And so it was that the alarm woke me at 6am yesterday, and I staggered downstairs dazed and incredulous that it could be so early and still so dark. From the comfort of her favourite spot on the sofa, Truffle shot me a look of baleful suspicion. I must be up to no good to be moving around with such purpose at this ungodly hour. Then the time-honoured tradition of a last minute outfit crisis before an event, promptly followed by forgetting to bring at least three items, didn't disappoint this year. All the bedroooms were laid waste with discarded ensembles, rejected in turn for being too evening-y, too normcore, too 'Oh God, are those jeans actually acid washed?!!', too constricting / chafing / miscellaneously uncomfortable, too synthetically sweat-inducing, too clashing, too low cut, too potentially warm in a retail environment, too short, too likely to let in water, and too 'trying too hard and fatally failing to look like the cool urban socialite' I am not.
So in keeping with my designated membership of the Moomin subgroup, I settled on a tunic dress from Finland - a charity shop steal at £3.99 - teamed with 16 year old oxblood Camper boots, whose soles are showing surprisingly little signs of imploding despite their advanced age. Oh, and the forgotten items: a handful of empty vials for spontaneous sample making, my Oyster card, a hair brush, a change of top (my back was already running with sweat before I even got to the station!), and a tube of Lovehearts for those moments when only sherbert and a gnomic romantic banality will do.
|Pia and Val|
I spent most of the journey down listening to the repeated clunk of the toilet door slamming open and shut every time the train stopped at a station, and de-pilling the back of my quilted Hobbs coat. How long had I been walking around with dozens of tiny white puffs of padding making a run for it, like micro-vapour trails from a jet pack?!?
Twice during the trip, a Japanese lady chatted to me while waiting to use the wayward WC. She seemed genuinely disturbed at the time it was taking to get to London from Crewe (three hours). I did my best to 'express' empathy with my comment that it was 'not exactly a bullet train, to be fair.'
Val (CQ Sperrer) was waiting for me at Euston with an emergency comb she had just bought for me, the little duck, and shortly afterwards we rendez-vous'ed with Pia, one of our trusty duo of organisers. The startling coincidence of their matching outerwear and red rucksacks warranted the first photo call of the day.
Fenwick: Ruth Mastenbroek
Our first stop was Fenwick, a store chain I had never visited in my life till last weekend, when I ventured into one in Colchester, on a doomed mission to buy a bottle of water. After a cursory and equally fruitless rummage in the toy department for a small, tasteful toy chameleon (for reasons too obscure to trouble you with) - chameleons of any kind were conspicuously absent, or maybe they had temporarily morphed into teddies? - I walked straight through the ground floor and crossed the street to M & S instead. So imagine my surprise to find myself in yet another branch of Fenwick, a mere week later.
We kicked off our perfume itinerary with a talk 'in the round' by Ruth Mastenbroek. I knew some of her work already, but hearing about the inspiration for her previous scents - and the reason why she creates perfume at all (one of those ineffable urges for self-expression) - really brought her range to life. Well, in truth I didn't catch everything in Ruth's talk - she was softly spoken, and it was tricky with some of us being behind her, but I did glean that Amorosa came about as a result of Ruth's search for a house in Italy; with that scent she sought to capture the essence or quiddity of the area, in terms of its history, terrain, culture etc.
|Ruth Mastenbroek, Nick, Suzy, Rachael, Garfield, and Liz Moores|
We sniffed a mixture of finished perfumes and materials they contained eg Javanol (an intense sandalwood) and cistus oil. I was especially drawn to her most recent release, Oxford, a unisex perfume which speaks to her memories of a somewhat sybaritic time at Oxford university, where Ruth studied chemistry, punted down the Isis, smoked Gitanes, and by inference only just got her assignments in under the wire. Oxford the scent includes notes of amber and cistus and other things I have sadly not recorded, though the overall impression to my nose was more of a bracing citrus composition akin to Blenheim Bouquet. I have yet to wear Oxford on skin though, and may only have smelt the top notes.
Ruth has another perfume coming out next year: a feminine with a masculine edge - two male perfumers to whom she showed it have said they would wear it - but that is all we know at this point!
|Freddie, Val and Rachael probably checking Facebook|
After the talk in Fenwick, our party divided into its two subgroups, like trains at Three Bridges. We Moomins stopped by the recently opened premises of Lalique in Burlington Arcade...so recent that - never mind the exquisite crystalware, perfume and humongous floral arrangements - I got immense pleasure simply from inhaling the sublime new carpet smell!
We were ushered into a compact but bijou upstairs room, lined with Lalique vases and ornaments and festooned with what I took to be a mixture of mostly hydrangeas and delphiniums, but please don't quote me on that. Our host, Lalique's UK Director, Frederick Fischer, was absolutely charming. He apologised for the overpowering scent of the flowers, which he had allegedly been trying to tone down before our arrival - I am not sure he mentioned how exactly. ;)
For the next 20 minutes or so, in a captivating French accent, we were treated to a fascinating and detailed account of the history of the Lalique brand and the life of its founder René Lalique: how he started out as an apprentice jeweller, inventing the category of costume jewellery for theatrical productions at the turn of the 20th century. This was bold, chunky and impactful from a distance - think 'tiara with a snake'. Gradually, Lalique went on to win commissions to design brand-specific glass perfume bottles for iconic houses like Coty, Guerlain and Nina Ricci. Branded perfume bottles were a quite new presentational format, as scent had previously been sold in generic apothecary bottles and decanted into the customer's own atomiser. In the early 1990s, with the business now managed by René Lalique's grand-daughter, Marie-Claude, the brand ventured into fragrances under its own name.
Frederick let us sample several scents from the line, all of which I liked, in particular the floral Lalique de Lalique from 1992. (If you are curious, check out this beautifully nuanced review by Kevin of Now Smell This.) Frederick also demonstrated a particularly generous technique for spraying the blotters in a fan shape from a distance, which he had learned from Roja Dove, who coincidentally has a shop in the same arcade. This method bypasses the alcoholic top note you get when perfume is sprayed directly on a scent strip from close range, though you could of course just wait a bit. I sense that this 'nozzle-happy' school of spraying blotters may also go some way to explaining the high price point of the Roja Dove portfolio. I was also encouraged to have confirmed that directly sniffing the nozzle of a tester bottle - a favourite sampling method of mine, that cuts out the middleman of paper - gives you as good an idea of how a perfume smells as any, for some of the juice will have crystallised around the atomiser top.
Frederick also shared with us the rather sweet story of how his mother had managed a perfumery store in Paris when he was a little boy, and brought home miniature bottles, kindling a lasting passion for fragrance in her son at an early age.
I also resisted the very real urge to pop into the Roja Dove store, and drop £275 on an 'incredibly masculine, self-assured chypre' for the highly successful Russian Oligarch in my life, and dutifully went instead with my Moomin group to the next stop, By Kilian. Here we were made welcome by the engaging and bubbly Davina, who looked ever so slightly like an upmarket jewel thief or a magician's assistant in her monochrome outfit of white blouse and black gloves. By Kilian is another brand noted for its luxury positioning. I was familiar with the refillable lacquered black box-style of packaging, but was now introduced to the giant decanter bottle, which will set you back somewhere along the spectrum of £2100 - £5000. Readers, I am not on that spectrum, and even if I had the funds to blow on such an outsize thing, struggle to use up a 50ml bottle. However, for someone who loves one particular scent it could well be a case that buying in bulk is the economically sound way to go. Plus you do get to choose your own top and tassle! Though as with Ford cars, it seemed hard to imagine any other colour apart from black. So, you know, that degree of customisation counts for a lot.
Of interest to me (academically at least!) in this new era I am entering of having intolerant, allergic skin, you can additionally buy accessories with novel perfume delivery mechanisms as opposed to spraying on your own skin. In addition to four candles, none of which are now scented with the main fine fragrance line, so as not to debase it with a more functional take in a candle - you can buy perfumed jewellery such as earrings and cufflinks, which incorporate a cunningly concealed ceramic compartment that you spray with your chosen scent - and get this, there is also a tassle with a little trunk concealed within its fibres, similarly containing a perfumed core. Apparently Kilian Hennessey pops them in his wardrobe between his suits, if you needed any further persuasion. ;)
During our time in store we tried an interesting clutch of By Kilian scents, including one which smelt insufficiently of 'weed' for my liking though it was meant to evoke it(!) (Smoke for the Soul), and one that smelt perfectly sufficiently of vodka and tonic (Vodka on the Rocks). A firm favourite with most of our Moomins was Single Malt, featuring notes of whisky, plum and tobacco. It reminded me a bit of Liaisons Dangereuses, but happily lacks the latter's additional coconut note that turned that one into a headache-fest no-no for me. I am fine with coconut in Beyond Love (bewitched review here), and have recently been smitten with Amber Oud, thanks to Undina's compelling description and subsequent enabling. Blotters of that one were also circulated, and I was able to blag a sample, hurrah!
|Davina holding a candle to Kirk and Val|
Fortnum & Mason
Before our next formal stop at Miller Harris in Monmouth Street, a ragged gaggle of us wandered into Fortnum & Mason, fired up by the 'runaway' desire Val had instilled in us to smell Galop d'Hermès. Galop proved as elusive as the fire-resistant toy chameleon, but we whiled away an interesting - and at times deeply disturbing - ten minutes in the perfume hall, focusing mainly on that ne plus ultra of 'you could put your eye out with that' fragrance ranges, Xerjoff (which Rachael persisted in calling 'Jerk Off'), and Beaufort London, with which Freddie was comprehensively and frighteningly anointed. Of particular note is Symposium by Xerjoff - I have no idea what it smelt like, but check out the bottle decoration!, which would not look out of place in a Clive Christian kitchen worktop, whose perfume range coincidentally was on an adjacent wall. ;)
The highlight of the flying visit to Fortnum & Mason for me has to be the trip to the Ladies' Powder Room - for the obvious reason you might infer, but also on account of the sumptuous fittings - mushroom grey walls accessorised by ornate gilt mirrors. I would have taken a photograph, but it was a high traffic area and I didn't want to hold the group up, so am taking the liberty (no, wait, that's a different store!) of pinching a snap from the Porcelain Press, which appears to be a dormant blog on rest rooms the world over.
Starting to feel a bit peckish, I grabbed a bag of upmarket cheesy wotsits (or Organic Chickpea Puffs, to dignify them with their proper name) before the Miller Harris visit. Well, a combination of a store visit in the classic sense of going inside the shop, and a general milling around by people on the street outside. There were about 17 of us after all, for our two groups had coalesced again by this stage.
One of the friendly sales staff in Miller Harris invited us to complete short questionnaires to determine the fragrance styles which would most complement our lifestyle. As a market researcher, obviously I had to have a go at this, given that it was not a formal enough exercise to have exclusions to that effect. But as a semi-unemployed / -retired person, I struggled rather with the questions on fragrances worn during 'the working week' versus 'on days off' - partly because I work from home when I work at all - so the whole principle of office-appropriate scents goes right out the window for starters. I ended up with recommendations of Etui Noir, Feuilles de Tabac and Poirier du Soir, but was actually more drawn to the rose scents in the line, the citrus duo of Tangerine Vert and Le Petit Grain, and that glorious 'eau de Jane Birkin's armpit hair' that is L'Air de Rien, as I may or may not have quite called it at the time of my review. Yeah, maybe I should give up the day job.
I took this opportunity to inquire about the current status of the line Lyn Harris created for M & S, which I have previously championed on Bonkers, but was told it was a limited edition venture that is no longer extant. Miller Harris also generously gave us all a goody bag of samples, including a new one on me, which I look forward to trying - Cassis de Feuille. I would also like to give special mention to the gorgeous backdrop of wallpaper.
Our final stop was Bloom in Covent Garden, which I had visited before, but not since they rearranged their stock along 'note' lines rather than by brand. In principle I thought that was a rather clever idea, but I found it more confusing than not in reality, partly because it is hard to pigeonhole perfumes in that way, and partly because it made for a rather jumbled looking display both in and out of the cabinets.
|Freddie and Tara deep in conversation|
|Nafia, Lisa, Rachael, Suzy, Pia and Phoebe|
After Bloom, some of the group - Moomins and Flamingos now thoroughly mixed up at this point ;) - peeled off to go for the Cakey part of the event, while others went straight home. Meanwhile, the Monochrome Set fan / perfumista crossover contingent(!), comprising Val, Rachael and me, holed up in a cafe for an hour to catch up on news, where we encountered our longest tea bag ever. It was positively sock-like. Why, I have even seen shorter Christmas stockings.
And before I knew it I was speeding home on a much faster Virgin train - no sign of the Japanese lady this time, who I feel sure would have been happy with the journey times of that service. I found myself sandwiched between two area managers of the St John's Ambulance on their way back to Merseyside from a conference, so I knew I was in safe hands should my cereal bar happen to go down the wrong way. One of the ladies was additionally a vicar, so even if they fluffed the Heimlich manoeuvre I could at least be sure my soul was in good hands.
And speaking of good hands, it remains to thank Pia and Nick very much indeed for organising such an eventful and enjoyable day. What I would call 'episodic' and ex-Mr Bonkers would have called 'sodding epic', in a good way. And we didn't even get sodden as such, though it rained on and off, as billed. It was great too to meet old friends again and meet others for the first time - you know who you are... Did I say it was more about the people than the props? But props - and perfume - there were in abundance, which will take some time to explore / get through. Here is Truffle, attempting to photobomb the substantial haul from the day, which included Welsh Cakes, and of course my emergency comb, which (unless I lose it) I expect will outlast everything else...