Thursday, 8 January 2009

"Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends" - Coco Chanel

The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury - Charlie Chaplin

Credit crunch, M&S closing 25 branches, clothing labels shutting up shop, Debenham's profits down, luxury goods sales waning...

I recently read Dana Thomas' Deluxe - How Luxury Lost Its Lustre. It examines the luxury goods industry, from how it's produced to how it's marketed and consumed, and speculates on what value it has lost, now that £1500 bags are produced in Chinese factories by poorly paid teenage girls and every other woman totes an LV logo around in some form or another. At the same time it studies the old guard of luxury goods - Hermes' equestrian roots... oldskool luxury perfumers (Chanel's Jacques Polge, creator of the Les Exclusifs range, gets airtime, as does a jolly French farmer from Grasse who grows the exquisite flowers that go into Chanel's perfume)... the mills and weavers in Florence that supply the rarest silk for the most sumptuous of purposes (couture gowns, the walls of the Kremlin)... and an insane, sprawling Brazilian department store that is run like a salon and sells everything from couture to cars, with a personal shopping ethic that goes beyond imagination.

It's not written for the anti-consumer but the discerning customer and the jaded shopper. Her message is not 'stop buying', but 'stop buying indiscriminately' - it's an entreaty to respect the quality of personally crafted things, and know the difference between conglomerates that buy up every company going [and the companies that end up under their wing], and companies that nurture the highly skilled artisans that contribute to their luxurious reputation and preserve a little old-time plushness. It's a book for people for whom spending big doesn't automatically equal living well. I am an unabashed snob and have long despised the culture of logos and averagely made It-buys, from the LV print and 'luxe' handbags to sleb-designers and ubiquitous high-street horrors, and while Deluxe could have been more damning of the repulsive conditions that spawn much of what we consume, it's a pretty engaging read.

Luxury to me this month is...

...reserving an hour and a half before bed to watch French noir thriller I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, with a small cold glass of orange liqueur, homemade and gifted by Italian friends
...spending £42 in Liberty on a full set of glossy black cotton bed sheets and duvet covers with pretty white piping for a quarter of their usual price - a little piece of bitesize, enveloping luxury without the financial implications!
...tidying my house with a vengeance, throwing out mountains of inhibitous old junk I haven't needed for years, leaving space to make my habitat look exactly as I want it to... and stretching out in the newly freed up space for days after
...a chocolate orange all to myself, consumed e-e-e-ever so slowly.

(I was happy to hear that Liberty's profits are bouncing along healthily, winking merrily at her ailing peers. Dear old Liberty - well bloody deserved. What a luxury that shop truly is - even if one wanders through its wooden halls and spends nothing, it feels like time beautifully spent, from the flower stall at the entrance to the towering piles of Turkish rugs on the third floor. Long may she rumble on.)


Monday, 5 January 2009

"The woman who does not perfume herself has no future"

Chanel No 5 was always my favourite scent, and until recently, the only one I wore. But I think it's time to shelve it.

...she says, having just got a new bottle of the eau de parfum for Christmas, and indulged herself with a tiny wee bottle of the pure parfum as well.

Wonderful and timeless as it is, I have lately felt the desire for a more unusual, less readily available scent.

I'm extremely selective about perfumes - I don't like the idea of them being produced in vast laboratories and sold to fit a marketing brief, as is the case with so much perfume [I'm reminded of a satirical quote in a book that I do not have to hand, so I will roughly quote it - "We want a perfume for a woman! What kind of woman? Every woman! Modern but classic... Confident, and liberated - but not too much so!.] And I loathe the phenomenon of the 'celebrity perfume'. I like the romantic idea of a company employing a 'nose', an olfactory auteur who creates scents inspired by a memory, a visit long ago, a palace, a souk, an old lover, a wish... someone who seeks out the best organic ingredients they can and makes something beautiful out of it. How much this comes into play with even my favourite perfumes, I don't know, but at least companies like Patou, Chanel and the fiercely independent perfume branch of the Sisley name [still held onto by the original family whose names are inscribed on every bottle] make a good show of it.

I bought Sisley's Eau de Soir a few months ago - a chance discovery after my mother brought back two tiny, inch-high sample bottles she found in a Belgian junk shop - the perfume had degraded a little, but not enough to quell my curiosity, so off I went to my nearest Sisley counter. I wouldn't wear it every day - it's too heady. But with certain occasions, certain dresses, certain shoes, certain people, it's just right. I wore it to a huge Christmas party where everyone was dolled up in 50s attire, and teamed it with a swooshy skirted, high-necked backless black & white Marilyn dress and pink patent peep-toe shoes, and quiffed hair. On holiday in Rome, too, it was just right for every day as I always dress a little more 'up' on holiday. And I love its simple bottle with the mysterious gold top. But it's too bold and uncompromising for me to truly love it.

The answer: Chanel's Les Exclusifs - the range that Chanel released a couple of years ago, comprising a few originals and six newies. I went looking for a bottle of No 5 parfum in Rome's Chanel store, and decided to try them out instead - any Chanel or perfume connoisseurs will already be well aware that the Exclusifs range can only be bought in Chanel boutiques, and come only as a 200ml Eau de Toilette. I think at heart I will always cling to Chanel perfume. My favourites are Coromandel and the very oldskool Cuir de Russie. The latter is dry and elegant and very grown-up, and I like it but think I might get slightly bored of it if I tried to wear it regularly. 31 Rue Cambon is one I can see myself liking in years to come, but not yet. But Coromandel has stolen my heart completely.

It's a strange, quixotic scent... very sweet, and at first sniff I wrote it off. But some of it rubbed off on my sleeve, and all throughout dinner that evening, it pestered me maddeningly. The more I inhaled it, the more I wanted it. It changes as you wear it, and for an eau de toilette, clings wonderfully - it doesn't fade off until you shower. It starts sweet and very perfumey, but within a few minutes of wear, it settles into your skin, and as the day goes on, it shifts and changes, and smells increasingly edible. It's remarkable - it's like it's alive. I've never smelled anything like it. And it's packaged with perfect Chanel simplicity - a sturdy, plain bottle with a spray and satisfying magnetic cylindrical lid, on a black card plinth under a stiff white cardboard box.

I will still wear No 5 when I want something very understated. But Coromandel... I am in love. £140 for a 200ml bottle, and I think it will be worth every penny. I can see myself wearing this for years.