A quality fragrance is an important accessory, says Sarah Halliwell, just make it potent and original, please…
Featured Image; Paris-based perfumeur Christine Nagel.
To my mind, perfume is the ultimate accessory. I’ll do without heels, sparkly evening bags, the scarf I’ll leave in a taxi. Go out with the right perfume on and I’m fully dressed. The right one will set my mood, capture the occasion – and conjure up memories. I’m especially demanding of winter perfumes. I don’t want anything winsome or restrained at this time of year: the cold stokes a desire for something earthier, complex, sexy, individual. I want to wear lipstick as rich and glossy as black cherries, and autumnal textures of velvet, suede and leather – soft yet strong.
At the top of an unassuming building in central Paris is Hermès perfumer Christine Nagel’s light-filled olfactive workshop, a pristine white space with expansive views over the city which she describes as her “nest”. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to visit Nagel here, the first time she has opened her creative space. This eyrie gives a rare insight into the working process, as well as the Swiss perfumer’s character. She is warm, ineffably chic and with a touch of mischievousness; there’s a pair of rollerblades in a corner, and a propped-up surfboard. This is, after all, the perfumer who is uniquely skilled at contrasts, bringing together disparate things. She works in seclusion, yet lets slip that she sometimes plays Bob Marley (and sings along) in this cool, clinical atelier.
The Hermessences collection celebrates unexpected combinations of raw materials, to reveal new things about each – a no-holds-barred olfactory playground. And the newest one is a masterclass in contrasts. Nagel was playing with and exploring violet – “I really love violet because the flower smells of lipstick. But it’s a ‘mute’ flower, so I reworked it in a poetic fashion to express the way I love it.” For Nagel, this means something very supple – “green, a little bit like peas, fleshy and round”. At around the same time, she received a sample of an Hermès heritage leather called Volynka. A very grainy and robust leather with “wrinkles as on a face or hand”, it has a strong smoky smell. “I immediately thought it was an incredible material. I was shown the very first bag made out of Volynka, and the Hermès craftspeople explained that working on it was a technological feat, because it’s so difficult to harness and stitch this leather.”
Christine Nagel loves a challenge. “At the beginning I never imagined I would put the violet and the Volynka together.” On the contrary, one would imagine this strong leather would demand something equally powerful alongside it, to achieve harmony. But Nagel returned to her soft, powdery violet: “I wondered, is it possible to find a balance so that the Volynka never hides the delicate violet? For me it was a very interesting piece of work – to keep the lightness of the violet and to associate it with this powerful, robust leather. The work was of a very technical nature to reach this balance.” Fainter-hearted perfumers – or else those governed by market tests, which shy away from such distinctive or unique smells – would have found something easier to do.
Were there moments that she thought it was just too difficult? “No, it’s fun! It’s a true exercise and I love doing it. And I like it when materials ‘resist’ me – it makes me go further.”
And the resulting fragrance? “It’s a game of hide-and-seek between leather and violet”, she says. “It’s as if the leather were running after the violet but never quite manages to catch it. You smell the violet, and behind it you feel the leather as well.” I love the way Violette Volynka feels both masculine and feminine all at once. Nagel has always been acutely aware of what we want to wear now. “For me, perfumes are gender-free anyway. I can see a man wearing this fragrance and I know that’s going to be very chic, and I can also see a woman wearing it. The only thing I don’t like is something ‘unisex’ when it’s neither one or the other.”
Bland is anathema for Nagel. “People want to wear something distinctive,” she believes, rueing the lack of definition that comes from market-testing. “At Hermès, I’m very fortunate because we do not run market tests so I can try new and different things. And that means I can create something unique, that endures.” @sarahhalliwellbeauty
From €245, at the Hermès boutique at Brown Thomas and www.hermes.com.
THREE PARTY TIME PERFUMES
LANCÔME LA VIE EST BELLE DOMAINE DE LA ROSE, €85. There are various versions of this sparkling ten-year-old iris-centred scent. We love this version, with crisp green rose centifolia at its heart. www.lancome.ie.
JIMMY CHOO I WANT CHOO EAU DE PARFUM, from €52. Sweet somethings: peachy, with fragrant floral notes of jasmine and lily and warm vanilla. At pharmacies and stores nationwide.
ESTÉE LAUDER BLUSHING SANDS EAU DE PARFUM, from €84. Soft musk and sparkling pink pepper for a lush, rosy.