The last two days have been a whirlwind of walking, perfume, bread, and gulping the beauty of the gorgeous and peculiarly Parisian combination of strict form with ornamentation. I hope you'll forgive the hasty writing.
On Friday, we met Denyse from Grain de Musc at Café Lemours, an elegant café near the Palais Royal with white-aproned waiters and large jars of jumbled silver forks decorating the windows. Our first stop was Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido (aka Serge Lutens). We walked into the Palais Royal courtyard with its rows of plane trees pruned into boxes, and under the arcades separated from the courtyard with a gold-tipped iron fence.
The Serge headquarters is dim and feels like a harem's lounging room without the pillows. All of the paneled walls were painted a background of dark blue — or was it black? — with oriental symbols in gold. In the center of the room was a spiral staircase. Lining the edges of the room were glass-topped console tables holding the Serge Lutens fragrances and a row of paper strips, each labeled and spritzed with a different scent. Someone brought us small glasses of hot Marco Polo tea, and we got busy smelling.
When we left the almost meditative world of Serge an hour later, we plunged into the drizzly Parisian air and dodged scooters on our way to Rue St Honoré and the hip "lifestyle" store Colette. Upstairs, beyond a display of Fendi bags (love the one with the needlepoint panels), was Colette's perfume collection. The small selection of perfumes was a mix of trendy and cutting edge, with the three Chloé Eaux de Fleurs sitting near two new Comme des Garçons fragrances, Holygrace and Holygrapes. They carried Balmain Ambre Gris (strangely enough), a few of the Comme des Garçons incenses, the collection of Mark Buxton scents you can't get anywhere else, Daphne Guinness Daphne, and some of the Histoires de Parfums, among others. Downstairs was a café with patrons backed up the stairway waiting to be seated. The toilets are Japanese with heated seats and a selection of derriere-cleansing services you can select from a panel on the wall.
After a break for lunch, we visited IUNX (sounds like "yoonks"), a tiny, dim shop with ambient music and a row of clever scent diffusers. To smell each of Olivia Giacobetti's fragrances, you leaned toward a glass tube with a light and what looks like a large, whorled paintbrush inside. Leaning over the tube activated a motor — you could hear it click on — that blew the fragrance toward you. The IUNX packaging is post-Calvin Klein minimalism. I liked many of the fragrances for their sheer, organic feel, but I would have gone crazy if I had to work there and listen to the Enya-derived music all day.
March and Louise split off to conquer the Grands Magasins, while I walked Denyse back to her metro station with a stop at Jean Patou. The Patou store was almost like a laboratory-white lunch counter without the sandwiches. Facing the door is a white counter in front of a white wall, beyond which there must have been Patou offices. On the counter were bottles of Joy, Enjoy, Sira des Indes, Sublime, and 1000. Next to each perfume bottle were two or three small bottles of some of the raw materials that went into each perfume. For instance, next to the bottle of Joy were small bottles of Grasse jasmine and rose de Mai, and next to the 1000 were bottles of patchouli and osmanthus. Smelling the raw materials, especially side by side, was a revelation. Grasse jasmine was so much more complex and delicate than Indian jasmine, for example, and rose de Mai was brighter than Turkish rose. Raw fleur d'oranger was leaner and sharper than the candied orange flower I'm used to in a finished composition.
The next day, I metroed over to the Right Bank to meet an NST reader, a native Parisienne I'll call "L" to guard her privacy. Meeting a stranger and committing to spend a few hours with her can be a risk, and as I headed out into the rain I wondered if I was making a mistake. I needn't have worried. She was more funny, smart, perceptive, and friendly than I could have dreamed. Plus, she loves perfume and has a terrific nose. I ended up spending most of the day with her.
We started by dropping in on Divine, a warm, clean oasis of elegance. The bottles were arranged so gorgeously — their different sizes artistically lined up — that I wanted to photograph them. (I didn't. It didn't seem right somehow.)
Next we visited the Task Institute, a spa for men and the only place in Paris to buy Parfumerie Générale fragrances. They also carried a few Miller et Berteaux and Etat Libre d'Orange scents. While men were massaged and facialed in adjoining rooms, we smelled our way through the fragrances. Unfortunately, they didn't have the new scents, Gardenia Grand Soir and Bois Naufragé.
Out into the drizzle again, and we walked the edge of the Tuileries to reach the shop for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs et de la Mode, on one of the wings of the Louvre, to find Etat Libre's lastest scent, Tilda Swinton Like This. While we perused the rest of the shop — the book to the Madame Vionnet exhibition! fascinating jewelry! fabulous lamps and throw pillows! — I let Like This wear on my skin. It was fresh, glowing, rounded, and unexpected, full of orange, immortelle, ginger, and musk. I bought a bottle.
Three more perfume stops ahead: Annick Goutal, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, and the Guerlain flagship. The Annick Goutal store had some rarities, including Eau du Fier and Eau de Monsieur. Eau du Fier reminded me of a smoky Scotch. It was wonderful in the damp air. Eau de Monsieur mixed a hint of immortelle with a traditional cologne, and I loved that, too. The sales associate had clearly been there for years. She reminded me of Inès de la Fressange, and was terrifically warm and helpful, and in French she and L decried the changes in the perfume industry, the loveliness of the Goutal scents, and the need for a more informed consumer while I listened in and wished my French were better so I could do more than nod.
The Kurkdjian store was magical. We stepped off the street into a heated vestibule with a silvery, 3-D panorama of Paris crafted in silver metal. A ferris wheel with tiny perfume bottles suspended from it turned. The arms of the Moulin Rouge rotated, too. On another wall, clips of old movies played without sound. I saw Jack Lemon and Audrey Hepburn. Inside the store, a whimsical selection of music played. We smelled everything, and the sales associate blew scented bubbles, which we popped with our noses to release the smell of pears and a green garden. I bought a bottle, thinking my cat would like to play with the bubbles, although the sales associate said her cat hid from them.
Up the crowded Champs d'Elysées, we practically bodysurfed on other tourists to reach the Guerlain store. Upstairs was a room with, as far as I could see, every Guerlain fragrance in production. The sales associates stood by helpfully, but let us freely try anything we wanted. Mouchoir de Monsieur smelled like lavender, smoked cigarettes, and dirty underwear to me. Terrific, but I'm not sure I could pull it off. I wondered why I don't wear Vol de Nuit more. I love it. I soaked my scarf in Vega before leaving.
Now it's Easter Sunday, and I'm looking forward to some baguette with butter and a stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens before making a frittata for lunch.