Iris Prima is the scent of the ballet as imagined by Penhaligon’s. The British perfume house worked with Master Perfumer and last year’s recipient of The Fragrance Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Alberto Morillas, to recreate the ballet in olfactory form. Conceptual perfumes are often interesting, particularly when the source of inspiration is experienced through one of the human senses other than smell. Such a fragrance can sometimes be too literal, like a garden-inspired fragrance that smells of roses, which wins no merit points for imagination. At the opposite extreme, over-ambitious ideas sometimes translate poorly, resulting in a sense of disconnection. Since Sarah Rotheram took over the role of Penhaligon’s CEO, the brand has developed a knack for storytelling. Whether it is creating an Indian travel story (Vaara -2013) or collaborating with so-hip-right-now London fashion designers Meadham Kirchhoff (Tralala – 2014), Penhaligon’s is telling new stories that reach out to a more diverse audience, breaking its slightly dusty and traditional mould. Another innovation is the slickly produced videos featured on the brand’s Youtube channel. Why rely on traditional media to convey your story when today’s social media puts you in direct contact with potential customers all over the world? I’m enjoying Penhaligon’s refreshed pioneering spirit and the resulting olfactory journeys it has to offer. For Iris Prima’s promotional Youtube video, dancers from the English National Ballet summarise the emotive backstory of the fragrance with ideas of what the ballet smells like to them. Some of my favourite words from this 2.32 minute video that inspire Iris Prima are:
“Mornings, sweat, tears, pain, passion, gritty but then quite romantic, the dreadful smell of men dancing, human toil and strain, hard work, moisture and sweat, tiger balm, dusty old theatres, jealousy and competition, musty costumes, hairspray, wood, rosin, the heat of the lights brings the smell of the lino as it’s warming up, feminine and romantic, serenity and calm, it’s a salty smell underneath the strength of the whole thing, clearly passion and it’s beautiful.”
Iris Prima begins with a wash of classic bergamot and trendy pink pepper. This effervescent peppery start gives way to a conifer-like fruitiness, which reaches back towards the end of the heart note. Within this heart is the greener Sambac varietal of jasmine flower. For Iris Prima, this normally vivacious and seductive white flower is tempered down and controlled by a radiant aura of the more subtle jasmine-esque molecule, Hedione; patented by Morillas’ employer, Firmenich, in 1959. It is common industry practice for perfumers working for a large international perfume producer like Firmenich, which have R&D departments inventing new odours, to showcase the company’s designer wares in their work. A more recently patented Firmenich molecule that Morillas used for Iris Prima is Paradisone. To serve its purpose, this innovative raw material requires a much smaller dose than subtle Hedione and a small touch of it is purported to “fill a room with an outstanding scent of flowers.” Some floral perfumes are wild and free moving like a contemporary dancer. Iris Prima’s bouquet moves like a ballerina, whose face needs to remain soft, even though her body performs physically demanding acts with razor-sharp precision. Iris root is one of perfumery’s interesting raw materials. Aside from being one of the most costly notes to have in a perfume, it can be used to express a wide range of emotions. The rich cocoa/leather aspect of Dior Homme’s iris feels inherently masculine, whilst here, Morillas iris has a feminine and dreamlike quality that is very nostalgic. As the fragrance progresses the powder of iris root takes over, combining with sandalwood, musk, sweet benzoin and vanilla. A key base note is leather, which is soft and worn-in like the outer sole of a ballerina’s used pointe shoe.
Do men want to smell like the ballet? Perhaps not but if you put the backstory aside, the scent alone is a pale iris rhizome wrapped in neutral coloured suede. It is a combination that would appeal to many men if it were delivered in a bottle labelled ‘pour homme.’ Iris Prima’s soft powdery edges impede it from ever being a chest-beating masculine scent but paired with a well-tailored business suit, I feel like its polite English nature comes to the forefront and I can imagine the subtle sillage of Iris Prima drifting off the shirt collars of men walking down London’s Savile Row or Jermyn Street. I’ve been wearing my bottle more so now that Sydney’s climate has cooled for autumn.
Alternatives: Frederic Malle Iris Poudre, Iris Nobile Acqua di Parma, Cartier L’Heure Promise
Perfumer: Alberto Morillas
Bottle Designer: Adapted from an 1872 Penhaligon’s bottle
Release Date: 2013
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Dry Woods
Penhaligon’s stockists in Australia and New Zealand, can be found through the Agence de Parfum website