Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Smell Of Your Soul - Persolaise Visits The Fragrance Lab At Selfridges London

image: Hufton + Crow

It turns out I'd got it all wrong. When I agreed to delve into Selfridges' Fragrance Lab - part of their current Beauty Project - I thought I'd be subjected to a familiar, albeit slick, 'olfactory personality' profiling routine which would then recommend one of the products in the store's massive perfume department as my ideal scent. I approached my appointment with a list of sceptical questions. Which brands had agreed to take part? More importantly, which ones hadn't? Who were the the real powers behind this enterprise? What were they trying to achieve? And how could the whole experience be anything more than a beautifully orchestrated exercise in PR?

Well, as soon as I arrived at the all-white enclosure - an 80s music video's take on a chemistry lab, complete with see-through, plastic curtains and industrial shelving units - I discovered that I'd completely mis-judged what the process' outcome would be. I wasn't going to be recommended a scent from the perfume department. In fact, I wasn't going to be recommended any commercially-available scent at all. My responses would be used to select one of several perfumes put together specifically for the Fragrance Lab by Givaudan, world leaders in the creation of new-fangled aromachemicals. Crucially, the system wasn't designed to offer me my ideal scent, but a substance purporting to be my "character distilled into scent," which is something rather different. I would walk away from the lab with a 50 ml bottle of the stuff, and I was told that if I fell in love with it so much that I wanted more of it, I'd have only until the end of June - which is when the Beauty Project ends - to replenish my supply. So the pressure was on to get things right.

The profiling itself was fascinating, but I'm loath to reveal much about it, as its impact relies on the power of surprise. It started in fairly innocuous fashion with a brief session on an iPad in which I was invited to work my way through a multiple-choice questionnaire. But the subjects to which I was asked to respond were far removed from the usual territory of scent profile systems. In fact, if memory serves, in this segment of the process, there wasn't a single query about smells. I wasn't asked about whether I enjoy, say, the piercing brightness of cut grass or the warm fuzz of coffee. There was absolutely no mention of any branded perfumes. I wasn't even probed on my favourite movies, food or holiday destinations (de rigueur for most fragrance consultation systems). The emphasis was on the visual, but that didn't make the experience any easier to grasp. Indeed, I chuckled out loud with bewilderment at one of the questions: I was presented with the letter 'A' in three different typefaces and my task was to choose which one was the most accurate reflection of my personality. Some of the other images were even more bizarre. At one point, I had to choose between various pictures of hands, watermelons and arrangements of rocks.

Then came the second, even more stimulating segment, but at this point, I really do think I'd be doing you a disservice if I dished out any spoilers. Suffice it to say that several unexpected elements were involved, including a soporific voice coming through headphones, a walk through a few mysterious rooms, a pungent chest of drawers (watch out for the civet!) and an opportunity to sniff samples in a 'scent garden' straight out of a Kubrickian fantasy.

image: Hufton + Crow

Finally, I had the revelation: how does my personality translate into olfactory language? Again, I won't go into great detail - I'm convinced this experience is best left as private as possible - but I will tell you that Madame Persolaise literally laughed out loud with recognition when I informed her about the opening line of my profile: "You are highly analytical and attention to detail is extremely important to you." And as for the perfume that spells 'me'... well, this is when things got really spooky. Describing the experience to my wife over the phone, I said to her, "If you had to choose a single note or ingredient which really is 'me' in perfume form, what would it be?"

She didn't hesitate for one moment. "Frankincense," she said.

And that's exactly the conclusion that was reached by the Fragrance Lab, even though I hadn't answered any overt questions or made any comments about smells or perfume, except for a few, brief responses towards the very end of the profiling process.

As if that weren't fascinating enough, the specific incense perfume selected to convey my personality - number 167 in the Fragrance Lab's arsenal - is accented with a violet note and an unmistakable layer of coppery metal. The former represents my love of classical, old-school aesthetics, whereas the latter conveys my willingness to embrace the odd, the unconventional and the futuristic. In other words, when you translate 'mildly New Age-y vintage lover, unafraid of making non-conformist statements' into perfume-speak, you get: frankincense + violets + metal.

image: Hufton + Crow

Now, I'm not entirely convinced that perfume number 167 is a faultless execution of this particular idea: the violet is perhaps a touch too sweet and as the composition approaches its drydown, the seams between the vanillic materials and the overly synthetic, thorny woods begin to show. I suspect the juice is dirt cheap. But that almost doesn't matter. The point is the concept. And as a character assessment gleaned in the space of about 20 minutes from a subject who hasn't had to do a great deal of work, it's quite startling.

Needless to say, on a different day, I might have been in a different mood, which means I might have responded differently to the iPad which might, in turn, have yielded a different profile. It would be intriguing to run through the whole thing again, several weeks from now, to see what the outcome would be. I'm also suspicious of how flattering the profile was: a string of superlatives can be extremely persuasive if presented to a captive audience. Mind you, maybe the most self-centred parts of my ego chose to see the descriptors in my profile as superlatives precisely because they were a pretty accurate reflection of me. How's that for psychoanalytical circular logic? And then there's also the question of exactly how many scents Givaudan have created for the lab. My genial, white-coated hosts refused to be pinned down on a specific number: all I could get out of them was "a few dozen". Of course, that could mean 24 - in which case I'd say the tool is rather blunt - or it could mean 60 - which would certainly allow for a sharper incision into one's psyche.

However, these niggles don't spoil the whole. I would be lying by omission if I didn't say that I found the 30-minute session thought-provoking, compelling and downright enjoyable from start to finish. Yes, £65 isn't peanuts. But if you like the idea of gaining a genuinely unique glimpse into your personality and you fancy 50 mls of a perfume which is unavailable anywhere else in the world and which probably contains cutting-edge ingredients, then this is a no-brainer: make an appointment now.

[The Fragrance Lab is a collaboration between Selfridges and The Future Laboratory and Campaign. It offers two services. The 'Express' consultation is free. It allows you to answer the iPad questionnaire, after which you are given a basic profile as well as an opportunity to smell your recommended perfume, which you can then buy for £65. The 'Immersive' consultation is the one described above. It costs £65, which covers the iPad questionnaire, the extended profiling system (which is then used to fine-tune the results of the questionnaire) as well as a bottle of your recommended perfume. The Fragrance Lab will be open at Selfridges London until 27th June 2014. For more information, please click here. Do watch the video below: it's self-congratulatory, but it does provide a few interesting peeks behind the scenes of this unusual project.]

Persolaise



24 comments:

  1. Now that is intriguing; I wish I could participate too.

    Congratulations to Madame Persolaise, of course, for knowing what your single fragrance ingredient would be - what a shrewd and perceptive lady, and she didn't charge you for the information either:-)

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anna, I reckon if the Lab turns out to be a hit at Selfridges, all sorts of similar ideas might pop in other places... so you may have a chance to participate.

      Delete
  2. What an incredibly interesting concept! I like the thought that they don't ask the usual "run of the mill" questions that you'd expect and which could make the experience seem bland and somewhat lacking. I must say, as I've been watching the TV series "Mr Selfridge" here in the US, it fits in with the Selfridge background of innovative and different! Thanks for sharing your results :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. SallyM, thanks for stopping by. Yes, the Lab certainly isn't run of the mill!

      Delete
  3. I heard about this and wasn't sure so thanks for writing about it. Now I've decided I'm going to do it! I actually don't think £65 for the consultation plus a bottle of fragrance (regardless of how good/bad it is) is that bad. In fact, for Selfridges I thought it was rather cheap!

    Jo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jo, yes, you're right, by the standards of Selfridges, £65 isn't shocking. But I guess the difference here is that you don't know what you're going to get for your money, which might make people think twice before parting with their cash.

      If you do go ahead with a consultation, come back to let us know what your perfume's like.

      Delete
    2. Will do - can't wait to see what the verdict is!

      Jo

      Delete
    3. I said I would come back and say how it turned out so here I am! I went yesterday (so I could catch the Thierry Wasser talk on the same day) and I was pretty pleased with the result.

      I got 158 which has top notes of pink peppercorn, coconut and fig, heart notes of nutmeg, ylang ylang and pimento and base notes of coffee, vanilla and tonka. As soon as I saw the notes I was impressed - it is just the kind of thing I would be drawn to normally (always on reflection I'm not sure if that's good or bad!). The personal analysis was pretty good 'although you have quite an ordered and analytical mind, you love moments of escapism and indulgence (albeit planned weeks in advance)' was laughable because, I have to admit, quite true! However, it also kept insisting on my love of exotic escapes and holiday memories which I think came from the item I selected from one of the rooms which was I think mis-analysed. I haven't actually been abroad for 7 or 8 years (I do love coconut in all its forms though!) and have never been an exotic holidays type.

      Anyway, I loved all the rooms - I wish I had been given me more time to explore and that is my main criticism. I love immersive theatre events and that sort of thing so for I would recommend it for that alone (getting visions of fragrance theme parks as I type!). I don't have the best nose and I've only worn 158 once so I won't go into detail but the fragrance itself is very figgy to start (though more dusty than green). It's quite weak unfortunately which is a shame but it has an old bookish smell to it which is quite pleasing and very me.

      Jo

      Delete
    4. Jo, thanks very much for taking the time to write such a detailed account. I know what you mean about being rushed through the rooms, but I think part of the point is that they don't want people to have time to over-think things.

      Oh, and what did you make of the Wasser event? I was there too.

      Delete
    5. I really enjoyed the talk. Maybe I booked so long ago that I forgot what it was all about but I didn't realise it would be so focused on sustainability and fragrance. It was eye-opening to me, but (and I suspect I wouldn't have been alone in the audience on this) I would have liked a bit more on himself, on scents in general and perhaps the history of Guerlain and any current developments (I was, perhaps optimistically, hoping for some exciting news).

      My heart skipped when Thierry mentioned having formulated many of the discontinued Guerlains... bitterly disappointed to hear he was keeping them to himself - I think I'd die happy with a lung full of Djedi!

      Oh yes, and the Moet megaphones were ridiculous. Call me unsophisticated but surely the truly debonair way of drinking good champagne would be swigging it like a beer!

      Jo

      Delete
    6. Jo, yes, the Moet thing was certainly... interesting. I had a few sips, but I couldn't quite shake off the taste of cheap plastic.

      As for the talk, I think Wasser makes an excellent interview subject. He manages to be both diplomatic and individualistic, which is a rare combination.

      By the way, you could probably smell the reconstituted Djedi at the flagship boutique in Paris.

      Delete
    7. Yes, he certainly wasn't worried about speaking his mind - he was a waspish but with humour and generous to the audience when it came to Q&A. I will be quoting him on flankers every time I see one from now on!

      Thanks - I really must book my trip - I have been planning a Smellodyssey to Paris for ages (so long it's got its own name!).

      PS - Thanks for responding to my comments and thanks for the great blog!

      Jo

      Delete
    8. Jo, there's no need to thank me for responding :-) I should be thanking YOU for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I'm long overdue a Paris trip too!

      Delete
  4. Good to hear your take; thanks for the report. I did it a couple of weeks back and found it entertaining enough. My perfume was #168, which starts out as cookie dough dipped in lime and ends up as Spicebomb. Given that gourmand is my least favorite perfume category, I was disappointed, but it was still a fun experience. I ended up buying Cuir Cannage on the way out :)

    K

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kristen, first of all: well done on picking up the Dior.

      As for the Lab, yes, I think the experience is the key, rather than the final perfume itself.

      Delete
  5. Thank you for this article-it's really interesting. It's amazing they chose that particular combination for you-i wonder how it will wear on you, and if you decided to buy another bottle. I watched the Mr Selfridge series too, and enjoyed it, and I agree this fits in with the tradition of innovation of Mr Selfridge.
    Have a good afternoon,

    Carole

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Carole, thanks for stopping by. I haven't decided to buy another bottle, but then 50 ml is quite a lot for me. It'll probably last a life time :-)

      Delete
  6. This sounds... cute. Harmless, mostly, and a bit of fun. I'll save my money for perfume.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Leathermountain, yes, it was pretty harmless. And I certainly wouldn't advise you against saving money for a perfume you know you'll like.

      Delete
  7. I did it with my mother and it picked out a tuberosey white floral for both of us. More blowsy in my mother's case and lighter in mine. Unfortunately tuberose is far from my favourite smell so I could then choose between the 5 or so also-rans and ended up with a modernist thing with only aroma chemicals listed in the notes. Interestingly I also had the fig/coconut option (probably my 2 other least favourite notes). My quibble would be that the consultant who did the last part of the process wasn't very knowledgeable and I get the impression that you basically end up with a gourmand, an amber and a floral (or a couple of each) and whichever of those 3 you like in the final room determines what they choose for you. What I really liked was the different bottles for each scent. The tuberose one in a pretty classic glass bottle with a stopper and mine in a shocking pink cylinder. That was a nice and unexpected touch. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anon, thanks for stopping by. If your consultant wasn't up to the job, then that's a shame. The chap who was helping me was very helpful. But I'm glad you enjoyed the experience as a whole.

      Delete
  8. I should add that the tuberose was no 348 and my metallic incense was no 169. I also did the room tour twice because my mother is claustrophobic and the voice on the recording was different (I preferred mine which was more hypnotic) and what they said was very slightly different.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, okay, thanks... and the recording was different, you say? That's intriguing.

      Delete

Thanks very much for reading my site and taking the time to leave a comment.

If you're using Safari on an Apple device, you may experience some difficulties with submitting comments. Please consider using Google's Chrome browser on your Apple device; this may make it easier to leave your comment.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...