At 8a.m. on a Saturday morning in early May, a buzz builds in the beauty basement at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. Voices are at a fever pitch and the excitement is palpable. It's as if a rock star or an A-list celeb would appear at any moment. Inside Bergdorf's small cafe 140 people (including me) are waiting in anticipation for the start of something called Sniffapalooza Spring Fling. "It's the most incredible, intense experience," says Tamara, who flew in from Arizona.
"You've gotten on trains, planes and automobiles," says Karen Dubin, Sniffapalooza's founder. "This is our 18th event," she says in regards to this year's Spring Fling. Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, fragrance fanatics invade the Big Apple, eager to sniff the newest scents from the biggest names in perfumery. Sniffapalooza is a phenomenon, attracting people from far flung locales such as Australia, Paris, Toronto and California to take part in a weekend full of aromatic experiences. There's nothing else like it.
The Bergdorf Breakfast
Day one kicks off with breakfast at Bergdorf's, which in my mind is better than breakfast at Tiffany's. There's a non-stop procession of presentations made by the fragrance houses that are part of the Bergdorf family, and many of them wait to debut their new scents to the Sniffapalooza crowd. It's like speed dating -- 18 perfume companies each have about five minutes to pitch the perfume and pass out blotters so we can smell the scents.
The main attraction is a personal appearance by the international fragrance authority Roja Dove, here to introduce his namesake line Roja Parfums to the U.S. He tells us, "with a perfume when you wear it it becomes not just part of your life, but it becomes part of the life and the memories of everyone you know." So true. [More on Roja and his fragrances in a future post.]
We are let loose in Bergdof's fragrance department to sniff more and shop. It's a whirlwind. Within an hour Roja Dove's perfumes are almost sold out. There are crowds at Olfactive Studio, where Kim-Van Dang is presenting the line created by Celine Verleure. "It's an original concept that turns the way fragrances have been conceived on its head," she says. "It is a first time collaboration for perfumers and photographers." Instead of starting with a perfume and creating an image around it, a single photo serves as the inspiration for the scent.
Lumiere Blanche, a light, crisp, stark scent, is based on a photo by famed international photographer Massimo Vitali of sunbathers on a stark white iceberg. Chambre Noir, which is dark, intense and spicy, is taken from a photo by Clémence René-Bazin of a nighttime city scape as viewed from a bedroom. Each fragrance comes with the photo that inspired it (which are all black and white by the way).
"This is like madness but it's so exciting." That's Roberto Vargas at Maison Francis Kurkdjian, a veteran of Sniffapalooza from the early days. "I remember when it was a small tiny little group of women that were just enamored with and driven by their passion for fragrance and it's grown into this madness," he says, which he loves. It's hard not to love the three oud fragrances he's presenting from this French perfume house. Based on fabrics, they are Velvet Mood, Silk Mood and Cashmere Mood. Roberto says the Oud Silk Mood is the perfumer's favorite. "Francis loves working with Bulgarian rose and it also has a 15 year fermented oud. There's a real softness to it."
Next is a mad dash through Henri Bendel, where there's a British invasion from Union. "The inspiration came from four colleagues from all parts of Britain, a Welshman, Irishman, Scotsman and Englishman decided to put together a line which unifies the native flora of the United Kingdom." Brit Anastasia Brozler was brought in as the perfumer to translate that mission. She thought it would be no problem to create the scents until she realized, "there was absolutely nothing but a very impoverished library of British materials; there wasn't a rose oil that came from Britain - none of the English roses had ever been extracted before."
She and her team determined they had to go out into the field and extract the oils themselves. Anastasia was inspired by the iconic flowers of the U.K., including not just the rose, but bluebells, holy thistle, Scottish thyme and wild heather and quince. Of all these, the bluebell proved to be the most challenging. Most of the bluebells growing wild in England are protected, so they couldn't just go and gather the flowers. They had to obtain a license to extract the oil. They also had to figure out how to get that oil out of the flowers. "It's something so easy to reconstitute synthetically, but on a natural basis the yield was so small it was very hard to obtain something sustainable and strong." They found that a combination of techniques, including CO2 extraction and enfleurage managed to capture the bluebell essence Anastasia was looking for. You can smell it now in Gothic Bluebell, a gorgeous floral with underlying earthy notes and a whiff of danger to it.
Two other fragrance lines caught my attention at Bendel's -- Tommi Sooni and Undergreen. Created in Australia, the Tommi Sooni line is eye catching, in gorgeous packaging. Each bottle is wrapped in luxurious, colorful papers nestled in a hinged box. "Our dreams are perfumes," goes the Tommi Sooni motto, and indeed, these perfumes are dream-inducing. I love the fresh floral that is Passerelle eau de parfum, a scent inspired by the native flora of Australia, including silver wattle, adopted in France as mimosa. Tommi Sooni makes three eau de toilette scents, and my favorite is Eau de Tommi Sooni II, a spicy sandalwood-based floriental that is rich and sensual.
Undergreen is a relatively new line of natural perfumes, with the mission of creating fragrances that are throughly modern. The series is based on color: Black, White, Pink and Gold. Black is dark and sensual -- with notes of black pepper and licorice. Truly a unisex fragrance. I happen to love White, with coconut, white mint, tuberose and ylang ylang elements. It's soft and seductive. Pink is bright, fun and delicious, with lemon, rose and strawberry along with gourmand notes of vanilla, caramel and praline. Yum.
Make Perfume Not War
Barb Stegemann's The 7 Virtues perfume line came out of a commitment to help find a way to bring about peace through economic empowerment after her best friend was severely wounded fighting in the Canadian forces in Afghanistan. She wasn't sure how she was going to do it, but she read about a man named Abdullah Arsala who was trying to grow roses and orange blossoms in Afghanistan as legal crops for perfume oils instead of illegal poppies for opium. He was also trying to encourage other farmers to do the same. Turns out the same forces who attacked her friend were also destroying Abdullah's distillery. "I thought that's it this is my way," and after searching she found Abdullah and bought all the oil she could afford to from him.
To get her perfume company started she went on the Canadian CBC TV competition show Dragon's Den and won, getting seed money and mentorship to launch The 7 Virtues. Her first scent was Afghanistan Orange Blossom, made from Abdullah's oil. Her second scent, Noble Rose of Afghanistan (also from Abdullah's oil) was named with the help of History Channel viewers on a show called What's In A Name? Barb says it's "named noble for the brave soldiers, noble for the brave farmers and families to not grow the illegal poppy crop and noble for the oils because they travel on the most dangerous highways in the world."
Barb's perfumes are top sellers in Canada, and she hopes to continue that success with this launch in the United States at Lord & Taylor. Her hope is, "just maybe we will reverse issue of war and poverty because I am not leaving this earth until we end war." She carries on her mission to rebuild places torn apart by war, poverty and natural disasters through trade and jobs to affect positive change.
"Sniffapalooza is the most fun a perfumista can have." Sujaan Grimson has been attending Sniffapalooza for two years now. "I'm so happy to have found this now, this is my community, these are my people." There's a second day of Sniffapalooza's Spring Fling, filled with visits to perfume boutiques in Soho and the West Village. Look for that write up in a future post.