Thursday, 12 March 2015

Modern muck...

Floris' Malmaison Encore - a flagrant, infragrant contravention of the Trades Descriptions Act

When I returned from a trip to London recently, I couldn’t decide whether the banging headache I couldn’t shake for days was down to the ‘flu virus I picked up on the Piccadilly Line, or the ‘perfumes’ I had been testing all day.

I had been invited to tea by my friend, Roja Dove, who knows a thing or two about whiffs, and makes up utterly beautiful pong confections for the discerning that may be found on sale for rather more than most can afford in his Haute Parfumery at Harrods. As we sat down with our drinks in the splendid comfort of 5 Hertford Street, I stuck my left wrist under his nose.

“This”, I announced with bottomless misery, “is what Floris have done to Malmaison.

The diplomatic Roja did not say a word, but the heartbreak on his face spoke for him. Floris’ Malmaison was the scent my mother wore for the last 8 years of her life, usually purchased in bottles the size of Jeroboams for relatively little outlay and smelling of the most perfect English Carnation that has ever been created. Roja and my mother had been firm friends. Bottle Buddies. They talked scent over dinner and into the early hours, time without number at our flat in Regent’s Park. Malmaison was her scent. Malmaison was what filled the house every day after she had bathed and set her beautiful salt and pepper hair.

At first, Floris simply discontinued it, sending a great many like myself into mourning, not least because following my mother’s death in 1999, I would have given anything to smell her scent again.

Then in 2013, they decided to bring it back under the name “Malmaison Encore”.

After a trip to Chinatown to get myself a slinky Cheongsam to wear to work (and why not?), I headed to Jermyn Street, the Floris flagship store, to try it.

It is a travesty. A hard slap in the face for anyone who ever associated Floris with subtlety and beauty. It smells of anything BUT carnation. In fact, its ingredients are given as:

Top notes: bergamot, black pepper, cardamom
Heart notes: clove, nutmeg, rose, ylang ylang
Base notes: amber, cedarwood, frankincense, heliotrope, tonka bean, vanilla.

Call me a pedant, but I don’t see carnation in there anywhere, which rather suggests they should call it something that doesn’t imply it’s an ingredient. Even in French. When I questioned the girls in the shop as to the reason for changing its winning formula into this sickly nondescript rubbish, I was told that it was in response to requests from a “younger” audience.

Surprise sur-bloody-prise.

This, I took it, was the same “younger audience” who apparently insisted on synthetic chemical “fixatives” in perfume so they could continue to smell it on themselves long after it should have been noticeable only to others.

A good scent rapidly fades from one’s own nose as you become accustomed to it. That is the time to have faith that it is continuing to work its magic on others around you, not to go embalming yourself in another couple of buckets full, and certainly no excuse to make all scents smell exactly the same, delivering a kick to the head nobody within 10 miles will forget. That’s not seduction, that’s assault.

Penhaligon's - current range. Stick to Elizabethan Rose if you don't want to spend your salary on Nurofen...
I was further assaulted when I moved on to Penhaligon’s in the Burlington Arcade. Bearing in mind I had worked in the Wellington Street branch as an Assistant Manager in my early twenties, I was desperate to have my faith restored. Surely darling Penhaligon’s would not disappoint?

It did.


Everything I tried smelled almost exactly the same, and with the same vulgar, insistent putrescent chemical punch that made my head start to pound almost as soon as I walked through the door. In vain I asked after Night Scented Stock (the most beautiful scent they EVER made). I was told it had been discontinued. Wasn’t “popular” enough (funny, it’s still up on their website – for £110 a pop…). Blenheim Bouquet was still lovely, but I wasn’t really up for smelling like my Dad that day. Hammam Bouquet, ditto. Lovely, but as I have grown older, I have more confidence as a woman than to want to smell more exotic than I already look (besides, I didn’t want to smell like Penhaligon’s former fire-breathing dragon CEO Sheila Pickles either). I searched for a single note floral. The more innocent the scent (my mother had told me), the deadlier the woman. Whilst many had liked to kid themselves that Wallis Simpson Windsor had bagged a king with Estee Lauder’s putrid “Youth Dew”, it didn’t even come out until 1953, so it was more than likely she used “Joy” – the best jasmine in the world.

I wanted something like that, please.

I was presented with either Orange Blossom or Gardenia. In the shop, and compared to all the other recent overbearing pushy offerings such as Juniper Sling (favoured by Millie Macintosh – poor Pro Green…), Malabar, Empressa and Artemisia, they both seemed lovely. I was determined to buy something, so I plumped for Gardenia, remembering how disappointed I had been when trying to buy Chanel’s version only to find they’d desecrated the formula and it smelled about as much like a Gardenia as what I picked out of my (late) horse’s hooves every day.

I took it home in triumph (via Charbonnel et Walker for a chocolate haul, where I had also worked in my heyday, and where a lovely girl gave me 20% discount for my stories of what the place was like back then). When I sprayed some on the next day however, I thought I would pass out with nausea. It was simply horrible. My head began to throb. I scrubbed at my wrists to get it off, but all to no avail. Now I am stuck with it. I should have gone to Harrods to get some more Tabac Blond from the Caron stand. Not only would it have smelled reassuringly weird but divine, it would have been about a tenner cheaper too.

You live and learn. My mother always said that if you bought something you regretted, you just have to think of it as 3 or 4 dinners out or something. It’s an excellent philosophy.  

I will be donating the Gardenia to my local Conservative Club raffle as a back-handed gift.  

We have come full circle. My perfume expert mother was raised in an age where no respectable lady ever smelled of anything more than a hint of Palmolive soap. The choice of perfume worthy of the name is getting even narrower as time goes by. Soon, there will literally be nothing left but a few brave standard bearers such as Chanel, who can afford to keep a few loss leaders in their boutiques for nostalgia’s sake, or Roja who has to charge the earth for his creations because it costs the earth to make the stuff properly.

It always was a luxury. Or at least it was supposed to be. The stuff of dreams. “Tread softly” my mother was fond of saying: “for you tread upon my dreams.”

Modern perfumers not only tread upon them, but they do so in hobnailed boots. 
Thank God for Caron. Tabac Blond. Still the dog's nads...

At present, I am surviving on Miss Dior Original (a reasonable 5 on my partner’s “offensive stink” scale) with what’s left of my Tabac Blond, Bellodgia, and Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit. Unless I win the Lottery soon, I will not be able to replace any of them when they’re finally gone. I will then switch to Superdrug’s baby lotion and leave it at that.

I think we’ve seen the best of perfume in the western world. I guess I just have to be grateful I am old enough to know what it used to smell like. 

Emma Blake
March 2015