Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"A Concept Is Paramount" - Oksana Polyakova On The Opening Of Bloom At Covent Garden

image: Bloom

It doesn't seem possible that London's Bloom perfumery has been around for less than three years. Since it opened its doors at Hanbury Street, it has established itself as an important fixture on the capital's perfume-shopping scene, using a thoughtfully-curated selection of brands, a series of well-received in-store events and an endearing online presence to build a reputation out of proportion with its relative youth.

A few weeks ago, the Bloom story entered another chapter: a new branch of the store has just opened at Langley Court, close to the Covent Garden Piazza. To find out more about the shop's rapid development, I recently caught up with its founder, Oksana Polyakova, an elfin, youthful-looking Muscovite who has lived in London for several years. I started our chat by asking her to explain how Bloom came to life.

Oksana Polyakova: It was 2008. I had graduated from the Cass school and then Sasha, my daughter, was born, just after I had my exams. I spent a year just looking after her, and then I thought, 'Am I returning to an office, or am I going to do something else?' I wanted to do something. I couldn't sit and do nothing. I could never be a housewife. At that time, I read Luca Turin's Perfume book. I bought samples from everywhere to try each scent he describes. By the time you have read the book and tried all the scents, you sort of have an education.

Persolaise: You tried all of them?

OP: Yes.

P: Seriously?

OP: Seriously. Apart from those which were not available, although I did try some vintage ones.

P: What had your interest in perfume been until then?

OP: Zero. It was my friend who would drag me around, to take me to see places in Moscow, which is a huge market for all things niche. There's a different culture of perfume appreciation there. It's closer to the French culture. You don't need to explain. People recognise a good smell. Anyway, she would take me, saying, 'Smell this. Smell that.' Then I went to perfume school in Paris, to Cinquième Sens. They took me through all the ingredients.

P: Why were you doing all this?

OP: I liked it. Then I ended up knowing a lot, being very interested in the subject, and I had become freer, because Sasha had grown up a bit. And so I opened a shop, close to where I lived.

P: Okay, hang on, this is the part of the story where people always say, 'And then I opened a shop,' or, 'And then I started a brand,' as though it's the easiest thing in the world. In a very practical sense, how did you do it? Did you have some money put aside?

OP: Yes, obviously! Also, a person from Russia in this country needs to justify their presence. At that point, the only options would have been to be an entrepreneur. Or invest a lot in securities. And the third option was to marry someone. And that was about it. We're not like Eastern Europeans who can just come over and do whatever. So I chose the path of setting up a business, which I would probably have done anyway. It's much easier doing this kind of shop here than in Russia. Mostly, I did it because of Sasha. There are a lot of bankers at her school. They hardly see their children. It's just a live-in nanny who sees them all week. What's the point of that?

P: Who came up with the name, Bloom?

OP: Me. I wanted something short, to do with flowers. Then a lot of people assumed I'm of Jewish ancestry, because Spitalfields is a Jewish area. There are a lot of Blooms around here.

P: Were you always confident that the whole thing would work or were you a bit worried?

OP: What does it matter? Very quickly I realised that there's a gap. You might think, 'Okay, you can go to a department store.' You go there and you try to speak to someone about perfume. At best you scare them. At worst, they just look at you like you're offending them. They don't know anything about the brands they sell. They have their targets for the day. They're just like robots.

P: What would you say your philosophy is, as regards deciding which brands to stock? Do you look for things which will sell, or things which are good perfumes?

OP: Sometimes they coincide. I try to find very particular brands. There are a few criteria. First, a concept. There should be a person behind the brand. Not necessarily a nose. For instance, Carlos Huber is the Creative Director for Arquiste. Or it could be a nose: Pierre Guillaume, Vero Kern. I never take brands which are done by a vague collective. Originality is important to me, and that happens naturally if there is a person behind the brand who genuinely is creative. A concept is paramount. Sometimes, the stories are so good, but the scents just don't match. For example, that happened with Eight & Bob. Oh dear! The packaging has to be minimal. Some brands overdo it. And the perfumes shouldn't be available at too many doors.

image: Bloom

P: So clearly, at some point in your shop's development, you decided you needed to open another branch. We heard the news that it was going to be at Burlington Arcade, but that fell through at the last minute.

OP: We had all the stock. Extra employees waiting to start on the Monday. On the Friday, everything just disappeared. So unprofessional.

P: Why did you want another branch anyway?

OP: Economy of scale. If you're a small retailer, eventually brands might go away with a distributor, and distributors have their own policies. If you're too small, they just impose their own rules. Also, you wouldn't believe how many people have no idea about niche perfumes. They walk into Harrods or Liberty, and whatever those places stock, by default, is good to them. So I needed to have a more central location. Spitalfields is good for those who know where Spitalfields is, but a lot of West-Enders, they come here and they say, 'You sell Grossmith in this area?' as if it's... I don't know... Kinshasa.

P: How long had you been thinking about Covent Garden as a possible location?

OP: A year and a half.

P: So that means a second branch was on your mind very soon after you opened the first.

OP: Yeah, I need several stores to be able to speak on my terms, to be able to support the brands, because, understandably, if a brand wants another point of sale, I say to them, 'Yes, why not.' I can't offer them exclusivity.

P: Tell me about opening the second branch.

OP: The whole thing is an interesting process. The whole of London is divided into huge estates, run by accountants. Each estate has a policy. Carnaby Estate - that's the place behind Liberty - wants youthful, sporty shops. Trainers. Adidas. Stella McCartney. I wouldn't have fitted there. You speak to all these people. You sort of try to fit with them. But then, it goes as far as exchange. And five minutes before exchange, they back out. But finally, I found Covent Garden. The rent is the same as at Hanbury Street. That's surprising. But the East End is now the coolest place. We have two Michelin starred restaurants here, if not three. Everything is fresher.

P: What will the Covent Garden shop be like?

OP: It'll basically be the same concept. I have more space there, so I'll bring more brands. It's all about perfume. Minimal shelving. Surfaces which are perfume friendly, which you can wash. Glass, that sort of thing. Some retailers have carpets on their floors. They can't be serious. They spray perfume all day and they have carpets on their floors. How is that possible? And they say, "Oh, we clean it every evening with a steamer."

P: How would you say the perfume scene is changing in the UK?

OP: I have a feeling there's more of an interest towards niche in general. We have magazines phoning and making enquiries more and more. In Paris you have ten stores like this, or ten stores which do the same thing, but in a different way. And a lot of brands have their own boutiques in Paris.

P: Finally, aside from the ones you sell, what are some of your favourite perfumes?

OP: Actually, now I just buy essential oils. I recently smelt a bottle of frankincense oil, it has so many shades. I started with studying ingredients. Then I acquainted myself with a lot of perfumes. So now I've come full circle.

---
Bloom is at 4 Hanbury Street, London, E1 6QR and now also at 4 Langley Court, London, WC2E 9JY.


Persolaise

5 comments:

  1. Ms Polyakova's comments about customer service are interesting - I made a point of visiting her Hanbury Street shop when in London a couple of years ago & was unimpressed with the service (or lack thereof) I received.

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    Replies
    1. Carolyn, thanks for stopping by. It's a shame you didn't have a great experience. Did you mention your concerns to the management?

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    2. Not at the time - was with a friend, & didn't want to make a fuss. The SAs had the "you don't look like you know about what we're selling, & couldn't afford it anyway" attitude - much the same as I got in the Jo Loves shop on the same trip!

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    3. Carolyn, that's a real shame. Naturally, I don't speak on Bloom's behalf, so I can't really help you out with this. But thanks for taking the time to let me know about your experience.

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    4. Completely understand your position, just wanted to say my piece - hopefully Ms Polyakova will read our exchange & take heed. I just get a little tired of being judged on appearance when at times I know more about fragrance than the people selling it - something acknowledged many years ago by a salesperson in Frasers department store in Glasgow, when I was explaining the significance of the thimble top on the Madeleine Vionnet fragrance bottle to an American friend I was with - the lady behind the counter was actually taking notes!

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