Scent Adventure – Soho (Part 1) and Greenwich Village
Soho and Greenwich Village are some of my favourite areas of New York City. Unlike Upper Manhattan where life takes place behind doors, dutifully guarded by doormen and concierges, downtown life is much more visible on the street. Down in Soho, life pulsates to the vibrant rhythm of clacking high heels on pavement as women of all ages and nationalities shop their way from one designer boutique to the next. Soho is the perfect place to perch in a café window and watch as life unfolds around you. North west of Soho, Greenwich Village works at a slower pace. At the turn of the 20th century the Village was a bohemian enclave and provided affordable accommodation to the city’s great writers and artists. Then came the beatniks and later, musicians and songwriters inhabited the area’s tenement buildings. The Village’s bohemian past still lingers, even if Bleeker Street has been gentrified and today’s real estate prices prevent anyone without a sizable income from calling the Village home. Sprinkled between Bleeker Street’s international designer residents you can still find the odd record store selling second hand vinyl and vintage clothing boutiques.
I started this Scent Adventure at the Magnolia Bakery on Bleeker Street. It has been over a decade since Carrie Bradshaw and her girl pals came here and the queue that spilled onto the pavement told me cupcakes were still a New York must-have even though the cronut (croissant + doughnut) was trending on social media as New York’s hippest baked good. A friend recommended I visit Marc Jacobs’ bookstore across the road from the Magnolia Bakery. At Bookmarc I found books in all shapes and sizes dedicated to fashion, design, culture and the odd perfume-related book.
400 Bleeker Street
If Greenwich Village is to New York, what Saint Germain des Pres is to Paris, it seemed natural that Diptyque would open a New York flagship here. The Bleeker Street boutique brings a touch of Rive Gauche charm to the Village with polished wooden floors and store fittings. While I was in New York Diptyque launched their new hourglass scent diffuser. The hourglass was filled with the brand’s 34 Boulevard Saint-Germain fragrance, which used patented Headspace technology to capture the scent of Diptyque’s original Boulevard Saint-Germain boutique interior. If you ever wondered what it would be like to own every Diptyque candle, the scent of 34 Boulevard Saint Germain is as close as you will come, unless of course you do buy them all!
377 Bleeker Street
I wanted to visit one of Manhattan’s oldest chemists, C.O. Bigelow on 6th Street. Since it opened in 1838, it has serviced an esteemed clientele, including politicians and celebrities. It was a low-key kind of place you would not expect to bump into celebrities but perhaps this is why they like to shop here. As I was entering the store a woman with an armful of shopping bags and a small team of bodyguards walked past me towards her limousine, which waited outside. Despite the woman’s dramatic exit, staff inside were calm, going about their business as though it was a just another day at the pharmacy. C.O. Bigelow still had all of its old wooden pharmacy cabinets. With floor-to-ceiling product displays, you can easily spend a good amount of time here but don’t let the store’s vintage appearance fool you. At C.O. Bigelow I found a modern edit of perfumes from the likes of Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Six Scents Series and Diptyque along with more traditional brands such as Roger & Gallet, Acqua di Parma and Geo F. Trumper.
C.O. Bigelow Chemists
414 Sixth Avenue
One address that should be on the must-see list of any visiting perfume lover is Aedes de Venustas (Temple of Beauty). Nestled away on Christopher Street, the perfumery was opened in 1995 by Robert Gerstner and Karl Bradl. Aedes’ original home was in the basement of No 15, former address of the historic Oscar Wilde bookstore. Robert and Karl later relocated their business to the current address at No 9. The pair has been curating niche perfumes long before the trend caught on, and for almost 20 years Aedes de Venustas has had a reputation for offering the best selection of niche and independent perfumes to Manhattan’s scent conscious population.
Not only does this longstanding reputation extend to their discerning clientele, it also extends to the perfume houses and their perfumers. In 2009 L’Artisan Parfumeur used renowned perfumer, Bertrand Duchaufour to create a new scent called Aedes de Venustas. It was a collaboration that acknowledged the years of support Aedes had provided this pioneering niche perfume house. Collaborations between perfume brands and independent perfumeries are not common and this is the spirit of Aedes. Robert commented, no one launches a new perfume in January but we did it. Why not? Since the collaboration with L’Artisan, Robert and Karl have created two more perfumes independently.
In 2012 Robert and Karl sought the help of Bertrand to create the first Aedes de Venustas signed eau de parfum. Just as the pair had pioneered niche perfume retailing in New York during the 1990s, they also wanted this 21st century perfume to be a pioneer. Bertrand created a highly unique rhubarb accord, which evolved into the perfume’s core theme. For the presentation, the packaging had to be par excellence. The duo deliberately avoided using a stock bottle and cap and a bespoke design was commissioned, recalling the luxury of early 20th century perfumery. Every design detail was explored. Robert and Karl wanted buyers of the perfume to take a piece of their perfumery home with them and a rouge velvet box was designed to hold the bottle, the same colour as the velvet curtains hanging inside the perfumery.
When I visited, Aedes was on the verge of launching their second perfume, a moody scent with notes of iris and leather called Iris Nazarena. Iris done well makes me swoon and Iris Nazarena had me levitating. Robert told me of his journey to Grasse where the pair sourced an exceptional quality of iris. Their iris was cultivated for three years before being harvested. The plant’s rhizome was dried for an additional three years before the scent underwent extraction. On my skin, Iris Nazarena began as a delicate iris soliflore. As the perfume progressed a cocoon of leather enveloped the floral heart of the fragrance. For me it was a wonderful play on yin and yang, and of feminine and masculine. Mane perfumer, Ralf Schwieger who is no stranger to fans of Frederic Malle designed the perfume. Sellable stock had not yet arrived so I left New York with samples and Iris Nazarena is written on my current to-buy list.
I also wanted to talk to Robert about his thoughts on niche perfumery. Clearly the industry had changed over the past five years and Aedes has had a front row seat to view these changes. Robert felt strongly about the overuse of the term niche. It was redundant. In terms of clientele, Robert now sees a more educated client visiting his store. “Clients are smart about their spend.” People want quality and they want diversity. Robert saw independent perfumeries as the providers of this diversity where as department stores had less freedom to take risks on small or unusual brands. In terms of a New York aesthetic when it comes to perfume, Robert simply shook his head; New York is just too diverse to say the city has a particular style when it comes to perfume.
Other memorable discoveries at Aedes de Venustas were Maurice Roucel’s tuberose drenched Shalini Parfum, recently launched Argentinian line, Fueguia 1833 and German line, JF Schwarzlose.
Aedes de Venustas
9 Christopher Street
After more than two hours with Robert I needed some timeout to gather my thoughts and organize my notes. Down the street, Whynot Coffee was the perfect place to do this and I recharged with caffeine before heading back to Soho.
I took the subway down to Spring Street and proceeded to Soho’s Chanel boutique, which had large No.5 sculptures in the window. When Les Exclusifs de Chanel launched in 2007, Eau de Cologne was available in a 400ml splash bottle. This large size was discontinued and very few boutiques kept leftover stock. My mission was to find a one of these leftover bottles in New York. My other Chanel mission related to the No. 5 exhibition, which was currently on show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Chanel had commissioned artist Irma Boom to create a book as homage to the iconic fragrance. A numbered edition of 1000 had been printed and I had hoped copies were available in New York. My Eau de Cologne mission was successful however my book mission was not. Luckily for me, Amazon has secured stock of the book and they are currently taking pre-orders for delivery in November.
139 Spring Street
A few doors down at Etro I decided the best place to smell the Milanese designer’s latest fragrance called Greene Street would be inside Etro’s Greene Street boutique. Thinking about the people I had passed in the streets of Soho, I tried to envisage the type of man and woman Etro were evoking with this Soho inspired scent. Greene Street was a nice discovery for something that is easy-to-wear. Well-made, versatile and modern, Greene Street has notes of basil, spices, resins and sandalwood.
89 Greene Street
Along Spring Street, Prada’s Soho boutique took up an entire block between Mercer Street and Broadway. It was the brand’s most innovative store design I had seen to date. The 2001 renovation was rumoured to have cost forty million dollars and was designed by architects Rem Koolhaas and OMA. The interior featured a tidal wave of timber stairs that curve from street level down into the basement below. At the base of the stairs was a glass cabinet with Prada’s Exclusive Scents collection. In my travels I have found it increasingly rare to find this collection of minimally designed 30ml bottles; even the Prada website has no mention of its existence. Prada flagships in places like Hong Kong carried two or three of the most recent releases from the collection and here in Soho, I found the entire collection going back to No. 1 Iris (2003), the precursor to Prada’s Infusion d’Iris line authored by perfumer Daniela Andrier.
Being in New York during sale time I couldn’t help but make a detour to one of my favourite clothing stores, A.P.C. (Atelier de Production et de Creation). French fashion designer Jean Touitou’s A.P.C. has a pared-down design aesthetic, perfect for my Sydney lifestyle. While I was shopping for clothes I noticed the line of A.P.C. scented candles. The range consisted of five candles, simply labelled 1 to 5 with scents like orange flower and green jasmine. My favourite was Bougie No 1. Cologne.
131 Mercer Street
Another aspect of Soho I enjoyed was the food. Some days I found myself coming back just to eat. Between A.P.C. and Prada, The Mercer Kitchen was one of my Soho favourites. As I was travelling by myself I preferred the street level bistro, which offered a more casual dining experience. Downstairs is good if you are with a group of people or significant other, but plan ahead as bookings are usually essential.
The Mercer Kitchen
99 Prince Street
Another must-see address I took home from this New York trip was Osswald Perfumerie. Osswald may seem like the new kid on the block as far as New York’s perfume scene goes but the family run business has a history that spans three generations. In 1921 entrepreneur Boris Dreiding opened Osswald in Zurich, Switzerland. Osswald was the first perfumery in Zurich to sell Guerlain perfumes along with products by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. Today Osswald is one of Zurich’s most respected perfume and beauty retailers. I had read about Osswald’s New York opening last year so I arranged to meet Tanja Dreiding Wallace, granddaughter of the brand’s founder. After some time managing the family business in Zurich, Tanja relocated to America with plans to bring Osswald to New York. It was a year of careful planning to find the right location. Tanja told me she spent countless days walking the streets of Manhattan, analysing foot traffic and areas of the city where her potential clientele preferred to shop. Last year Osswald opened on West Broadway, an area that connects Soho with Tribeca and up and coming Hudson Square. Tanja talked about the Swiss approach to retail, which focused on long term client development with no time pressure and the importance of building relationships with customers. To achieve this, it was all about providing a memorable experience through dedicated, highly trained staff.
Tanja introduced me to her Store Manager, Clement Pinard, who walked me through Osswald’s selection of brands. Clement had an intellectual approach to perfumery and spoke fluently about the brands Osswald represented and the stories behind each perfume. As an outsider trying to understand the New York mentality, I was interested to hear from Clement, who was French. As an outsider living in New York, I knew he would also have an opinion on this. Clement described New Yorkers as diverse. At Osswald, the clientele can be anyone from the creative Soho photographer to the busy mother who is simply looking to treat herself. He described New York as a place people came to from all over the world to be the person they believed they could be. It is a city charged with a dynamic and creative energy and even though many people fight to survive an often unforgiving city, the city provides great opportunities.
Speaking with Clement I could tell that every product was selected with tremendous thought. Some of my favourites at Osswald were from Pro Fvmvm, a perfume range I discovered on a trip to Rome in 2011. I left Rome with Pro Fvmvm’s Santalvm, as sandalwood perfumes never cease to inspire me with their natural complexity. Clement introduced me to Eccelso, another sandalwood scent by Pro Fvmvm. Eccelso (2011) was the first fragrance the house had made using Indian sandalwood oil from trees the brand began growing 15 years ago. We also discussed Acqva di Sale (1996), a salty marine scent. Clement told me the story of sailors travelling between the mainland and Sardinia. The sense of smell was further reaching than sight and sailors would always smell land coming before they could see it on the horizon. This was the smell of Acqva di Sale.
Another range, exclusive to Osswald New York was Parfumerie Generale. Pierre Guillaume is a poet and Clement helped me appreciate some of the perfumer’s finer prose. Metallic aldehydes found in Guillaume’s Felanilla reminded me of oxidised silverware placed beside a teacup, whilst the patchouli and lavender combination found in Djenne gave off the aroma of adobe brick structures baking in the hot Malinese sun. Clement told me the story of Pierre sitting in the shade of a mosque in Djenne drinking black tea and the earthy smell the building gave off as the African sun warmed the mosque’s bricks.
Osswald also carried Roja Dove’s exceptional perfume line and Xerjoff’s JTC collection, which launched last year at Pitti Fragranze. Exclusive to Osswald was Parfums de Marly. The French perfume house took inspiration from the French court of Louis XV and Chateau de Marly. With its equestrian theme, my favourites were Lippizan, which had a fresh aromatic cardamom and bergamot accord laid over notes of rose, patchouli and leather. Pegasus was another favourite with warm almond notes worked into a stout oriental-fougere.
Other perfume lines found at Osswald included Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier, Amouage, Astier de Villatte, Arquiste, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, YS Uzac and many more.
311 West Broadway
For part two of this post I will complete my New York series with more perfume shopping in Soho, including MiN New York and Noho and Nolita.