Field Notes From Milan
by Mark David Boberick
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When we find ourselves immersed in a different country and a new culture, how do we process our surroundings? Sensory impulses to the brain can shift into overdrive whenever they are overwhelmed by being in a new environment. Granted, for an American, Milan is not exactly the most exotic location that we can travel to, but there is no doubt about it –it sure is a beautiful one.
As I have often said, I go through life with nostrils flared. Arriving in Milan a few days early for Esxence: The Scent of Excellence, I prepared myself for a massive sensory overload. I was not disappointed. I’m reminded of what Neela Vermeire said in our cover story last month, describing her experiences and memories in India as being “pocketfuls of beautiful smells.” After a week in Northern Italy, I finally understand exactly what she means. No place on earth will ever be exempt from having a malodor or two, but when a sweet smell pervades the air, it creates an indelible mark on your brain. You may not realize it at the time, but one day – something will trigger that mark to show again, and that little pocket of smell will come to life once more.
It was a great honor to be invited to Esxence in Milan where the world of niche perfumery had convened for 4 spectacular days. And I took notes along the way. . .
Wednesday, March 28
1:00pm. Via Turati.
We’ve only been off the plane for a little more than 3 hours, but after checking into our hotel, I can’t resist walking a short distance around the block, past the Piazza della Repubblica to Palazzo la Permanente. I spot the Esxence banners waving in the breeze from 2 blocks away. When I get to the front of the building, it is a frenzy of construction – walls still wet with paint and fresh flowers being unloaded by the truckload. A cart filled with trailing ivy and white orchids passes me by, lending a sweet vegetal smell that for a brief moment, manages to capture my attention over the smell of wet paint and sawdust. By the look of it, it seems as if this event couldn’t possibly be ready to open in the morning. . .
5:00pm. Via Silvio Pellico.
Our car pulls up in front of one of the most famous sights in Milan, The Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II. This is the structure that is considered to be one of the world’s very first malls – its mosaic floors are covered by a massive steel and glass conservatory-style roof. It’s very busy – filled with the smells of fresh ground coffee beans, diffused through the air by the hot espresso machines. It’s a destination that finally makes the trip seem real – we are in Italy.
I drag Raphaella into Prada to sample their line of exclusive parfums not available in the United States. I love their incredible florals, but today, it is their latest, No. 11 Cuir Styrax, a sensual oriental leather fragrance that I’m after. True to my expectations – it is spectacular. But they’re completely sold out of it. In fact, they inform me that after a computer search - every Prada in Milan is sold out. Figures.
We pause at a café in the Galleria and enjoy a cappuccino before walking to the Piazza del Duomo, nearby. The sight of the famous Cathedral of Milan certainly makes one pause. The massive, light stone gothic façade of the Duomo was washed in sunlight, and the large wooden doors just beckoned for exploration. Once inside, the familiar scent of frankincense combined with the wooden pews, warm candle wax, and marble-clad interior immediately brought to mind Bertrand Duchaufour’s stirring Avignon for Comme des Garcons. Days later, on Palm Sunday, the scent of freshly trimmed olive branches would replace the meditative smell of church incense.
Spring was in full bloom everywhere we looked. On the Via Manzoni, Raphaella literally stopped to smell the roses, and I marveled at delicate pink blossoms at a flower cart outside of Profumeria Cantarelli. Even though we were so tired we could barely see straight – our first day was so spectacular that it was nearly impossible to imagine that it could get any better. But it would.
Thursday, March 29
10:00am. Palazzo la Permanente.
As fragrance expert and master of ceremonies Michael Edwards cuts the ribbon to officially open the 2012 edition of Esxence, he remarks, “If niche perfumery was born in France, (think: Annick Goutal and Jean LaPorte’s L’Artisan Parfumeur), it grew up in America, but it came of age in Italy. There is no other country in the world where one can find so many perfumeries that just concentrate on stocking niche perfumes.” At its core, Esxence: The Scent of Excellence is a celebration of that dedication and attraction towards artistic and unique fragrances. As we entered the exhibition floor, that celebration came to stunning realization. The last-minute preparations of the previous day have all come to fruition
12:00pm. Booth 25.
I’m sitting on a couch next to Sergio Momo, creative director and founder of Xerjoff. He has just walked me through his brand new collection, Oud Stars, launched for the first time at this edition of Esxence. It has taken Momo several years to launch a collection centered on the luxurious and costly raw material and I must say, it seemed like he was rather late to the game as so many brands have since launched oud-centric fragrances. Of course, I mention this to him and was pleased at his response. In order to do it, Sergio explained that it was important for him to understand the material and its historical applications before he began creating the collection. So, while it may seem like Xerjoff is bringing up the rear of the oud marathon, in fact, Momo has been working for 3 years on the collection. One sniff of them and it is apparent that these are incredibly complex and refined, certainly something that couldn’t be churned out overnight. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from Xerjoff – the line continues to impress me. I am drawn to Fars, a beautiful woody-oud fragrance with an aromatic lavender in the opening. Exquisite.
3:00pm. Via Brera.
Raphaella and I emerge from Olfattorio, a perfumery on the Via Brera. I begin to see what Michael Edwards was referring to when he said niche perfumeries were extremely popular in Italy. As we leave one perfume store, another one becomes visible several steps away. I could get used to this.
Friday, March 30
1:30pm. Palazzo la Permanente.
I am sitting on the panel of a roundtable discussion led by Michael Edwards. Joining me on the panel are author Denyse Beaulieu, Grant Osborne of Basenotes, Elena Knezhevich of Fragrantica, Joe Garces - President of Robert Piguet Parfums, Claudia Stagno of Export Magazine, Sergey Borisov of Russian GQ and Vogue, and Mariangella Rossi of Elle Italia . We are discussing the challenges involved with writing about an invisible art form - and we are live across the internet. After the discussion ends, my phone explodes with text-messages. I love technology. And technology is one of the key factors to making Esxence 2012 so very successful. Compared to the previous edition, this year’s event would be seen by nearly double the amount of people thanks to Extrait’s Live Streaming. Not everyone can board a plane bound for Malpensa, but they can easily log onto a website and join in on the fun in a different way.
3:30pm. Booth 84.
I just caught a preview of the latest launches from Clive Christian and suddenly – I’m back at the Duomo. V Man and V Woman are the newest additions to the Clive Christian family of fragrances and both scents in this duo are centered on frankincense. Exquisitely blended, V Man is a peppery take on the note, while V Woman is a decidedly chypre version. I love them both equally.
6:00pm. Viale Citta di Fiume.
I’m strolling along the outer perimeter of the Giardini Pubblici. The sun is shining, and I am taking a walk to process the second day of Esxence, making mental notes of the things that I found most fascinating. The wind blows and I am hit with the unforgettable scent of fresh lilacs from a nearby blooming tree, a grounding indicator that sometimes, Mother Nature in all of her simple splendor can be just as rewarding as anything else. The fresh floral scent reminds me of the gorgeous soaps from Acca Kappa that I had smelled earlier at Booth 54 I particularly loved Calycanthus, and came home with a bar of it.
Saturday, March 31
1:30pm. Palazzo la Permanente.
Michael Edwards is an incredible walking encyclopedia of perfume knowledge. His lectures are always enthralling and having sat through one in 2009, I knew firsthand what I was in for when I sat down to listen to him talk about the history of Eau de Cologne. He dispelled the rumors and cut through all of the myths and presented a comprehensive history of the world’s first fragrance sensation – Johann Maria Farina’s Eau de Cologne. Starting in the 1700s and leading up to the present day with Thierry Wasser’s Cologne du Parfumeur for Guerlain, Edwards touched upon other famous benchmarks in the legacy of eau de cologne including Edmond Roudnitska’s masterpiece, Eau Sauvage by Dior.
IFRA regulations can be particularly devastating for niche perfumers. Imagine one day, receiving a new set of standards that restricts the use of basil oil in fragrances. All of a sudden, the standard sets the level at less than 1%. Now, in your line of 5 fragrances, you have one particular scent that is using 12% basil oil. What becomes of this fragrance? Well, for starters, it needs to be drastically reformulated using synthetic ingredients in the place of 11% of the original 12% basil. That reformulation may in turn yield a less than desirable product, possibly calling for the complete discontinuation of that fragrance. If a standard of quality cannot be maintained, what choice is there? Less than 24-hours earlier, this hypothetical situation became a reality for one brand. Just the previous day, such standards were in fact released by IFRA. Moments ago in Michael Edwards’s lecture, I was moved by one audience member’s story that arose in the talkback session. Now, I’m standing in front of him hearing more about his 12% basil fragrance. Neither one of us are entirely sure if this fragrance will make it to Esxence 2013. Based upon these fairly ridiculous standards, I probably reached my basil quota for the year back on January 3rd when I made fresh pesto. What gives, IFRA? It’s not plutonium.
5:00pm. Via Montenapoleone.
I just want to find a white pocket square that won’t break the bank. I know I’m probably in the wrong place, but I’m told that Montenapoleone is entirely tax-free shopping. Not that it matters very much. I breeze past Versace and come across an Acqua di Parma boutique. The smell of Calabrian lemons and Bulgarian roses fills my nose as it emerges from the open door. I love Acqua di Parma, it’s a feel-good, easy fragrance. I’m pressed for time, so Acqua di Parma will have to wait for another day. I have a party to go to!
7:30pm. Hotel Windsor.
I finally found a pocket square, with only minutes to spare. I get dressed, apply a quick spritz of Puredistance M and head out the door. Raphaella and I pick up Neela Vermeire at her hotel and the three of us speed off toward the Palazzo Giureconsulti for the Black and White party being thrown by Esxence.
8:00pm. Palazzo Giureconsulti.
This party is enormous, but we all seem to be outside on the balcony overlooking the Piazza del Duomo – the view is extraordinary. It is an event filled with beautifully smelling people – now that’s my kind of party! Another spectacular day in Milan comes to a close, but can it end on a higher note than a party at a Renaissance palace? Oh, but it can!
4:30pm. Booth A.
I’m standing at the booth of the eponymous New York perfumery Aedes de Venustas with Michael Edwards, Pierre Dinand, and Raphaella. We’ve just sampled Bertrand Duchaufour’s latest fragrance for the store under their own label. A bit of familiarity in a foreign country is always a welcome feeling, and my friends Karl and Robert’s store in New York is always on my agenda when in the city. So when I saw that their new scent was making its debut at Esxence in Milan, I was very eager to sample it. It is a vibrant rhubarb creation that reminds me of the freshness of the floral arrangements that are always present in the boutique. And the bottle is just as gorgeous as the fragrance!
6:30pm. Sheraton Diana Majestic Hotel.
2 hours ago, I was sitting with Joe Garces as he was walking me through the latest releases from Robert Piguet Parfums – The Nouvelle Collection. Now, Raphaella and I are at a party celebrating them along with the success of Robert Piguet since the house was revitalized several years ago. The air is filled with the pervasive and mysterious Bois Noir, one of the 5 new fragrances created by Aurelien Guichard for the label. It is utterly intoxicating. I am hooked.
The inner courtyard of the hotel, where the party is in full-swing, is covered by a canopy of fragrant wisteria vines in full bloom. When the wind blows down onto the terrace, it catches the wisteria, mixes with the Bois Noir, and surrounds you in perfect folds of scented air. It’s one of those incredible scent experiences that you make sure to remember – because it’s most likely not going to happen again.
Michael Edwards, Pierre Dinand, Mark David Boberick, Raphaella Brescia
sampling Aedes de Venustas' new signature fragrance
Photo: Michele Dell'Utri
Sunday, April 1
1:30pm. Palazzo la Permanente
The final day at Esxence has arrived at last, but the excitement is still going strong - it’s not over quite yet! I am upstairs speaking with Mark Buxton about his brand-new line of 5 fragrances. I am drawn to a story that proved to be the inspiration for one particular fragrance, Devil In Disguise. Buxton explains that he was once dining at an outdoor café and kept getting whiffs of a particular fragrance being worn by someone in the vicinity. He couldn’t place the scent and he couldn’t place its wearer, but combined with the other smells surrounding the café’s terrace, it left a lasting impression on him. He created Devil In Disguise as his olfactory interpretation of that moment. It’s beautiful. Buxton is always innovative with his fragrances while still remaining within the realm of acceptability. His creations are distinct but not so odd that you don’t want to wear them. I love when a master perfumer launches his own line – he can instill characteristics of his own personality into every bottle without having to answer to anyone at a corporate level. This artistic angle is another important element of niche perfumery, and one that Esxence is particularly successful in demonstrating.
3:00pm. Booth 2.
It is almost time to call it a day, but before I do, I drop by James Heeley’s booth where the designer introduces me to his 3 new extrait de parfums. L’Amandiere is the smell of Spring - dewy leaves and flower buds right before they bloom. An almond note cuts through the freshness and adds a feeling of sweet, warm earth. It is very successful and reminds me of the flowers being unloaded from the trucks 4 days earlier when the exhibition was still getting some final touches for its grand opening. The Heeley collection has always contained beautifully designed fragrances, but the new extraits take it to the next level of luxury.
Esxence 2012 officially comes to an end. As the vendors pack up their items, I gather my bags to leave. Before I do, I make one last stop at Neela Vermeire’s booth where we both take a moment to reflect on the past 4 days; by now we are both exhausted. I can’t help but feel inspired. If couture is high fashion that eventually trickles down into the mainstream, then undoubtedly, Esxence is the Couture Fashion Week of the Fragrance Industry. The innovation, the passion, the art – if even a small fraction of this were to trickle down into the mainstream, the fragrance industry would benefit significantly from it. And as niche perfumery continues to grow worldwide, it is exciting to consider the definite possibility that we may start to see mass-market fragrances take serious cues from many of the exceptional niche houses.
If you are reluctant to go that far with me, then I will leave you with this thought. As Michael Edwards pointed out only a few days ago in his lecture, “Giorgio Beverly Hills was once a niche fragrance. Upon first release, it was sold in just 1 store.” Just a few years later, it had gone global, becoming one of the most successful fragrances of the 1980s.
Anything is possible.
I left Italy with both pockets overflowing with beautiful scent memories, just waiting to be triggered in the future.
Arrivederci, Milano! See you next year!
MARK DAVID BOBERICK | Managing Editor
I really must express my sincerest thank you to Michele Dell'Urti for his
exceptional photography at Esxence and for allowing it to be republished
here in The Perfume Magazine. Grazie, Mille!
Perfume Counter at Prada, Galleria Vittorio Emaunuelle II
Mark Buxton Collection
Photo: Michele Dell'Utri