25 September 2010

Telling Stories: Gorilla Perfume Pop-Up Shop and Gallery

(Updated with further thoughts on The Smell of Weather Turning)

My trudging work week ended yesterday with an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. The earth-loving artisans at Lush turned three floors of a building on Crosby street into a makeshift gallery to launch a number of new scents in their Gorilla Perfume fragrance line. Groovy!

The exhibit comprised a series of rooms dedicated to particular fragrances, each one furnished with an illustration of what inspired the scent (live dancers in one room, audio recordings of thunder in another, a bubble machine, dirty bathroom sinks, etc.) and a VERY friendly storyteller ready to translate smell into narrative.

In my typically nerdy fashion, I prodded these ladies and gentlemen for as much nerdy detail about the perfumes as I could, but they seemed far better-versed in the stories than the hard facts. After a while I didn’t even mind, because the stories (all drawn from the global adventures of Lush co-founder Mark Constantine and his son Simon, who author the perfumes themselves) were at the very least entertaining, and more importantly, in most cases they really did seem to relate to the final product, rather than feeling like a cut-throat marketing move. Kudos to these Willy Wonkas, then, for giving their scents more of a soul than one is apt to find in most perfume these days.

A fine example is The Smell of Freedom, which combines three olfactory portraits of people who have suffered extreme hardship into a ‘triptych’ of sorts. The scents were based on a Tibetan monk (clove, black pepper, ginger-honey tea), an Australian Aboriginal (fire tree, lemon myrtle, lemongrass) and a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner (oudh, jasmine, orris and sustainable Australian sandalwood). Each of the three portraits is available as a perfume oil in addition to the combined scent sold in an atomizer bottle.

Other highlights were the new Imogen Rose, a blushing Damascus rose swathed in vetiver, bergamot and soft ambrette; Dirty, a slyly marine-tilting alternative to Axe aimed at unshowered dudes; and three custom scents blended for an actress, an heiress and a dutchess (all of whose hair Mark Constantine had tended to in the 70s), each made available to the public for the first time and exclusively at this gallery for a properly luxurious $2,400 a pop.

My clear favorite, though, and the one that coaxed my credit card from the safety of my wallet, is The Smell of Weather Turning. The perfumers were encouraged to create this ‘thunderstorm in reverse’ by an employee of theirs who is also a white witch. They drew further inspiration from the musician Simon Emmerson, who is a member of an order of druids, as well as a dream Mark Constantine had at an Iron Age inn in Finland where they were fed nettles and dark rye bread.

All of these experiences led Mark to insist on only using materials that would have been available 5,000 years ago in the fragrance, and they pulled it off with aplomb.  Weather Turning turns up an herbal bouquet of English peppermint, chamomile and nettle that anchors quickly to a heart of stately oakwood mixed with what I smell as mossy notes, which provide just the slightest hint of marine saltiness. These first phases bring it initially close to Dirty, an older scent from Lush’s now-closed Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful line that Luca Turin dubbed “marine mint.” Where the newer scent differs is in the sweet hay and beeswax absolutes underneath, as warm and dry as anyone could want. The combination imparts both a vague smokiness and creaminess to the last (and longest-lasting) phase, and the beeswax seems to fix the entire composition in place. Those herbs that kick everything off don’t so much collapse into this last phase as they do sink slowly into it, such that one can still apprehend their dull silhouette many hours after their opening act. Minty scents rarely work well on my skin, but Weather Turning marks a bewitching (see what I did there?) halfway point between fresh and cozy. Wearing it out of the exhibit, it actually made me feel at home in the otherwise oppressively humid, pre-storm Manhattan night.

Some of the Gorilla perfumes will be available in Lush stores, but all of them, aside from the “three ladies”, can be purchased from the Gorilla Perfume website in 30 ml bottles or as solids. Many of the former Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful perfumes (Dirty and Ladyboy among them) are also available on the site.

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