Knackered doesn’t even begin to cover it. That three-day intensive at the London College of Fashion – tacked onto meetings with my agent, my editor and the team at HarperCollins and a series of dinners – pretty much left me in a condition to be MEDEVAC-ed, instead of which I boarded a Eurostar carriage that seemed mainly inhabited by howling toddlers.
How was it? Well how could it be anything but great? Once more, ages ranged from 21 to 60+, nationalities were all over the map and the participants were a blend of perfume lovers and people who simply thought it would be interesting to attend. What surprised me most was that this time around, not only was an anthropologist interested in putting together a project on perfume in attendance, but that there were several people from the industry (distribution, retail, home fragrances, cosmetics), as well as a biochemist and aromatic oil distiller from India and an image consultant from Hong Kong who flew all the way to London for the course! The mix made for lively discussions, abundant questions, fascinating input and frequent cross-exchanges between participants.
I’d rather not disclose the exact contents of the course since that would kind of ruin the fun for people who’ll be attending the next sessions. I can say that, as usual, it was divided into three themes, one a day, each providing a different approach to fragrance appreciation:
- The Building Blocks is an exploration of the vocabulary and basic grammar of scent: learning to read the facets of raw materials; digging under the skirts of jasmine, decomposed into its most salient molecules; creating olfactory illusions; finding out the first principles of accords with an olfactory daisy chain linking one material or base to another, and teasing those accords out of finished compositions.
- The Templates takes a totally different approach: we studied major historical fragrances (including several samples from my vintage collection, for instance the Cotys), placed within their social, cultural and sartorial contexts. We also did a vertical section of fruity chypres throughout the decades, starting with Mitsouko (in the reference formula) and ending with Jubilation 25.
- The Trailblazers is a study of different contemporary trends that seek to push the language of fragrance further, with an emphasis on niche and author perfumery, and more particularly on people like Jean-Claude Ellena, Isabelle Doyen, Olivia Giacobetti, Mathilde Laurent, Bertrand Duchaufour and Sandrine Videault.
This is a chapter I’d love to develop further because there were a few cutting-edge houses/authors I couldn’t cover. Comme des Garçons, Christophe Laudamiel, Etat Libre d’Orange spring to mind, but also what I feel is very interesting work done in home fragrancing, particularly by Frédéric Malle and Cires Trudon…
I can’t possibly summarize either all the interesting things that were said over the course of those nose-wracking 20 hours.
Kelly and Laylal’s endless curiosity and questions; Kit’s perspective as both an anthropologist and perfume connoisseur; Philippa’s generosity in explaining her activity as the head of a scented candle-making company and in distributing the ones she’d brought; Vera’s kindness in helping along Krishna, the Indian gentleman sitting next to her, who may have been having trouble with all those unfamiliar French names; Maciej’s and Virginie’s knowledge of fragrance customers and no-nonsense approach; Tina’s social skills, charisma and enthusiasm; Matthew’s focused comments and occasional biting irony; Davina’s input as a fledgling organics cosmetics entrepreneur; Dennis’ and Cleo’s quieter, yet unflaggingly graceful attention…
There were comedic moments, for instance as I was expounding on the accuracy of Olivia Giacobetti’s rendition of the smell of carrots, everyone frowning over their blotter in a way I found a bit puzzling, until Maciej ventured that perhaps… this had a coconut facet? I’d sprayed Love Coco instead of I love les Carottes, and seized on the mix-up to make a pedagogical point about the suggestibility we experience with scents, before gently wiping the egg from my face.
But the most moving moment came during the course wrap-up, when I asked all the participants which scent they’d been most struck by over the past three days. I started with the Indian gentleman, Krishna. He’d made some comments about the raw materials: he knew the naturals since he distils them, and was surprised at the synthetics which he didn’t know. Then he’d fallen silent when we moved into compositions, a field he wasn’t at all familiar with. But once I’d asked him what he’d preferred, he said Sandrine Videault’s Manoumalia smelled just like the Night Queen which blossoms overnight in his country and wilts in the morning; that this was his dream come true… And he just couldn’t stop talking, so deeply had it touched him.
That’s pretty much what perfume is all about, in the end, isn’t it? Mission accomplished.
My warmest thanks to all the participants, as well as to the perfumers and houses who supplied samples and materials, and to Basia Szkutnicka, Hannah Svensson, Reid Aiton and Karin Johansson of the London College of Fashion.