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


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