Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Customer is Always Right - Sally Blake

Barbara Hutton and the Eye of the Needle

Referring to an archway in Jerusalem nicknamed “The Needle” because it was so narrow that no mule-train or camel could get through without first unloading its side-packs, Our Lord made the analogy that it was “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.

He obviously reckoned without Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton.
Barbara Hutton

In the latter part of the ‘40’s, Miss Hutton moved to Tangier and found to her annoyance that her fleet of Rolls Royces could not get through the narrow arches of the city. Consequently she had every arch either widened or pulled down. Such was the power of the 5 and 10 cent store at the time. [i]

She had taken a fancy to the Casbah: to its colour, bustle, mystery and history, and bought a palace there, where the cushions were embroidered with rubies, emeralds and pearls.

Towards the end of her life, Miss Hutton, who had previously favoured an in-house fragrance by Givenchy [although which one is never mentioned: Barbara was more often associated with The Crown Perfumery’s Malabar], switched to Yves St Laurent’s Rive Gauche, and had not only herself, but all her bedpans sprayed with it.

Poor St Laurent. Even if success has always been a double-edged sword, one has to sympathise.

Rive Gauche's strapline translates as: "Not a perfume for self-effacing women".
But fine for bedpans...

Selfridges - 1980

The gentleman from the Middle East was obviously very taken by the huge display bottle on show in the Perfume Hall. Fully 12 inches high, 15 inches wide, and 5 inches deep, it gleamed majestically from its position of prominence on a top shelf behind the counter.

Of particularly striking design, it had carried off one of the industry’s “Oscars”, awarded by the trade in New York, and the Middle Eastern gentleman must have agreed with the judges, because he decided to buy it.

The assistant apologetically explained that the bottle was for display purposes only and contained only coloured water, but that she had other large bottles, not so large perhaps, but pretty large...

The gentleman was adamant: he wanted the display bottle, nothing else would do, and he wanted it filled with real perfume. He would pay whatever it cost.

Enquiries were made. Yes, it could be done. The price? £4000.

No problem.

The gentleman got his perfume, and everyone concerned was very pleased. By comparison, the Salvador Dali limited signed edition at £2,750 was a snip, and Amouage selling in gold-plated silver flasks at £350 for a scant ⅓ of an ounce, positively cheap. 

Amouage - in its original, opulent incarnation

This was no isolated incident. Every one of those huge display bottles can, and have been supplied filled with the real McCoy – at a price. Any thoughts of lucky wives can be dismissed – these men are buying for themselves.

What do they do with it, one has to wonder? Bathe in it? Wash the floors? Perhaps scented fountains flow in cloistered courtyards in exotic far-flung outposts like Knightsbridge and St. John’s Wood?

Everyone knows that Nina Ricci bottle with the doves created by Marc Lalique [L’Air du Temps]. The display bottle is as big as a table-lamp, the stopper with the frosted-glass doves spans a good 9 inches and must weigh a couple of lbs; imagine trying to dab that behind your ear.

How do they lift them? Let alone pour...

Or is this left for the servants to sort out? Think Rebecca at the Well, circa 1980 with a bottle of Chloë on her shoulder in place of a water jar.

And what about all these gigantic bottles when they’re finally empty – what happens to them then?

“Oh, they use them for door-stops!” Smiled the pretty assistant in reply.

What a pity Grossmith isn’t still around with their Phŭl Nana. They could be making a killing now. In Jereboams, of course...

Sally Blake
date unknown

[i] Reference: Poor Little Rich Girl, by C. David Heymann