"In the 70s and 80s, perfume wasn’t the sexy subject it is today. Nothing was known about it, people thought Chanel was mixing up perfumes herself! Scent never used to be talked about, but now it is; it’s such a big subject, there are books about it, the internet’s full of it. And I think a large part of that is due to this shop."
So says Les Senteurs' perfume archivist and expert James Craven, whose soundbites on scent - like the one above - are extremely insightful. (So much so that this article is quite a lengthy one - as I couldn't bear to leave anything out.) The shop itself - a collection of the rarest and finest niche scents - has achieved cult status among perfume lovers. Fragrance maverick Lizzie Ostrom of Odette Toilette - author of the book Perfume, A Century of Scents- holds many of her famous scent-themed events here too.
The shop is just a short walk from Marble Arch station and stocks some of the biggest names on the niche perfumery circuit, from historical perfumeries such as Creed, Robert Piguet, Knize and Caron, to cult brands like Etat Libre D'Orange, Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Frederic Malle, together with up and coming fragrance houses like 4160 Tuesdays and Pozzo di Borgo. And at the helm of Les Senteurs is James Craven, as colourful and charming as the rest of the shop, a bit like the famous Mr Wonka of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with confectionary being replaced by perfumery. Having amassed considerable fragrance knowledge working on the shop floor of Harrods for the likes of Annick Goutal, a chance meeting led him to working with the founders of Les Senteurs - and he's been inspiring and entertaining their extensive clientele and die-hard fragrance fans ever since.
As I'm shown around, I ask James if he has a soft spot for any particular scents. "It does change, I love the [Maison Francis] Kurkdjian Oud Velvet Mood, there’s something so dark and austere about it. I like to wear it when I’m quite alone, I think it’s such a solitary scent - a great wine-coloured velvet curtain goes around you in a sort of cocoon and I find it very calming and dark and still. I love these new ones like Iris Palladium by Les Eaux Primordiale; after all my years of working in scent, it’s really got me on to iris as an ingredient. They’ve got a lovely fresh twist to them without doing anything dramatic, they’re considered and polished and perfect. I love the Heeley Parfums range - especially Esprit du Tigre, as Mr Healey himself says, you should always have a rogue card in the pack, to stir people up a bit. Do you remember tiger balm? This is what this is all about. Animalic and curious, it’s odd, it’s a perfume to think about, not necessarily to buy. Something to talk about, and devise your own way of wearing it. A lot of women are fascinated by it, but don’t know what they’d do with it. But yes the alpha male who doesn’t think too much would buy it too. It can be quite semi-mystical and thoughtful, it can be witty as well."
"Then there's this old Austrian one, Knize Ten which you can read all sorts of things into: rubber, tyres, hot tarmac, leather. When you look at the official fragrance pyramid it’s a classic oriental but it’s got a wonderful winter presence. If you wear it in November, it's very magnificent indeed. Like a great, big, all-enveloping, slightly too hot coat. Very typical of that period, a lot of it is hay and a lot of coumarin. And then that use of tobacco, leather vetiver and musk too of course. I love this Gardenia by Isabey Paris as it’s so lush. It’s a reworked formula, but the origin goes back to 1924. It’s emphatically a fantasy gardenia - it lives up to its title. Isabey scents were inspired by the style of Patou and Poiret - who were influential in the 20s and 30s and were revived in the 21st century. It’s the sense of luxury, each one’s got a particular texture as well as a particular small. They don’t hedge their bets, they don’t hold anything back. There’s a lovely luscious softness to them."
And are there any best-sellers? "It’s hard to say overall. Frederic Malle is probably the best-selling range and within that, it’s likely to be Carnal Flower (created by Dominique Ropion). But it does change all the time. This one, Teint de Neige by Lorenzo Villoresi is popular with Middle-Eastern ladies, but doesn’t appeal that much to others. It’s got this wonderful soft powderiness to it. It defies all expectations, it’s delicate and pale - reflecting the idea of snow with the afternoon light on it. And perhaps an Edwardian powdered face looking out of the window at the snow and a hint of very fine powdered sugar on the top of a merengue or a wedding cake, shimmering like a veil. It's a great wedding scent, it won't overshadow the bride but acts as a wonderful scented halo."
Les Senteurs is based both here and on Elizabeth Street in Belgravia - but the first ever branch was on Ebury Street ("a tiny little slip of a shop!") in 1984. It was founded by Elizabeth and the late Michael Hawksley (the couple's daughter Claire still works alongside James in running the shop). "Betty’s got French ancestry and always had a great love of perfumes, while Michael had already worked in fragrance, on the management side of things," James explains. "They had a very simple and clever idea that was completely revolutionary and off to wall at the time: trying to define the concept of niche perfumery. They began to stock all of these completely unheard of (in those days) new and vintage eclectic scents that they both loved. They had a passion to introduce these to the British public who had been stuck between Duty Free and the department stores."
Indeed, rather than just picking out a perfume - it's the experience of shopping here that attracts fragrance fans from far and wide. "We're not just here to sell, but also to educate people who wanted to come and explore perfume. We don't analyse them and say ‘this is the scent for you’ but to go with a customer and teach them how to pick out the right fragrance for themselves."
What makes a good perfume in his opinion if there is such a thing? "It has to be memorable- it should be like a good friend or a good relationship; the character doesn’t reveal everything of itself at first smell. A really good perfume like the classics, has always got to keep something back. I’m thinking of Knize Ten - I love it, but I don’t love it unreservedly. That keeps my interest in it going. Also L’Heure Bleu by Guerlain, that’s another one I keep going back to; I’m fascinated by it, I’m drawn to it, but there’s still something odd about it."
"A perfume has to have that mesmerising quality like Greta Garbo, it can't just be an open book! And then I think it’s got to stand the test of time and got to say a little something. Maybe its use of ingredients or its composition. I’m not a great fan of ‘quirky’ or overly original oils, but I love to smell a new rose perfume or a new citrus. It doesn’t necessarily make a great perfume to stick to the classic palette, but I think a lot of even young perfumers do. That’s always very fascinating. I remember when the fig molecule appeared around 20 years ago, it’s now changed to a different sort of fig. And how patchouli’s changed – much drier and more refined, when it used to be so treacly and musky. So it’s going back to this idea of that restricted palette and that's what I find interesting, the way ideas are continually refined so they come around in a new cycle, having been polished and burnished and changed."
Are there are ideal ways to wear perfume? "So many people get so anxious about it ‘am I allowed to put it there? Etc” I love the much talked about Estee Lauder method, where you spray into the air and walk through it. Always use a spray as it diffuses the scent - you end up wearing far less, but it has much more of an effect, rather than splashing it on. I find, particularly with gentlemen my age, the less I wear the more I can smell it. One of the great observations you hear over and over again in perfume selling is that ‘nothing lasts!' or 'I put so much on and time and time again and I can’t smell it.' The thing is, the brain cuts out so quickly as it’s all about survival and danger, so as soon as the it recognises the smell, it decides ‘everything’s safe’. It's not a threatening smell, not a risk to life, so the brain stops registering the smell. The more you put on, the less of an effect it's going to have. It’s like putting endless sugar in a cup of tea."
"But I find that since I put on less, the brain and the nose are kept a bit more on the alert, it’s got to work harder, to ferret the scent out and I find most people agree with me. When I put on tiny drops and give it time, it’s so rich - it’s terrible if you douse yourself in it. But people think ‘more is more’. It’s also the attempt to ‘catch it’ or imprison the perfume - in a vain attempt to pin it down. The love is in the letting go!"
How about celebrity scents? Can you ever have a 'good' one of those? "Oh yes! I’m always hoping, the very fact I can’t say ‘yes this is marvellous’ probably indicates I don’t get out enough or no one has done it yet. But I think it’s perfectly possibly. Celebrity scents in essence go back a lot further. I think now you’d say No.5 was a ‘celebrity’ scent if you look at it hard enough - Chanel was certainly a celebrity. It wasn’t made when she was unknown. The problem with modern celebrity scents, and the problem with modern celebrity, is that everything happens too quickly – the celebrity appears like a mushroom overnight. A glorious glittering mushroom, but suddenly the celebrity’s there, and all the clients come and the perfume and then the whole phenomena’s gone in a couple of years."
"In themselves celebrity perfumes could be absolutely fantastic, but the problem is the rush and they don’t really reflect the person, they're just an arbitrary tie in – because they’ve got to sell, they’ve got to make money, they’ve got to get it out, get it on the shelves before anybody’s sell-by-date expires. To me, the fascination of creating such a perfume would be to study someone and have her analysed psychologically: what is her fan base? What is her allure? What makes her tick? Then you have that perfume actually capturing that, which I think is what a really good perfume does, but probably won’t have the mass appeal to drive sales. It would probably make an excellent niche perfume."
"There’s a Tilda Swinton one - Like This for Etat Libre D’Orange - which we sell and it does catch what one has seen of Ms Swinton in the films; it gives a wonderful purity and I think you see that. Then you have Elizabeth Taylor's famous scents, White Diamonds, Passion etc. in the 80s. Apparently, she made far more money out of those than in the rest of her career put together. They were hugely successful and caught a specific aspect of Liz. They weren’t my cup of tea, but I can see the connection with Elizabeth Taylor at that phase of that third quarter of her life, that overblown gaudiness before she came 'Martyr Elizabeth' in the last act. I can see why they were popular. But a lot of these modern ones you can’t. You have fragrances related to famous male sportsmen which have no connection at all, just a generic man’s green scent!"
"There was a scent called Fleurissimo by Creed, which was worn by Grace Kelly and was made to commemorate her wedding. It’s statuesque, it’s blonde, it’s mature, it’s womanly - you can see a lot of Grace Kelly in it. It’s not a celebrity scent, as it wasn’t made for her as such, but that’s how a celebrity scent should be. I think should be a little portrait/vignette of the person it celebrates. When I was in Harrods years ago, I was working for Annick Goutal and would often get asked by customers for the perfume Madonna wore, or the one the Princess of Wales wore. And of course you couldn’t say outright but you could say 'this is the one Madonna is said to favour...' And the scent in question was a very light citrus cologne, completely far and away what you would think the celebrity persona of Madonna is actually like. So customers expected something bold and extreme and would say to me, 'It can’t possibly be that!' Princess Diana actually liked a lot of different scents - she shopped about and wore whatever took her fancy at the time. She sometimes wore Annick Goutal's Eau d’Hadrian, but also liked Miss Dior and Diorissimo."
Does he have a favourite decade of perfumery? "Ah that’s a nice question! I jump about a bit, I think probably the end of The Great War - not exactly the 1920s, but little but longer - 1918 to 1930. There were so many dazzling orientals and chypres - Caron was in its heyday, as was Guerlain and Poiret. Then there was Jean Patou, early Helena Reubensteins and Arden, Scaparelli started, Lanvin etc. All the perfumes were so full-bodied and experimental - it was a time of taking such risks and seeing ‘lets see what happens when you break all the rules of perfumery, and do this - forget about measurements etc.' And from that we got scents like Guerlian's Shalimar, and Jean Patou's Joy, and Chanel No. 5 with all the wonderful stories that surround them. It doesn’t really matter if they’re true or not, even nowadays in their slightly more reduced forms, they’re so explosive and exciting. So yes, I love that era."
"I like the decade we’re in now, much to my own surprise. Today's perfumers can do absolutely anything - and have really come to the forefront. This is what Frederic Malle’s done so brilliantly, his lifetime achievement I think is spotlighting the perfumer, showing the individual, which has changed perfumery totally I think. It's one of the reasons why perfume has become so popular, people feel they can relate to it much more. Customers do have their favourites, they only wear creations by Pierre Bourdon or they don’t care for so-and-so perfumer etc. Perfumers have their own following now, like an actor or a writer - and it’s a much more of an interactive process, which the younger generation can relate to a lot more. There are so many exciting things coming out now - I love what they’re doing with the aquatic scents, the marine florals are now so graceful and gracious and delicate. And they've become what they’ve always pretended to be, sparkly and salty. Those early ones in the 80s and 90s were terribly dry - they reminded me of omelettes! But now they’ve really got it down and I think that’s wonderful."
The 1940s are good too, those post-war scents by Balmain, Nina Ricci and Ma Griffe (by Carven) - all those fruity florals. I love the way the perfumes reflected the fashions at the time, the styles, the changing silhouettes and hemlines. A lot of the scents don’t quite work without those perfect accessories and tailoring. Things like Bandit and Fracas were made to be worn with a hat and gloves! It’s very fascinating!"
And has the way we shop for scents changed? "I think it’s changed totally. Buying perfume for presents has gone out the window. It’s such a personal thing - we do vouchers here and we sell consultations and they do very well. Yet in my youth I don’t think my mother ever bought herself a bottle of perfume, she always wore it but wasn’t very interested in it. I think my father bought her a bottle, but it was like shoes and stockings - another one of those must-have items. So I think now women and men now go shopping with an interest in their own scents, and that’s part of having more knowledge."
Is there a way you would advise someone to shop for a scent? “Go alone! Never take a friend, PLEASE don’t take a friend! It’s fatal. If it’s more than two, it’s even worse. Even if it’s your best friend or the love of your life, you’re not smelling the same thing exactly. It’s the same scent but your brain’s interpreting it in different ways. Everything gets in the way and you can’t concentrate - you need to be on your own. It should be one of those lovely days when you go shopping and everything seems to click into place - you find what you’re looking for. Go when the mood takes you, not snatching time between other things - it’s not going to work. Buying perfume is more than simply buying a pair of shoes, you’ve got to adjust your mind so much. Your sense of smell changes depending on how relaxed or stressed you are. Don’t rush it - it’s fun to think about, it’s fun to try it on, have a little walk, come back the next day and see if you still like it. Perfume shopping is still a luxury, so it’s the joy is equally about the anticipation of buying it, as much as the realisation.".
Les Senteurs are based at 2 Seymour Pl, London W1H 7N (open 11am - 7pm, closed Sundays) and 71 Elizabeth St, London SW1W 9P (open 10am - 6pm, closed Sundays).
020 7183 584