Of sales pitches, scents & sensory overload at Pitti Fragranze 2013
Imagine…a huge, old, mid-19th century red brick edifice, with soaring arches high above your heads, with bricks that resonate with the ghosts of a million hellos and goodbyes, joy, sorrow and anticipation somehow swirling invisible above the throng in this vast space. Once upon a storied time, this was the gateway to all things Florentine – the history, the heritage, the ever-present art that somehow elevates all in this city to myth and impossible dream. Such beauty, such stories, such history cannot be, and yet… it did and it does, even here and even now.
Welcome to the Stazione Leopolda in Florence, home for three frenetic days to Pitti Fragranze 2013.
For three days, this is the epicenter of the highest expressions of European perfumers’ and perfume companies’ alchemical art, this is where burgeoning reputations and successes are built, cemented and sometimes destroyed. Distributors are found, deals are made, agreements made, epiphanies are sniffed, discussed and sometimes felt in visceral, fatal ways.
Because presentation matters.
It’s important to understand one thing about my own idiosyncratic perspective on Pitti Fragranze: I have not one niche store anywhere near me, very, very rarely buy full bottles and I don’t own a credit card. My samples are either sent by brands for review (for which I’m far more grateful than they know) or sent by perfumista friends. (Ditto.)
So you can well imagine I wasn’t about to waste a chance in sniffing what I could while and as I could! Only to find that no matter how I tried – I couldn’t. Sooner or later, in spite of coffee beans and a scrap of wool in my handbag, olfactory fatigue would set in. This was a lesson I learned on my first day, which explains why I came home with so many samples and promises of emails for more… samples. Yet very many sample strips still found their way under my nose, and even a few sprays on my person, because having something applied by the mind that conceived it is its own certain thrill.
And the displays! Bottles glowing like jewels (Intertrade’s section displayed under black lights), bottles in a swoon on transparent shelves and pedestals, bottles set up as epic tales of transport in library settings, bottles lined up as transcendental idols on flower-laden altars…
Presentation was – and is! – everything.
Amouage went all out for their presentation of Fate Man & Woman and had an entire booth devoted to them. I had never seen, never mind held a full bottle of any Amouage, and they took my breath away. Should I ever (I can dream!) get my hands on one of those factices, it’s getting its own display case.
Temptations in white and blacklight
By far the most unusual display of brands came from Intertrade, who distributes Boadicea the Victorious, Bond no. 9, Byredo, Blood Concept, Agonist, Czech & Speake, Nasomatto and the perfumes of the Icelandic artist Andrea Maack. In three separate rooms off the main hall of Stazione Leopolda, a luxe lounge lizard cave beckoned the curious closer. After wafting and wending my way through the Byredos, the Bonds and Czech & Speake, including happy reunions with old favorites Baudelaire and no. 88, I was stopped in the inner sanctum by this riveting sight:
Poor taste or effective marketing – you be the judge of that one!
A tall, striking blonde in a floppy black hat walked the innermost room, and with that strange Norse mojo that seems to apply wherever we congregate abroad, I knew precisely who she was – artist Andrea Maack. She and I had a long involved conversation that circled around themes of darkness and congregations prompted by her latest release, “Coven.” Fans of the Devilscent Project take note – “Coven” is a definite relation and variation on that theme of erotic darkness.
The Really Bad Case of Iwannas
Another variation on the theme, namely perfume, came from Panpuri, whose luxurious spa and skincare line has now branched out into perfumes (very good) and home ambience with a series of scented candles inspired by legendary women of history and literature. It was the Panpuri display that caught me (it was beautiful, and I was so enthralled I completely forgot to take photos), but those candles were breathtaking even before they were lit and smelled as divine as they looked. I came away wanting one of everything Panpuri. Fat chance. In the meantime, I can dream of having a candle inspired by Scarlett O’Hara, a favorite literary heroine of mine.
Pitti is also the location for Really Big Releases, and one of the biggest was certainly Neela Vermeire’s ‘Ashoka’, which was such a deserved hot topic at Pitti, Neela was in the spotlight and often on camera every day of the event. I am here to tell you that everything you might have read of Neela in person in absolutely true – she is so wonderful, even my purple prose fails me. She was also sweet enough to let me try her new Mohur Esprit de Parfum, which is so incredibly special, it will be especially reviewed.
The likewise very darling Vero Kern has been a very busy gal, releasing both last year’s Mito in a sumptuous liquid-velvet extrait and all four perfumes of her line in ‘voiles de parfum’ – which are evolutions of their original ideas because that’s how Vero works, bless her heart. They are neither diluted extraits nor amped-up eaux de parfum, but entities unto themselves which have to be felt to be properly experienced.
I was hijacked in the middle of a conversation with Vero by the very charming and persuasive Italian perfumer Lorenzo Dante Ferro, who is behind the Amorvero line of perfumes created for the Hotel Hassler in Rome and also his own line, Profumi d’Autore. Signor Ferro invited me to a cocktail party at the new Café Florian (an offshoot of the famous Café Florian in Venice) in Florence, for the launch of a line of ambient room sprays evoking the ambience of the original four salle, or rooms in Venice, and of course a series of supremely sumptuous perfumes to wear. It was an evening I won’t forget in a hurry – beautiful people in a beautiful café with a storied, centuries-old name, scintillating conversations about perfumes and people, introductions and hellos and promises of emails, and prosecco flowing like the Arno throughout. I left a good many hours later with samples galore and floated all the way back to my Porta al Prato hotel on perfumed prosecco bubbles…
I was certainly thrilled to find San Francisco-based perfumer Ineke Rühland among the exhibitors, since shortly before Pitti I had received her stunningly presented “Floral Curiosities’ collection of soliflores to try. Not only could she remember me, it also happened we knew quite a few people in common. Watch this space.
Another unparalleled pleasure was confusing the heck out of one of the Genie’s very favorite perfumers – and people. Andy Tauer was also in Florence to present his perfumes and also his new customizable collection of decants (something I wish far more brands would do), and just as Neela, Olivier Durbano and Pierre Guillaume, the poor man was mobbed with fans and admirers from morning till night. So I made a habit of sliding by and winking at him a few times a day before moving on through the crush on Friday and Saturday, until on Sunday, I finally grabbed my chance and waited out the throng. Andy has been an ardent supporter of TAG for quite some time, and it certainly meant the world to this perfume writer finally to be able to thank him personally for all his encouragement. I left some time, big hugs and a great conversation later with devious plans to get my greedy hands on Carillon Pour Un Ange (a huge surprise since I’m not the world’s biggest fan of lily-of-the-valley) and Noontide Petals (it really IS all that!) as soon as I possibly can. I foresee a decant set – or three – in my future…
With so many brands competing for distribution, space, words and sometimes notoriety, it will inevitably happen that a gimmick or quirk will settle in your mind and refuse to leave. The Most Outrageous Gimmick award of Pitti 2013 (although my inner punk applauds the artist’s, shall we say, twisted sense of humor, my outer Taurus knows quite well I’ve Been Thoroughly Had) goes to O’Driù’s Angelo Pregoni for the sheer chutzpah of his latest creation, ‘Peety’. As for the perfume itself, what can I say? Except that if you want to accent one decidedly human aspect in perfume, your idea has been executed with far more flair, elegance and wearable finesse already, my sorrow to say. It was made by Neil Morris for the Devilscent Project and is called ‘Dev #1’.
Among the new brands and discoveries from Florence you can expect to see reviewed on TAG in the months to come are: Bruno Acampora, Parfums de Marly, Schwarzlose, Eau d’Italie, Maria Candida Gentile, Oliver & Co., Peccato Originale, Laborattorio Olfattivo, Phaedon (of which I’ve already reviewed Rouge Avignon), Lorenzo Dante Ferro, Ulrich Lang, Panpuri and a few more big surprises I’ll keep close a while longer. J
That Fragrant Malaise
But some time late Sunday afternoon, as I paced the Stazione Leopolda’s halls again, looking for brands I missed (there were a few) intentionally or otherwise, a certain malaise crept in. I wondered at the machinations of the European hyperluxe end of Planet Perfume, and had to confess to a definite bias I didn’t even know I had. For every Andy Tauer, Vero Kern, or Neela Vermeire, all three of whom show a degree of unparalleled dedication to their artistic vision and uncompromising quality, there are four brands who want a piece of that action – and fail. Not for a lack of trying, not for a lack of understanding their markets, but something far more fatal – a lack of vision. Put simply, they underestimate the customer base that is supposed to validate their existence as perfume brands. “They want fruity-figgy-green? Oud? Oud is hot, let’s make an oud. Call Givaudan/IFF/Mane and have them cook something up…”
If anything, the success I sniffed at the Pitti exists precisely because the brands that will be around five or ten years from now refuse to stoop so low. They know that niche and indie perfume connoisseurs are far more discerning than they’re given credit for, and will know a shortcut when they smell it. But above all in the Sunday afternoon miasma, what I missed most of all from all those emerging brands was originality. I missed the chances taken by American indie perfumers – the all-out sensuality of a Mandy Aftel, the exquisite restraint of a Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, the playfulness exhibited all over the Pacific Northwest by brands such as House of Matriarch, Olympic Orchids, Imaginary Authors, Slumberhouse, or the elegance of Envoyage Perfumes. I missed a sense of humor and risk-taking, the kind you’ll find with Opus Oils in Hollywood or East Coast brands like Neil Morris and House of Cherry Bomb.
There were plenty of fragrant revelations, but most came from the usual, consistent suspects, and not nearly enough from all these emerging brands. It all somehow melded into Eau de Pitti…expensive, expansive and yet not nearly distinctive enough.
Towards the end of Sunday afternoon, as brands began to dismantle displays and pack up, I left the fug and the fumes behind and went to sit outside, trying to sort all my impressions, trying to find a place for all the happiness I felt in finally meeting those who have meant so very much in my own perfumed journey.
Not long after, I was approached by a woman who sat down beside me with a sigh of relief.
It seems such an insult to call her “old”, although she was nowhere young, since I could tell from that twinkle in her eyes she had long since transcended all such adjectives, was far beyond all such judgment and opinion. Such women are rare, and intriguing when you find them. She was eccentrically dressed in violently clashing colors and floral patterns, with her white hair braided and finished with two periwinkle blue flowers that danced on her chest. She smiled at me, I smiled back, and was greeted with a torrent of Italian. I shrugged in apology, mentioned I spoke Inglese, and at that confession, she seemed to beam wider, as if the very word ‘English’ brought back memories of happy, distant times.
“Ah, signora,” she said. “Sei Americana?”
“Scusi, no. Danesa. I thought for a moment. “Io sono una scrittora.” And thought, not for the last time, that everything sounds so much better in Italian.
“Ah! Danesa! È una scrittora. A writer…” She looked me up and down, still with that devastating twinkle in her eyes. Then, with all the authority of what must have been at least eighty well-lived years, she straightened her shoulders, sat taller and demanded:
“Dammi la mano. Your hand.” She pointed to my right hand.
I handed it over. She traced the lines in my palm, bent and flexed my fingers this way and that, as she muttered sotto voce in Italian.
“Sei famosa. Or you will be. Molto famosa. You know l’amore, si?”
I was too flabbergasted to be anything but honest. “Yes. I do.”
“You will know more. This one-” she traced a line, “will leave, but there is another waiting. For you, signora. You will see. And fame. You will see.” She dropped my hand with a bawdy laugh and tilted her head back, towards Stazione Leopolda. “What you think? Of tutti… in there?”
A universe of implication in those few words and in her tone.
“So many perfumes,” I replied.
“Troppi profumi! That is their problem. Some great, some… not so much.” She shrugged, eyes twinkling. “For you, signora – fame! And l’amore, si? Un grande amore! But there…” Again, that eloquent backwards tilt of her head, the flowers dancing on her braids, a disbelieving shake of her head.
“Too many perfumes!”
She took my hand, gave it a squeeze, walked to the exit with a wave and a laugh, and was swallowed by the crowd outside Stazione Leopolda.
Even today, as the sun shines cold outside my window and I’m battling some sort of flu bug as I type, I’m still not convinced she wasn’t an angel.
Yet there were indeed… troppi profumi!
With special thanks to all at Pitti Fragranze who made me so welcome; Neela Vermeire, Andy Tauer, Vero Kern, Lisa of Campomarzio70, Sonia Acampora, Andrea Maack, Marillene of Parfums de Marly, Tamas and Veronika of Schwarzlose, Ineke Rühland, and of course Lorenzo and Cindy Ferro.
Also one very large thank you to Sandra Perrone of Florence, human firebrand and an instant friend who opened up Firenze for me, and to Hasan, who introduced us.
Thanks no less to my fabulous readers, who made these words possible.
Note: With apologies for the (near interminable) delay in posting this, but September has been so mad/hectic, I didn’t even have time to change my mind! And when I did, I was felled – by the flu.
All photos: My iPhone.