An olfactory conversation with Neil Chapman, Author of ‘Perfume – In search of your signature scent’, & Fragrance Blogger of ‘The Black Narcissus’
July 30, 2019
Dated back months ago when I was pushing myself super hard, to get some words out for my new fragrance (while simultaneously working on the content for this blog), I have been constantly contacting different reputed fragrance bloggers around the world, getting their notice and appreciation over my French perfumer and my work, and eventually, having some overseas stockists to carry my fragrance, sharing this piece of art to the like-minded people and fragrance aficionados internationally. During this rocky, dark and bittersweet journey, I came across a fragrance blog which somehow fascinates me, the content are exceptionally intriguing, not simply the pick of the unusual, non-commercial fragrances, but also, the effort that the blogger put together, informative and sharp, intellectual and sometimes theatrical in a way, even at some point that I felt like it’s way beyond my knowledge but I am intrigue to learn and discover, that is my first impression when came across the fragrance critique by reputed Fragrance Blogger, Mr. Neil Chapman, the Fragrance Writer behind his blog ‘The Black Narcissus’. I always have a thought to have this knowledgeable and passionate fragrance writer to sniff my fragrance and having his thought about it, when I was trying hard to get in touch with him even through an UK-based fragrance blogger but not successful, it came to my attention that Neil has also published a new book which released earlier this year, titled ‘Perfume – In search of your signature scent’, published by Hardie Grant Publishing, without any hesitation and knowing the book was stocked in one of the big bookstore in Hong Kong, I instantly got a copy even it wasn’t my initial plan on buying anything during that particular weekend.
The new book, inherited the style of the talented fragrance writer’s work from his fragrance blog, reading through the introduction chapters at the beginning, it literally takes the reader to revisit the artistry, heritage, and even something very personal, Neil’s story, about his journey on discovering the love and passion of fragrance through out the past years, collecting rare and numbered fragrance from flea-markets and specialty boutiques, exploring different accords and olfactory secrets about each fragrant, and most importantly, his unapologetic reviews on trying over hundreds of different fragrances, from master perfumer’s work or emerging perfume designer’s or new established perfume houses, one thing that draws my attention constantly, is the theatric and poetic way that Neil interprets with his words, almost like reading a screenplay of a movie by a legendary movie director like Alfred Hitchcock, but instead in a form of a dialogue, the review is very sharp and precise, at the same time, adding some historic facts that enriches the reader to imagine the scent of the reviewed fragrance, like watching a classic Hollywood movie, a typical Hitchcock-style movie, with some wittiness and amusement, yet, with depth that even a non-professional perfume people can understand. While I will let you all, my dear readers, to discover this book on your own, Neil’s work over his search of intriguing and precious fragrance has been a valuable reference, especially for fragrance connoisseurs and collectors, this Englishman’s work is the living work of art in our time, even from the book cover (well yes I know some of you might said ‘don’t judge the book by its cover.’, but that’s always a reason behind the publisher choose one’s work to be published.) was thoughtfully and artistically designed, the classic and mysterious black with a hint of glamorous gold reflects the stylish and splendor of the Art Deco period, pretty much echoes the delicious and resourceful content inside that expresses the author’s work – years of work, together in this absolutely handy copy of beautiful book.
With a coincident, somehow God brought me and this talented writer and fragrance collector together (finally!), and as our friendship grew over the past few weeks, I decided to invite Neil as our guest this time, to have a conversation with this esteemed Englishman – Fragrance Writer, blogger, collector and educator – all in one, to share about his work, life journey with fragrance, and more, with us:
My Modern Darcy: Hi Neil, how thrilling to have you here this time; first thing first, as learnt that your book has been sold worldwide, and the recent photo you share with me is the shoot in Harrods, tell us how your book performing so far?
Neil Chapman: The reactions to it have been really encouraging, and I am delighted that readers are responding to the book as I hoped they would. People see to like the cover and design of the book as well, so I am really pleased.
MMD: Tell us more about how’s this book come about? What is your objective and what do you want to achieve?
NC: I first pitched the idea of a ‘scent atlas’ - a guide that would take you in the direction of your ideal, ‘signature scent’ - a few years ago to my agent: a commercial, illustrated book in which the world of perfume would be classified and categorized according to perfume ‘note’ to help the reader navigate what for a lot of people is an unfamiliar world. This approach had never been done before: previous perfume guides tending to be organized alphabetically or chronologically or commissioned by specific fashion houses. I wanted to create a book that would demystify the world of scent without taking away the mystique: be practical and useful, but also poetic, intoxicating.
Much as I loved doing it and was so grateful to have been given the opportunity to do so, it was not easy, I must say, this time last year as I put it all together, especially while working full time! Although I do have three decades of perfume mania behind me on which to fall back on and was able of course to draw on that experience, in a perfect world, I would also have had a few extra years to do the book; traveled the world and done research in London, Paris, New York, Milan, Dubai, many countries, collating as much information as I possibly could about all the perfumes out there in order to make something as all-encompassing as possible, but then the book would have been about five to ten, even twenty times longer than it is. Reality dictated though that there be a limited number of words and pages - as we wanted to accommodate illustrations as well to make the book as user-friendly and eye-catching as possible - so I was therefore faced with the very difficult task of honing the contents down to what I felt would capture the essence of each ‘note’ in each olfactively separate chapter. There were perfume vials and samples sent from various perfume maisons strewn all over the house, which was in a state of chaos, as well as bottles from my own hoardings over the years as I tried to put something coherent together that represented enough different scents to truly add up to a ‘world of perfume’. I knew in my head what I wanted, I could see how it should all be organized from the offset, as I had always felt that the average non-perfume obsessed person on the street has no real idea what vetiver, tuberose, agarwood, or almost any of the main perfume ingredients listed in PR copy in perfume descriptions in magazines smell like, and that it was up to me somehow to change this; to clarify the ‘taxonomy’ of perfumes for the sake of the common ‘scent literacy’ and try and conjure up the atmosphere of each note (say lemon, or rose, or cinnamon), at the beginning of each chapter; how the ingredients smell, what their aromatherapeutic uses are, then give a sample selection of representative perfumes so that the reader could hone their search according to what basic notes appealed to them. It was never possible, unfortunately, for the book to be fully comprehensive, as there are simply too many perfumes available in the world - probably around 100,000 I would say, maybe even more: I think of this book, then, more as an introduction, a ‘salivator’ or tantalizer; a pathway in the garden, if you like, in order to convince, or seduce, people more into fully understanding the beauty of what perfume can be; like the white rabbit leading Alice down the rabbit hole and the world beyond the Looking Glass. It is essentially designed to make you dream.
MMD: I do have a silly question here, in terms of the title, instead of using your blog ‘The Black Narcissus’, you used another one which is ‘Perfume – In search of your signature scent’, do you have any reason behind? Will you think using your blog name as title will be more beneficial for this new book of yours given the remarkable reputation that you have established for your blog?
NC: Firstly, the book has a very clear concept - a carefully constructed guide to help the reader find their perfect perfume. The blog is far more sprawling. They are connected, but separate. ‘The Black Narcissus’ really is my life in words and pictures; I think of it as being not only a place where I review perfumes and talk about scent, but also as a chronicle, or diary - almost an evolving installation of performance art (the visual side of it is extremely important to me, as I also love photography) - a space that I write varied posts for, impulsively, but edit, delete, and change according to my mood. It is interactive - I have built up real relationships with the readers over the years - I think of many of them as true friends - and I love the reciprocity and spontaneity of it. It’s funny, actually - I had never considered any other name for my blog than ‘The Black Narcissus’ when I first started it, because the words ‘hyacinth’ and ‘narcissus’ happen to be my favorite words in the English language, and of course also because I love the Powell & Pressburger film of the same name - as well as the classic, sultry, dark perfume, Narcisse Noir by Caron - and I was amazed that a domain with that name was available. I had assumed that somebody would already have nabbed it, but it felt like destiny that they hadn’t. The name is very apt. In some ways, ‘The Black Narcissus’ is quite narcissistic, as I am very hyper-analytical by nature and really open up on there in personal terms - sometimes too much, possibly - as well as being quite dark (and very critical! I don’t hold back if I hate something for being banal, a rip-off, or for just being sloppily put together): I am naturally attracted to the macabre as well as the light; horror, as well as happiness, total yin and yang. I talk about life, death, art, cinema, music, politics, Japan - everything really, on there, and though perfume, or the sense of smell, is almost always the portal, it is not always the entire story.
With the book, I was essentially commissioned by a well-regarded UK/Australian lifestyle publisher, Hardie Grant, that specializes in up-to-the-minute, visually-centered books on fashion, food, beauty, travel and autobiography to write a perfume guide that would appeal to a wider audience than ‘The Black Narcissus’, while still maintaining its essential character. A book that would be aesthetically pleasing to hold and own (or give as a gift), and that would hopefully be practical and useful as well as enjoyable to read. The book was much more of a collaboration (I worked together with the team right from the beginning in terms of tone, content, and design), and so my real name just seemed more suitable to have on the cover than the more indulgent, and oneiric, Black Narcissus.
MMD: You have been collecting rare and discontinued fragrance from flea-market to specialty boutiques, from England to now Japan which you currently reside, can you share with us what motivates you to collect fragrance? What fascinates you so much at the first place? And how much time it takes for you to curate what you currently collected up til today?
NC: To be honest, I didn’t actually set out to collect vintage perfumes, as such, nor to become known as the King - or Queen - Of Vintage. It just so happened that I came to Japan on a whim in my twenties as I wanted an adventure somewhere completely new in order to get a different way of seeing things, and, as it turned out, the cultural differences in this country even applied to perfume. To my utter astonishment, I kept coming across incredible, pristine, boxed, classic perfumes in at ridiculously reasonable prices at flea markets in Tokyo, and so called ‘recycle’ shops (what we would call ‘charity shops’ in the UK), which you can stumble across virtually anywhere. Things like old Shalimar extraits in perfect condition that would make me swoon; vintage Dior like Diorling; Yves Saint Laurent….I just picked them up when I found them, randomly - I was just so excited to have discovered them, practically having heart attacks at times the exhilaration was so great). The reason for the availability of this vintage bonanza - which is now sadly dwindling as stocks get bought up without getting replenished, is that although Japan is not really a perfume-wearing society per se (unlike somewhere, say, like Italy, the U.A.E, or Russia), it is also a nation of people who love to travel abroad a lot, expensive perfume often being brought back from Paris or Milan as an ‘omiyage’, or souvenir; a prestige gift from a well-known designer house appreciated more as an object to behold on the dressing table than to actually wear. The bottle in question would probably have been stored in some dusty drawer in the dark of a Tokyo lady’s bedroom for decades, and then, eventually, unopened, find its way into my hysterical, outstretching hands to add to my collection, which I sometimes lie on my futon at night and gaze at, for the nourishing it gives me to the soul, as well as to reach out and douse myself in as a companion to sleep.
In truth, however, though I like adding to what I already have, I don’t really fetishize perfume bottles as such, unlike many collectors - it is the contents I crave more than anything (you honestly wouldn’t believe how many flacons of vintage - and it must be vintage - there is nothing else like it - No 19 parfum by Chanel I have got through over the years; I have thrown away whole bags of those beautiful glass bottles in the trash: I use the stuff! I wear it like aftershave, slapped on the face: that really is my ultimate signature perfume). Also, being an incredibly messy Sagittarian by nature, I have no order - no rhyme or reason to the order of the perfumes I have amassed: we sleep among them; sometimes they get knocked over or smashed - there is no ‘curating’ of the collection’ as such. It is all rather haphazard and decadent, like a perfume equivalent of Grey Gardens.
What particularly fascinates me about vintage? It is not that I have a preference for old, classic perfumes per se (and some really do smell too musty Miss Haversham, for me - I am not one to rock backwards and forth slowly on my lace covered armchair misted by cobwebs); I also buy and use brand new fragrances of all descriptions all the time as well. My collection is very eclectic. Sometimes I just want to wear something that suits my mood, that suits the weather; that just smells good. As I write this, it is a very hot summer’s day in Japan and I am wearing Roger & Gallet’s Green Tea, which I find works perfectly in this fierce sunshine. It smells light, crisp, yet has a certain elegance to it as well. For fun, I might impulsively decide to suddenly wear something like La Rose De Rosine by Les Parfums de Rosine in a certain mood, as it just smells so full dimensional, rich and gorgeous, like a clown dressed up as a can-can dancer, but like the Roger & Gallet, at the end of the day, it is just a nice smell - there isn’t much psychological complexity to it, and sometimes I want to be challenged by what I am wearing; I want to have a relationship with the perfume that changes during the day as it continually reveals its secrets. Guerlain’s vintage Vol De Nuit extrait (the reformulation is fine but just not the same, like a clone missing essential components of the original’s DNA), created by Jacques Guerlain in 1933, another of my absolute holy grails, is one such perfume. It is just so incredibly complex, nuanced, intelligent, emotional - almost dauntingly so; I am not even sure that I always like the spiky, spiced, green beginning of it; the strange accord and jonquil absolute and pimiento that is the prelude to the softness and beauty that lie beneath - it is as if it is taunting you; throwing down a gauntlet. But as the day, and evening, progress, and the story is fully told on your skin, the perfume just gets more and more beautiful; I love lining my clothes with and spending the day in its company, glued to my wrists, while also feeling its aura hovering about me like night moths with velvet wings shuddering in full moonlight. This perfume drives me wild; I adore it, and I will be heartbroken if I ever run out.
MMD: As an educator and a fragrance writer, how do you feel about the generation nowadays on looking fragrance compare with the previous generation, do you see perception towards fragrance is the same or different? If yes, how different is that?
NC: Obviously it depends on the person: many young people do enjoy wearing fragrance, as there is a specific youth market targeted directly towards them, but generally speaking, I worry slightly that in general, a lot of ‘millennials’ and others younger than them, are losing interest in perfume. A subtle psychological ‘shield’ of fabric softener is enough for many; there has certainly been a rise in the number of ironically unscented fragrances or ‘anti-perfumes’ as I refer to them in my book, such Elevator Music by Byredo or Not A Perfume by Juliette Has A Gun; a lot of people seem almost afraid, these days, to stand out too much in the crowd, to ‘impose’, or even to be noticed except for the clothes that they are wearing on their bodies and the assemblage of their overall ‘look’ (this trend goes hand in hand with the lessening interest in sex and physical contact as well - a lessening of the libido, of sensuality), and the deterioration in all senses beyond the visual. The eyes are the keys to everything now, more than ever before: it is all about what we see on our screens, how we analyze other people in terms of their fashion choices etc. It is as if the visual were all that mattered, and I fear that our sense of smell is becoming fundamentally devalued. Which is such a shame, because it can bring us such pleasure and joy.
MMD: As a Jasmine-award literary winner and get you where you are today, can you share with us if it is something that you expected when you first started your fragrance writing? And can you share with us about the work behind? Any challenges throughout your writing (and fragrance collecting) journey that makes you feel memorable?
NC: That is quite an interesting story, actually. A writer called Liam Moore contacted me out of the blue saying that he liked my way of talking about perfume and was wondering if I would be interested in doing an article for a new magazine he was setting up called ODOU. I said yes immediately, and wrote a slightly naughty, very intense, piece called Perfume Haters, based on my experience of living in a country - Japan - where perfume use is sometimes frowned upon - I have had students literally screaming at me to open the window in the past - and also a newspaper article I had once read about Nova Scotia in Canada, where the wearing of perfume was apparently illegal; many claiming hysterical levels of allergy and sensitization to being even in slight proximity to anyone wearing scent (ice hockey players fainting on the ice rink etc., clutching their throats, because an opponent just happened to be wearing Dior’s Poison). As a defiant, perfume militant extraordinaire - I think I describe myself as a terrorist in the piece - I thought this would make an interesting starting point for a treatise on the place of perfume in society and how we should appreciate its sensuality and artistry more - and to my complete amazement (this was the first thing I had ever published), at the award ceremony it won the top prize. I was really glad I had flown back to London for the occasion.
MMD: I learnt that you are a fan of Vanilla, apart from that, can you share with us more about which fragrances (maybe 3) that intrigues you nowadays? Even something that you have collected from the past which you still have a piece of heart and attachment to it? And why?
NC: Yes, for a while, I was totally obsessed with vanilla, to the point that I even stayed on an organic vanilla plantation in Indonesia to do a course on how the orchid was grown and harvested (probably the most fascinating experience of my life: it took me about two weeks after coming back to Kamakura to float back to reality); after which I did a special talk on vanilla at an event called Perfume Lovers London (which should probably have been called Death By Vanilla) where we, the audience and I, analyzed different vanilla bean varietals and discussed and sampled of perfumes based on that note. It was great fun, but to honest I overdid it somewhat and overdosed on the pod to the point that I can hardly wear it anymore.
Like all true people, as with food, I enjoy a wide variety of genres of scent and wear different things at different times, but I am definitely fundamentally quite drawn to mysterious patchouli perfumes like Histoires De Parfums Noir Patchouli; on another day, though, I might douse myself in tropical flowers - some glorious bee-attractant like Annick Goutal’s Songes, or Dolce & Gabbana’s Velvet Desire, or when I am feeling serious, something like the dark, forested Inoui by Shiseido.
MMD: With the advancement of technology nowadays, people tend to shift their reading media from a printed book to online; while you managed to have your work present in both on and offline, how do you see the value of the existence of a printed book? And why did you still choose a printed one for your work?
NC: As a bona fide control freak, from the blogger perspective, I love the fluidity of writing on the internet - it feels alive. In contrast, here is something final about a printed book. At the same time, that is also what is so wonderful about it - a moment in time captured; bound and printed that you can keep forever. A possession. I think that Hardie Grant, in collaboration with an Australian design house called Evi-O, did a really good job with the design of this tome: it almost feels talismanic, like a book or a secret history of magic, something you pull off the shelf in some old, forgotten library. It is a book that people respond to, a book to start your own adventure. You can take it out on the bus, on the train, or ideally, even take it out with you while perfume shopping, like a personalized map. When the first copy of the book arrived in the post by courier mail and I opened the package, I must admit that I just sat there for hours simply staring at it. I knew roughly what the cover was going to be beforehand, but hadn’t quite expected the impact of the real thing. When my parents later received their copy, they took it to bed with them.
MMD: Now back to fragrance and gentlemen’s lifestyle, can you share with us about your view about a modern day gentleman and fragrance? How do you see the impact of a fragrance over one’s lifestyle?
NC: I truly think that fragrance is utterly essential for anyone who is interested in making a good impression on others - it is the ‘finishing touch’ - and that without it, an outfit is simply too two dimensional. You can bring it all alive with a perfume. A beautiful scent completes the picture, fuses with the aura you emanate, so that when a person encounters you, it all becomes one, and the lingering effect of your perfume already resonates like a memory even though you may have just left (or entered) the room. Sometimes you see someone approaching you who seems intriguing, beautifully dressed, and then you discover that that they are either odourless, or far worse, have just eaten something with raw onions or are suffering from advanced tooth decay (or have just neglected to wear deodorant on a hot August day), and then for me, the entire illusion just collapses at that moment. I lose all interest. And so will a lot of other people. You have wasted your money: but with a beautiful fragrance you can achieve completely the opposite effect - often your scent will have slightly preceded you on the air, announcing your presence before anyone else has even had the opportunity to gauge who you are, but the thing is, it can speak for you (perfume is a great tool for the shy and introverted, actually - fusing with your natural aura and creating a new synergy that others can respond to, bring you out of your shell for them before you utter a word). It is all about find the right perfume for you, that feels instinctive and natural, and sometimes that takes time and patience. You also needn’t of course limit yourself to only one perfume, but instead have an ultimate signature scent that people basically associate with you on a day to day basis, but also a collection of special perfumes that accentuate what you are a wearing, clothes-wise, on particular special occasions. A whole wardrobe of perfumes. If you are dressed up and formal, wearing a velvet waistcoat in purple, you might wear Racine, a gloriously haughty and quietly masculine citrus vetiver with a lovely plum note by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier. Or, alternatively, you could also wear the same house’s outrageously powdery and over the top Magnolia Pourpre if you are in the mood for appear more foppish and Marie Antoinette with powdered perruque. Conversely, if you are in a Savile Row tailored suit, or top to toe in tweed, and really want to play the suave gentleman part, the lavender suede of Penhaligon’s Sartorial, or else the tauter refinement Blenheim Bouquet would be perfect, or perhaps even something plush and animalic, like Gold by Amouage.
MMD: In your opinion, what kind of fragrance suits a gentleman the best during the summer time? And what’s the secret of applying fragrance appropriately?
NC: In Japan in summer it is as sweltering and humid as Hong Kong, especially in August. Personally, I wouldn’t even think about wearing any of my heavier, spicer perfumes at this time (at least not in the daytime; I think post shower of bath, you can get away with more luxuriant perfumes for evening wear. I love Shalimar on hot summer nights actually).
For daytime, it makes sense to stick to citruses - anything in Acqua Di Parma’s range of colognes for instance; the Hermes’ range of light colognes is also great (I love their Eau D’Orange Verte on hot days); or aquatics, like your own Aurora par Charles Wong, or something like Kenzo Homme or Diptyque’s Florabellio. You can’t go wrong with perfumes like these.
As citruses naturally fade quickly, I recommend spraying the lighter perfumes on handkerchiefs or tissues, and then secreting them in inner pockets on your person. That way, you are subtly scented for a longer period, and the source of the fragrance is less obvious and yet is always present in your overall unplaceable atmosphere. You leave the house confident in your scent, and then, just prior to your rendezvous, perhaps have a secret spritz of ‘top up’ (but not too much); just enough to refresh the head notes and present the full portrait of the perfume in all of its stages.
Personally, despite what I have said above, I don’t think you should aim to be playing things too safe, even when the tried and tested conservative formulae work perfectly. The main message of my book, at the end of the day, is that it is important not to limit yourself in any way in terms of what you ‘think’ a person of a certain type should wear. While it may be true that certain scents are undoubtedly inherently ‘gentlemanly’ (I grew up wearing Givenchy Gentleman and Chanel Pour Monsieur, both of which still smell great and which I still use when the moment feels right), and you can’t really go wrong with the tried and trusted ‘gentleman’ perfumers like Geo F Trumper and Floris etc., I personally think that true elegance comes from originality and daringness and not just following established codes. I talk a lot in the book about subverting gender - not merely for the sake of political correctness - but actually because I genuinely believe that men can smell incredible in flowers and aldehydes and all kinds of other ‘women’s’ perfumes, and vice versa. Provided you have a natural affinity with the scent and it works on you, there is no reason why you have to only wear the fragrance category that has been assigned you by society. A man’s skin can change a perfume targeted towards women in unexpected and beautiful ways. My brother is amazing in this regard; his girlfriend is at least as obsessed with perfume as I am (that is how I met her - she came to my vanilla talk as we have both a shared veneration of Cacharel’s Loulou, and then I played Cupid and introduced them…….love found through fragrance!), and he will wear anything, no holds barred, from her collection - which then often becomes his collection - if it appeals to him and suits him. He smells perfect in Gucci Rush (a green, chocolate gardenia), and Serge Lutens’ A La Nuit (a resplendent jasmine that I wish I could personally pull off) and a whole range of perfumes that really suit his particular skin type. You would never say he smells feminine - just really interesting. He gets compliments all the time. It is important to not just settle for the obvious: one of the biggest sellers for the Tokyo Dandy at Isetan Shinjuku is apparently Pot Pourri by Santa Maria Novella, a Florentine, fresh, spiced and earthy aromatic rose that is indecipherable and curious, mysterious, but strange, and delightful on the right individual.
MMD: If someone came to you one day and ask for your secret of success as a Fragrance Blogger (writer) and even a Fragrance Collector, what kind of advice will you give him/her?
NC: I don’t know that I have actually had success, in the established sense, anyway - certainly there are a great many perfume bloggers and ‘influencers’ out there that are far more popular than I am. I think I occupy my own, idiosyncratic, odd little space - but at least it is my space. I can’t stand blandness and homogenization: anyone who knows me will tell you that I am quite fiercely individualistic, I have always been, and in some ways stubbornly uncompromising, so what was so great - almost miraculous, actually - about getting the book published was that I was able to do it, essentially, on my own terms. I think people appreciate honesty, subjective truth. You have to be yourself.
Special thanks to Mr. Neil Chapman
Image courtesy of Mr. Neil Chapman, Hardie Grant books