Tuesday 24 March 2015

The Jasmine awards: a memorable way to start the day (very early!), plus Penhaligon's Ostara mini-review

Regular readers - well, even very recent readers of my last post! - will know that I am not a morning person. So you can imagine my great surprise to find myself at the BAFTAS venue in London last Wednesday morning at 8.30am. You read that right - actually in London at 8.30am! That's as opposed to...er...in the bathroom, maybe. At best. I was a bit bleary-eyed, despite having gone down the night before (the trains to Euston would have been prohibitively expensive first thing). On the one hand, going down the night before was good, because it also meant I got the chance to meet Sabine of Iridescents for a meal and a quick recce of a French pharmacy in South Ken. Lots of lovely skincare brands, priced to reflect the catchment area. Plus we did rock up just before they were closing, so didn't even have time for a leisurely ogle. Over dinner, we had an in-depth chat about the German culture and language - in English, because my German is woefully eingerostet. I will just say though that my Pad Thai dish, while tasty, 'hätte wesentlich wärmer sein können'.

On the other hand, going down the night before was a high risk move, as it meant throwing myself on the mercy again of the cheaper end of the accommodation options near the Piccadilly Line. My hotel in Gloucester Road was in a very good spot, with a spacious lobby area remarkable for its enormous 'water torture feature' (as ex-Mr Bonkers was wont to call such things), but there the positives stopped. For only the second time ever, I felt moved to submit a review to the Booking.com website:

Great location, staff perfectly friendly, the foyer looked nice!
Room was minute (208 - economy single), and looked out onto a high enclosed wall / well, giving it a prison-like feel. The bed was rammed between the two walls such that a power socket was almost unusable between the struts of the bed head. I had to boil the kettle in the corridor outside! Couldn't dry my hair in front of a mirror either. Bed sloped in both directions so my feet were higher than my head, *and* I thought I was going to fall out laterally. The toilet seat swivelled and the shower dripped all night. Slight smell of drains. Paper thin walls. One towel and one very flat pillow. Didn't sleep a wink.

So there was that. But I figured to myself in my sleep-deprived state the next morning that the beauty of a breakfast function is that you can keel over at 10.30am if you must - well, you can if you don't have to rush back to work straight afterwards, which obviously I didn't.

There was one other person in the lift going up to the floor where the event was being held. 'I will let this lady out first', I thought to myself, 'as she might be one of the judges'. Sure enough she was(!), but I sense the allocation of the awards in no way hinged on my last minute impromptu bellhoppery.

Having registered, I hurried to the toilets, where a number of impeccably groomed and beautiful women of all ages were applying the finishing touches to their already immaculate makeup. Meanwhile, I had multiple contact lens crises in quick succession, thinking at one point that there was a real possibility that I had put TWO lenses in the same eye, but it seems not. Liz Moores had asked me to take photos of my chosen outfit, and I did manage to take a quick selfie in front of a dispensing machine, over the precise contents of which I shall draw a veil. It was one of only two ensembles on the shortlist - the dress I had in mind was a little snug and I could anticipate a few strange looks if I persisted in standing for an hour in an all-seater auditorium.

Contact lenses inserted, the next hour was spent in major milling mode, mostly with other bloggers, but also with the friendly lady ahead of me in the tea queue. Of special note were the exquisite canapes dong the rounds - tiny wisps of smoked salmon, blinis topped with blueberries so minute they looked like caviar. Unfortunately I was way too nervous to sample any of these miniature delicacies, which verily were the amuse-bouche equivalent of your name written on a grain of rice.

The proceedings proper got underway about 9.30am or so: all the judges sat in a row on stage, while the President of the Fragrance Foundation addressed the audience from a lecturn. Maybe I need a public speaking engagement to get some wear out of that dress I rejected. One of the highlights of the ceremony was the awarding of prizes to a clutch of small children who had written poems on a fragrance theme. Richard E Grant was a judge in that particular 'Mini-Jasmines' category, but sadly not in attendance. 'We want the finest perfume poems available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now!' A couple of the kids were in their school uniform, the others in flouncy party dresses, and all looked exceptionally sweet.

In case anyone hasn't caught up with the details of the winners in the 'grown up' Jasmines(!), here is the complete list. Persolaise won the blogger award, for which I had been shortlisted - that's a hat trick of Jasmines for him now! - while Thomas, The Candy Perfume Boy, next to whom I was sitting, picked one up in the digital category for a piece he wrote for Escentual - second time round for him! Thomas was shortlisted in no fewer than four categories, and while I dearly hoped he would sweep the boards this year, realistically there might have been practical issues with multiple bouquet storage in the small area by our feet. Meanwhile Liam Moore's online magazine, ODOU, won again this year in the Literary category. Big congratulations to all the winners!

After the ceremony, I spent an enjoyable hour with fellow nominee, Pia Long of Volatile Fiction, mooching in the shops north of Piccadilly, before we headed off to our respective lunch dates with friends. The scent of Penhaligon's new release, the quintessentially spring-like Ostara, lured us into the venerable brand's Regent Street branch, where we each bagged a sample and a hanky impregnated with the fragrance. Having tried Ostara on skin a few times now, I can say that it plays much more nicely with a human canvas than a fabric one. The hanky went incredibly indolic, such that I was not sorry to pop it into the wash when I got home, whereas on skin Ostara is a warm, sweet, radiant scent, nicely accented with spiky hints of green to evoke the trajectory of daffodils 'from bud to full bloom'. It also has a so-called 'solar note', as does Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Lys Soleia, to which it is quite similar - that's if you imagine a greener interpretation, as befits the spring rather than high summer theme. Ostara is the soprano to Lys Soleia's alto, type of thing. There are also echoes of Puredistance 1, in terms of its strong, warm, musky vibe, say. Going back to Lys Soleia, there is a lot more going on in Ostara than in the Guerlain scent, because of its 'whole of life' daffodil rendition - as you would deduce from the note list indeed! Also, the sharper facets ensure that Ostara doesn't tip into overly sweet territory for those with a low sugar threshold.

Pia sniffing Ostara


Top notes: bergamot, lemon and palm leaves
Heart notes: lily, ylang-ylang, tropical fruits
Base notes: tuberose, vanilla and white musk


Top notes: bergamot, clementine, juniper, red berries CO2, currant buds CO2, violet leaf absolute, green leaves and aldehyes
Heart notes: daffodil, hyacinth, cyclamen, ylang-ylang, hawthorn, wisteria and beeswax
Base notes: styrax resin, vanilla, benzoin, musk, amber and blonde wood

No appraisal - not even a mini-one - of Ostara would be complete, however, without a word on the name. To me it conjures up the German for Easter, 'Ostern', but I am also reminded of Ostrava, a town on the border with Slovakia where my friend and I accidentally ended up on a short train ride from Prague. Yes, so engrossed were we in our girly chat that we managed to overshoot our destination by some 180 miles, the truth of which error took some explaining to the bemused ticket inspector.

Royal Apothic Balmoral Rain

After Penhaligon's, Pia and I browsed in Anthropologie, toying with the testers of their fragrance line. None of the scents really grabbed me, but they deserve a big thumbs up for their small formats and pretty packaging. From there, we headed to Space NK, passing an amusing sign outside a house where the poet William Blake used to live. One wonders if he had ever availed himself of the Ministry's services? For his moustache, perchance? Here is Blake, waxing lyrical...

"What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

In the bijou branch of Space NK I learnt the disturbing news that my favourite cream blusher, NARS Penny Lane, had been discontinued. So after Pia and I split up at Bond Stree tube, I hotfooted it to Selfridges on a NARS blusher dupe mission. The sales assistants at the various concessions were surprisingly helpful in suggesting rival brands that might be worth trying, and the trail of recommendations finally led to Laura Mercier's slightly darker take on Penny Lane, called Canyon. Then in an unprecedented - and ill-advised! - splurge, I picked up not one but two brow pencils: a MAC in Lingering and a Suqqu in Moss Green. What between those and my Benefit Gimme Brow in Light/Medium, I hope to have the greyish-browny-taupe shade I sense my brows are craving thoroughly covered off. Plus I am happy to report that since returning home, I have had a professional plucking session for a fiver(!). And though I still need to grow my 'sprouts' back on one side, my eyebrows look related at last. Not twins, and maybe not even sisters yet, but first cousins, certainly.

A post-shopping cuppa with added lightbulb moment

Saturday 14 March 2015

Ladies that brunch: featuring redemptive French toast and a rose scent recce with OT's Birgit and Tara

Source: Foxcroft & Ginger
It is almost exactly a year to the day that I set off for Berlin, the first stop on The Monochrome Set's 2014 spring tour. On a whim at the airport, and notwithstanding the preternatural sparrow's fart of an hour in question, I decided to have breakfast, and was promptly confronted with an absolute travesty of a dish calling itself French toast. So remote was this all-but-eggless, deep fried monstrosity from the fluffy primrose layers of my recall, that the chef apologised profusely and gave me a full refund.

And now, here I was in Soho, cosily tucked into a corner of the edgily named cafe Foxcroft & Ginger - which I persisted in referring to as Foxtrot & Ginger, even though I neither dance nor have occasion to use police radio - with Birgit and Tara of Olfactoria's Travels, when I spied a French toast option on the menu for the first time since that fateful meal at Frankie & Benny's.

But I am running ahead of myself...there is a bit to say about the journey down to London first. For starters, it took a mere hour and twenty minutes this time!, owing to the fact that I had snaffled a Virgin ticket for just two quid more than I would have paid on my usual London Midland service that takes about two and a half hours each way. Also - and readers may find my wonderment surprising - there were refreshments on the train. On the train - fancy that! In an actual buffet car dedicated to the purpose, where a cup of hot chocolate cost 30p less than in the cafe at the station. By the time I had finished marvelling at the amenities of the Virgin service, I had arrived at Euston, and a quarter of an hour later, found myself disgorged from the Underground and standing on a sunny pavement in Soho with Birgit. As we waited for Tara to arrive, we chatted about Tara's recent visit, from which they were newly returned. I also admired Birgit's HSOTD (Hermes Scarf Of The Day: a beautiful cashmere number in shades of grey - I counted more than two, but fewer than totally torrid, hehe. ;) ) I can also reveal that it was tied in a 'cowboy knot' - I thought it might be a style called 'the waterfall', which I saw in a YouTube video once, but I was mistaken. It looks rather like the Maxi Cheche in this link, but with the two outer points tied in a cowboy knot as a last step. A very elegant and relaxed look, anyway.

Source:  Foxcroft & Ginger

Shortly afterwards, Tara popped up and we made straight for Foxcrop & Ginger - I mean Foxcroft...I only finally mastered the name today, would you believe?! - where the waiter directed us to the last available table downstairs. At the far end was a wall of white subway tiles, a sure sign that you are either in a hip and trendy eaterie or a turn of the century public convenience. Menus appraised, the others plumped for Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, which looked delicious, while of course I had to order the French toast in a bid to exorcise the painful memory of the last one. In fairness, it was more of a French Toast-Croque Monsieur fusion dish, owing to the addition of ham and cheese. Basically, it was the non-pareil of toasted sandwich-like entities, as you can see in the photo.

Unfortunately, we had to be pretty disciplined about the time, as Birgit had a theatre show to catch in the afternoon, however, we did manage to slip in a quick rose scent recce in Liberty, still on the quest of a Holy Grail rose perfume for my friend Jessica. It was great having the combined thinking power of Birgit and Tara and a very helpful male sales assistant as we speed sniffed our way round the perfume hall, scoping the fixtures for rosy inspiration. The top contenders were:

Acqua di Parma Rosa Nobile
Maison de Kurkdjian A la Rose
ODIN Milieu Rose
Keiko Mecheri Attar de Roses
Serges Lutens Fille de Berlin

Jessica is going to check them out on her next trip to the West End, and I will report back on her findings!

After the Liberty detour, we ambled down to Haymarket - or elbowed our way through the crowds, more like. Tara and Birgit lamented the fact that London is a lot more densely populated with tourists than Vienna. After picking up Birgit's ticket, we still had a little while to kill, so we walked round the block, enjoying the sunshine and loitering out of the wind here and there. On one of these street corners, we conducted a side-by-side comparison of Puredistance WHITE on my skin versus Tara's. I had written in my review of how my skin seems to amplify the coumarin facet of the tonka, making for a slightly dry, austere opening, and sure enough, the OT duo agreed that WHITE was 'sharper' on me than on Tara, whose skin seemed to grab the basenotes and go straight to that softer, more dreamy phase of WHITE's development. So to anyone out there who doesn't believe in 'YMMV' skin chemistry, we stick up two empirical fingers at that preposterous notion! Birgit and Tara also sniffed me wearing Opardu, but I will save those musings for a separate post.

Looking stylish despite the strong wind!

All too soon, it was time for the parting of the ways. Birgit and Tara's leavetaking was particularly poignant, as they had been constantly in each other's company for the past week. In time honoured perfumista tradition, I pressed a pair of tea towels on Birgit. I figured they would be thin enough to pack at least. Tara and I then made our way to Harvey Nichols. En route I clocked a number of young girls wearing jeans that were ripped at the knees. I suddenly remembered that the girl who was sitting next to me in the train down had worn a similar pair just like these pictured from New Look, and it was clear to me that denim's answer to self-harming must be a bit of a 'Thing' at the moment. I may be a middle aged old fogey, but I  really don't approve. When that trend is past, you will be left with a pair of foolishly mutilated jeans. It reminded me of that John Hiatt song lamenting those tempestuous rock stars who 'smash a perfectly good guitar'.

Source: New Look

Arriving at Harvey Nichols with a few minutes to spare, Tara and I stopped by Shu Uemura so I could buy a pair of their iconic eyelash curlers. According to Sali Hughes - despite their resemblance to an instrument of medieval torture - eyelash curlers are in fact an indispensable beauty aid for the mature woman, as long as you avoid crimping your lashes into the high kicking pose known as the 'hockey stick'. No danger of that yet awhile. So far I have only mastered one eye(!), and a look I can best describe as 'mildly surprised uplift'. As you can tell, I have been quite surprised lately, what with one thing and another. I kicked myself when I got home for not thinking to bring with me my Shu Uemura Hard Formula brow pencil, so that I could have asked the assistants to whittle it into a 'Samurai sword shape'. Well, that is how it is known, but to my eye it looks more like a canoe paddle or the bill of a platypus. Turns out that the pencil I have is not 09 but 06, which cannot be sharpened in that way anyway. Plus I think it's the wrong colour for my hair (Seal Brown), so in the bin it should go in my next decluttering putsch. Though I know I will struggle to throw away a 'perfectly good eyebrow pencil', if colour wasn't so key.

The sublimely sultry Tara

After roaming aimlessly round the top floor of Harvey Nichols, Tara and I eventually found the 'green bar' where we were due to meet Liz Moores of Papillon, who had kindly invited us to join her and her daughter Poppy (aka 'Pod')  for a drink. Readers, we could be excused for our failure to locate this stylish watering hole, a) because there seemed to be numerous bars and cafes on the same floor and b) because the seating was predominantly cream, with green accents. And when it came, what a drink it was!

An 'Enchanted Garden' no less, with edible glitter and pansies. I experienced collateral sparkling lip gloss(!) for the rest of the day - I had appreciably more glitter than the others, I should point out. It was, however, an age-inappropriate risk well worth running for the sheer fun factor and intoxicating deliciousness of this cocktail, which featured two kinds of fruit liqueur, vodka and champagne. I am used to drinking my alcohol one variety at a time, so this multiplicity may well have contributed to my feelings of pleasant muzzy-headedness on the train home. Which also took an hour and twenty minutes! A hop and a skip, merely exacerbating the dreamlike sensation I always get whenever I visit London.

Which was compounded further the next day by a 50th birthday party in a Wimpy...

followed by a bracing country yomp in all our finery.

Friday 6 March 2015

Puredistance WHITE review: honky-tonka yellows and lazy hazy daisies

'Tonka beans blogger's own'
I seem to start every review of a Puredistance scent by saying what a fan I am of the house: their friendly people, their relaxed PR style and unstuffy approach to the very concept of luxury products which is the backbone of the brand. It may not be the case anymore, but for a while there I was the only blogger to have made the trip to their offices, tucked away in a lofty converted church in Groningen, where I  (very loosely) interviewed Jan Ewoud Vos over tea and apple cake. Of the six perfumes they have launched to date, I was very taken with Puredistance 1 and the startlingly upper case BLACK, but didn't get on so well with Opardu, much to my chagrin, as everything about its concept and composition should have appealed. And it wasn't just me - two fellow bloggers have sniffed me wearing it, and pronounced it to be pleasant, but not spectacular - and not to smell of very much beyond a veil of white musk. But more of that anon....my subsequent volte-face on this wistful lilac beauty deserves a post of its own, I sense.

So nowithstanding my underwhelmed reaction to Opardu, I was very excited about the release of WHITE, the capitalised counterpart to BLACK, one infers. It is a tribute to the palpable enthusiasm and verve of the staff at Puredistance that they can still whip me into a fervour of anticipation at this semi-jaded plateau stage in my hobby. I must admit that some of that excitement is due to the exquisite way in which they present their press packs. Well, I wasn't so keen on Opardu on that score actually, as the sample vial arrived in a clunky big black lacquer box, which frankly seemed like overkill, also on the postage front. But my sample of WHITE arrived in a flattish white box, which opened to form a sort of 3D picture frame-stroke-diarama, in tones of white and gold / cornfield yellow, featuring a white silk lining - and oh joy! - an actual dried daisy!

Readers, I inspected this flower very thoroughly, and its very fragility (I accidentally dropped it twice on the floor) tends to confirm that it is REAL. That fact is worthy of upper case letters, I feel. It instantly took me back to my childhood, when I used to make collages of 'found things', as well as pressing the coloured foil wrappers of sweets between the leaves of weighty novels - or flowers (and once infamously, a roadkill lizard!) in the pages of a beloved scrapbook. The whole pack had a lovely aura of an adorable interactive educational toy-cum-ornament-cum-picture. The company had also generously enclosed a coffret of all the Puredistance scents, which is a great aide-memoire, not least because I had drained my vial of Opardu and was keen to try it again.  But I will save that story for another time, as I say...;)

Accompanying the box was a rather attractive flyer with a radiant sun design in this same buttery, muted yellow veering to old gold. It features a handwritten note from Puredistance's PR lady, plus sketches of the key ingredients in the new scent for handy identification! Who knew that vetiver looked like a shaving brush?! (Or it does when it is in a bundle, say, while patchouli looks surprisingly like vetch.) There is also an account of the inspiration behind the fragrance, and a list of its 'ingredients' (unexpectedly partly capitalised!) and their provenance, to wit:

"Rose de Mai from France, Tonka bean absolute from Venezuela, Orris absolute from Italy, Sandalwood from Mysore, Bergamot from Italy, Musk, Vetyver from Haiti and Patchouli from Indonesia."

I am not usually one for backstories - or let's say I approach them with a certain degree of caution - but I rather like the premise for WHITE. Here is an excerpt from the leaflet:

"The main idea behind the creation of Puredistance WHITE Perfume has been to create a perfume so beautiful and positive that it gives the wearer an instant flow of happiness. We asked Master Perfumer Antoine Lie (who also created Puredistance BLACK for us) to create a white and golden dream; an intimate escape from harsh reality....In this era of global negativity our aim is to give our customers a positive, mood transforming perfume. We hope WHITE will make many moments in your life a little bit more beautiful and colour your world in shades of serene white and warm gold - instead of grey. ;)"

My bedroom: fortuitously in this exact colour scheme!

I like the addition of the smiley face - possibly also a reference to a certain film doing the rounds at the moment, hehe...? ;) But anyway, I like the concept - I have blogged myself recently on the subject of bad stuff in the news and the current, rather downbeat Zeitgeist - so it is a nice thought that Puredistance are seeking to yank people out of that slough of despond, and neatly bridge the gap between winter and spring with WHITE's combination of white and gold tones. For this perfume doesn't evoke simply white to me - it is richer than that. A fitting crossover scent for the chilly yet sunny days of early March we are experiencing at the moment...there are some yellow coloured flowers in gardens - daffodils, crocuses, tulips - but it could just as easily hail at any moment, and did do on Sunday! So the timing for a fragrance launch with that message - both weatherwise and in terms of counteracting negative events in the media - is spot on.

So how does WHITE smell?

Well, I have tried it three times now on consecutive days, with pretty consistent results, though I might get more or less of the floral notes poking through, like spring bulbs in our flowerbed analogy. My overriding sensation, however, is of a seamlessly blended nutty, woody, slightly peppery?, tonka-centric gourmand scent. The tonka itself has those characteristic overtones of coumarin and hay as well as vanilla, which lend it a slightly sterner, drier, more offbeat facet - possibly buttressed by the vetiver. Now I don't know what the scent of a daisy is exactly, but I imagine it might also be a bit austere and vegetal, so in that regard it is a fitting emblem to represent this scent, not least because of its teaming of these two signature colours within its own flower.

Then texturally - you know how big I am on texture ;) - WHITE is muzzy and musky - and warm in very much the style, if not the scent, of Puredistance 1. By the same token it is also quite tenacious. WHITE is 'thickish' and opaque rather than sheer, and although I did spot the odd appearance of iris, I can't say I detect rose at any stage. I should mention that my nose / skin tends to amplify anything on the tonka-heliotrope spectrum, and I see tonka as a halfway house towards heliotrope, although I may be completely wrong there. For me, tonka and heliotrope both hover around that vaguely almondy, milky foody territory, with just a hint of a bitter or anisic twist.

In terms of any other perfumes WHITE resembles, the only one that sprang to mind was PG Tonkamande, though it is a while since I sniffed that, and there is only partial crossover, notewise. On my skin, WHITE is so tonka-forward, at least initially, that it sets itself apart in that way. So overall I would say that I like WHITE quite  a lot; it does fit the brief of being warming and comforting in these troubled times. I particularly like its quieter phase about 1-2 hours in, when the coumarin-y aspect of the tonka has settled down, and the composition becomes a little sweeter and more floral (more the iris than the rose, in fairness). The feel of the scent on skin is also more silken and smooth than at the outset. This is when WHITE truly slips into its lazy, hazy, dreamy phase. And after my unexpected bonding with the later stages of MAAI, readers will not be surprised to hear that I am well up to a bit of waiting now when it comes to a perfume's development. ;) I can see myself progressively warming to WHITE, indeed. I would say that it is not an obvious perfume, but strikes me rather as something of a grower.

In the Puredistance literature, I note that the people on whom WHITE was tested 'immediately started to smile and then started to smell again, telling us WHITE filled them with happiness.' I would imagine they must be bigger fans of tonka bean than me. For that reason, I doubt that I will ever feel mad love for WHITE in its entirety, as I am not that keen on tonka bean when it's centre stage like this, and I think you really have to be to fully appreciate WHITE. But props to Puredistance for going a rather unconventional route with this latest release, nailing their white and yellow colours to the tonka mast!

Then on a whim, I googled the origin of 'Honky-tonk blues' which inspired the first part of my title. I knew it was a song, but didn't know what about. I learnt that 'honky-tonk' refers to both a style of country music and the rather rickety bars in which it was performed. 'Honky' on its own, meanwhile, appears to have been a pejorative nickname used for white people, possibly originating in Chicago's meatpacking plants. Well, we'll draw a veil over this nugget of info, as that way lies more gloom and negativity(!), except to say...how curious that 'honky' should mean white.  And of course WHITE is designed to drive away the blues, by suffusing the world in white and yellow. Of which it does a pretty good job, I'd say, all things considered.

Not the right yellow, but still ~ Source: ratemymusic.com

PS A props credit is due to Victoria Frolova of Boisdejasmin, who gave me the tonka beans when I visited Brussels in 2012. I knew they would come in handy one day!

My equally colour-coordinated bedroom wool stash!