96 Columbia Road must surely be London's best kept fragrance secret. A cosy shop decorated with Venetian masks, Rajasthani puppets and antique European furniture, it's one of only two places in the world - the other being a mile away - that sells the work of Angela Flanders, a self-taught perfumer who's been bottling her fragrant creations for over 20 years.
Of the 40+ scents bearing her name, I’ve had the pleasure of wearing about six or seven, and if I had to pick one phrase to describe them, it would probably be ‘endearingly imperfect’. I know the notion that flaws are oh-so-interesting has become something of a cliche in the artisanal world, but it’s actually quite helpful when applied to Ms Flanders' efforts. Many of them are rough around the edges, gently unfinished, as though their creator didn't want to diminish their core ideas with endless tinkering. Think of slightly wobbly icing on a cake sold in an independent (and independently-minded) cafe. Far from putting you off your food, it reassures you that what you're about to eat wasn't made by patisserie androids mixing ingredients in a hermetically sealed cooking pod.
This hand-crafted feel is prevalent in Ambre Noir, an unguent, animalic mix of woods and resins that benefits from being left unpolished. Ambers are a curious fragrance family. Most perfume houses have released one and, as you’d expect, many of them smell similar to each other... at least on paper. On skin, they perform in all sorts of unexpected ways. The very same amber can appear overly vanillic on one person, whilst on another, it radiates excessive amounts of coriander, or cardamom, or even oregano. To my nose, Ambre Noir combines its musky, sweet labdanum base with a note of… wait for it… dried dill. And I’m pleased to say it works rather well, in a grown-up, unfussy sort of way. Give it a try if you enjoy Hammam Bouquet or Absolue Pour Le Soir.
Religious allegiances notwithstanding, those of you who've seen Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ will probably agree that there’s a very palpable quality about the film, a powerful sense of the physicality of the Middle Eastern dust between the characters’ toes and the droplets of sweat on their tanned forearms. This sense of tangible real-ness is precisely what Ms Flanders has captured in Oudh Noir, a bitter, mildly camphoraceous presentation of woods, notable for two facts: it was released in 2007 (a few years before the start of agarwood mania) and it presents its eponymous ingredient without a hint of sweetness. Sadly, it dispenses with the oud note quite rapidly and settles into a linear patchouli, but its heart takes you on a trek through a north African desert that’s so convincing, you find yourself longing for a snack of dates and chilled yoghurt.
My personal favourite is Lily Of The Valley (2002). As has been well-documented elsewhere, tightening restrictions on the use of lyral, lilial and hydroxycitronellal have now made it almost impossible for perfumers to recreate everyone’s most beloved spring flower. But somehow or other, Ms Flanders has pulled off the almost impossible. Although it isn’t Diorissimo (but hey, neither’s Diorissimo), her creation passes the Persolaise Personal Association test: one sniff, and I’m back in the early 80s, standing in a florist’s on the intersection of Czerniakowska and Gagarina in Warsaw, overwhelmed by the scent of delicate, white bells. Lily of the valley perfumes need a certain bulbous earthiness to make them convincing, and whilst this one doesn’t contain the bold – but entirely appropriate – civet note of Roudnitska’s original formulation, it’s sufficiently grounded and rooty to convince my nose that it’s the real deal.
There’s no doubt that some AF scents are more enjoyable than others. Caspian (1987) elicited a nostalgic chuckle from me. With its soapy, transparent woods, bright lavender and hefty dose of citrus notes, it immediately made me think: ‘Cool Water clone.’ But my respect for it increased when I discovered that it was released a year before Pierre Bourdon’s monster hit. It’s less sophisticated than the Davidoff and could probably do with being trimmed from the line, but perhaps Ms Flanders keeps it on for its nostalgia value. I found the bergamot aspect of Earl Grey’s (1994) chypre-like construction a touch too crude. Bouquet D’Amour (2002) and Moroccan Rose (2003), whilst offering respectable takes on traditional florals (tuberose in the case of the former; self-explanatory in the latter), didn’t strike me as being especially memorable.
However, when taken as a whole, the collection at Columbia Road is a must-try for any perfume fan seeking respite from High Street predictability. It's authentic, heartfelt, full of integrity and it serves as a useful reminder that the perfume world consists of more than just those well-known brands whose names are endlessly recycled in magazines and on blogs.
[Angela Flanders' shop (96 Columbia Road, London E2 7QB) is open only on Sundays or by appointment; her perfumes are also sold at Precious, 16 Artillery Passage, London E1 7LJ. Samples may be purchased through her website. Reviews based on samples obtained in 2011; fragrances tested on skin.]
I'm pleased to offer one lucky Persolaise reader a small sample of Lily Of The Valley from my personal collection. To enter the draw, please leave a comment on the subject of unknown perfumes. Are there any hidden gems out there which you've had the good fortune to discover?
Give-Away Draw Terms & Conditions:
i) the draw will be open until 10 pm (UK time) on Thursday 26th May; ii) the winner will be selected at random and announced on this blog; iii) if the winner has not made contact with me before Thursday 2nd June in order to claim his/her prize, an alternative winner will be selected; iv) readers from anywhere in the world are eligible to enter; v) by entering the draw, you indicate that you are willing to pay customs charges (if applicable) and that customs regulations in your country permit you to receive an alcohol-based perfume / perfumery product posted from the UK; vi) if the prize is lost in transit, it will not be possible for a replacement to be sent; vii) the address of the winner will not be kept on record, nor will it be passed on to any third parties; viii) I take no responsibility for the composition of the perfume, as regards potential allergens and/or restricted materials.