Monday, 7 June 2010

Relatively Mainstream

One thing I never take for granted is my wife's patience. During our brief pop into France, we had to go into every single - and boy, do I mean every single - perfume shop we passed, but the smile on the face of Madame Persolaise did not waver for an instant. It was great revisiting old classics with her, particularly the Guerlains, like Vol De Nuit and Après L'Ondée. I shattered the peaceful atmosphere of one branch of Douglas with my laughter when I made her smell my Jicky-scented wrist. "That's got that poo stuff, hasn't it?" she said, her face curled up with revulsion. After a few minutes, when the initial civet blast had calmed itself, she conceded that the world's oldest fragrance does somehow manage to smell pleasant and stink at the same time.

I had a few sprays of Dior's latest - Escale Aux Marquises - which is currently a Harrods exclusive in the UK. I've got tremendous admiration for the relaxed elegance of Escale À Pondichéry, and I think Escale À Portofino works very well as a citrus cologne, but my initial reaction to Marquises was disappointment; it seemed quite pale and thin in comparison to its radiant predecessors. Perhaps I shouldn't jump to conclusions just yet and give it another chance when it becomes more widely available in Britain.

I could go on at great length about the joys of scent-browsing in France, but the main thought that struck me during this last visit was to do with French buyers' own perception of their endless rows of Sephoras and Marionnauds. In the UK, my closest half-decent perfumery is the Southampton branch of John Lewis: it stocks the main Guerlains, Diors and Chanels; it has a fairly extensive range of brands like Cartier, Davidoff and Issey Miyake; and it even manages to find some shelf space for L'Artisan ParfumeurTom Ford and Aqua Di Parma. But even though it seems moderately impressive in a non-London UK context, it looks pretty pathetic next to an ordinary Douglas in a normal French town. For instance, while I was in Southampton the other day, I tried to buy a bottle of Shalimar body cream and was told that such "special products" are available only in the run-up to Christmas. And when I asked if they had the eau de parfum of Habit Rouge, the look I got from the salesperson suggested I'd just shoved a calculus exam under her nose. Both those products were available in abundance in all the French perfumeries I walked into, and I think it's pretty safe to make the generalisation that the scent buyer is offered many more options in France than he or she is in Britain (although I confess I'm not aware if that statement also applies to buying online).

Having said that, I wonder if French people consider themselves blessed with sufficient olfactory choices. Firstly, most of their shops carry the same stock. There are minor exceptions, of course: for instance, only one establishment I entered stocked Vetiver Extreme; only one had the parfum of Poison; only one had a Serge Lutens stand... and so on. That's what makes it worthwhile popping into more than one shop, but essentially, all their stock is the same. Secondly, there don't seem to be any independent perfumeries left any more. I may be wrong: perhaps they're still there, but they've just moved away from tourist haunts. That's certainly what seems to have happened with the traiteurs: about a decade ago, most of them were smack in the middle of town; now, you're obliged to hunt them out. And thirdly, no-one seems to sell niche brands. Where do French people go when they want to sample something by Frederic Malle, Montale or Amouage? Even Comme Des Garçons couldn't be found anywhere, and they're not exactly niche. Are French fragrance fans bemoaning what they might perceive to be the poor state of the retail perfume market or do they look upon their shops with the same glee and excitement experienced by a visitor who's sailed across the Channel? Do French people complain about all the most interesting stock being concentrated in Paris, in the same way that Brits might complain about the dominance of London? Has Sephora reduced everything to the lowest common denominator?

I would genuinely appreciate any comments from readers with a more intimate knowledge of France, as I would love to know the answers to my questions... although regardless of what those answers may be, I'd still return to any French town at the drop of a hat.

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