A couple of years ago I was in Paris talking with the founder of a French perfume house who lectured me on the importance of a brand’s story. In an increasingly competitive fragrance market, a good story, for him, tipped the scale between success and failure. I was in Paris after visiting Florence for the annual Pitti Fragranze. At Stazione Leopolda, the exhibition hall showcased fragrances from more than one hundred niche brands. These brands also had their stories, which ranged from short poems to complex novellas. In general, the storyline followed an event or experience that had inspired the brand’s creative director, founder or perfumer to make a fragrance. I like a good story as much as the next guy but hearing all of these stories recounted as cathartic journeys became tiring. For the most part Pitti Fragranze ironically left me uninspired.
A story that recently humoured me (in a good way) was the story behind Penhaligon’s new Portraits Collection. Niche brands guard their authenticity as carefully as perfumers guard their formulas but I liked the way Penhaligon’s had a bit of fun with a concept based on an entirely fictitious storyline. In an industry that often takes itself very seriously, Penhaligon’s description of its Portraits Collection sounded like the plot outline for a British television comedy, something between Downton Abbey and Made in Chelsea.
The Portraits Collection is based on four initial fragrances with a new series scheduled to launch next month. Each fragrance represents a character from an aristocratic family living during Britain’s Victorian Era. The bottles all have their own unique animal heads. The Tragedy of Lord George is the patriarchal fragrance of the four. It feels suitably reserved and is an elegant oriental fougere that fans of Guerlain’s Jicky or more recently, Creed’s Aberdeen Lavander, are likely to enjoy. The Revenge of Lady Blanche tells the story of the family’s matriarch. Lady Blanche was “born into money, married money” and “wants more money.” Her fragrance is a cool green floral with a dominant iris note. I like it for many of the same reasons I like Le Galion’s Iris. Duchess Rose is the daughter of Lord George and Lady Blanche and heiress to the family fortune. The Coveted Duchess Rose is a pun-intended rose chypre fragrance. Although the story takes place in 19th century England, the fragrance is a modern rose that glows under a pastel pink setting before a takeover of modern woods and an overdose of Ambrox.
The fourth fragrance is called Much Ado About the Duke. Duke Nelson is Duchess Rose’s husband even though society gossips that the marriage is yet to be consummated i.e. the Duke is gay. I wonder if his male companion will be revealed in the second series? I hope so because of the four fragrances, the Duke is the most interesting and complex character from an olfactory perspective.
The Portraits Collection is Penhaligon’s first major collection release under the relatively new ownership of Puig who are global fragrance industry magnates. Puig’s portfolio of fragrance licenses includes Prada, Jean Paul Gautier and Comme des Garcons. When Puig acquired L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s in 2015, some longtime fans feared the house would lose its niche charm but Penhaligon’s looks focused on continuing to do what it has always done.
The Duke opens with a medley of jagged spices. Multi coloured peppercorns fuse with cumin and other spicy notes. I suspect there is a hint of elemi resin here too. The pepper note is intense, biting and far less forgiving than pink pepper, a popular note in both niche and mainstream fragrances for the past couple of years. A gin accord enhances the piquant aspect of the fragrance with fruity and peppery juniper. As the fresh spices settle, a woody timbre begins to resonate. The dry, resinous aspects of pepper and cumin settle nicely into camphored woods. The floral note is blood red rose, devoid of any dewy petal notes. The dry down is nicely complex, predominantly woods with a hint of modern amber and flecks of woody tobacco-like notes. The spicy head notes leave an incense-like trace that lingers all the way to the end. Much Ado About the Duke is the work of Firmenich perfumer-to-watch, Daphné Bugey, who also created some of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s latest fragrances.
Of the four initial fragrances in the Portraits Collection, Much Ado About the Duke has the most original signature. This fresh, spicy theme is hard not to like in a men’s fragrance. Equally likable is the woody, resinous dry down. Like so many fragrances by classic British perfume houses, the Duke smells a little bit posh. Its well-mannered nature makes it perfect for daywear in the office but it has enough personality to maintain the wearer’s interest and will never be mistaken for being generic.
Perfumer: Daphné Bugey (Firmenich)
Release Date: 2016
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Oriental
Australian stockists: Agence de Parfum