Tuesday 1 October 2013

This blog has moved.

Sadly due to ridiculous unstoppable spam monsters this blog is moving to Wordpress. Find me there at:
http://redlegsinsoho.wordpress.com and please follow me if you would like. Minn x

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Penhaligons relaunch flagship store in Regent Street.

Let me start by apologising for lack of blog posts recently, paid work got in the way and words for lucre were hard to resist with the festive season fast advancing upon me! Hello to new readers and thank you to those who have persevered!

I used to wine taste competitively. This was not an excuse for inebriation; I don’t require one of those although it was sometimes a consequence. Generally the wines were spat out; the taste swilled from your mouth with water and then blotted out with dry crackers before ingesting the next liquid. It was almost entirely about smell. Smell has always mattered to me, I think that a childhood of allergies and near constant colds made those periods when I could smell precious.  And growing up in households where food was constantly being cooked, cakes baked and pipes smoked but where the actual physical environment could be grim it was smell rather than sight that made my life richer.

When not afflicted with a cold I have a keen sense of smell. It was easy for me to identify notes of leather, bark, petrol, damp feathers and moth balls in expensive wines. I’m not precious about niffs, even noxious ones can be intriguing. There is a fine line between nasal beauty and disgust and I have always thought that the best smells have and edge of decay or body fluids to them. I’m considering them at the moment because a history of one of the famous wine tasting competitions I was involved in is shortly being published and because I have also recently been to a few perfume industry related events. Perfume or wine, the act of deconstructing them is a very similar process. The major difference is that perfume is ingested in a different way. It lies upon our skin reacting with our bodily temperatures and is thus transmuted. Wine works its transformation more internally and corporally. But both affect our mood, behaviour and physiology. Whilst some experience a graphic physiological synaesthesia response to smell anyone with an ounce of imagination can make the obvious connections. A wine is a sharp grassy green; a scent is a warm bronze. The language of wine is imbued with rich deep shades, leather, pewter, flashing glass and the patinas of old woods. The interiors of the best bodegas, chateaus and wine merchants reflect this sensual language of wine, a language of smell supported by taste and vision.

Penhaligon's previous decor.

View of the new Penhaligon's store interior

Scent has a wider range of ingredients and source materials than wine and is perhaps a more overtly sensual experience. Yet it seems to me that its visual language has been demeaned. I know I have a weakness for luxury but that does not exclude simplicity. I love the scent of Jinko, Cedar and Yuzu, and I love the simple wooden lines, woven tatami and delicate traced papers that visually accompany it; in my mind at least. However I find the shiny cheap metallic trim, the polished white.. what is it; Formica? - the black faux onyx ‘simplicity’ of many perfume stores/counters utterly depressing.  No one is going to deny the importance of ‘branding’, identity or advertising to any company but you look back at the elegant illustrations used to advertise scent in the thirties and compare them to the soft porn photography that is common currency today (and yes I know I have banged on about this before) and despair. Overt sex is not sexy nor sensuous nor erotic: it is tacky.
Cornubia, my favourite Penhaligon's scent.

Recently I attended the re-launch of the Penhaligon’s flagship store in Regent Street which has been redesigned by Christopher Jenner, who has form due to his work with Diptyche.  Penhaligons are  heritage brand  and particularly good for daytime scents and male niffs (always had a soft spot for a finely scented male). Their traditional square cut glass bottles tied with bows and interesting scent specific labels are established motifs. The challenge for them as with many ‘traditional’ brands is how to avoid Laura Ashley style ossification whilst not taking the (not necessarily bad) faintly Eurotrashy route of Burberry. Their bottles are to some degree an ‘untouchable’ and effective design formula and to some degree sacrosanct.  

Interior, note marquetry.

The Regent Street Store has, with its vintage glass fascia always had a touch of the jewel box about it, I liked the old dark shop too but perhaps it was a little forbidding and had a look that has been adopted by too many other brands. The current designer appears to have appreciated this, it still looks like a jewel box but one that has been smuggled into Mayfair via a Victorian lady travellers travelling chest, with detours to China and the Raj. The colour scheme of Eau de Nil and purple pink zings and appeals to me intensely. I love that uncertain and slightly corpse-like green-blue. Despite its Frenchified name it always seems to me to be peculiarly English: the colour of an Aesthete's jade tie pin, English utilitarian tea cups, 1920’s tea gowns and onyx Deco cigarette lighters. As a counterpoint a Schiaparelli like pink with a mauvish hue has been used, particularly effectively in the large pendant lamps hanging from fortuitously high ceilings. These have, in their turn been decorated with a tribute to English tudor ceiling fretwork.  The square shapes of the iconic bottles and the bows adorning them have been worked into most elements of the store’s design including the beautifully tiled floors.  Besides the entrance the range is placed in back-lit chamfered boxes for no reason other than to display the bottles as desirable objects. Yet these are placed in a tactile studded leather wall which invites touch.

The overwhelming ambience of the shop is of an opulent ladies drawing room of the high Edwardian era. This kind of interior is not unusual, various brands utilise it. Penhaligon’s have staked their claim to difference by incorporating what could almost be described as a ‘chappist’ approach. Paper labels from perfumes decorate feature walls and things are just a bit eccentric. This was reflected at the launch by their collaboration with Hendrick’s gin and the presence of the delightful Kit and one of their always decorative barmen. Their now established uber-English take on gin cocktails served in the almost ubiquitious tea cups complemented Penhaligons approach well. And in any case who can argue with good gin, especially when accompanied by pretty macaroons?
Hendrick's gin cornish cocktail.
Money has been spent on the redesign in terms of craft, most notably on the floor and the marquetry walls. Is it just me, or does a properly crafted environment reflect a properly crafted product? Luxury can be off– putting but efforts have been made here to counter this by making the store more interactive. The bottles are arranged traditionally on shelves but in addition there is a table with the entire range accompanied by sample strips; a kind of ‘taste me’ approach. This encourages a browsing of scents, of comparison and double checking. Personally I dislike having a member of staff interceding in my sniffing but I like them there when I have a question or can’t find something. This is why Liberty's often get my money, they seem quite tolerant of the customer just getting on with things.

Penhaligons are sensible to have designed their shop to appeal to different kinds of customer. In a sense this is ultra-modern, reflecting the move to niche and personally designed scents at the top end of the market. Yet is still operates within the ambit of a major commercial brand.  It is possible to market democratically whilst luxuriously and it is possible to use conventional imagery imaginatively. Shops like Penhaligons and their attitude to their perfumes and their customers are a standing challenge to an industry that increasingly relies on a faux puritanical imagery or pseudo-scientific hygiene fetish to sell products that often deserve better.  It could be countered that a quality scent doesn’t require excessive adornment but perfume, like wine is a balm and excitement to the senses. We have proved resistant to good wine being stored in cartons or sold in sterile environments, which as it is a food stuff makes more sense than in the presentation of scent. Penhaligon’s approach suits their perfumes and the shop is a joy, like suddenly coming across a violet cream in a box of plain truffles. Certainly the Malabar skin cream I was given makes me smell rather like a delicious piece of confectionery.

Padded leather wall.

 Penhaligon's website can be found here.here

Friday 23 November 2012

The two worst words in the English language ?

If you work in an environment where the sick and dying are never far you are naturally reminded of your own mortality. However I like many readers of this blog I am intrigued and fascinated by decades gone; I’m a Historian. I’d like to think of myself as having one foot in the past rather than one foot in the grave.  It is curious however, that in an age of ever increasing life spans and good health we seem less equipped to deal with the passing of time and our mortality or more to the point living the life we have fully. I’ve been struck in the last couple of months about how cautious and guarded people are: with their time, their affections and their passions. Those who are older seem constrained by what has happened to them already, often rather than learning from the past they are living by it and seem constrained and over analytical. 

More curious however is the conservatism of the young, is it a generational thing this strong sense of caution? Perhaps the post-Thatcher generations, technology savvy and entitled have been hit harder by the recession and the removal of things the baby-boomers (I’m not one) saw as ‘rights’.  It cannot be because I become from a particularly privileged group generationally (1980’s working class Britain was quite grim) that it appears that we were and remain somewhat livelier. I did always think that recession resulted in a greater appreciation of the things that matter in life: love, friends and living. Is technology to blame? After all enough money for a half pint of strongbow in a pub, an evening of leaping around in a darkened room with a noisy band or tearing around London causing mayhem were all you could do to alleviate boredom in the 80’s. No computers, no internet, no Nintendo WII. The best freely available entertaining activity generally simply required another reasonably attractive human being who was ‘up for it’. No accident that we were all fairly slim too..

Now many life decisions appear to be sadly reliant on one of the worst words in the dictionary: ‘caution’. I’m not complaining about common sense but caution- that mealy-mouthed Daily Mail of a word. The word that stops people from trying things, jumping in feet first, asking people out, having fun, staying up late, taking a punt, having a fling, placing a bet. Caution results from being scared, nervous, underestimating yourself and others and every time it wins it results, to my mind, in a small death. 

I don’t mean you should do things you don’t want to, or dangerous things or that you have to be some insane loud lunatic throwing dice in the air although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The phrase: ‘throwing caution to the wind’ has a meaning of liberation and freedom  for a good reason. Caution is not ‘taking care’, rather it is not caring; a flattening of experience. So we end up with corporate clothing, corporate lives, dull lives. I’m not known as a cheerful soul myself but I have made the trade-off between hard work and wealth in favour of useful work and enough to pay my way. Enough to spend a good weekend (just gone) at Rhythm Riot, the rockabilly weekender with hundreds of people who were together and determined to enjoy themselves. Every single risky decision I have made has done me no actual harm, caused no regrets and more often than not enriched the life I have managed to have so far.

In the happy bus at Rhythm Riot (picture courtesy of Bex Shaw).

Enjoyment and pleasure in others, the world, your surroundings is an admirable aim not an irresponsible one. If you can help others to feel the same even better if this can be done without causing problems or at cost to others. Because if one truism really is a truism it is that life is very, very very short.  

NB: the other word I dislike is ‘Stilton’

Thursday 1 November 2012

All Tomorrow's (and yesterday's and today's) Parties.

It is only appropriate now that Halloween has just passed us by like a phantom in the hallway and the festive season fast approaches that I find myself having read two very different books on the subject of parties: Suzette Field’s ‘A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature’ and Angel Adoree’s ‘The Vintage Tea Party Year’. One is concerned with the literary form the other with the literal..

A Curious Invitation
In literature the party can indeed be a curious thing. As a device it is extremely useful yet demonically difficult to write. Try it. The combination of ambience, multiple characters and narrative are a challenge. Most of us can rely on the anthropological mesh of convention to hang our own idea of what an event is upon: weddings, Christmas parties, bar mitzvahs. The party in literature is a crucial route in writing to bring characters together in a way that we can recognise and personally I find it far more convincing than the convention of accident. For me it is more natural that an Austen heroine should be made to wince at a Ball than be scooped up by a handsome stranger in a storm. Where would the traditional British crime novel be without the cocktail party, surely as essential to the genre as a locked room? We all, love them or loathe them, find ourselves in a party at some point in life and they provide a microcosm of all the loving and loathing and hating and joy life provides. 

It is therefore surprising that a book on this subject has not yet been written and fortunate that it has been written by someone so well qualified to do so.  I used to go to a lot of parties, events and balls before I was ill and it is how I am acquainted with the writer. She was and is involved in throwing parties, soirees and events that sometimes frankly defy description.  It may be that throwing a good party requires the same insights as the creation of an imaginary one and I feel that this reveals itself not only in the quality of the writing in this book but the choices the author makes. You may, like me, find there are some included that are surprising and others that are omitted. I was delighted to see The Masque of the Red Death Party from Poe's eponymous work, The Beverly Hills Party (Hollywood Wives, Jackie Collins) and Satan’s Rout (The Master and the Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov) included in the selection.  I would have added one of Anthony Powell’s or Ford Madox Ford’s parties myself, there are several memorable examples. But this is one of the points of the book, it makes you think about what you have read and how novelists write about the party. It would be a good read for a book club; another kind of party.

Suzette Field (photo Sin Bozkurt)
The party, the get-together, the piss-up.  These may be viewed as ephemeral, flippant and superficial to some degree in literature. Suzette Field’s book is a firm reminder that this is not in reality the case. Cinema gets this. Think of the wedding in The Godfather, or a film such as Greenaway’s The Cook The Thief His wife & Her Lover. Even Star Wars contains in its early scenes characters partying away in Chalmun’s Cantina.  

It does seem that we plan our parties today with less attention, less finesse. The excuse is ‘lack of time’, but this cannot be true. Do we have less leisure time than our grandparents? I look back at photographs of knees ups in the depressed twenties and wartime Britain. Decorations, special food, special clothing and special drinks. My favourite picture is of my great grandparents in early fifties austerity Britain wearing jaunty cowbow hats decorated for some reason with bells. Now we have more time, more money but we farm our events out to ‘planners’, buy in all our food and decorations, the latter often cheap and shiny.  The holding of an event is a chore rather than a pleasure and one of the most endangered social creatures at present seems to me to be the thrower of parties for the sake of it, the salon hostess, the master or mistress of ceremonies.

The Vintage Tea Party Year

The other book about parties I have read recently is Angel Adoree’s The Vintage Tea Party Year. Don’t be too taken in by the ‘vintage’ element of the title, this book is not another field guide to polka dots, cupcakes and penny black nostalgia. It contains recipes, but many are meaty, strongly flavoured, unusual and historic in origin and flavours. The book is quirkily and charmingly designed and suggests ideas for parties, not necessarily tea based. There is plenty of alcohol involved too. What is refreshing here is Angel’s mission to suggest that flamboyance, imagination and not too much effort should be put into holding things. I commend her suggestion that written invitations should be used (we all rely too much on the horror of the Facebook invitation) and that any kind of object can be brought in to make a party memorable. It is really not a case of spending money, showing off or making your life stressful. I can vouch for the recipes which are makeable, some are simplicity itself. This isn’t a prescriptive book, it is creative and inclusive, I particularly enjoyed the chapter which suggested that, shock, horror, the boys might want to play with tweed, alcohol, savoury food and male fripperies without a frilly petticoated girl-wife in sight. Despite the physical charm of the book there is something subversive here; don't buy it, don't do it the way the glossies tell you to do it, don't get new stuff, make it, grab stuff where you can if it suits....

Any one can make a cheese and pickle sandwich...
I think the books actually work quite well together, even though they are very different. I’d be delighted to receive both in a hamper with a bottle of champagne, a waitrose voucher and an exhortation to ‘have a ball’.  In these mealy-mouthed times of corporate boredom, mass-produced living and sheer ennui our contribution to ending the recession should be to spending our time making some investment in our social lives and trying to make life a little less mundane.

 'A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature. Suzette Field (Picador 2012)
‘The Vintage Tea Party Year’ Angel Adoree (Mitchell Beazley 2012)

Both hardback, both available on Amazon.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Goodwood Revival 2012

It has been a while since I posted here, Summer raced by and what a nasty wet one it was. Now it is shocking to see the mince pies on the supermarket shelves and a pleasure to see the leaves change colour; Autumn is my favourite season.

The stand out event of the last month was for me the Goodwood Revival. I haven’t been before, I am not a ‘petrol head’ and have always been more drawn to the horseracing. This year however things came together, I was able to join the Chap Magazine Olympiad crowd who had been invited to display their sporting prowess at the event.  Additionally a kind friend was prepared to put me up in Lewes which is one of my favourite English towns. I knew it would be a good weekend when I arrived and a cosy drink in the Lewes Arms was followed by a delicious meal prepared by my friend’s parents.

Fleur de Guerre (photo), Bethan and myself on the flying chair thingy.

I knew that the Goodwood Revival was the ‘vintage’ inclined event and that Goodwood had dabbled with the scene by holding with Wayne Hemingway a Goodwood Vintage event a couple of years ago which had spawned various controversies. At the same time I was aware this was a serious three day weekend of motor racing, motorbike racing and aeroplane fly bys and displays.  I was not sure how I would find this, I don’t even drive. In fact I did actually have to stop one friend mid eulogy about some automobile engine and say ‘I am very sorry but I don’t have the faintest idea what you are talking about’. Basically for me a car is pretty, glamorous or suits my outfit. I care rather more about the person driving it and whether I can have a ride in it than any technical specifications. But I do have to say there were a great many very very pretty cars. There is also pleasure to be derived from being around enthusiasts having a great time in nearly all environments ( although some things, like dogging, or EDL demos are best avoided).

Gustav lighting the Olympic Pipe.

There was a great deal to keep the vintage/retro/history fiend busy. The roar of racing engines is a fine backdrop to pootling around in your finery, even better were the aeroplanes whizzing around the skies, wellington bombers, spitfires and on one evening a plane with a brightly lit propeller were constantly whizzing through the skies distracting you from the shopping, drinking, eating and automobile porn all around. 

My 40's housewife look.

Retro wise there was something for everyone.  There were various high points. I loved the jolly faux fight between mods and rockers outside the retro Tescos, just typing that makes me smile. The Dad’s Army re-enactors were fun, and whilst in forties civvy street clothing on the Sunday I found myself flanked by Lance Corporal Jones trying to give me some sausages and Private Joe Walker trying to sell me black market nylons. Shortly after this we had a very civilised cup of tea with Harry and Edna in their CC21 display area.  Nearby there were also live camels, party of a Lawrence of Arabia themed exhibit.  The Chap Olympiad fitted extremely well into all this, providing an extra dose of surreal nonsense and particularly delighting families, after all what child is not entertained by men in hats battering each other with umbrellas? We were ‘on’three times a day, the audience were happy to participate and groups of people came back to watch it again.  There was a diverse range of entertainment available, including Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer in the Speckled Hen Tent and Black Elvis in the Butlins tent. There was also dancing, lots to drink and eat and of course, the racing. 

Chap Olympiad participants.

This is an expensive event, but unlike some others I won’t be churlish enough to mention it was good value. The sheer number of vehicles, the racing, the vintage events, the shopping and the atmosphere were excellent. Lord March and his team seem to be pitching it very well to appeal to a wide range of visitors whilst, despite the crowds still maintaining an element of glamour.  I would love to obtain access to some of the ‘clubs’ and private pavilions but was very happy to meander around generally. The cold war theme adopted this year was applied with humour, I particularly liked the Sputnik satellite that had crashed by the entrance.  This event is great fun and I am looking forward to next year. I could even grow to like the smell of petrol and the roar of engines..


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