Tuesday, 28 October 2014

30th Anniversary Of London's Les Senteurs - Interview with Betty Hawksley, Claire Hawksley & James Craven

It's almost 100% safe to assume that if you're the sort of person who has made the effort to come to this site and read these words, then you've heard of Les Senteurs. It may be based in London, but thanks to its mail-order service, the shop's reputation reaches far beyond the British Isles, to the extent that it can probably justify calling itself an institution. Its shelves have displayed the wares of some of the world's finest brands. Its walls have echoed the voices of countless prominent industry figures. And its sales assistants have earned public praise and recognition for their expertise and helpfulness. That's why its 30th birthday cannot pass unmentioned on this blog.

To mark this very special occasion in the life of a pioneer on the niche retail scene, I enlisted three key figures - current Director, Claire Hawksley, her mother, Betty Hawksley, and near-legendary sales assistant James Craven - to answer a few questions about the shop's birth and success. I began by asking Claire for a potted summary of the key events of the last 30 years.

Claire Hawksley: In the 80s, my parents, Betty and Michael, spent 3 years in New York launching Molinard De Molinard under their company, Cariad Products. After my mother and one of my sisters had been mugged within a short period of time, they thought it might be safer to return home. Having just launched a fragrance they hit upon the idea of a perfumery: somewhere to showcase the lesser known fine fragrance companies that existed throughout Europe. My parents opened Les Senteurs at 227 Ebury Street in October 1984, next to Boucherie Lamartine. James Craven joined in 1996 and the shop moved to Elizabeth Street, where it has stayed. I became General Manager in 2002 and was made Director in 2009. Two years later in 2011, we opened our second store at Seymour Place.

Claire Hawksley

Persolaise: Why did your parents feel that there was a need for a 'specialist' perfumery in London?

CH: My mother thought that the tradition of selling perfumes through specialised perfume boutiques was alien to the British, who traditionally bought their fragrances from large department stores. On a visit to Paris they had come across various little boutiques selling perfumes created by small houses. They thought a multi-brand perfumery might be the answer.

Betty Hawksley: Going into a department store was quite intimidating if you didn’t know what you wanted. You felt humiliated if you didn’t buy, but you got absolutely no information about what you were purchasing. The concept for Les Senteurs was that it should be a place where you discuss fragrances, your previous successes with perfume, and learn about what suited your skin and your lifestyle. We tried to make the shop as comfortable and welcoming as possible with the fragrances arranged like a library on the shelf, easily accessible to prospective clients, who could wander round asking questions and being informed.

Michael & Betty Hawksley

P: So how did the first customers react to the shop? What did they make of the unusual brands?

BH: Many of our customers were amazed by the lack of hard sell; we gave them the opportunity to experiment and then we sent them away. They were flabbergasted. But our belief was that they would come back once the perfume was given a chance to settle.

P: What would you say were some of Les Senteurs' early successes and milestones?

BH: Annick Goutal. She came to our attention as she had created a fragrance for babies, but it garnered a great deal of editorial as it was an unusual concept and this helped bring customers into the shop. Not being able to afford advertising, we depended greatly on editorial in beauty magazines. Perfumes which carried a history or which had a story were instrumental in giving us the exposure that we needed to survive.

CH: I think one of the biggest successes was when Frederic Malle agreed to showcase his fabulous brand in our store. Knowing that this revolutionary brand deserved special attention, we hired PR Michael Donovan to help us introduce it to the UK’s beauty editors,

P: James, what was your first experience of Les Senteurs?

James Craven: It was to take a look at Borsari’s Violetta that I first came to the shop as a customer. I shall always remember Claire's sister, Karin, looking magnificent in a glorious tomato-vermilion suit with gold accessories. She showed me the Violetta, the Piver Cuir de Russie and the Gantier Iris Bleu Gris. I left on wings!

James Craven

P: How did the shop become the institution it is today?

JC: By dint of the key qualities of: patience, devotion, dedication, passion, insight, luck, courage and canny PR. But most of all by word of mouth, for which there is no substitute. The initial key to Les Senteurs' success was that it was a secret, a treasure, a find. The tiny scale of the Ebury St shop enhanced this. It was a miniature salon, a private club, a 'ruelle' devoted to the cult of parfum. 30 years ago this was indeed unique, arcane, unheard of. We were always ready to LISTEN (that retail essential!) and we had knowledge and expertise. This was so rare. About the time Les Senteurs opened I started my perfume career in the Big Stores and there was precious little specialised knowledge there. Today so much has changed - the world and his wife are perfume experts. The very fact that things have changed is, in itself, a tribute to Les Senteurs.

P: How would you say your customers' tastes have changed over the last 30 years?

JC: Well, first of all I should say that today we have far more men buying fragrance! About 50/50 now. Again, we might modestly claim Les Senteurs has spread the ethos that perfume is an emotional choice, not a gender decision. Customers are now more knowledgeable, more demanding (in the best sense), more discriminating, more venturesome! New molecules, accords, ingredients have been discovered - fragrance has become even more exciting as traditional values/ideas are inverted and re-invented. At the same time, given the thousands of new fragrance releases annually, it is harder to find perfumes which are different, original and accomplished: fragrances which really do have something to say!

P: Is there a typical Les Senteurs customer?

JC: "Soll' Ich die Wahrheit sagen oder soll' Ich charmante sein?" There is and there is not. But I think the true answer is No: all human life is here! This is a great part of the shop's charm: the huge diversity of customers of every age and nationality.

P: How has Les Senteurs coped with the explosion of niche?

JC: To coin a phrase from Tallulah Bankhead: "Don't talk to me about niche, darling - I invented it!" Les Senteurs was the UK's first niche perfumery: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so we can only be gratified by seeing so many folk following our lead. Remember the Chinese Shoe Shop theory: the more shops of the same type there are, the better! A sign that the perfumery business is thriving and expanding; the more interest there is in niche fragrance the healthier the fragrance world is. It all enhances Les Senteurs' reputation and status as a pioneer in the field.

P: Do you currently feel under threat from department stores?

CH: I think it will be a long time before we can compete with the footfall of department stores, and it can be difficult sometimes to compete for exclusivity. However, department stores might find it harder to develop a brand because of the pressure to have ever greater turnover per square metre, so I think we will always be able to offer something unique. Especially in terms of atmosphere. Department stores have a certain frenzied ambiance, I feel: somewhat rushed and hurried. Not conducive at all, in my opinion, for such an intimate, contemplative search as finding one’s perfect fragrance.

JC: Some of our staff have moved on to work in the big stores: we see this in terms of nuns groomed and taught in the Mother House eventually going out to preach and serve in the foreign missions - the stores may be far bigger (as China is larger than England) - but the concentrated genius of perfume is still centred at the Mother Houses at Seymour Place and Elizabeth St.

P: How would you say you've been affected by the internet?

JC: The internet has affected us hugely, but we have embraced it wholeheartedly. It has brought the world to our door; and our site - magnificently developed by Claire, Nick Gilbert (who launched the Seymour Place shop) and Callum Langston-Bolt - has been invaluable as a selling, social and information tool. I will say, though, that a possible disadvantage of the internet is that it brings in a great deal of business but it also distances us from customers: in the old days we grew to knew our clients' voices and personalities from phone, letters and visits - now we have far more customers but many of them are anonymous, just a name... and this is a pity.

Callum Langston-Bolt

CH: At one time it was really difficult to find credible, authentic perfumery brands to meet an ever increasing demand for 'The New'. It meant travel: either to France to explore the stores or to industry exhibitions in Italy. So the internet became such a great tool for me. I used to check out Basenotes to see what brands the people were talking about, what fragrances really excited them and elicited strong reactions or loyalties.

P: And what do you see for the future of perfumery? What do you think the next trends are going to be?

JC: I have always been convinced that the gourmand family will continue to expand until the whole menu is represented. It has already developed from fruits, chocolate and cream to include alcohol and liqueurs. Wheat and grain have come in; cakes and pastries, too. It cannot be long before we smell meat, vegetables (we already have carrot and celery), gravy and fish... think of all the salty marine/oyster notes going about.

But I think the essential answer is: we do not know! And that's the thrill! It all depends on what is being developed even now in the labs and inner shrines of the perfumers. We do not and cannot know. How exciting!

[Les Senteurs is at 71 Elizabeth Street, London, SW1W 9PJ and 2 Seymour Place, London, W1H 7NA.]


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