I had my first brush with London’s Perfuminati on Tuesday evening at the Coming to My Senses: Reading, Conversation and Sniffing event featuring the book’s author, Alyssa Harad, and hosted by Persolaise. I arrived about half an hour prior to when the event was scheduled to begin because I wanted to grab a seat close to where Alyssa would be speaking as I was planning to record the Q&A portion of the event on my iPhone and as it was my first time doing this (and as someone who is perpetually disappointed by the seeming limitations of modern technology) I wanted to be certain the app I had downloaded would be close enough to record clearly.
The full transcript of the Q&A with Persolaise and audience is available below my babbling 🙂
Alyssa greeted me as I entered the upstairs portion of the pub, and I immediately felt completely put at ease by her warm, welcoming aura. I had inadvertently emailed her a week prior to the event asking if it would be all right for me to cover on the blog to which she answered very encouragingly on the same day. She invited me to sit down with her and we spoke briefly about my budding interest in exploring perfume and writing about my experience, which I am documenting on this blog. She asked me about the types of perfumes I enjoyed the most and then she introduced me to the scent she wore on her wedding day, Annick Goutal’s Songes, which I found absolutely dreamy.
I snuck off to my seat as more people filed in. The group seemed very friendly and open and I got the feeling that they were a close knit, niche group of people all brought together through their love of fragrance which I liked very much. They all greeted one another very warmly which created a wonderful atmosphere for me attending my first perfume event.
To be honest that is the sort of mindset I went into it with, but then it came to take on a new significance for me because I began to relate to so much to Alyssa’s story about how she had become a sort of fangirl to many of the blogs about perfume she had been reading. I mean I was sitting in the same room as Tara from Olfactoria’s Travels whose reviews I have been reading and enjoying for ages now! My eyes light up with excitement when I find updates from The Black Narcissus, whose descriptions of his experiences with fragrances have left me feeling emotionally moved. Do I feel a kinship with his search for beauty and glamour and meaning in fragrances and arguably every day existence?? Yes absolutely! I look for poetry in everything, even where I shouldn’t. Am I a tiny bit obsessed with Lemon Wedge, the enigmatic author of Les Senteurs’ Aroma Folio?? Definitely! (Who are you, Mr Wedge!?) I read these marvelous musings on perfume and fragrance, and they have lead me to appreciate perfume in a totally different way than I have before. I feel no less moved by their writing than by that of some of my favorite authors and songwriters.
My love affair with perfume is perhaps different from Alyssa’s in that I never really felt a stigma towards thoroughly enjoying perfume, beginning with hanging out in shopping malls in Small Town, Ohio to now sampling luxury, niche olfactory masterpieces in some of London’s finest boutiques, because of our varying backgrounds; however, I am now embarking on this journey (sounds so x-factor) to really understand what I love in perfumes and maybe on a deeper level, why.
The night before Coming to My Senses, I did a bit of research and found two incredible interviews with Alyssa, one with Spike Gillespie and another with Elisa Gabbert. In the interview with Spike Gillespie, Alyssa says, “we’re talking about scent memories and the way they see themselves walking through the world. It usually goes much deeper than ‘do you like this?’”, which really struck me. I think that almost every day when I am dressing. Who do I want to be today?? And fragrance is very much a part of that. To me, perfume is the first thing I put on and the last thing left on at the end of the day.
In Elisa Gabbert’s interview with her, Alyssa says “that perfume can be an archive of scents from their lives. It’s very emotional.” I have this relationship with perfumes as well. I think of fragrances I have worn and am transported back to different times in my life, different places I had lived or a different boyfriend, etc. Towards the end of the evening during the Q&A, when jokingly asked about her favorite perfume Alyssa said “I believe very strongly that perfume is about context. It’s not the best perfume. It’s the best perfume for you in that moment with those other people in that landscape.”
I found the issues explored in her book, Coming to My Senses, from which she read three excerpts, and the issues discussed during the Q&A, such as ideas regarding femininity, feminism, and even gender, incredibly thought provoking. Alyssa is a very engaging and fascinating speaker, and she told us candidly how she accidentally became an author essentially because of her zeal and enthusiasm and love for this new world of perfume that she had discovered.
After the Q&A we moved on to sampling the fragrances Alyssa had brought with her which are either mentioned in the book or especially significant to her, which had us all passing round blotters and leaning across tables to sniff each others’ wrists, marveling over how a particular perfume could smell one way on me and appreciating it in a completely different way on the person sitting across from me.
Alyssa shared with us a vintage sample of Joy, Lanvin’s Scandale in vintage parfum, and a vintage Guerlain Mitsouko parfum, which was my first experience with either of these fragrances. I found Mitsouko’s peach delicacy so beautiful.
She introduced us to Botrytis, a perfume from the French wine company, Ginestet, which she had read about to us in one of the earlier excerpts from her book. Botrytis is actually named after a black mold that kills roses, but is also known as the “noble rot” which attacks semi-old grapes and turns them into, for the very lucky, Sauterne. However the perfume version is a very warm, mouth watering, “October light” blend of honey, dried fruits, white flowers and amber.
I again sampled Alyssa’s intoxicating sample of Songes eau de parfum, which Alyssa described as being slightly different than the current version of Songes which Alyssa explained “is also very beautiful but much less jasmine and much less sandalwood sadly.”
In the final chapter of her book, Alyssa goes in search for the vintage version of her mother’s Femme Rochas, created by the very famous perfumer Edmond Roudniska, also responsible for Dior’s Diorissimo and Eau Sauvage. She brought the vintage parfum with her for us to sample.
“This was my mother’s signature perfume. It was reformulated, I think in the 80’s. She was given a bottle by a Texas heiress when she was working as a waitress at a resort in the mountains in New England. This was like the only luxury in her life and she very carefully metered it out over the years so that by the time she ran out she was in her 40’s with two kids and the perfume had disappeared.”
The evening soon came to a close with Alyssa sending us off with sachets of perfume samples (mine included Oud from Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Carven Le Parfum, and Fashion Decree from Atkinsons which I had been wanting to try. Sometimes the name alone is enough to pique my curiosity : p ) and Persolaise bidding us adieu to “go forth and make London smell beautiful”, and I can assure you, dear reader, the Metropolitan Line never smelled better.
(Please note that neither Alyssa nor Persolaise are affiliated with any of the brands mentioned in the above paragraph.)
Transcript of the evening’s Q&A with Persolaise and members of the audience:
Persolaise: I wanted to ask you about but obviously our time is limited. There are lots of different aspects of the book I would like to be able to cover. You tell us about your journey as a perfume fan and a contributor to all of these blogs, but the first thing I am actually most curious about is how did the book come about?
Alyssa Harad: Oh gosh by accident. I never intended to write a memoir and never in a million years would I have thought anyone would be interested enough in me to buy this book. What happened was I was an obsessed fangirl. I was reading all of these blogs, and I knew there were a couple of books that were about to come out, one by Chandler Burr and one by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. I had feminist resentment that all of these ladies I knew who were writing so well for free were not being paid and paid attention to. I decided that I would create an anthology of all of my favorite blog posts, and it would be a kind of guide to how and why you should fall in love with perfume.
I put that project together, and it got me an agent, and it kind of got me going. The agent set up some meetings with editors, and then most of my participants jumped ship. So I had a very interesting week in New York, where I would get up at five in the morning, and I would begin to write a new proposal that we were giving to the editors. Then at Noon I would shower and we would go and meet with editors, and I would try to seduce them into believing that perfume was a worthy subject for a book. Then I would go home to my little apartment that I was borrowing and continue writing the proposal.
So what happened was they saw a proposal that had much much more of my writing in it. I was supposed to just be borrowing from people’s archives and instead I had to create content. So in the end that project didn’t sell, but the editors were, to my shock, interested in me and my writing. Somebody wanted me to write a novel about my experience, and another person wanted me to write a memoir, and one editor actually said, “give me a proposal, and I will see what I can do.” And I said, “sure, no problem. I’ll have it to you in a few days.” And then a year later I had a proposal. And by that time she was editing a book written by one of the New Jersey housewives.
P: So the impetus, the idea, came from you originally.
AH: Well it came from the editors. I was too scared to be an author. I wanted to be an editor.
P: You’ve already read the passage in which your circle of friends, your circle of acquaintances, considered perfume to be this alien thing that only other people wore. I grew up in a culture where absolutely everybody doused themselves in perfume constantly all the time. What’s your personal explanation for how that happened in your corner of the United States that people were so anti-perfume?
AH: I think that a lot of it has to do in Austin with people’s obsession with authenticity, which is a very bizarre, it’s like the hipsters have this partnership between authenticity and irony that I don’t really understand, where everything is ironic but also everything has to be natural. You know if you’re going to be ironic why not just go ahead and be a drag queen. You know just go there! But they don’t. I think people are a little scared of artifice, and of drama, and of fabulousness. That they just don’t know how to do it.
In my particular circles the emphasis is on saving the world. So perfume is something that is so obviously a high end, well not all of perfume is a high end luxury product. We can have another conversation about class, which would be very interesting, because the more I got into this the more I found that it was my working class in-laws and friends who really understood perfume and often were collectors or their parents were. My husband is Mexican-American and his family is from both sides of the border along Texas. For a lot of his relatives, a little dab of perfume or cologne means that you are dressed. That is how you present yourself to the world. So this fear of being too much or overpowering people, which I think is more common in my circle, doesn’t play there. In my very earnest, sort of activist circle, it was just kind of like you don’t blow dry your hair, and you don’t wear high heels, and you don’t wear perfume because that’s what those other people do.
There is this idea that perfume is made of chemicals. That it’s fake. That it’s harsh. That it’s overwhelming. Have any of these people ever actually smelled any perfume? Very few. Are they putting essential oils on their skin that break down into toxic things? Yes, they are. So there’s a lot of ignorance. I was ignorant in exactly that way so I can’t blame them.
P: You identify yourself as a feminist. You say in the book that you plunged down the perfume rabbit hole when you were in your mid 30’s. Do you think that as a feminist you would have been able to commit yourself to enjoy perfume if you’d been in your mid 30’s about 20 or 30 years ago? Would the feminism of those days have allowed you to write a book like this?
AH: Gosh that is such an interesting question. So you mean like smack in the 1970’s?
P: Or maybe 80’s, I don’t know.
AH: Well in the 80’s everybody was wearing perfume, right? In the 80’s you could be a feminist and have hair out to here, and shoulder pads out to here, and stripes of make up on your face and you probably put on Poison at like 7:00 AM and then lit up your cigarette and went to work. The 80’s, in the U.S. at least, was a very smelly time. I think that women especially were comfortable with taking up a lot of space, and that was partly an after-effect of the feminism in the 70’s. You had women who were very ambitious, you had more women in the workplace, so you had more women that were anxious about their femininity in a new way and needed to sort of brand themselves. But you also had a lot of drugs and clubbing, and I think it was just a very manic moment.
In the 70’s, I think the emphasis was on naturalness. So there was a lot of patchouli oil. But the 70’s was still a very important time for really fantastic perfume. So I wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t know. Maybe I would have been a less earnest person in the 70’s. I hope so. I really do think that most of my non-perfume life has to do with my earnestness more than anything else. This desire to be the best kind of rule follower in my particular set.
P: Always doing your homework, you said.
AH: And always doing my homework.
P: I mentioned earlier that you have this sort of sub-plot in the book about a transgendered friend. I was just wondering what made you decided that his story would be relevant in your book and was it a difficult decision to make to include him in the book.
AH: I really wanted to include him. In the book what happens, and in life what happened, that at just this point when I was becoming more and more femme, my friend was getting closer and closer to transitioning to male. We were both on these tracks where gender was very important to us, and I was very interested in that, and I really do see this book as being as much about femininity and pleasure as it is about perfume. It was something that happened to me that was really important that changed a lot of how I saw the world. And so I wanted to include that story. But it is also something that was very personal that happened to my friend, and so I did a lot of talking to him about it at every stage. The story that you get is a much abbreviated and much simpler story. And you know his story is not done. For example, sometimes he is she now so that story has continued and our friendship is complex and you don’t get the whole thing. But I was really glad that he gave me permission to at least tell my part of it. I think part of what it did is it’s very difficult to write about girliness without making it sound like you are just getting more and more normal. Like you are moving towards some more approved fit. Fitting in more and more into society and you are in some ways. But if you live in my world, which is a world full of queer theory and multiply gendered people, then being high femme is just one flavor among many things that you can be, and it’s just as artificial and real as everything else. That’s part of what I wanted to be able to address by telling that story.
P: Did you get any negative reactions from your feminist friends?
AH: Not that they told me. I’m sure somebody doesn’t like it, but they haven’t written to me about it.
P: Men are kind of necessarily on the periphery of your book. Would you say that they are also disconnected from their sensual selves in the same way that some women are?
AH: Oh god, yes! I mean, straight guys, poor babies, right? Maybe if they loosened up a little bit there wouldn’t be so many problems!
P: Around the world? In Syria?
AH: Seriously! I mean, I didn’t mean that, but yeah maybe! A lot of people want to know if my husband ever got into perfume. A little bit. In this very like curious kind of tentative, tender way.
Another excerpt from the book is read.
Q: When I read the first couple of chapters of the book, something stuck out to me. You introduced perfumes to people who hadn’t worn them before, and I remember you mentioned a documentary film-maker has a boozy amber. I love amber. I just wonder what it was.
AH: She read the first couple chapters, and she noticed that I had to do this thing in self defence where I individually seduced each of my closest friends into perfume so that they wouldn’t reject me. I mentioned a boozy amber that I found for this documentary film-maker and the name of the perfume is Ambre Russe from Parfums D’Empire.
Just so you guys know for the future, if you do happen to read the book, I do leave a lot of the names out which drives people crazy but most of them you can find on my blog. You can always just tweet at me if you have a question.
Q: You set up a kind of perfume group where you would get together. We have just set up the Perfume Society in England, launched on Sunday, and we have people signing up to set up their own local perfume groups. And I want to know what was the activity that they liked to do the most.
AH: I went to a sort of scent salon in the book, and she has just set up a web site called the Perfume Society that encourages people to form perfume groups and she wanted to know what kinds of activities we enjoyed.
The thing that I was involved in was very strange and maybe not applicable to what you’re doing. What happens to me after I become obsessed, I meet this guy who’s living in this dilapidated Victorian half a mile from my house, who scent is like a religion for him. He actually has a kind of theology about it. How it’s the most basic and important means of communication on earth. Supposedly he is writing a novel, but he has been writing this novel for a very long time. He’s done a lot of research, like maybe 25 years or so, and he has stuffed in this house all of these really rare essences. Like stuff that is not even supposed to exist anymore. So I’d say things like, “do you have any ambergris?”, and he’d say, “oh sure. I think that is over there behind the refrigerator.” He was obsessed with language. How do you describe smells, and he convened these salons where writers and artists and basically whoever was willing to tolerate him and his craziness would come and we would smell like 40 different expressions of vanilla. He called them expressions. He would sit at the head of the table and he would read to us from different books and kind of lecture us about the sex life of a vanilla orchid, and where else you can find the smell of vanilla, and the history of benzoin and the drug trade, and whatever else came to his mind.
We would write down words to describe the different versions of the scent. Then we would compare them all. So I basically had the most amazing writer’s training ever by going to this salon and it was really helpful. Then after a while he got upset that people weren’t serious enough and he threw everybody out except for me and two other ladies who were helping him. We got together with two other people and we did a more serious smaller version where we used parts of Mandy Aftel’s correspondence course to get to know to a smaller set of essences and did some very basic blending just to see how things played together. I do think people find comparison very helpful because they don’t have a lot of comparisons in their head, and they like to see the different facets of something and to feel like their vocabulary is building. And I think everybody loves to blend and play and feel like they’re making something.
Q: One thing I find most interesting in the book is about the sense of what’s accepted in different communities and the idea of what we consider feminine to be acceptable to certain degrees in different kind of areas. So I just found myself wondering now what the process of publishing the book did in terms of that. Were there still moments where you felt you were kind of exposing your interest in frilly fragrance?
AH: The question is, a lot of the book is about, and what we have been talking about tonight, what’s acceptable in different communities in terms of femininity and pleasure. A lot of the book is about me in these stages of coming out as a perfumista. Catherine was wondering did that process continue after the book came out. Were there more moments of feeling exposed.
I think right at the beginning it was very intense. In fact it was so intense I am having trouble recalling it so that I can talk to you about it right now. Because it is the most bizarre thing writing a book that you want very badly for everybody to read it, and that you start out hoping there will be a contract and that it will sell, and yet you spend all of your time by yourself writing it. So when it does actually come out your feeling is “how did everybody get that book”!? It makes no sense at all! And yet that is what we all feel. My secret is out in the world! There was that kind of exposure that I think most writers have some version of.
But you know what actually instead of feeling more exposed in some ways I felt relief because I had written so honestly about myself that I didn’t have to worry about being someone I wasn’t when I showed up to the events. I had written about being overweight, I had written about being rumpled, I had written being awkward, I had written about all of it. I didn’t feel the urge or need to be the high femme version of myself that will only ever exist in my head.
P: Have you got an all time favorite perfume, Alyssa, or is that just a stupid question?
AH: That’s a stupid question, and you should know better than to ask it. If I asked you you would feel the same way, right? Or maybe you don’t. Do you have a favorite perfume?
P: No, I could probably give you a top five, but I don’t think I could give you one.
AH: Let me think about that. So many people ask me for top 10 lists because this book was something that got picked up by the glamour magazines. And boy they love numbers! They love lists. “Give us the top 10 classic perfumes of all time!” I’m a PhD! I can’t do that! There’s so many ways to answer that question! There’s that part of me that just like can’t narrow things down, but also I believe very strongly that perfume is about context. It’s not the best perfume. It’s the best perfume for you in that moment with those other people in that landscape. I have perfumes that I have memories of them being the most gorgeous perfect thing and then I don’t wear them again for another year and a half because that moment has passed. But I will always want that bottle to be around.