Monday, April 20, 2009
A spring storm blew through Manhattan yesterday afternoon and a million umbrellas blossomed on the rush hour sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. European tourists posed for each other’s cameras, oblivious to the fact that everyone else was trying to actually get somewhere. Stepping into the Henri Bendel store at 56th Street was a Star Gate experience: an instant transition from wet, blustery, darkness to a brightly lit world of linear white and chrome.
I was at Bendel’s for a reception celebrating the opening of Mandy Aftel’s new exhibit which runs from April 18 to May 11. The show, called Living Perfume: The Natural Alchemy of Mandy Aftel, is a sampling of her collection of perfume-related artifacts. There are rare books—an early edition of Eugene Rimmel’s The Book of Perfumes, for example—and momentos of New York’s early fragrance industry: a bottle of East Indian vetivert oil from Dodge & Olcott, and a bottle of tincture of ambergris from Fritzsche Brothers. An antique perfumer’s handwritten formula book offers a ghostly reminder of perfumes past.
Mandy is always about smelling, and the display “deconstructs” Parfum de Maroc into its constituent notes and accords—smellable in glass-stoppered bottles—and even into its raw materials—accessible to the touch in drawers below the display. Like everything she creates, the exhibit and its accompanying pamphlet are exquisitely designed and beautifully written.
Mandy is famous for her passionate advocacy of artisan natural perfumery. In her books Essence and Alchemy, Aroma, and Scents & Sensibilities, she eloquently promotes the aesthetics of natural materials—those “expensive, seasonal, and non-repeatable” essences whose tonalities are softer, more complex and changeable than those of synthetic materials.
My first visit to Mandy’s studio in Berkeley was during the dot com boom. I was working for DigiScents, the Oakland startup with a PC-driven scent-generating device. We were going to pitch it to Electronic Arts for use in video game systems, and as part of the presentation I commissioned Mandy to create a signature scent for Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft character.
I drove to Mandy’s and handed her the briefing material: a personality profile of Laura Croft. She led me through her aromatic backyard garden plucking leaves which she brewed into a sweet herbal tea. A couple of weeks later, Mandy delivered two beautiful fragrances that were perfect for the brief—adventurous, sexy, and slightly androgynous. EA ultimately didn’t bite and DigiScents went the way of most dot coms. But Mandy became a colleague and a friend and that has proved to be far more valuable in the end.