Last Friday I spent a day in London, mainly visiting and browsing a number of perfume 'shops', for want of a better word. This was a little treat to myself. Usually I only get up to London these days for work-related courses, squeezing in a hurried half-an-hour or so to pop into Liberty to spray on a few fragrances. As I was on holiday last week, I left the family behind (selfish, I know) and treated myself to a unhurried stroll through the grimy streets of the Capital. I used to live in London and worked in Piccadilly and later around Victoria Station. I started my day by strolling across St James' Park to the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street, now sadly just another outlet of the better-known House of Fraser chain of department stores. I think Army and Navy sounds much better - I can't remember which novel it was, but Graham Greene refers to this very store as does Somerset Maugham. Anyway, as far as perfume goes, this store has a decent, albeit fairly bog-standard selection of fragrances. I had bigger fish to fry, so after a quick stop at the wonderful Neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral, with its quirky red-and-white-brick towers and domes, I headed on to Elizabeth Street, in the heart of Belgravia.
Belgravia is the preserve of new money mostly from the east, including Russian and Chinese billionaires who have a few spare million pounds to blow on a modest little pied-a-terre in Eaton Square. Elizabeth Street is home to the wonderful Les Senteurs, which stocks a brilliant selection of niche perfumes. As I've blogged a couple of times before about this perfume store, I won't go into much detail here, suffice to say that as usual, they were more than happy to decant some perfume samples for me. This is the one place in London that will literally offer to give you samples - in the big department stores you'd literally have to sell your mother to get even a sample of the most dreary recent release, in my experience. This time I picked up samples of Parfum D'Empire's Eau Suave and Fougere Bengale as well as three from the Parfumerie Generale line, Corps et Ames, Leau Guerriere and Harmatan Noir. I haven't tested any of these yet, but on paper Fougere Bengale initially reminds me of Arabie by Serge Lutens, with a weird curry note, while Corps et Ames smells like a very smooth, sophisticated chypre. Harmatan Noir is a curious, minty blend. Full reviews will eventually appear here at some point.
I wandered further up into some seriously hot retail districts, heading for Lowndes Street, where one can find the newly-opened Amouage boutique. I am a huge fan of Amouage and was thrilled to be able to visit. I am very familiar with their regular line, but my reason for visiting the boutique was to check out the attars, some 12-16 of them! The sales assistant was very friendly, but explained that he couldn't allow me to buy any attars that day as there have been recent complaints of skin irritations. Needless to say, I couldn't remotely afford to buy one of the attars anyway, but I bravely put on my most disappointed face - when in Rome (or Knightsbridge) do as the Romans do I say. He did provide me with paper strips dipped in a few of the bottles though - two of them were Tribute and Homage, both lovely, while the other two were Badr Al Badour and Al Shomuk. The intensity of these attars is quite astounding and intoxicating. If only I had the bucks.... If any of you are ever in London, do look up the Amouage store. It is beautiful and the products are set out wonderfully. Incidentally, I also got to have a sneak-preview sniff of the latest release, set for the end of the month. Memoir Man and Woman are being released soon, inspired by Baudelaire, it is claimed. As I only smelled the men's version on paper, I can't quite comment yet, suffice to say that to my nose it represents a bit of a departure for Amouage. It's smelled quite leathery and woody, with a tinge of vetiver. I'm really looking forward to trying both of these at the end of the month.
My next stop on my perfume itinerary was that glitzy, gaudy temple of kitsch, Harrods. Not usually my favourite place, Harrods holds my interest a bit more than it used to since I became more interested in perfume. It has a wonderful range of perfumes, not least the Roja Dove Haute Perfumerie on the top floor. The amazing thing is when you walk through the main perfume hall at Harrods, you are assaulted by a legion of spritzing sales associates. It represents my worst nightmare - I hate browsing knowing that every one of those people are bearing down on me, with the sole intention of making a sale. I did try a few of the Tom Ford Private Blends, namely Tuscan Leather, Arabian Wood and Oud Wood. To be honest, the only one that made sort of an impression on me was Oud Wood, which smelled very nice. The other two were very subdued and fleeting really, considering their premium price tag. Once I eventually made it to the Roja Dove room at the top, it was like entering another world. I've got a picture of the room at the top left, which is a sanctuary of perfume like none you have seen before. These days I am quite used to visiting high end perfume shops and trying niche perfumes, but I was blown away by this place. Seriously. If you are ever in London, this is a must-stop, please. I was befriended by a charming man, whose name I can't remember, unfortunately (it wasn't Roja Dove...) and he must have spent about half an hour showing me around, allowing me to sniff various perfumes and explaining the origins of some of the more obscure stuff. This is not an exhaustive list, but some of the perfume contained in this one room includes the Caron Urns, Clive Christian (obscene), Xerjoff, Tom Ford Private Blend, Molinard, Amouage, Roja Dove, Guerlain, Creed, Jean Patou, Grossmith, Profumum Roma, Teo Cabanel, Puredistance, Mona di Orio, Pierre de Velay and Robert Piguet. The lovely thing is that many of these lines include the harder-to-find concentrations and some vintage formulations as well. I was particularly taken with Pierre de Velay, a line that Roja Dove apparently stumbled across in Grasse, managed to buy the formulas and tweaked them for modernisation (ie read exclude oakmoss). Most of these are gorgeous, warm chypres. My 'guide' also allowed me to sniff one of Roja's own chypres (no 5 I think) - preformulated and then the modern, no-oakmoss version. The amazing thing (and this is the first time I have experienced the effect of the oakmoss debacle firsthand) is that the older version, with real oakmoss, smelled totally different to the reformulated version. They literally were different perfumes. While the new version smelled slightly thin, fruity and almost fresh, the old version was peppery, warm, velvety and enveloping. Honestly, it was a real eye opener to me. I also got to smell the new Molinard single-note oils, trying the sandalwood, amber and musk oils, as well as the crystallised rose. This sounds weird, I know, but the assistant had to scrape out some crystals from the vial with the wand and smear them onto a paper strip for me. But the smell and potency! He did warn me. I have never smelled such an intense and forceful rose absolute note before. It literally made my eyes water. Five days later and the strip now smells of exquisite rose!
The rest of my day was spent popping into my favourite haunt, Liberty, where I tried the new L'artisan Coeur de Vetiver Sacre, on skin. I'm not sure what to say about this one. It's intriguing, and unlike any other vetiver perfume I've come across. I really need to try this again to do it justice. For ages it did not even smell like vetiver to me. Strange, but beguiling.
Finally, I spent a calm half an hour in the National Art Gallery in Trafalgar Square, enjoying some peace, before I got on the train and made my way home to the rather more mundane realm of West Kent. It was a thoroughly exhausting, yet fascinating day.