Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Russians

Russian masterpiece, "Stone Flower". Oil-based, exotic, seductive, irresistible - and presented in an "egg" in an echo of Fabergé. Circa 1984.

Dear Mr Ivanov,
            It must be evident that the time could not be more propitious than now, to introduce Soviet perfumery to the West.
            As you are aware, I have been most anxious to do this and have been working at it for some 4 years.
            I had expected to hear further from you after your visit last summer, concerning any further developments in this direction.
            My efforts have not ceased – through me, many people have been introduced to Soviet scent, and all have been enthusiastic.
            Before Mrs Thatcher left for the USSR, I advised her to bring back some Russian perfume as through mutual friends, I know she adores scent.
            Since our meeting, I have discussed possible methods of launching the scent in the West with representatives from the media, and they agree with that with a limited budget, my idea of a party is the best solution.
            Names for the guest-list have been suggested and I can pass this on to you. The names must cover magazine Beauty Editors and journalists, shop buyers, people from the entertainment industry: actors, singers, dancers. Certain politicians, certain socialites – the sort of media personality that ensures press-coverage.
            The venue should be the Soviet Embassy. As I explained, there is a certain attraction attached to an invitation to the Embassy that would prove irresistible. The fact that the Embassy is so exclusive and so glamorous – chandeliers, mirrors, champagne or vodka and caviar – is all that is necessary.
            The scent to be displayed on mirrored stands, under-lit with samples on silver trays. The room to be sprayed beforehand with Red Moscow – that being the most “Russian” scent in Western terms.
            A Heaven-sent opportunity to give out samples of Russian scent at the Barbican exhibition has been missed which is a shame.
            If you were to set things in motion now you could be ready in October which would coincide with the exhibition the Fragrance Foundation is holding at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.*

* the dominant flower to be red carnations – being the national flower. Examples of ... enamel, jewellery (amber etc), and flowered scarves used as dressing to set the bottles off.


It would be too expensive to use national magazines to advertise or enclose a “scratch and sniff” sample – but local London magazines, which are delivered free to the most exclusive London addresses, such as “Portrait” and “The Magazine” might be considered.
            As I explained to you, Boots (The Chemist) is the most important and influential chain of outlets in the world – they will not take anything that has not been heavily advertised and publicised – but exclusive, small outlets in major shops, e.g., Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges, can be arranged.
            The Spanish firm, Myrurgia, does this, and a French firm called Jean Laporte has a small section in Harrods.
            Floris, one of the oldest firms, does very well with very little advertising, and Crabtree & Evelyn also does excellent business with very little advertising. However, they do have a small shop – and that is something you could consider. You already have two Russian Shops already available where you could sell perfume – personally, I would have preferred something smaller, specialising in perfume, jewellery and scarves – and nothing else.
            From your catalogues, I have identified which products look the most likely sellers, and can tell you when I see you again.
            *Apropos – I have been contacted by the Metropolitan Museum in this connection for my assistance, and have taken the opportunity to advise them most seriously to include a section on Soviet scent. If they take my suggestion, I hope you will prove willing to cooperate in supplying them with appropriate exhibits.
            For myself and my work, I need more examples of Soviet scent, and would be grateful if you could arrange to supply me with the following:

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I have spent a great deal of money out of my own pocket on procuring examples and have given a great many away in order to generate enthusiasm for Soviet scent. I have been happy to do this in the interests of the Art of Perfumery – but I feel I must ask for some assistance in obtaining the further examples I feel are necessary. I hope you can assist in this matter.

Draft of a letter from Sally Blake to Mr Ivan Ivanov, Soviet Embassy, London.

The unabashed "Kremlin" in presentation box. Something James Bond might bring home as a present for M - should he make it back to London in one piece...


An innocuous name, which one might reasonably assume represented, if not the dawn, at least something along similar lines.

It does not, however, represent any such thing; it is the name of a battleship. Not just any old battleship either, but the battleship which fired the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917.

Held in deep regard and affection, the battleship Aurora is now a museum and lies harboured in perpetuity on the Petrograd side of Leningrad Harbour.

Not only is the perfume named after the battleship, it is presented in the shape of a battleship, and a battleship figures further on the box.

Indeed, it was the battleship on the box which suggested that there might be more to this than met the eye, for while we might be fairly accustomed to seeing every sort of ship from galleons, to luxury liners to canoes on perfume boxes, a battleship was something else.

To present a perfume named after a battleship, in the shape of a battleship, would challenge the artistic capabilities of the most gifted of designers; unquestionably, their first thought would be that aesthetically, it could not be done. Less talented designers might produce something in plastic, probably blue, and undoubtedly suggest sending it out as [kids’] bubblebath instead of a ladies’ perfume.

What the Russians have done is to create not one, but three bottles, in two different shapes, dove-tailing geometrically to form the whole; each bottle surmounted by a tall glass stopper forming the three funnels, and the whole presented in cut-glass.

It is quite simply a masterpiece of commemorative art, which should by rights, stand in a Design Museum, for surely, nothing can more truly represent the artistry and ingenuity of the Russian perfume flacon designer than Aurora.

Sally Blake
...and the one that started it all: "Red Moscow". Circa 1984

Mr Ivanov smoked incessantly. Thickly packed, strong smelling Russian cigarettes. They sat in what we called the Front Room, which was in fact, one of two rather large drawing rooms leading off the entrance hall. The second, which housed the piano, the cat-shredded Chesterfield, the vast mirrored and marbled sideboard, and my mother’s best bottles, was known as the Dining Room. Although it had seen quite a few parties in my Father’s day (once, my mother had turfed out actors Sharon Maughan and Trevor Eve for rather over-enthusiastic canoodling in case my brother or I had walked in), never to my knowledge, had anyone ever sat down to a meal in there.

I was summoned to meet him. My mother wanted me to have a big piece of this project. She was the brains, but I would be the manager. With brimming pride, my mother began to list my achievements, ending up with the fact I could hold my own in Chinese.

“Cantonese, Mummy.” I pointed out shyly. I had never seen a real Russian before. I badly wanted to stare.

“Ah. Hong Kong.” Said Mr Ivanov, lighting another cigarette. “You play the piano, I think.” He concluded.

“Well, a bit...” I shifted uncomfortably, remembering Miss Asher who had rapped my knuckles for sight-reading a piece I should have learned and telling my mother she was not interested in teaching lazy little girls.

“It is why you can hear and reproduce the tones of the language.” Mr Ivanov smiled benignly.

I looked at this handsome man in his lovely suit, I watched his quiet ways, and I thought: KGB, Gorky Park, 1917, the Firebird, Anastasia, Rasputin, vodka, vast freezing plains, datchas, wolves, Balalaikas, Dr Zhivago. I could have fainted on the spot.

Russia, so fatally, frighteningly huge, and mysterious, and glamorous. At the time at least, their perfumes were equally impressive.
They were talking about how to approach importing these beautiful scents into the UK. A fabulous Russian concession in either Selfridges or Harrods, my mother handling the whole thing. A job for me. She produced a business and marketing plan.

She’d discovered Russian perfumes whilst walking up Holborn in London. There was a “Russian Shop” there. Full of scarves and amber beads and travel brochures and small bottles of scent. Glorious, oil-based scent in bottles that ranged from the utilitarian to the fantastical. The first she tried was “Red Moscow”. A heady, powdery scent with a plastic screw top in box of red and orange redolent of Schiaparelli. She bought a bottle. Then she bought another, "Stone Flower", then another "Kremlin", then more and more. These were proper scents, made the old way, a way that was, even then, already dying out. The rose in these was true Bulgarian rose, the real deal, licquor from the still. I wore Red Moscow for some time in 1984 and thought myself pretty damned rad.

Mr Ivanov was enthusiastic. However, there were one or two obstacles. Not least, money. The initial outlay would have to come from us. The Embassy were unable to assist. They would be happy to host the launch of course. My mother would get a return on her investment in due course... Depending on the success of the project, etc etc etc.

We had nothing but our dreams and our vision.

So that was that.

Emma Blake
June 2014

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