Article Archive: May 2017

Stepping Into The Past With Le Labo

Writing. Morning, noon and night, it seems. How I love to write. Within these deep layered walls the scent of a fragrance is mellow, lulling me with its charms, placating me, tugging at me to recall and remember. At other times, late in the evening especially, the fragrant notes are insistent and roll over me as I steady my pen to scrawl. I go on methodically working, letting the scent rest with me, a kind of invisible friendship, morning, noon and night.

So now I wake with the singing birds, rearrange myself on the pillow and it greets me – Le Labo Rose 31, the first fragrance I had specially mixed for me several years ago for a reason that resolutely refuses to come to mind so I continue to order it. I should think because it reminds me of a country hedgerow tangled in tea roses. A decision was well and truly fixed in my mind in Liberty London when I first bought it. I love Liberty London’s leather goods and stationery and I don’t know why exactly but there was some shift and suddenly I decided to maybe give this fragrance a go. Having it mixed by a specialist would be a unique experience and the juice would last a year and seeing as Liberty London is my favorite London department store for all the world it seemed like the perfect idea.

The air hummed with different perfume notes around Jovana Kalkan, master mixer at the Le Labo counter, some kind of alchamist trick obviously. I could have stayed there all day I expect and not have figured it out. I asked who Jovana’s customers were. “People who want a personalized fragrance with their name on it,” she said. “And people who want to make a secret statement through their perfume.” It had never before occurred to me that anyone might offer me this – a fragrance with my name on it. It seemed natural to go along with it – to not resist, so understandably I wondered if it might lead to something revolutionary.

First she explained that the different fragrances came in three sizes. 50ml, 100ml (both juice) and a gel/balm stick which came in a tube not much bigger than a lipstick. She spritzed samples onto tester strips for me. I got an uncomfortable sense that my smell was being smothered as she turned the entire decision-making process over to me. I looked at but didn’t touch the rows of bottles.

Flowers. Did I like flowers? I said yes but rarely as a fragrance, too pretty. I like dark, rich, rolling smells like a warm wild animal, curled up on an old leather chair, living in an abandoned library. Jovana said she understood and that Rose 31 would suit me, it was a man’s scent with a dark underbelly, but not too heavy. The fragrance notes are Grasse rose, pepper, olibanum, clove, cumin, nutmeg, cedar, amber, gaïac wood, oudh wood, and vetiver. I was charmed. It naturally exuded a living fragrance on my woolen sleeves; Rose 31 was deep, dusty and dry, earthy, like I let my arms traipse through heavy undergrowth on a wet day in blooming woodland.

Professor Trygg Engen, a professor of psychology at Brown University, found that people recall smells with 65 percent accuracy after a year and that olfactory recall is much more reliable than visual memory. I recalled the house I was raised in had an open half door, that’s true. The scent of the Irish countryside floated in; turf fire smoke, fox civet, horse sweat, wet grass, that’s true too, and butterflies and bees and birds sometimes.

I wondered if I could pack all of that into a bottle? Those categories she explained were musks, leathers and woods. Wood she explained was a perfume category most popular for mens fragrance and I like the ingredient vetiver to this very day. Over time I’ve tried a vast number of vetiver scents and the one which I’ve found which suits me most is Sycomore from the Les Exclusifs line by Chanel. It’s a great big whopper of a bottle (200ml).

I was curious. Jovana explained that the duo behind this French company Le Labo (Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot), wanted the customer to experience recall as much as possible so they created these lab-like boutiques in London, Los Angeles, Tokyo and New York plus a host of Le Labo “corners” all around the world like this one in Liberty London’s beauty hall. She also explained that she was specially trained to mix each scent in front of me. She then hand-poured and mixed the juice and sealed it all within full view.

Of course I could have devised some recall game while Jovana went through all of this, but it was easy to notice that she was lost in the process. She asked that I write my name down (see above) so she could get the spelling correct on the customized bottle and box. (Both bottle and box can be labelled with a name or message of your choice.) I apologised for my chicken scrawl writing.

I can’t recall what brought me to a different bottle on the counter. The mix was rare, leathery, smoky birch tar and soft vanilla and a little patchouli all in the one bottle. It had a bit in common with another fragrance I wear from the leather family of fragrances called Cuir de Russie by Chanel. But this Le Labo leather smell was smokier and darker like charred wood and old leather car seats. And I guessed it would have long staying power on wool. I remember now, that’s right, I ordered a bottle.

More mixing, more customizing and more boxing up. A 100ml bottle of Le Labo Patchouli 24

Later that evening (I was living in London at the time), I took the distinctive bottles from their brown boxes to sample and boxed them up again immediately. The secret to protecting fragrance is to keep it boxed up in the dark and away from sunlight (light breaks down the molecules). I wore these two fragrances for years and the fragrance and bottles were so distinctive. Recently I found the boxes and bottles in a linen drawer and what little fragrance was left was still potent. That shows you how lovely they were so I am utterly determined to reorder now, they have many stores dotted about the place. I have convinced myself that they were worth loving at the time and I could love again.

Message in a bottle at Gray’s Antiques Market

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Have you ever bought something just because you liked the look of the bottle? I leave shops clutching bottles of Orangina – bought not because I particularly like the drink (Club Orange tastes much better in my humble opinion) but because I can’t resist the bottle – that glass ball shape. I know, to buy something just because you like the bottle might sound a bit stupid but I believe (make that secretly HOPE) that I’m not alone?

It’s the unsuccessful perfumes, or bottle designs, produced for only a limited time, which are the most expensive

For serious bottle collectors (fragrance bottles) the fragrance or ‘juice’ as it’s called, (yes I know, Orangina coincidence there) is largely irrelevant: the value is in the craftsmanship of the bottle. On seeing these bottles at Linda Bee’s stand at Gray’s Antique’s market in London yesterday I wanted to wrap up the lot and give them homes in descending order of height, neatly nestling behind each other on my dressing table like a set of rare Babushka Dolls.

I suppose if I were to think about it for a moment, it’s the feminine, sensuous, glassy curvey-ness of the shapes that I like. But some of these bottles looked old but yet kind of familiar, (like the daughter of your Granny’s oldest friend, if you know what I’m trying to say). Linda Bee simplified things and explained why these shapes seemed familiar (thank you Linda)… ‘first thing you need to know…collectors usually start by concentrating on an individual glassmaker (Lalique, Baccarat, Brosse) or on the fragrances of certain fashion house (Guerlain, Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Coty, Chanel).’

And don’t be mislead by the name, ‘with Chanel No.5, for example, the shape of the bottle (or flacon) has changed so little since its launch that the earliest bottles found in antique stores are a good and affordable place to start collecting. It’s the unsuccessful perfumes, or bottle designs, produced for only a limited time, which are the most expensive. Scarcity equals rarity in the bottle collecting world’.

The original Chanel No.5, bottle design legend has it was inspired by the shape of the pharmaceutical toiletry bottles CoCo Chanel’s lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel carried in his leather travelling case. And although the original small delicate round shouldered Chanel No.5 bottle (or flacon) launched in 1919 is rare (was sold only in Chanel boutiques), the design change in 1924 which thickened up the shoulders to allow Chanel to ship it has changed little since.

The Chanel No.5, stopper however has seen many changes – the original stopper used in 1919 was a little glass plug until 1924 when it was altered to an octagonal stopper shape. Then in the 1950s through the 70’s the stopper became thicker. Finally in 1986 it was slimmed down again to fit in more with the bottle. So the stopper is a good indication to help you put an age on an antique bottle of Chanel No.5.

Speaking of stoppers…..plucking an old Bourjois ‘Kobako’ bottle from the cabinet, (it was inspired by old Chinese snuff bottles) Linda removed the stopper from the frosted glass flask and showed me the etchings on the stopper to match the base of the Brosse glass bottle (picture 3). ‘In France in the 1920’s there were over 400 glassworks (including Brosse) who hand finished their bottles, now there are but two.’

Bottles were hand ground and finished so each glass stopper fitted perfectly into its own glass bottle, (there was no plastic or rubber used then). A little number and initial of the person who ground and hand finished the stopper and bottle helped identify and ensure that the matching two stayed united – an incorrect initial meant an ill fitting stopper and a death knell for a fragrance due to leakage or air. (So romantic!)

Guerlain one of France’s leading perfume houses, (see pictures 1 and 2 above) originally had Baccarat, one of France’s most celebrated glass factories produce their bottles. Baccarat set up in the town of Baccarat in 1764 and their famous flacon with its inverted, heart-shaped stopper, was created for Guerlain’s classic fragrance ‘L’Heure Bleue’ in 1912. The same bottle design was also used for the launches of  both ‘Fol Arôme’ (1912) and ‘Mitsouko’ (1919).

Linda Bee explained that if you’re standing at an antiques fare or flea market in Paris and you have a Guerlain bottle shaped like picture 2. above in your hands ‘check the base of the bottle for an acid-etched identifying mark. Although Guerlain used the same flacons for decades for different Guerlain fragrances, production was given to various glass factories so that Guerlain would not be tied into an exclusive relationship with Baccarat. It won’t always say Baccarat on your Guerlain bottle, but if it does then it’s more collectable’.

Also check that the stopper and etchings at the base of your Guerlain bottle to see if they match (hand finished) and look at the glass. Is it thick? It becomes thin in modern Guerlain bottles.

Picking out the curvaceous 1930’s Schiaparelli bottle  from its cabinet next I was very intrigued by how much it reminded me of the current Jean Paul Gaultier factice bottles which are said to have been inspired by Madonna’s silhouette. Subsequently the  Gaultier male bottle throughout the 1990’s I believe was modeled on Gaultier’s own silhouette, a self-portrait of the French matelot (‘sailor’) in his blue and grey sweater that has become Gaultier’s trademark. But the story attached to the Schiaparelli bottle is equally as um, fascinating.

Italian born couture designer Elsa Schiaparelli was commissioned to design some costumes for American based actress Mae West, who couldn’t due to scheduling problems get to Paris for couture fittings. Instead she sent a plaster statue of herself in the pose of Venus de Milo so that Schiaparelli could make her a dress.

Schiaparelli  worked with artist Elanor Fini to create a bottle for her ‘Shocking’ fragrance based on the silhouette of the tailor’s dummy of Mae West she had in her studio. Covered with a glass dome, she put a tape measure round the neck of the bottle to allude to this and launched it in 1936. For the fragrance box Schiaparelli created a new colour, Shocking Pink which later became Schiaparelli’s trademark colour.

Of course, Christian Dior needs no introduction, especially if you’re a fashion fan but for most of the 1940s, perfume production in Europe was hampered by wartime restrictions (1939 to 1945) and so Christian Dior (1905-57) didn’t introduce his own version of the hourglass silhouette into fashion, until just after World War II in 1947. Emphasising the bust, cinching in the waist and with long, flowing skirts, he launched the ‘Miss Dior’ fragrance to coincide with his idea the same year and named it after his sister. The curvaceous bottle (picture 5) created by Baccarat mirrored Dior’s designs.

Likewise Prince Matchabelli (1885-1935) escaped the Russian Revolution and moved to New York where in 1926 he established a fragrance company and in 1927 he patented the firm’s famous crown-shaped bottle, based in his family crest (picture 6). He gave his fragrances names like ‘Katherine the Great’ and ‘Duchess of York’.

To finish up… another way to get our hands on a vintage bottle is to opt for 1930’s Czechoslovakian glass bottles which look like Lalique but are much less expensive and have atomizers attached. The only problem here is that antique atomizers can sometimes harden up so thanks to Linda for her diligent check list….

‘Test an antique atomizer before buying a bottle at a fair, store or auction’ by squeezing the puffy thing. A gust of air should come out. Sometimes fragrance can lodge in the puffy thing and make it go hard and it stops working and won’t spray.’ Linda replaced ‘the atomizer on this bottle with a new atomizer’. I have to say at this point that Linda Bee is really rather brilliant (and knowledgeable). Don’t worry about asking her about her bottles, she doesn’t force you to buy anything…. she just wants EVERYONE to adopt a little antique gem so…..

fortunately and finally, here come the miniatures – known as ‘echantillons’ in France where they were developed as testers and sample bottles in the 1950’s. This ‘Muguet’ by Coty miniature (1950’s) is a dinky little example. Tiny, really tiny and so, so beautiful – like sweets… or gems and they’re affordable. Can we justify spending £10?

Overall, I think there’s a lot to be said for sensual bottles (and I think in this gargantuan post, I’ve said it ALL). The one thing that these bottles have in common is that they have a beautiful story attached to each which allows me to feel as if I could own something rare and special and pass the story and the bottle on someday. There’s a lot to be said for heritage and it’ s a million miles away from rushed duty free shopping.

Oh and P.S. Does the bottle shape matter to you at all when you go fragrance shopping? I’m wondering if it’s only me?  Now which one shall I bring home?

Linda Bee, Stand L18-20,Gray’s Antique’s Market, 58 Davies Street & 1-7 Davies Mews
London, W1K 5AB (Tel: 020 7629 592).