The ULTIMATE French Pharmacy beauty product shopping list

French Pharmacy productsIt’s no secret that I have a French love affair. They really know how to create the perfect balance between function, design, effect and value in beauty products. A bit of background: I know a lot about skincare and cosmetics because unbeknownst to me, my lifelong career started by selling fragrance and cosmetics as a teenager (mumble-mumble years ago…ok, in the 80s. I walked to work at the beauty counter of a nearby hypermarket after school on Fridays and worked weekends and holidays). I say unbeknownst because 1) I love that word and 2) I really thought I would become a linguist or a writer – everyone else did, too. Of course I did actually become a writer, but very much as a twin to my fragrance and beauty career. You may have noticed I write about fragrance and beauty a lot.

So I’ve spent most of my life trying out products, being trained on them, selling them – later, training other people on them; writing training manuals and product copy – and eventually developing them and fragrances for them. Which means that when I test a new product (which I still love to do even though I’ve found my Holy Grail for almost every category – I think cosmetics are fun) – when I test a new product, I am a harsh judge. I won’t easily get seduced by pure marketing; I need the product to deliver on its promises, I need it to feel like good value for money (either because it’s so damn luxurious that it feels therapeutic just because of its “I’m-treating-myself-shush-now” value, or because the effect vs. its cost is just right).

What the French pharmacies offer me is a treasure trove. Swiss aren’t bad either – I love many Swiss products with almost equal passion, but nowhere do I feel more like a kid in a candy store than at a good French pharmacy.

French pharmacy beauty haulThe cult destination is, of course Citypharma in Paris (one can catch the Metro there very conveniently direct from Eurostar, but be warned – it’s better to drop your luggage off first because Citypharma is not a cult destination in name only; it is so in actuality, which means it is packed to the brim with shoppers and you will struggle to move among the aisles even without bags to drag around with you. Make sure to wear comfortable clothing, have a list ready and be prepared to queue).

Happily, almost every product I would normally have to hunt down from various retailers or haul over in person from Paris is now conveniently available online. I say almost every, because some of the best-kept secrets haven’t yet made it over, and one of them can’t because it’s classed as a pharmaceutical.

When I first discovered that Escentual.com in the UK has a ‘French Pharmacy Month’ every now and then, I was skeptical – but it turns out they have curated a great collection of products and during this recurring promo, sell them at 1/3 off retail price, making them cheaper than buying them in person from France (not taking your travel costs into account – I’m assuming that most people would go to France on holiday or to work and not to speficically to stock up on beauty products. But I know a few people who’d probably do the latter without batting an eyelid. Myself included). Therefore, below, I’ve linked to Escentual.com whenever I list a product they stock, because they tell me they’re about to run another 1/3 off French Pharmacy in July and it’s honestly the best place to just get it all in one go (I’ve been singing them praises long before I started talking to them about what they stock, so this is a genuine recommendation, not influenced by them in any way. I’m always grateful when someone makes it easier – and cheaper – to get hold of my favourites).

So what should you look out for? I’ve compiled a list based on products I’ve tried; friends and professional contacts of mine have tried and loved – and can now present you with the Ultimate French Pharmacy Beauty Product List:

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Anti-ageing products

Now, I have been told by a few people that I look younger than my age (on being told I’m 44, Anaïs Biguine recently called me Dorian Gray’s sister, which was a bit overkill, but an amusing compliment nevertheless) and that’s largely due to lucky genes, lack of drinking & smoking and a lifetime of hiding from the sun. However, I also know what to look for in an anti-ageing product. Sunscreen is the most anti-ageing product you can buy, so find a good one you can wear every day* and increase the SPF during summer (especially during holidays). Don’t forget to monitor your vitamin D levels (mine are naturally low so I have to take a daily supplement anyway).

*Although not French Pharmacy, my Holy Grail for this category comes from Shu Uemura – their underbase mousse is all my face sunscreen wishes come true in one product (high SPF, no irritation or allergy to it, smoother appearance of pores; a make-up base and skin tone corrector).

  1. Baume A313The first product I will recommend is one of the ones you will have to hunt down in person, have a kind friend send over to you, or find a reputable online stockist for. It is worth it. Every decent dermatologist swears by various vitamin-A based (retinol; tretinoid) treatments – when used together with a good sunscreen and moisturiser, these products can really reverse and hold back signs of ageing AND keep blemishes under control. The trouble with prescription-strength products is often that, well, a) you need a prescription, and b) they are harsh and can have side-effects. Not so with the wonder product that is A313 Vitamin Pommade (the closest replacement to the deservedly-cult-hit-among-those-in-the-know, Avibon). My special ‘sauce’ mix for A313 is this: take a small pea-size drop of the balm and blend it with an equal amount of a gentle moisturiser (I like to use La Roche Posay Baume B5 for this as it has a calming effect on skin). Blend to a paste, smooth over face at night, avoiding eye area – wake up to skin that looks like a baby’s bum. You can do these as treatments every now and then for a few days, or use mixed in with your night cream on an ongoing basis. Some peeling may occur if you do your retinol treatment on-off-on-off (your skin eventually builds a tolerance to it), but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being on retinol if you’re about to go on a sunny holiday – soothing, calming creams at night and high SPF during the day work better in those circumstances. This is the best actual anti-ageing product I’ve ever tried and I love it.
  2. Vichy isn’t far behind as far as anti-ageing is concerned and their Vichy Liftactiv Advanced Filler is what I was using as an anti-ageing night treatment before I discovered A313. It is still a really good option, especially if you don’t feel like hunting down a specialist product and it really delivers – remember to wear a high SPF during the day and to soothe your skin with calming products while undergoing this kind of treatment (more about calming products below).
  3. Vichy Normaderm Anti-Age is my go-to everyday moisturiser because it is the perfect product for ageing combination skin – it keeps my skin clear, it doesn’t feel greasy during those times when almost everything else does, and it hydrates just enough (unlike many product designed to help with blemishes).
  4. Vitamin C is very difficult to keep stable (it breaks down in contact with air) and a lot of vitamin C treatments don’t really do a lot – however, Lierac has a wonderful, zesty vitamin C serum – Lierac Mesolift Serum, which I wrote about here.
  5. Another vitamin C hero is La Roche Posay Redermic C treatment – clarifying, tightening anti-ageing product that actually does something. You could alternate with retinol.
  6. La Roche Posay also has Redermic R for face and eyes – worth trying, especially the eye cream, as the eye area rarely gets such good anti-ageing treatment (the stronger products shouldn’t be used near the eyes).
  7. Clarins Lotus oilAnother special treatment that’s both wonderful for your skin and keeps blemishes in check is Clarins Lotus face oil – and this is one of those incredibly good value luxury products because you really only need a couple of drops to do your whole face. Our skin loves natural vegetable oils (which are the base of this product) because they are highly compatible with the oil our own skin produces. The Clarins face oils are a beauty classic worth exploring for every skin concern.

Glow and moisture

  1. Vichy is a real winner here again – they have several products which are real heroes in their category. My favourite is probably Vichy Lifactiv serum 10 supreme – it contains high amounts of the humectant ingredient hyaluronic acid and if you use it under a good moisturiser, it will plump up your skin and keep it really well hydrated. Don’t use hyaluronic acid products on their own in dry atmospheres because the ingredient is so good at finding and holding on to moisture that it might end up sucking the moisture out of your skin if it can’t find it somewhere else.
  2. Happily Vichy is also a good brand for moisturisers – and their Vichy Aqualia Thermal moisturiser for normal & combination skin is my go-to cream when my skin is feeling thirsty. It has a light, fresh scent, it absorbs perfectly, and doesn’t leave the skin feeling greasy. They also do a version for dry skin, which is richer for those who need it.
  3. Vichy idealiaVichy Idealia range is wonderful for when you’re looking a little sallow, or just want to have glowing skin that gets people telling you that you’re Dorian Gray’s sister. I wear the serum and the cream on days when I know I’ll be on camera or on days where I’ve not had enough sleep – it’s a little glowing secret which I guess is now not so secret any more.
  4. Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentré is a cult product for a good reason – it is a fantastic all-round moisturiser; really hydrates, has a light floral scent and doesn’t irritate skin. It works beautifully on its own, over serums, or under SPF and make-up. When I worked as a make-up artist, it was important to have products in your kit that would be as universally suitable and safe as possible – this fits the bill. It is a pleasure to use, too, and treats skin gently but effectively.
  5. Nuxe products are pretty legendary and for a good reason – they are a sensual pleasure to use and do what they claim. My new favourite is the Nuxe Rêve de Miel Hand & Nail Cream which has a gorgeous lightly honeyed, slightly floral scent and which absorbs into painfully dry hands fast, meaning you can use it frequently until your hands feel soft and lovely again.
  6. I am also a fan of the Nuxe face masks – especially the Nuxe Crème Fraiche de Beaute Masque which is my favourite emergency moisture treatment to date.
  7. For dry, irritated skin, one of the best products you could try is Avène Cicalfate Repair cream which has a blend of micronized copper sulphate and zinc sulphate designed to soothe and repair. Its antibacterial action treats skin on face and body and it is suitable for adults and children. I have used it on irritated skin on the body and it works wonders. The texture is rich, so a little goes a long way. Many skin problems are due to disturbances in our skin’s natural barrier action (we have a protective layer of friendly microflora and sebum which can get disrupted when too many harsh products are used, when ill and so on).
  8. If your skin is dry, irritated and you needs an SPF product for the day, try the sunscreen version of La Roche Posay B5 balm – a rich, protective layer to help your skin heal and protect you from the sun at the same time.

Beauty sprays, removers and special treatments

  1. La Roche-Posay Serozinc Spray is a surprise skincare hero – it’s a zinc spray that calms down angry rashes, blemished skin and redness. It is an absolute staple here and it’s one of those products you can easily fill your suitcase with so leave room if you’re buying in person (I squished in two bottles on a recent trip).
  2. Caudalie Beauty Elixir is a wonderful addition to almost any beauty arsenal; it hydrates skin, boosts radiance and can be used to set make-up.
  3. Micellar waters became all the rage when the world at large realised it’s what all the French women in the know were using to remove their make-up. The idea is that while oil and water don’t normally mix, it is possible to create a solution where a little bit of oil is in suspension in the water-phase, and when you use them, there is no need to rinse unless you want to – making them perfect travel and late night companions. Not all micellar waters are created equal, alas. I’ve used one which was so poor at removing eye-make-up I threw it away. The best two I’ve tried are: Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micelle Solution and Vichy Purete Thermale One Step Cleansing Micellar Solution.
  4. RespectissimeBeauty blogger Get Lippie swears by La Roche Posay Respectissime waterproof eye-make-up remover and I trust her opinion on this (part of beauty blogging is endless make-up trials and that means a lot of removal, too).
  5. If you have a serious lip balm addiction, you may already have heard of Nuxe Rêve de Miel Honey Lip Balm. It’s a great treat for parched lips and the only issue is not trying to eat it all off.
  6. There are clearly more wonderful body lotions in France than you can shake a stick at, but one of the most tempting surely has to be Vichy Ideal Body Balm – that same kind of glowing, healthy skin for your body? Yes, please.
  7. Toleriane NuitOne of my favourite new discoveries has been La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Overnight – it actually helps repair your skin’s natural barrier which I talked about above; it moisturises just the right amount and calms down redness and irritation. If you’ve overdone other treatments, have been ill or under the weather, your skin is just acting up, or looking tired, this could be the answer. I have used this almost exclusively as a night cream while taking a break from retinol and it has made my skin more even-toned and healthy-looking.
  8. I’ve talked about a few SPF products here – but if you are looking for all-over suncare, do try La Roche Posay’s and Vichy’s ranges, both come in many convenient options from milky lightweight fluids to richer creams and are easy to wear.

Hair

  1. Klorane is a great blend of natural and effective synthetic materials, plus attractive scents; all of their ranges are great. I love the Klorane Oatmilk Gentle Dry Shampoo Spray which suits my light hair in its original formula, but is also available in a tinted version for darker hair colours. It has a very subtle fragrance and works well as both a dry shampoo and a styling product. It’s one of the best dry shampoos on the market. I also adore the shampoos and conditioners – the Camomile Shampoo for Blonde Hair is an old favourite. At least half the reason I keep returning to it is the comforting camomile fragrance.
  2. Phyto is a great natural-based hair range and I especially love their masks such as the Phytokeratine Extreme Hair Mask – it’s not silicone-laden (which my hair does need, but not in excess, so this is a nice break from that), and it strengthens weak strands post-colour and heat damage.
  3. Nuxe huileAnother cult Nuxe product is, of course, the multipurpose hair and body oil – Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Multi-Purpose Dry Oil Spray – one of the most fun products to try from this list and a treat for hair pre- or post-shampoo.
  4. For troubled hair and scalp, you could try another cult favourite – Rene Furterer Complexe 5 Essential Treatment – the whole range from Rene Furterer is worth exploring for serious hair care.

What are your French pharmacy favourites? Any that should have made the list?


Disclaimer: La Roche Posay Toleriane Night provided for review purposes by La Roche Posay UK. Nuxe hand cream, Avene repair cream, La Roche Posay B5 with SPF40, Bioderma Sensibio and Klorane Oatmilk shampoo provided for review purposes by Escentual.com. 

All other products blogger’s own. 

Review products do not influence content in any way.

Nothing in this blog post should be considered medical advice. 

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Holy Grail Interlude – these are the beauty products I never want to run out of

Holy Grail must-have beauty products

There are a few hair and beauty products that I don’t like to run out of. In fact, I get so twitchy about the prospect of being without these that I have been known to buy back-ups. There are a couple of tubes of Vichy Normaderm and several bottles of Matrix Biolage Hydrating Shampoo ‘in stock’ in my bathroom cupboard at the moment.

I’ve spent most of my life involved in beauty some way – and it’s given me plenty of opportunities to try things out. One of the most frustrating things about searching for and then finding a so-called Holy Grail (the ultimate; the perfect match for you in its category) product is that it’s not immune from being discontinued.

I’m looking at you, Clinique Gentle Light loose powder and you, Chanel Pro Lumiere foundation and you, Maybelline Lash Stiletto, and you Chanel Incognito lipstick…

And let’s not get into discontinued fragrances or I might just break down.

Sometimes it’s possible to find a replacement for a discontinued favourite; sometimes not and you have to make do with what’s available. On the Clinique Gentle Light front, I’ve come up with my own blend 50% Bobbi Brown Pale Yellow Loose Powder + 50% No7 Perfect Light loose powder. Where Pale Yellow is too yellow and too flat on its own, and the No7 powder too pink and too sheer – together they form the HG loose powder I never want to go without. (I’m a stickler for trying to get as close to my real skin tone as possible when wearing make-up. That can be challenging, when doctors have been known to squint at me and say: “are you always this pale? Let’s test you for anaemia just in case.”)

Being Finnish, I’m not as pale as our Celtic cousins, so there are some warm yellow and neutral tones that need to be carefully matched. Too ‘ivory’ and I look like a freshly awoken vampire – too ‘neutral’ and I look like a waxwork doll. Too ‘warm’ and my face looks dirty. Enter Bobbi Brown Warm Ivory Creamy Concealer – the perfect shade and the perfect concealer. It’s a creamy fully pigmented product that glides on, stays on, and blends incredibly well. No cakey appearance, no bulk, no problem.

Unfortunately blemishes don’t always vanish when you get older – at 40-something I’d really have hoped to only have to worry about wrinkles and sunscreen. But no, that would be far too easy. I struggled to find a skincare product that would somehow, magically, take care of both problems and turns out Vichy had one. I couldn’t have created a better night cream for myself if I tried. Vichy Normaderm Anti-Age is a lightweight hydrating cream with glycolic acid and I use it as a night cream for about half of the time (at other times I either use a lightweight serum with a moisturiser on top, or am treating my face with a retinol product).

With any kind of acid or retinol treatment (never mind with pale Nordic skin), you absolutely have to look after the sunscreen side of things. In fact, out of all the ‘anti-ageing’ products out there, sunscreen is the most effective. Yes, we need sunshine to be healthy and yes, a light tan can look attractive, but I don’t know a single skincare expert who doesn’t wear sunscreen on their face all year ’round and increase the SPF for holidays. With paler complexions, the SPF has to be quite high – I burn to a crisp in half an hour in full sun and even with a high SPF, I’ll get freckles no matter what. Finding a high SPF product that doesn’t turn any make-up you try to put on top into a gloopy mess – not so easy. Until you try Shu Uemura Underbase Mousse SPF35. I use the Beige one (there are shades for almost any skin tone). It’s the perfect base product  – it evens out skin tone,  makes my make-up last longer and takes care of the sunscreen problem. Now I just have to take vitamin D supplements to ward of deficiency.

There’s another primer I can’t be without – Urban Decay Primer Potion – the best eyeshadow primer in the world. One of the things they don’t tell you is that when you get a bit older, your eye make-up starts to misbehave. Eyeliner smudges. Eyeshadow gathers into creases. Not a good look. The UD Primer Potion stops this nonsense entirely. Your eye-make up will last until you’re ready to take it off.

Mascara can also run and smudge – even when it claims to be waterproof. Not so with the mascara that sounds like someone from the Fast Show invented the name of it for a Japanese sketch: Kiss Me Heroine Make Long & Curl mascara (try eBay and Amazon – I bought my first one in Tokyo a few years ago and have been schlepping it over by any means necessary ever since). It contains fibres and makes your lashes look like you’ve pinched them from an anime character. It does not smudge…or come off at all for that matter until you remove it with its special remover (which I suspect is mostly mineral oil in mascara packaging). Do not buy this mascara without getting the matching remover. Due to the difficult removal, this is not an everyday mascara (that discontinued Maybelline was… sigh), but for special occasions, it’s my HG product in this category.

Speaking of being Nordic, there’s the hair. Fine, mousey – high maintenance if you want to do anything adventurous with it. I’ve always been adventurous (even when I’m giving my hair a rest from colour and bleach, I still can’t resist getting highlights), so it requires a lot of looking after and well-chosen products. Matrix Biolage Hydrating shampoo is my Holy Grail shampoo, no doubt about it. There are others which are okay and I switch around sometimes (like the Klorane range, Redken and a few others), but I always have a bottle of the Biolage shampoo in my bathroom (and a back-up bottle or three in the cupboard). It leaves my hair feeling like hair. Like healthy, strong, clean, shiny hair. I know this sounds like it should be the basic function of all shampoos, but let me tell you – most shampoos leave my hair feeling like straw. Or stretchy plastic. Or fluff.

I use a number of ‘everyday’ conditioners which are fairly interchangeable (my shortlist of favourites: the matching Biolage conditioner, Matrix colour care conditioner, Redken, Klorane and Pureology), but when I feel my hair needs a treat or I want it to look as perfect as it can be, I reach for the Redken Heavy Cream hair mask. It might seem a little counter-intuitive to use such a product on fine hair, but a little goes a long way, and nothing makes my hair feel as healthy and soft as this product. I also have the matching leave-in conditioner for straw-hair bad hair day emergencies (though it’s easy to overdose, so go easy on it if your hair is fine like mine).

It’s not a good idea to wash your hair every day if you can at all avoid it – it’s one of the most damaging things you can do to your hair – so in-between washes, I like to use the Label M. Protein Spray to straighten out any kinks, refresh and protect in one go. Over-using a protein spray is not recommended because it’ll make your hair feel crisp and brittle, but moderate use every couple of days is just right. One of the bonus features of this product is its light and refreshing, herbal-style scent. It isn’t sickly or overwhelming like so many scents for these types of products (I don’t want my hair products to compete with my perfume and when working in the lab or evaluating other people’s scents, the last thing you want is for your hair to be a fragrant foghorn right near your nose).

I’m yet to find a replacement for the discontinued Chanel foundation (that’s a whole other blog post – I’ve spent a lot of time and money searching and tried dozens of foundations in the process), nor have I found a lip colour as perfect as Incognito (it was a mauve-y pink with gold shimmer). I’ll live.

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning MAC Studiofix in NC15 which has been my trusty touch-up companion since it was first introduced in the 90s. I used to use it as an all-over foundation with just some concealer underneath, but with older skin, powder foundation starts to look ageing and flat, so this product has now taken a secondary role.

I have to mention some fragrances, too, or this just wouldn’t be a representative list – the three scents I have gone through several bottles of in the last few years are: Mandragore by Annick Goutal, Daim Blond by Serge Lutens and Alien by Mugler. Considering that my ‘regular rotation’ has 40 or so scents in it, and that I own over 80, going through a single bottle of anything is close to miraculous, never mind several.

What about you? Any products you simply *can’t live without?

 

 

[*clearly I don’t mean this literally. It’s good to acknowledge the fact that some of us are so privileged that a discontinued lippie can count as a ‘problem’. On the days when things seem gloomy, it’s good to remember how lucky we really are to get to play with beauty products and obsess over the perfect hair conditioner. ]

 

 

Oud to Joy

Abstract smoke

There are several kinds of agarwood which, when infected with the parasitic mould (Phaeoacremonium parasitica), can produce one of those perfumery’s perversions – something heavenly out of something unfortunate (see, also: whale excrement; natural musk).

Alas. You can already see this ingredient isn’t going to be easy to mass-produce, no matter how much we’d like to. Trees take a long time to grow. Infected heartwood from a specific subset of trees  – which then has to be cut down to be processed into oil (so no more tree; no repeat harvest like with oranges or roses) – it doesn’t bode well for price and availability. Oud oil is one of the most Milli Vanilliexpensive perfumery raw materials still in use today. Which is why the majority of oud scents on the market are interpretations of the theme with a little bit of real oud in them or no oud in them at all. Sometimes another material called nagarmotha or cypriol (Cyperus scariosus) is used in oud accords. All kinds of other naturals can help tremendously – a bit of patchouli; other woods. Often oud accords are made with the help of synthetic materials – various animalic, amber and woody notes, and the results can be beautiful. And, as with all perfumery – these fragrances range from the tragic to the sublime. We get everything from the Milli Vanilli of oud to actual oud.

Real oud oil comes in a few varieties, too. There are at least a couple which have strong animalic notes and at least one which has a strong whiff of camel undercarriage dipped in gorgonzola. That oud variety is very difficult to mimic in the lab without the real thing. I’ve tried. It also doesn’t usually appeal to Western noses.

Oud as a word has been a big marketing hit for a while now. I’ve spoken to several indie perfumers who claim to have started the trend. You know something is truly popular when everyone claims credit. And you know a trend is meant to be over when it has trickled down to deodorants and fabric conditioner. We’ve had absolutely everyone and their mum jumping on the bandwagon. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’ve smelled a fragrance which was a cringeworthy combination of a Barbie-pink fruity-floral with a bit of fake oud thrown in, pushed to me on a scent strip at a posh London department store by a sales assistant whose demeanour was a cry for help: “I don’t like it either!” I’ve smelled an impressively authentic cheesy-animalic oud scent in an equally posh London department store. The fragrance felt serious, expensive, well-made and completely unwearable, bar to a highly niche group of connoisseurs.

As a consumer I don’t really care if an oud fragrance has real oud in it, but I do want the fragrance to hang together. I don’t like the idea of bandwagon-jumping, so the transparent attempts at throwing oud in just to be ‘on trend’ make me sigh. As do the scents which feature oud in the name and haven’t really managed to create an oud impression at all. On the other hand, I don’t find the ultra-authentic oud scents my cup of tea either (even though I like the smell experience itself – as an experience – just not on my skin. But I also like to smell new glossy magazines and the tar of old railway tracks and I don’t want those as a perfume either).

Something has happened to the way Western noses are calibrated towards the oud accord, though. The other day I spoke to my hairdresser about the kinds of perfumes she buys and was completely shocked to find that she buys Arabian Oud. I had her down as a happy-go-lucky celeb fragrance wearer (nothing wrong with that, by the way). My jaw dropped. What did I like to smell of when I was 21 years old? Coco Chanel. Not of camels. But here we are.

So when I was invited to meet the people behind a new brand Amouroud, I was a little concerned. Uh-oh. Aren’t they a little… late to this trend? Is this going to be a really cynical attempt to cash in? Are those glossy-looking black bottles going to cost £250? Are they going to have even a hint of oud in them?

Perfumer’s Workshop

Custom blending conceptPerfumer’s Workshop International was founded in States in the early 70s and has been creating highly commercial and successful fragrance concepts ever since. They were the first to think of bringing custom fragrance blending to department stores (long before Aveda and others had a go) and they were talking to Arabs about oud fragrances at their Selfridges perfume counter back in the 80s when virtually no other fragrance marketer in the West had heard of it.

I met the co-founder Donald G. Bauchner along with his team William Skinner and Denis Roubinet in London last week to talk about Amouroud. It’s always interesting to talk with real industry veterans and I was open to be convinced.

Trying my best to ignore all the official marketing and focus just on their own words and the scents themselves, piece-by-piece, note-by-note, the concept opened up to me. These guys have watched the oud trend be handled by others in the variety of inconsistent ways we’ve seen – and spotted an opportunity to do something better.

Has it worked?

Amouroud packaging conceptThe concept is this – use oud as an amplifier to add intrigue to other fragrance themes. Blend the notes in such a way that oud is not what jumps out, but it does something to all the other materials in the scent; something good, hopefully.

One could say that where Jo Malone scents are for people who want an elegant fragrance but find typical perfumes too heavy, the Amouroud range is for people who wish their designer perfumes had a bit more depth and interest. Amouroud is also attempting to sew together everything that is good about the oud trend and make it accessible. Those glossy black 100ml bottles? £140. For a luxury niche brand, that’s a jaw-droppingly good price. Consider that the current UK best-seller Paco Rabanne 1 Million Eau de Toilette for men retails at the equivalent of £69 for 100ml and we’re talking about a mass-market EdT strength designer fragrance. For that price point alone; that lack of cynical cashing in on ‘niche pricing’ this brand deserves some attention. They have done everything with care – worked with some fine perfumers (Cecile Hua, Patricia Choux, John Mastracola, Claude Dir and Irina Burlakova), packaged everything in beautiful bottles and cartons and have not rushed to be the first on the oud train but watched and learned from other people’s mistakes and chosen to do things their own way. I suppose in this they’re not the innovators, but the potential success story – not the Myspace and LiveJournal, but maybe the Twitter and Facebook. Remains to be seen.

Their sales technique is designed to show off the drydown – a good approach when you’ve invested money in your base notes and the main theme of your collection rests there. You are given a scent strip which was sprayed yesterday and has been kept sealed in a glass jar. So you skip to the end where the oud accord is on full display, but remnants of the main theme are still lingering. I enjoyed testing the scents I had samples of fresh, too – the comparison gave a full picture. I do think the top note and heart are an important part of the experience as well.

The packaging is perfect for the concept. The boxes are heavy card with a metal label affixed to the front (great attention to detail) and the bottles are heavy black glass with a metal label. When you purchase a 100ml bottle, you are given a travel spray of your second most favourite fragrance as a gift. How very cheeky of them to marry you to one scent and immediately enable a love affair with another.

So what about the scents?

TobacconistSay Harrison Ford was playing an incredibly wealthy Russian businessman walking past the Harrods tobacconist eating pear drops while wearing a classic woody masculine fragrance – that scene would smell of Safran Rare. This scent is old-fashioned in the best possible way. It’s a little bit showy but not trashy. It absolutely does have that luxe Harrods oud fragrance signature that one would assume from the look of this brand – perhaps more than any other in the line. But it still manages to have lightness, space and a degree of playfulness that is not what one would expect. Every one of these scents has an American twinkle in the eye.

Oud du Jour – a modern raspberry-apple fruity-floral meets oud – and is done well. What could be a mismatch is actually a seductive tango. It’s like watching a film where an older actor is paired with an actress 20 years younger and you fear they won’t be plausible as a romantic couple but instead the chemistry sizzles on screen and later you find out they had a real off-screen romance. I can’t decide if the name is meant to feel a little playful in your mouth when you say it out loud, but it does. This fragrance is full of genuine fun and contrast. I have nicknamed it Oud to Joy.

Midnight Rose opens with a popular rose – lychee theme which sings in crystal-clear tones from the top for a good while and swells to a classic green-tinged rose melody at the heart until the oud accord joins in – and doesn’t break the tune. It just provides a thrum of bass line; an amplifier. It’s like listening to a fully orchestrated cover version of a pop song. It’s beautiful. Do not be fooled by the name and expect a typical Middle Eastern rose + oud combination. This might be the most accessible of the line-up for the oud-curious.

Candy in FinlandDark Orchid – well, I am just going to have to be honest here and say my immediate impression was Tom Ford Black Orchid x Covonia cough syrup x Finnish dark liquorice … and I ADORED it from the first sniff. Adored it. There is something unsettling about Black Orchid to me, whereas Amouroud Dark Orchid is just right. This fragrance amps up all the dark, medicinal, ambery notes and that flips the scent from an apologetic attempt at a Halloween costume to a full-on drag queen out and proud, head held up high and killing it. If you’re going to dress up, go to town or go home. The more Dark Orchid blooms, the less it looks like its wallflower of a
cousin and the more it takes on its own, fabulous personality.

You’ve got to make a choice about how to lift a sandalwood – do you
stick with a woody theme (oh goodness, that was an accidental pun,
wasn’t it?) or do you build a bouquet which reveals a sandalwood
drydown? The perfumer for Santal des Indes has chosen the former
strategy and leads us to the idea of sandalwood through a woody theme –
we get that almost fizzy cola aspect of a cedarwood and incense accord on top,
which develops over time to a sensation of heat – and after a while conjured another Finnish reference for me: sauna benches. If there is a fatty sandalwood
note, I can’t quite detect it, but if it’s there, I wouldn’t be surprised if it stayed close to skin, as sandalwood often does.

Nancy PorterMiel Sauvage made me giggle with delight when I first smelled it (I have witnesses) and this is a good sign (and the last time a fragrance did that to me I bought it immediately). I also love it when the name of a scent is completely at odds with what pops into my head when I smell it (as regular readers will know). The image Miel sauvage conjured for me was that of a saucy pinup lolloping about in an abundantly overflowing bubble bath, coyly managing to keep the bubble cover just a smidgen too low around her cleavage. This scent makes me think of Camay soap ads from the 50s; of glamorous film stars on just the wrong side of saucy and fruity goings-on in a chiffon dressing gown and fluffy slippers. It’s fantastic; every time I smell it on my skin, I find myself smiling and feel the champagne bubbles of laughter beginning to form in my chest. I’m calling this Pinup and it may become one of my treasured signature scents. I love it that much. Oh – and the honey note? It’s not the urinous kind. It’s the waxy, soapy kind. Just in case my florid description didn’t make that clear.

Oud to Joy

Amouroud has nailed it. At least for people like me who were sitting on the fence about oud and were thinking it wasn’t for them. And there must be millions of us left. If you’re one such person and any of the above made you think “hmm…” run, don’t walk to a store where you can smell these scents and have a play. I think they’re worth the money and I think these guys deserve to do well.

Amouroud will be available at Harrods in the UK first. You can already explore the range in Sweden (this might have something to do with the fact that Donald’s wife Gun is Swedish. They got first dibs).

Just one more thing

I’m wondering something about oud. I’m wondering whether what we’ve got here isn’t a trend at all, but the birth of a whole new fragrance family. That would explain a lot.

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Agarwood, Milli Vanilli and  Nancy Porter images via WikiMedia Commons

Travel samples and one full bottle of fragrance provided for review purposes by Amouroud. My policy is not to review at all unless I like the fragrance(s) in question and freebies do not influence this decision in any way.

Yardley Hermina & London 1770

There almost couldn’t have been a better lure* to get me out to a press launch than combining an evening at a stationery boutique (squee!) talking about perfume (yay!) whilst learning calligraphy (wow!) – so the Yardley PRs didn’t really have to try hard to get me to come on over. I was also very curious to see what the classic British perfume house of Yardley would be up to these days because my last impression of it was that of a reliable but rather too safe a brand (though something I remember fondly from my make-up artist days when I’d always have a bottle of Yardley English Lavender cologne in my kit).
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The evening was held at Quill London and our modern calligraphy workshop was taught by the sickeningly talented Imogen Owen. We were shown how just the right amount of pressure is required to create artistic, modern calligraphy with real flair. Settling down to the exercises, I quickly realised I had no natural talent in this art whatsoever and all my early attempts looked like a daddy long legs had fallen into a large jug of Pimms No1 Cup and drunkenly swayed back and forth on a page after an accidental encounter with an ink well.

A few pages of exercises (and much diplomatic and kind encouragement from Imogen) later, I was quite happy with an ampersand. Yes. I can now draw a satisfactory calligraphy ampersand. Happily, Quill London and Yardley equipped us with a goodiebag that included everything we needed to continue practicing at home. Thank goodness.
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Yardley has been having a quiet make-over. Heritage brands can end up trapped by the very thing that made them famous in the first place. What happens when your original products are now thought of as old-fashioned and the newer generations think of them as something that just isn’t for them? Quality, reliability and brand recognition are all very nice things to have, but when we choose a perfume for ourselves, don’t we want it to be a little bit more… exciting?

Back in the 70s and 80s, you’d get a few major fragrance launches a year and the kinds of affordable mass-market fragrances that were available didn’t exactly compete with fine fragrance – they were more distinct from the fine fragrance offering.

Fast-forward to today: thousands of new fragrances each year across every price point and every conceivable market segment. We’ve got ultra-niche all-natural artisanal microperfumeries and super mass-market commercial blockbusters – and everything in-between. Consumers have more choice than ever, but this doesn’t necessarily make choosing easier. It can actually make choosing harder. And more choice doesn’t mean better quality.

It’s hard for brands to stand out and to carve a unique niche. Who needs another perfume? Why now? What’s so unique about yours?

Yardley is turning to its heritage but they seem to be up to something that could be the Holy Grail of heritage brand revival if it works – apply a modern twist to its classic knowhow and remind people that yes, we know what we’re doing and have been around for hundreds of years, but we’re also up on modern trends and what people want from their fragrance today.

One of the frustrating things about just wanting to smell good is that with all the thousands of fragrances out there, surprisingly few brands actually fulfil this apparently simple brief: an elegant fragrance that smells good and doesn’t cost more than a typical celebrity perfume.

Of course we know that a huge amount of fragrance cost comes from advertising, packaging and other elements associated with creating those big, commercial blockbusters. But that doesn’t guarantee success – it just means consumers have to pay more (and may not end up getting a better perfume as a result because perhaps the perfumer or fragrance house wasn’t given an adequate budget in the first place).

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We were shown Hermina, which Yardley describes as hitting the androgynous trend of featuring masculine notes in feminine scents (and yes, this cross-referencing is a trend that’s happening both ways at the moment). Hermina is a crisp, elegant floral-woody chypre with a tart, fig and fruit aspect and a subtle, woody drydown. It could easily pass as a launch from a leading cosmetic brand; something you’d imagine a well-dressed professional woman or a glowing English country wife wearing (as she’s preparing that giant jug of Pimms No1 Cup, blissfully unaware of its hazards to passing daddy longlegs with calligraphy aspirations).

Hermina was named after a real Yardley historical figure, the wife of William Cleaver and whose father (also William) was the first Yardley to officially own the business since the original founder. The fragrance was created by Nelly Hachem-Ruiz at IFF and retails at £19.99 for 50ml.
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We were also shown a new masculine fragrance, London 1770, and I thought I recognised the Robertet signature in it, and I was right – it was created by Jean Charles Mignon and Amandine Galliano from Robertet UK. It’s a warm, spicy, ambery fragrance that has a fruity twist and just enough patchouli and moss to give you a real feel of modern and classic in one fragrance. It smells very good, very wearable and for £19.99 for 50ml, I hope many, many men will practically bathe in it.

Having checked what other new fragrances Yardley has been launching recently, I noticed there is one called Ink – an award-winner, no less – and thought it was a bit of a missed opportunity not to at least bring a bottle of it for us to smell to a calligraphy evening. Alas!
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Oh, the notebooks! I couldn’t resist a little bit of sneaky shopping on the side. My name is Pia and I am a stationery hoarder. Aren’t these just stunning? The one on the right came in our goodiebag and I bought the other two for important freelance journo purposes. You’ll see one of them at a perfume event soon.
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I’m going to be watching what happens with Yardley with interest. Based on what I learned earlier this month at the press launch, I think they deserve to do well, and I hope their new fragrances get noticed by the right people. Modern classics in the making? We shall see.

 

* Stationery + artistic penmanship + perfume = a pretty perfect event for me, let’s face it. Now add something Moomin, Ghibli, Muppet or science fiction-related and I’d be first in the queue. That’s pretty unlikely to happen, though.

Pia’s (almost) annual perfume meet, tube strike edition

Valerie, Thomas and Freddie at Penhaligon's

Once upon a time I co-arranged the first UK Basenotes meet with Grant Osborne and a whole bunch of people came – many of whom became good friends. It’s the friends from that day and a few new ones each year who amble around London perfumeries with me. We also tend to indulge in nice things to eat – cake, afternoon tea, or exotic snacks (or lunch, ice cream, gin and chips like yesterday).

This year we changed the date from a Saturday in May to a Thursday in July because Valerie Cookie Queen Sperrer was going to be in London and we all wanted to meet her. To add to the serendipity, Odysseusm from Basenotes was in the UK all the way from Canada and I was so happy to have him join us.

Then the tube strike was announced. Irrespective of solidarity, the general reaction was very sweary. Of ALL days, it had to be the one that had been in the calendar for months AND could not be changed because we had more than one person from overseas! However, everyone shrugged it off. Ok, so there’s a strike – so.what.

We made our way in groups and alone to our first stop in Covent Garden by various means (mostly on foot) and actually, tube strike London was gloriously empty and quiet.

Covent Garden on tube strike dayWe also lucked out on the weather – warm, sunny; not too hot.

Nick Gilbert from Penhaligon’s had kindly agreed to host us in their basement and we spent the morning trashing it, more or less. Perfume bottles… perfume bottles everywhere…

Penhaligon's basementWe headed to Bloom afterwards and had a great time sniffing our way through scents and chatting. Had I known in advance that Antonio Gardoni from Bogue Profumo was going to be there at 4pm, we’d have arranged our visits another way, but our group was very good about going with the flow, so we just went to Bloom twice in one day. As you do.

Bloom Covent Garden

After our (first) Bloom visit, we had lunch at Bill’s in Covent Garden and I can’t recommend them highly enough after our seamlessly organised and tasty experience. They accomodated our large group very well and the food and service were both excellent. Will definitely be going there again!

Bills Covent GardenWe walked over to Fortnum & Mason because I wanted to take everyone to check out the revamped perfumery.

Our perfume meet group

Nick, Valerie, Freddie, Hannah, Grant, Pia, Thomas, Penny, Suzie, Steven, Samantha, Tara, Danny, Lisa, Andrew

Ice cream was also purchased (to go) from the Parlour (I had a blood orange sorbet which was perfect) and we walked back to Bloom to meet Antonio.

Ice cream at Fortnum's

Antonio is such a charismatic man that I think we all swooned a little bit… he let us smell various blends and components he uses for his perfumes which was an interesting insight into his process.

Antonio Gardoni

Some of us felt thirsty, so we headed to Nook and spent a couple of hours taking advantage of their two-for-one cocktail offer (I only had mocktails, by the way – the same can’t be said for the others…).

Strawberry mocktail

It was an absolutely fantastic day and I can’t wait to do it again next year (we’re also hoping to make some other trips in the future; tad more ambitious, but when there’s a will, there’s a way…)

Thank you to everyone who came!

An illustration interlude

Feeniks illustration by Pia Long

Hymy illustration by Pia Long

I have a whimsical hobby. I draw, paint and create photo manipulations for fun. I’m no professional artist, but have always been doodling and did originally consider some kind of art career (with hindsight, I wish I’d known about textile design when I was a teen. On the other hand, I am very glad to be working with perfumes now, and with sites like Society6 even amateurs can have a go at popping designs onto various products).

The way the templates are set up is a little bit limiting (for example using the same template for both laptop and iPad skins). My favourite template on the site is the all-over print t-shirt – I had a lot of fun designing those.

Editing t-shirt

Feeniks all over print by Pia LongEka all over t-shirt by Pia LongLento all over t-shirt by Pia LongHymy all over t-shirt by Pia LongI use Copic Ciao markers on paper and tidy any smudges from the scan in Corel Painter. That’s it for these – so the illustration quality is definitely hand-drawn and not defined and solid. I think it works for these images.

Copic markersPop over and take a look at the available products – I’ll be adding new designs from time to time (I doodle in the evenings and weekends when I want to do something creative and useful. It’s a bit like my version of knitting).

I’d really appreciate any tweets and Facebook posts to spread the word!

Revamped Fortnum and Mason perfumery – review

New perfumery at Fortnum & Mason
I’ve spent years in various perfumeries and cosmetic halls; working in them, training people who work in them and shopping in them. The re-vamped cosmetic department at Fortnum & Mason is a uniquely serene and beautiful shopping environment which I urge you to visit for yourself.

The styling is more like that of a luxury hotel lounge, and that’s a compliment as well as the only criticism – it feels like the decor and placing of products has been done to make it a luxurious and attractive setting without enough thought to practicality. There are no scent strips near fragrance testers; stock from the same company can appear in more than once place, it’s not clear whether some ranges have been split into femine and masculine or that’s ‘it’ – and the placing of products is needlessly sparse (I spotted a Guerlain I am running low on but it was the only bottle on the shelf and I did the typical “nobody buys the last bottle” thing that consumers do).

Now, on to the positives. If you have the money to spend on luxury cosmetics and perfumes but do not want to fight for room with a thousand other people pushing past you; if you are desperate for some good advice about make-up and skin care and would like amazing customer service (more like personal shopping), go to the Fortnum’s perfumery. They had me spending money, too, even though I am usually extremely picky about what I buy.

They also stock one of my favourite make-up brands of all time, Cosmetics a la Carte (it became a favourite when they cleverly partnered with London College of Fashion in the 90s and supplied products for the student kits).

I do hope this perfumery thrives (just enough so they can maintain that level of customer service) and that they will carry on buying in great indie perfumes, luxury brands and professional quality cosmetics. The skincare side could do with a little bit of expanding, but I suppose they will need to see what their customers are going for. Many gorgeous luxury toiletries and accessories are also on offer.

The Caron urns – a favourite attraction from the old perfumery – remain, thankfully, and have been joined by some other set pieces worthy of attention. Don’t take my poor phone snapshots as representative; pop in and see for yourself.