“Are the flowers real?” I ask, my senses assaulted by banks of what seems like hundreds of peonies and irises, sticks of artfully placed rhubarb, all in emerald greens, ruby reds and fluorescent pinks. It’s November but we’re pretending it’s spring, in readiness for the launch of Jo Malone’s London Blooms collection of fragrances. Boiled eggs and asparagus tips have been set out in a Mayfair art gallery, itself transformed for one day into some sort of English garden, albeit frost-free, pest-resistant and in glorious Technicolor.
“Of course they are real,” replies the PR. “We had the florists Scarlet and Violet in here at the crack of dawn. You see the floral shirts the waiters are wearing? Our creative director was up all night making them.” I’m relieved when my pen runs out of ink and I am brought an ordinary biro. I had visions of someone in a garden gnome outfit, up all night filling pens with Jo Malone peony and moss scented ink.
Welcome to the world of the beauty editor. Such attention to detail is par for the course in the world of the perfume launch, yet in comparison to some of the launches I’ve attended over the past 20 years, as I made my way from first beauty journalist job at You and Your Wedding magazine to Vogue, via just about every other glossy magazine (plus two books), the Malone event seems tame.
The gold standard has to be a launch that occurred before my time: Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium in 1977, for which a tall ship, the Peking, was draped with gold, red and purple banners with the writer Truman Capote at its helm. Also a part of beauty mythology was Chanel’s Egoiste men’s scent launch in 1990, which involved the brand creating a series of rooms and inviting journalists one by one to wait for a guest who would never arrive, that guest being a non-existent caricature of the fragrance itself; a metaphorical leap into the realms of Waiting for Godot.
Other entrants in the top 10 most surreal fragrance moments would have to be the aircraft hangar transformed into a lake in 1994 for Cacharel, with semi-naked models propelled along lily pads by underwater scuba divers. Or, in 2000, Guerlain’s recreation of a sand dune in a tent just outside Paris. I can remember the jaw-dropping scenario but I can’t remember the name of the fragrance.
Of course, as fantastic as these launches are, it can be a problem for an editor if you don’t like the fragrance. It doesn’t really make a difference to the copy you write – fragrance is a Marmite world, with one person’s Angel being another person’s Poison, two fragrances I’ve never made a secret of not liking that sell by the bucket-load – but schooled in politeness as we are, what do you say when a company has gone to so much effort? “What a fragrance”, like “what a baby”, can be used only so many times.
Last summer’s big exclusive, for example, was an invitation to designer Oscar de la Renta’s idyllic Dominican Republic home. After a tour around his orchid gardens, the man himself serenaded a select few over dinner. As chief executive Alex Bolen finally revealed the reason for our attendance, at sunset over cocktails on a terrace, the delight – and relief – among the sniffing editors was palpable. Live in Love, the rather sentimental name of the perfume, is a delicate green floral that sits elegantly on the skin. One journalist even whispered to De la Renta: “I’m so relieved I can look you in the eye and tell you I love it.”
And the truth is, in the grand scheme of beauty-land, launches such as De la Renta’s are few. What’s more usual is a workshop with a perfumer (interesting), or an exclusive audience with a celebrity face (not so interesting).
With so many fragrances brought to market each year (about 250 in 2011) it is harder and harder for brands to keep any of us excited. They used to save themselves for the one big hit before Christmas but Jo Malone will launch about 11 more scents this year in the wake of London Blooms. The cost must be phenomenal: for the Malone launch, the hire of the art gallery, caterers, florists, getting the perfumer over from Paris, the fancy floral shirts etc will mean they’re not getting much change from £25,000, and that’s before the cost of creating the perfume itself.
So, in these economically constrained times, the days of the lavish launch may be numbered. Though there was an event on a yacht recently – Diane von Furstenberg’s beauty editor-cruise around New York harbour on husband Barry Diller’s boat to herald the launch of her eponymous fragrance – boutique brands such as Le Labo, Byredo, Francis Kurkdjian and Miller Harris get acres of press coverage with no advertising. A cup of tea with the creators usually suffices to whet our olfactory appetites. Because, in the end, no matter how you dress up the scenery, it’s the smell, stupid.