Dressed in white tie, a butler with a booming baritone announced the arrival of guests at Norwood, a private social club for creatives on West 14th Street last month. A cozy parlor in the uber-chic brownstone set the perfect scene for an event hosted by Penhaligon’s, the English fragrance house known for perfuming the world’s royals.
Over a high tea, Penhaligon’s introduced LLNYC to the members of their own “royal family” through an intriguing tale of olfactory fiction in their new Portraits Collection – the first and most expensive fragrance issued by the house in two years.
The collection is made up of six scents, each of which has notes intended to personify a member of Penhaligon’s fictitious family. Lord George, the butler divulged, is the patriarch of this scandalous brood and is known to be “masculine and elegant – with a hint of rum.” While his son-in-law, the Duke, who spends every night at the theatre, is punctuated with peppery rose, leather and gin.
We were guided through the narrative, which is set in the English countryside in 1870, by way of a replica of each character’s dressing table. Lady Blanche, the refined wife of Lord George, is “a tour de force of control and exquisite good taste.” Her dressing table displayed a stunning grooming set and arsenic. Antique hair combs and pearls adorned the table of the Duchess Rose. And a cocktail and shave soap were set out for Lord George.
A kind of theatrical whimsy flows through the collection as the tale evolves to include a mistress, Clandestine Clara, and an illegitimate son (he has yet to be named) complicating the life of Lord George. These haughty, naughty beauties are given further dimension in the form of a spirit animal depicted in the toppers on each bottle, including a stage for Sir George, a hound for the rascally Duke, a panther for Lady Blanche and a sly fox for the Duchess.
The world of the Penhaligon’s royals (and the product packaging) is illustrated by artist Kristjana Williams with ornate black and white Victorian scenes, punctuated by bursts of color to highlight the defining qualities of each family member. Alberto Morillas, Daphne Bugey, and Christophe Raynaud are the master perfumers who captured the essence of the family.
This all made for a unique presentation for a collection that goes beyond the normal fragrance banter of rich and warm or fruity and floral. The result is a fresh take on a fragrance story that entices you to step outside of your comfort zone and embrace the subtleties of scent and the sensuousness of period drama.
However, using story telling to market and brand scents is nothing new. Last year, Hermès opened a “perfume library” with house perfumier Christine Nagel, who worked with famed nose Jean Claude-Ellena on assembling the collection. Hermès sorted its fragrances, both new and old, along glowing bookshelves organized into literary categories: poems, novels and novellas. Penhaligon’s, though, is unique in going beyond metaphor, actually writing stories based on each of its perfumes.
Penhaligon’s Downton Abbey-esque “family” will make its official debut in October, followed by a second chapter of the “story” in February 2017. The collection will be available at the recently opened Penhaligon’s boutiques at Rockefeller Center, their newest location in the Oculus, and everywhere Penhaligon’s products are sold. And at $235 for a 75ml bottle, it’s the priciest expression we’ve seen from the perfume house that kept the likes of Winston Churchill from smelling too much like cigars.