About the author: Nina is our guest shopper for London. If you missed her review of the Perfume Diaries exhibit, you can find it here. She took all of the images for this article.
The Perfume Diaries season at Harrods is not just about the exhibition. Throughout September, there are a number of evening events featuring some of the people and processes involved in the production of perfume.
For me, the most exciting of these was ‘The House of Guerlain’ on 9 September, with Jean-Paul Guerlain himself, and current in-house parfumeur, Thierry Wasser. I went along with my friend and neighbour Stephanie, fizzing with excitement.
All of the events are first-come-first-seated, apart from this one, which was a very hard gig to get into. On the night, the exhibition area was packed, with guests being checked off carefully on a list and absolutely no interlopers allowed to gatecrash.
So, let’s set the scene. Long white exhibition space, space cleared in the middle for rows of clear Perspex chairs (So cool! Where can I get some?), three black Perspex chairs set out in front of a Guerlain advertising board. Lots of beautiful people, amazing shoes, Chanel handbags, men in makeup, chaps with TV cameras sliding around looking tense. Put it this way, a person was glad she had put on her good earrings and filed her nails for once…
A little later than expected, the men of Guerlain arrived to a roar of applause. M. Guerlain is frail and in a wheelchair (although very handsome and extremely charming — and beautifully dressed.) M. Wasser is young, dark, good-looking and Swiss. What more could you ask for? (Apart from, maybe, a complimentary bottle of Liu and your pick of the Guerlain bottles exhibit?)
Mohammed Al Fayed made a short introduction, which seemed to leave the Harrods staff nonplussed, perhaps because they’re not entirely sure if they still work for him (he recently sold Harrods to Qatar Holdings).
The event was framed as an interview, with questions being asked by Marigay McKee, Harrods’ Fashion & Beauty Director. These are the highlights:
Reasons for the longevity of the House of Guerlain?
[JPG] “Quality. Simple ideas and sticking with them. Only sell what you have created.”
What did your grandfather teach you?
[JPG] “Again, quality. And he said ‘Create perfumes for a woman you’re in love with...”
[JPG] “I don’t know! I started with Vetiver, 51-52 years ago, and it’s still the most important men’s fragrance of the house. Samsara is the most important fragrance I created, even if it’s not the best seller.”
How old were you when you created your first perfume?
What was the original inspiration for Guerlinade?
[JPG] “Something you smell, and know it’s a Guerlain.”
[TW] “It’s a trade secret…”
Are you still creating perfumes?
[JPG] “Of course!”
[TW] “We will soon launch Arsene Lupin, which Jean-Paul created.”
[JPG] “Riding…dressage. I started riding at the age of two, because my nanny thought I was too fat! I qualified to compete in the Olympic Games, but I had trouble with my hip…”
[TW] “M. Guerlain combines perfume and horses; he created Habit Rouge (the red coat worn by male riders), and he scents his horses.”
Thierry, how would you describe your style?
[TW] “I’m not sure I have a style. The House of Guerlain is unique, and can encompass many styles.”
What are you currently working on?
[TW] Our job is so secret, we don’t even know! But I suppose I can mention…in two years time, it will be the anniversary of L’Heure Bleue, which was created in 1912. Jean-Paul has some ideas for that…”
At this point, the audience was invited to ask questions.
M. Guerlain, if the founder of the house were to come forward in time,what would he think of the perfume world of today?
[JPG] “I think he wouldn’t be very happy!”
What do you see as the best and the worst aspects of the perfume industry today?
[JPG] “Anyone thinks he can sell perfume, even if he doesn’t make the perfume, doesn’t get close to the process. Again, we only sell what we personally make. There are many designers today who want to have perfumes, but get someone else to create for them. They are not close to the materials, the quality of them.”
[TW] “We spend at least four months every year travelling to source our materials — we go to India, Calabria, Bulgaria. We have our own distillation plant for orange blossom. The quality of the ingredients is vital.”
Talking about the L’Heure Bleue anniversary, for example, what are you planning to do about the restrictions on ingredients, for example, the difficulty of including oakmoss?
[JPG pulls a face, to the amusement of the audience.]
[TW] “For many years, the perfume houses like Guerlain, Chanel have depended on secrecy; they would never have thought to form a trade association to fight for their interests. That’s got to change. Frankly, it pisses me off. If you read the French papers, you’ll know that the perfume houses are very unhappy with what’s going on. We have to pull out those bits of our materials that the European Union doesn’t like…. Look, I’ve brought a book with me today, from the safe at Guerlain, which contains recipes for perfumes, handwritten by members of the family. We try to be as close as possible to those old recipes. Of course, you can’t think that, say, Après L’Ondée is exactly the same today, because some suppliers have disappeared, gone out of business. But we try to keep as close to the original as possible. Unfortunately, we cannot break the law.”
There is a silent moment while we contemplate what would happen if all the perfume houses were to do just that — break the law. Hmmm.
And naturally, we all want to see that amazing book — old, yellowed — to search for the Jicky formula. But some security killjoys put it on a stand, under a glass box, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you any mystery ingredients…
The evening concluded with champagne and — I can hardly bear to tell you this — yet more of those wonderful little sweet perfections. In fact, this time there was an even wider range. There were tiny white china tagines containing creamed and rose-infused rice, and candied-orange sponges scattered with lavender. They were so good, I could have wept with pleasure.
M. Guerlain graciously chatted to guests, and signed programmes, until eventually all the lights went out, because it was long past Harrods’ closing time. We had to go home.
Luscious delicacies, champagne, a splurged-on bottle of Spiritueuse Double Vanille, and Jean-Paul Guerlain’s autograph on my programme. What can I say? I’d hate me too. I mean, I’d like to tell you that I tripped on the darkened escalator and broke my bottle of SDV, ruining my personalised note from M. Guerlain…but I’m afraid I didn’t. The way I see it, that autograph belongs to all of us at Now Smell This; it just happens to live in my house (perfume bureau, bottom drawer).
But I’m afraid I’m too cheap to share the SDV.
The exhibition runs till 2nd October, Harrods, fourth floor, admission free.