I spent a full day at Esxence, the niche perfumery and cosmetics show in Milan. It ran in a weird part of town, both central and entirely new, full of tall buildings interspersed by newly named squares even taxi drivers haven’t heard of. Once near there you couldn’t miss it, though, with huge banners guiding you down a gentle ramp to an underground space. The first impression was that of a vast crowd, and it got denser during the day. I was asked what category of visitor I belonged to, and did not seem to fit in any of them, so I ended up carrying a badge that said “provider of services” which I suppose was accurate.
To my delight, the very first stand was that of the Osmothèque, consisting as always of a couple of charming people, custodians of a piece of luggage most aficionados would give a finger of their writing hand for, i.e. the collection of samples of classics they have painstakingly reconstituted. Patricia de Nicolai, the Curator, was shuttling between there and her stand further into the show. By way of calibrating my perfumery meters on 100% before tackling the show, I asked for a smelling strip of Iris Gris and stood there, rooted to the spot, as the two attendants watched me with a look of understanding on their faces. After that much beauty, I was ready for anything.
I had a hundred or so freshly-printed business cards in my pocket to hand to exhibitors and ask them to send samples to my address. I nearly ran out at the end of the day. Most exhibitors had never heard of me and simply stapled the card in their notebook, but some gratifyingly welcomed me as a long-time friend and immediately took selfies. I did one round of the exhibition, attended the announcement of the finalists of the IAO, and a second round later to cover the bases I had missed the first time. There was a lot of good stuff, some of it familiar like Piguet, Etat Libre d’Orange, Different Company, De Nicolaï. Many of the new (to me) exhibits seemed to fall in distinct categories.
Disclosure: I am Italian and there may be some bias in what follows.
The locals were, understandably, well represented. The first wave of niche fragrances in Italy was populated by smart businessmen like Villoresi, SMN and Carthusia, for whom history (true or invented), and looks mattered more than the actual juice. I once took part in a dreadful prime time TV program in Rome called Tappeto Volante (Flying Carpet) during which Villoresi handed round a chunk of vegetal amber of the kind you buy in Arab markets, and told everyone it was ambergris. I decided to let that pass, but formed a low opinion of his perfumery nous. His, SMN and Carthusia perfumes were/are mediocre at best. All that has changed: a second generation has come up who no longer feel obliged to defer to French outfits or traditional recipes for art direction. These have a very clear conceptual idea of what perfumes they want, and —being Italian— naturally cannot help wrapping the result in the most beautiful packaging money can buy.
Two outfits stood out, and I will review some of their fragrances when I get them. One was Antonio Alessandria, run by the eponymous perfumer. I only had a brief chance to smell his creations, but they were huge, ambitious and clearly made up of the best raw materials. His bottles are reminiscent of Pre WWI Coty, with embossed dark-gold labels, and look beautiful in a timeless way. I was also delighted by the fact that he is based in Catania, the Sicilian city facing Reggio Calabria across the straits, on the slopes of the active volcano Etna, and the birthplace of one of my favorite writers, Vitaliano Brancati. Another outfit was Milan-based Masque Milano. They sat me down, gave me a glass of excellent bubbly and explained cogently their perfume collection, which at first sniff seemed very interesting. More about these two firms in due course.
2- Pretentious French
Despite a rising tide of evidence that should by now have laid waste to this notion, some Frenchmen still think that being French is a necessary and sufficient condition to do great perfumery. Pour three indifferent juices in stock Pochet du Courval bottles, call the firm Parfums du Château de Something, and queues will form spontaneously at your door. The half-dozen such firms at Esxence must have been sorely disappointed, and the look of the faces of the forlorn attendants said they were. Nobody gives a hoot anymore about this kind of Frenchness in perfumery, and the world is a better place for it. I smelled some of the stuff, and it was badge engineering of the most embarrassing kind.
3- Smart French
Plenty of hyperventilating stuff here, and a few grandiosely shiny black sub-Tom Ford things trying to do a Killian, probably hoping that Lauder will snap them up one day, which I reckon unlikely since they already have two in that color. One outfit stood out, called Making Of, based in Cannes (Film festival and all), with a range of rather interesting fragrances coming out of little white chimneys, and with Flintstones smelling strips made of porous ceramic which look like elongated Polo Mints. You dip them in the juice and they go on smelling forever. An Italian retailer was there, in such transports of ecstasy at the fragrances that the attendant looked vaguely embarrassed.
4- Trashy Russian
Russia harbours some of the best educated, most intellectually adventurous, most discerning, most literate, and most musically gifted people on this earth. It also seems to produce hordes of appalling nouveaux riches, driven by an unquenchable thirst for the exclusive-expensive, provided it be gaudy enough. They are catered to by firms from all over the world. Their stands were easily spotted, because they were staffed by tall young women wearing a ton of slap, white cashmere minidresses and high heels. The perfumes were an afterthought, as far as I could tell.
5- Fake Arabs
I have never understood the coals-to-Newcastle thing that led to a rash of small French and Italian firms producing oud-based fragrances for sale in the Gulf. It seems to me that if you live there you should either a- buy the great stuff made locally or b- hit the Guerlain counter and see how the other half lives. But it seems every French perfumer now has to add oud to his lily-of-the-valley to make a living. The results remind me of the attenuated curry sauces you sometimes get in good French restaurants, resembling an ochre-colored béchamel and about as convincing as wearing a fez to dinner and expecting to be addressed as Kevin Bey. And yet they shift the stuff.
6- Real Arabs
There were a few genuine perfumery firms from the Gulf, mostly selling attars, i.e. undiluted perfume oils that are so powerful and so compressed as to be impossible to evaluate on a strip or, for that matter, on skin. I suspect the attar habit may have to do with a dislike of ethanol, but no fragrance should be smelled at an oil concentration above 25%. What was striking about these outfits was that they came with a large retinue of helpers who looked somewhat uncomfortable in their surroundings, typically one or two glum older men sitting in chairs, a couple of shy, helpful women in hijab, and a young guy in a well-cut suit fielding questions in English. These are niche firms only by virtue of size and our orientalism, and I doubt very much that they try to innovate in composition. I will report back if they send me samples, which I also doubt.
These come in two flavours:
– Totally off the wall artists producing their own, amazingly original fragrances. One shining example was a remarkable Dutch-Greek dude called Spyros Drosopoulos who has produced a collection of fragrances for his firm called Baruti which, on brief acquaintance, seemed to be worth walking a few miles for. What struck me here was the fact that while the perfumery learning curve is long and steep, these people are ace technical climbers and, in a few short years, are three quarters of the way up the rock face. Expect miracles from this corner in the coming years.
– Lamentable eco-friendly types for whom the only thing that matters is that every ingredient in their anaemic juices should be organically produced, traceable to the very seed whence it came and that 0.1% of their —probably meager— profits should go to the non-European person closest to where the thing was harvested. It goes almost without saying that they are given massive runarounds by the big oil firms, complete with certificates of provenance and oaths of purity. I expect the corridors of Firmenich and Givaudan echo with laughter when these guys drive off in their Tesla.
8- Shameless Dreck
These are easy to recognise: large, usually blinding white exhibit stand, 18 pastel-coloured fragrances all launched at the same time, and a nondescript but vaguely aristocratic brand name. This is the kind of stuff you expect to find in “upmarket” perfumeries and pharmacies all over Europe. They don’t care what the thing smells like, so why should we?
The IAO awards part was great, and my favorite (TBA) was among the finalists!