I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Shay & Blue: Voluptuous Niche (Or how I fell in love with nightshade, almonds and cucumber…)

I’m wearing Almond Cucumber by Shay and Blue today. It’s a very original composition, a touch of old-school cleanser, a crumble of macaroon, a spoonful of tatziki, a crunch of turrón and a refreshing inhalation of Riviera floral. The distinctive marzipan nuttiness and sweet powdered aspect I often detect with almond notes is further enhanced by an exquisite flaxen-tinted bouquet of lush mimosa at the heart of the composition.  

Shay & Blue is a London based brand and launched late last year with the website going live first and the boutique in Marylebone opening its elegantly appointed doors in mid January.  The signature livery of Delft blues and white ticking is very Regency, a lick of Beau Brummel and echoes of Jane Austen.

They describe their perfumed work as Richly decadent, simply unique, re-inventing classic themes from perfumery’s past and bringing the ideas up to date. 

Contemporising the past. The aim surely of all great perfumers. Novelty and shock value are all well and good; aromachemistry is always going to push perfumery in multifarious directions but classic perfumery, like Haute Couture actually has a relatively limited palette of accords to play with. It is this rarified containment that makes the challenge of difference so thrilling. It is why I never tire of searching out twisted new chyprés, rose/violet accords, smeared lipstick facets married to rose or cassie absolutes, permutations of beeswax and honey, the multiple shifting personalities of vanilla, and the aching governess tones of sad sad iris.

Don’t get me wrong; I love aroma technology and the effects achieved in fragrance. I wear some great perfumes with dazzling synthetic effects popping through them. But both sides of the olfactory experience are needed to allow us to truly understand the beauty of scent and the mechanics of perfume on our skin. Shay & Blue are definitely come down more on the classical side of perfumery, but within the blends there are touches of aromachemical devilry. This makes them a very interesting brand to wear and watch.

Each part of Shay & Blue has been carefully designed from the packaging and boutique styling to social media usage and marketing campaigns. I would describe it as quiet luxury. There is lushness and desirability dripping from the perfume images and editorial blurb. I liked the slow build of anticipation through their Facebook page as they neared launch date. Followers were introduced to the brand concept from May 2012. They met the founders (more on them in a mo.) saw packaging and colour musings, shots of flower harvests in Grasse, images and inspiration for the perfumes themselves. Eventually the details firmed up: fonts, colour influences, bottle manufacturing, arrival of the essential oils, fragrance names, the corporate bag, the box and the location of the boutique. So when the brand finally launched last year, you felt a familiarity and covert possessiveness of the brand. A kind of in-the-know warmth and privacy.

An interesting aspect to the development of Shay & Blue is the use of the beautiful half Senegalese, half French Julia Sarr-Jamois, model, icon and Fashion Editor at Wonderland Magazine.  Her title at Shay & Blue is Style Director, but she is very much the brand’s muse, presenting an elegant and classic vibe as ambassador. It is clever move. Sarr-Jamois’ work at Wonderland is striking in its mix of vintage and classic elements, exploring the dreamy retro quality that wraps itself around the more outré elements of contemporary couture.  She is a creature born to the shifting vagaries of style and fashion.  Her trademark afro is awesome and her mix of vintage favourites worn with key couture pieces marks her out as someone who always seems to be aware of what is exactly right for a certain time and place. Working with Dom de Vetta and Julie Massé seems like synchronicity.

Dom de Vetta has spent many years working in fine fragrance and was a Senior Vice-President of Chanel, working alongside Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake. He developed the existing boutique exclusive range, then No 22, Gardénia, Bois des Iles and Cuir de Russie. Then, elaborating on the rich theme of archival and vintage inspired haute-parfumerie, he became Head of Development for the range of Exclusifs that came to include Coromandel, Bel Respiro, 31 Rue Cambon, No 18, La Pausa and the outstanding Eau de Cologne. They have won plaudits from critics and fans alike. As a result other brands started reminiscing about the scented past and revisiting their archives. But no one has really done it with the style and panache of De Vetta and Co. at Chanel.

In 2003 Jo Malone finally stepped down from her own brand after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She had already sold her company to Estée Lauder in 1999 and had stayed on as Creative Director. Lauder then bought in De Vetta as Global General Manager. His influence was apparent in the decision to start talking about the names behind the fragrances and in particular the decision to bring in renowned nose, Christine Nagel to create the fragrances. I think she brought a lovely olfactory style to the Jo Malone brand, one of muted elegance and French-tinted sensuality. Some of the fragrances she created: Amber & Ginger Lily, Rose Water & Vanilla, Velvet Rose & Oud (part of the Cologne Intense Collection), English Pear & Freesia, the Kodo Wood and Sugar & Spice Collections are quite singular and have been successful and well received by perfume critics.

I love the two oriental roses she created: Rose Water & Vanilla and Velvet Rose & Oud. They will always have a place in my collection. I think this collaboration has really paid off, I take a lot more time now at Jo Malone and really appreciate the new level of sophistication and finesse that De Vetta and Nagel laid gently down over what was becoming a somewhat staid brand stuck in a routine lime, basil and mandarin scented rut.

De Vetta apparently sought advice from Nagel on young perfumers to work with as he set up Shay & Blue. Julie Massé was his final choice. A vibrant young perfumer with the lovely Blanc de Courrèges under her belt, Massé is a graduate of the ISIPCA perfume school at Versailles and worked at Mane alongside Christine Nagel in the company’s Fine Fragrance Department.  Blanc de Courrèges is a stylish essay in snowy beauty, echoing the stark whiteness of classic early Courrèges designs. Using a scrubbed, almost bleached patchouli, Massé created a nude ground for iris, white musks and clouds of aldehydes. There is I think a nod to Nagel’s love of transparency in the working of the musks and the way the composition is so playful on skin. It was a very impressive fragrance for someone so young.

Massé is originally from Grasse, but grew up in Japan. This duality is noticeable in her work for Shay & Blue; a passion for flowers and raw ingredients, la terre; balanced with an awareness of aesthetics, the purity of a scented line and just a touch of oddness, enough to puzzle and cause pause, but not enough to render silence.  She has worked alongside Pierre Bourdon and Nagel, both perfumers with strong olfactory visions.  Bourdon created two of my favourite fragrances, both for Editions Frédérick Malle, French Lover and the haunting end of time Iris Poudré.  Massé’s work for Shay & Blue is very much her own, but the influences of Nagel and Bourdon are detectable in the exquisite finish to her fragrances and the controlled quality of raw ingredients. You can almost feel them under your fingers like fine silks and cashmere piled and tumbled in scented rooms.

Shay & Blue’s reasonable entry price point is impressive. Their fragrances come in two sizes, 30ml and 100ml bottles, £30 and £55 respectively. The scented candles are 140g of natural beeswax, with a 40 hour burning time and retail at  £35. This is a great price for fragrances of such quality.  I ordered two 30mls - Atropa Belladonna and Almond Cucumber and waited…

They arrived promptly, oddly in 100ml boxes, nestling in pretty blue and white striped tissue, so I assumed the 30ml boxes were not quite ready. The boxes are blue of course, well made with fragrance specific labels adorned with botanical drawings by artist Holly Somerville. The bottles are a washed out blue, like beach glass, solid in the hand.

I wore Almond Cucumber first.  Now I have always loved all things amygdaline…. macaroons, turrón, marzipan, Calisson, Korres Bitter Almond shower gel, Jergen’s gorgeous Cherry & Almond Moisturiser, L’Occitane’s foaming Almond Shower Gel, chilled homemade almond milk with vanilla pod and dates. Mix this nut obsession with the chilled opacity of cucumber and the sweet Riviera kiss of mimosa and you have an intoxicating fragrance.  Mimosa is notoriously difficult to reproduce authentically in perfumery. Many people have never experienced the real thing.

I first smelt it properly on a trip to Carpentras years ago. Visiting nearby Avignon to spend time at the Palais des Papes, I came across a small contemporary art gallery tucked away in a side street. Inside was a courtyard with mimosa trees, branches heavy with daffodil and lemon coloured blooms.  It was a radiant sight, at odds with the diesel heat from the streets only moments away.

The fragrance initially explodes with cucumber, an aqueous charge of massive intent. It then softens down to a sweet green melon facet that is seriously delicious. Then the almonds, freshly hulled and crushed, swirling creamily at the heart of the scent, mixed with mimosa and heliotrope further enhancing the unctuous white vibe the scent has. There is grit though, touches of crunch and almond wood adding texture and body in the drydown. Almond Cucumber smells both creamy and gossamer clean. The almond elements have been done with subtlety and reverence. It is a hard note to pull off, it can be too bitter, too baking, too marzipan and too cyanide. This is just right. The mimosa is romantic and swoons gently onto the skin, making you feel rested and ready I think for love.

I bought Atropa Belladonna because of the name. I kept thinking of all the Gothic novels I read as a teenager (Walpole, Stoker, Poe, Shelley and Le Fanu), all the dark poisonings and hallucinations. Belladonna or deadly nightshade is one of the most toxic plants in the world and produces atropine, a poison that acts on the nervous and respiratory systems.  Bella donna (beautiful woman) is derived from the fact that it was often used to dilate the pupils of the eyes, an effect considered beautiful in women. I have always been fascinated by tales of poison, often considered a woman’s crime. One of my favourite films is La Reine Margot. It is impossible to forget Virna Lisi’s scuttling shadowed performance as Catherine De Medici, poisoning and manipulating bloodlines and courtiers to her own savage ends.  So like (Hypnotic) Poison and Opium, I am intrigued by anything druggy and narcotic.

As you spray Atropa Belladonna, there is an instant sense of liquefying darkness, a pooling sense of unease. It is a very odd beginning. The crème de cassis top note is so rich, is fairly oozes over the skin like amethyst tears. Narcissus and jasmine from Grasse form the luxurious heart of the fragrance. I was quite taken aback by the morphine rush of the floral notes. Narcissus is a fickle note, often promising much but delivering little. Like ylang, doses have to be carefully controlled. High levels can cause dizziness and nausea. Combined with the indolic flush of jasmine, the duo pack quite a punch; everything feels a little boozy and end of partyish. (The Shay & Blue website claims the 30ml contains 1lb of jasmine and narcissus. The 100ml 3lb…..) The patchouli, sandalwood and vanilla in the base are very beautifully arranged, delicate and reserved, allowing the glories of the flowers and cassis to really bloom across the skin.

Now I have written before about my longstanding dislike of blackcurrant in fragrances, the pissy leaf and the shuddering little berry.  In fact berries, red and black, have never been a taste I have acquired in fragrance. They nearly always smell fake and remind me of so many people in my youth drenched in Body Shop stuff, yes Dewberry I mean you. So Atropa Belladonna was a little bit of a test, to see how my reaction to these notes has stood the test of time. But Shay & Blue have created something very substantial that has really seduced me with depth and studied flow. Positively Venetian in its textured drag and Carnivale mystery. There is a masked quality to the structure, a delay in the blossoming of the full power of the fragrance until at least thirty minutes into the drydown. Then like a mask coming off and the beauty, until then, only hinted at, is fully revealed. It was a risky blind buy for me, but I adore it. It is an evening fragrance; it needs darkness. Like belladonna causing dilation of the pupils, this remarkable perfume makes my senses react in a similar way, widening and flickering with desire.

Next from Shay & Blue for me will I think will be the Amber Rose, I am intrigued by the dulche de leche note at the heart of the fragrance. Blood Oranges interests me too, it is getting a lot of press, as it seems to be a different take on a citrus note, something that rarely appeals to me. Blood oranges have a very distinctive sweetness, an almost anisic blend of orange and plasticised rose.  Julie Massé and Dom de Vetta have used the entirety of the blood orange, segments and juice etc and blended this with charred wood, nappa leather, amber and musks. It sounds scrumptious and strange. For some reason every time I read about it or imagine how it might smell I see images in my head of Velasquez paintings of the Spanish court, weighed down in suffocating finery.

The Shay & Blue boutique opened in Marylebone in February and looks amazing from the images they have posted, reminiscent of classic Dutch interiors with its palette of rich blues and distinctive flagstone floor. I have not had a chance to visit yet but swill be swinging by on my next trip to London. Creating a visual identity this precise and making it seem ‘discovered’ is hard and the disparate elements of Shay & Blue; artisan perfumery, Grasse, Chanel, Jo Malone, Regency London, Sarr-Jamois, Farrow & Ball, and Vermeeresque floor have coalesced beautifully into a muted and chic ambience that works very well in the current climate of frayed excess and fiscal worry.

I am pleased to discover a genuinely independent and beautifully wrought new fragrance House and one that has chosen London as its home. The fragrances are a seductive mix of British reserve and French sensuality. You can almost taste the ingredients, they seem that real.  I am in love with Almond Cucumber; it is one of the most joyful perfumes I have worn in ages. There is just a moment’s hesitation when I think… really? But then my senses take over and I revel in the creaminess, the almond&vanilla smoothie fun of it and let go. And Atropa Belladonna for nighttime, kissing strangers or alone in clean sheets, inky, tattooed and stained. Lasting till morning light and still trailing the loveliest sillage of crushed jasmine and powdered vanilla.  My skin says yes, yes, yes.

For more info on Shay & Blue, please follow the link below:

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