing to bizarre extremes...;) And I agree that Harvey Nichols came up trumps all right with the samples - I would have considered the £6 well spent to receive one 4ml pot in a small box - or a padded bag indeed.

Tara said...

It sounds to me V, like you got the very best out of Shanghai Lily. That was a result with Harvey Nics. Nice one. I can imagine it not working well on card I have to say.

I loved the "lily through the prison bars" bit and you do look a knock-out in that pic.

Anonymous said...

Is that offer of marriage still open, Vanessa? It's good for me to weigh up my options!

I'm glad that you liked this one, it really is something quite special!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

I think you are right at that - it seemed to work on me as well as it did on Thomas - the floral accord was spectacularly pretty. But yes, a complete clove-fest on card. :(

Thanks for your kind comment about the photo. My brother brought me back that dress from a work trip to Hong Kong. I remember being impressed that he had correctly guessed my size...!

Vanessa said...

Hi Thomas,

Feel free to call upon me as back up if N has commitment issues involving your sock collection. I can cook up to a point and I love cats. Hold on, what am I saying? *I* might have commitment issues over your sock collection...;)

Vanessa said...

But we are definitely united in our love of Shanghai Lily!

Lian said...

OMG I need to try this, clove is one of my favorite notes. Gorgeous little dress too :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Lian,

Thanks for stopping by - and thanks for following Bonkers! If you love clove, I am sure you'll love this too. I am not such a fan of the note, but it got to me all right. ;)

Anonymous said...

I have learnt through recent experience that I can totally trust your nose. I will search this out although I may well have to put a brown paper bag over my head before approaching the TF counter. Bussi xxx

Suzanne said...

My favorite part of this post is seeing the photo of you in that gorgeous dress. Of course, you also make Shanghai Lily sound smashing, but that's a perfume I probably won't seek out. Not sure why, but lily perfumes don't move me too much. I like a couple, but even the beautiful Serge Lutens Un Lys is not one I wear often.

Undina said...

Remember: no impulse buys until you finish your 8 ml (unless, of course, you'll come across a really good deal).

Vanessa said...

Hi Val,

Nice of you to have such confidence in my nose! I think I got lucky with Zelda because it has a fair bit of crossover with your beloved Mito. ;) I understand the need for a brown paper bag, though the SA in Printemps in Paris was ever so sweet.

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Aw, thanks for that. ;) If you are not into lily as a note, this one might not be for me - especially if Un Lys doesn't reel you in these days. I seem to be withdrawing a bit from iris at the moment, don't know why, and being increasingly drawn to tuberose. I find it curious how my taste ebbs and flows. Everything will probably come full circle again though...

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

I promise! I feel pretty well covered at the moment, as Tara kindly gave me the remains of her sample. So I probably have at least 10ml now, even allowing for my high wastage rate this week, hehe.

Blacknall Allen said...

Loved this review too and what a wonderful picture of you in the cheongsam!

However I agree with Undina, or what was the point of the brilliant H. Nichols coup?

Shanghai Lily smelled like Gardenia Petale+Nu to me, but own GP so I get part of what people love here.

Vanessa said...

Hi Blacknall,

Glad you liked it and thanks for teaching me the word 'cheongsam' - I had no idea! I promise to rein in any urge to spring for a bottle of this any time soon - the high price tag should act as sufficient deterrent, unless a £50 eBay special pops up, as happened with White Suede.

And I was interested to hear your comparison of Shanghai Lily to Gardenia Petale + Nu - I see what you mean - the beautiful floral hedged about with a smoky accord. Big fan of GP myself as it happens.

tomford said...

Thank you

Vanessa said...

Thank *you* for a gorgeous scent!