It’s no secret that I love Penhaligons. I love the quintessential englishness of the brand, I love the packaging, I love the refined and highly crafted finesse of the fragrances. I may not wear them all but one has to appreciate how well Penhaligons have preserved themselves as a perfume house of impeccable taste.
Penhaligons is my go to house for when I’m in need of ultra feminine fragrances. My two favourite floral bouquets are from Penhaligons and I think it is the old fashioned elegance of these perfumes that most satisfies me. I wear ‘Gardenia’ and ‘Lily of the Valley’, the latter being one of the most creamy and authentic lily of the valley fragrances around. I feel transported in these scents, like I’ve slipped through the mists of time into another life. They bring with them very clear imagery. Wearing ‘Iris Prima’ I experienced a very personal journey, both into my past and also a peek at a future that never happened…..
When I was a very little girl my mother took me along to a ballet class on the recommendation of a friend, who said I had potential. I don’t remember that first class, I was only three, but from that point onwards dancing was such an integral part of my life that it was like breathing. I loved to dance, ballet in particular, and I was very good at it too.
When I was about ten or eleven I went to audition for the Royal Ballet School. I think my mother was a little unsure about how I would handle it, I’d been used to going to dance festivals and winning gold medals in every category. Being young I couldn’t see what she could, that from the moment you are accepted into that world of professional dance your life becomes all about hard physical work, knock backs and triumphs and competition. I did the summer school but wasn’t given a permanent place. I was distraught but I think my mother was relieved and looking back, so am I.
For me, up until that moment dance had been all about release and the joy of movement. The thrill of dressing up and the excitement of competitions, the pride I felt in my drawer of gold medals. I realised at that audition that sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are at something, there will always be someone else just as good and perhaps more suitable. There was a physical exam where I was taken into a side room and measured, weighed, stretched and inspected. I didn’t see what could possibly be wrong with me physically, so I didn’t worry. As it turned out, I had one leg fractionally longer than the other. Also they predicted that I would be tall and perhaps a little heavy to ever make it as a professional dancer. Aged thirty I can marvel at how accurate a prediction that was. Aged ten I thought that was very, very unfair.
It is a relief to me that I didn’t have a pushy mother, because I might have gone on to audition again for another school, gotten in and then struggled throughout my teenage years with the fact that I was growing too tall and weighing ever so slightly too much. Dancers have feather light frames and whilst I would never have been considered anything but slim, I have always had the frustrating predisposition of heavy bones. It is no wonder that eating disorders are rife among dancers.
If you’d asked me before that audition what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said ‘ballerina!’ without a moment’s pause. After the audition I began to slowly turn my attention towards different types of performance and by aged sixteen I was far more interested in acting, much to the frustration of my dance teachers, only keeping up the dance classes because I enjoyed it. By aged eighteen it was time to decide. University to do art or stage school to do dance and drama. I chose art at university and hung up my pointe shoes, partly with sadness, partly with relief. I think there was always a sense that I had walked away from something I was very talented at, but which might have really screwed me up. I’m not really a half measures kind of girl, it’s all or nothing, and I know that if I’d gone off to ballet school I would have put myself through hell, perhaps to no avail. I am grateful to my mother for subtly distracting me with other choices so that I didn’t fixate on my failure. I was able to go on to enjoy ballet with only a slight twinge of regret that it wasn’t me that was centre stage.
I approach ‘Iris Prima’ with both delight and slight trepidation. A perfume inspired by time spent in the company of the English National Ballet, with iris at it’s heart. Ballet I adore and iris I do not. So how will Alberto Morillas, the perfumer behind the scent, convince me that this is more than a simple, powdery floral?……
‘Iris Prima’ steps into the rehearsal rooms in a light haze of citrusy bergamot, reminiscent of hairspray and lemon tea. I say rehearsal room rather than the stage because for all the nice analogies I could make between the perfume and it’s performance, it is clear from the beginning that this scent is not about the excitement of the stage. It has a very quiet resonance, this is an important rehearsal where all the development and hard work happens. There is absolutely nothing like the thrill of dancing out onto a flood lit stage, the heat, the exertion, the applause…. None of that is present in ‘Iris Prima’, but that is not a criticism. It would be too easy to make a perfume about the actual performance, I am far more impressed with this perfume because of it’s intimacy.
The bergamot eases softly into the most lovely leather, which is exactly as a stockroom full of new ballet shoes smells. I can really tell that the perfumer has been to these places and intelligently interpreted the atmosphere into perfume. That leather accord is perfect. When you have a new pair of pointe shoes you don’t just put them on and off you go, they have to be broken in so that you can actually bend your feet in them. They also have to be darned to protect the satin and have their ribbons sewn in exactly the right position to support your ankles. Dancers spend hours working and moulding their shoes to their feet, bending the leather soles until they become flexible. That is what the leather in ‘Iris Prima’ smells like. New, tan leather and powdery satin being worked and flexed until it is supple.
That iris that I was so dubious about has none of the cloying powderiness that I dislike in fragrances such as Prada ‘Infusion d’Iris’. I detect a lot of jasmine as well which, along with that gorgeous tan leather and palest pink satin, bring just the perfect amount of powder without ever becoming overwhelming. ‘Iris Prima’ flits about the mirrored studio in this manner for some time and I am charmed by the effortless grace and flow of the perfume, and encouraged to lean in closer as it becomes increasingly introverted, like a dancer disappearing into that trance like state of concentration. I don’t feel that ‘Iris Prima’ represents the bodily exertion of dance, the blood, sweat and tears are hidden beneath the grace of movement and introversion of most dancers as they are learning new steps.
Vanilla and sandalwood come later in the dry down, along with resinous benzoin. This accord too so accurately portrays the rehearsal room that I am placed firmly back in the studios of my dancing days, worn wooden floorboards and bars polished with beeswax. Lying face down, panting for breath and inhaling the smell of the wood, pulling a woolen shawl around a body so tired that the floor feels as comfortable as a feather bed. This is how ‘Iris Prima’ ends on my skin, as a warm, vanillic wood with powdered satin whispering across it.
There is no spotlight and no red curtain present in ‘Iris Prima’. No adrenaline and sweat, no rapturous applause. It is most definitely all about the ballet, but the one that is performed in front of the mirror in a echoing studio. It is private, quiet and introverted, almost melancholic in it’s feather light beauty. This is not a dramatic perfume at all, but it still has a profound impact. It is touching to the point that I felt a little tearful wearing it, although that may be because it made me feel wistful for times past. This perfume I will spray onto clothes as well as skin so that it lingers just a little longer. Penhaligons and Alberto Morillas receive a standing ovation from me for the conceptual brilliance of ‘Iris Prima’, I would love to see them make a rouge tinted, show stopping performance scent as a follow up. I shall await the curtain call with a fluttering heart….