Persolaise: A Personal History and Journey in Fragrance

2020 . 10 . 09 | written by Karen Marin

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It must have been during confinement that I first came across perfume critic, author, blogger and vlogger Persolaise, alias Dariush Alavi. I watched a few of his interviews with perfumers on his YouTube channel, and then, intrigued and hungry for more, I started to listen to his fragrance reviews on his “Love at First Scent” series. I was immediately struck by his ability to describe fragrance with such a rich vocabulary and inventive analogies, so that those of us not experiencing the scent at the time would take note, and possibly be curious enough to go in search of said scents. I recently caught up with Persolaise to talk about his career, his industry observations and ultimately to challenge him to some of the questions he asks in his own interviews.

Where did you grow up?
My dad is from Iran and my mom is from Poland but my parents met in the UK and I was born there. We moved to Iran when I was 3, we lived in Poland for a time, and from the age of 7 until finishing secondary school I lived in Dubai. By the time I reached the age of 8 I had already lived in 4 countries, but I have spent the majority of my life in the UK.

Do you have fragrance memories from childhood? When and how did you first realize you had a passion for fragrances?
When we moved to Dubai I was at a very impressionable age, and I remember going out as a child and being struck by so many smells, shops burning incense, and the people who smelled amazing. But how I got into fragrance stems from the fact that my mother decided she wanted to earn a bit of money, so she got a job at what must have been the only independent Western-style perfumery in Dubai at the time. Remember, this was in the early 1980’s so the influence of the West on Dubai was prominent, but there was only one shopping mall and one department store, The fact that there was this one perfumery was really a big deal. I remember when she came home from work and we had our family meals together, she would talk about her day and I found myself being interested. Sometimes she would bring home nearly empty testers, samples and miniatures, and as she progressed to more important jobs where she was in charge of several concessions, she would invite me to come with her to new counter openings and store installations, so I could see what was happening behind the scenes. Of course, you couldn’t possibly do that now, but at that time it was ok. She was invited to major fragrance launches like Fahrenheit, and I remember her talking about the event and about sales targets. I was hovering in the background taking it all in, and so perfume became a strong interest for me. But in those days, you didn’t think you could make a career in perfume, you didn’t even know the role of perfumer existed. I ended up becoming the guy my friends and family would go to for recommendations on what was good and what to buy.

Where and how did you begin your professional career? What was your career path to where you are now?

You must understand that my overriding interest was always writing. I have a degree in Journalism, Film and Broadcasting from Cardiff in Wales. It was about ten years ago that my wife asked me why I had never thought about writing about perfume, seeing how much I enjoyed it. It took an outside person to point it out to me! But a lot of the right things happened at the right time: it was when the work of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez was getting attention, and perfume blogs were cropping up. Initially I thought about writing fiction that would somehow be related to perfume. So the Persolaise blog actually started as a way of disciplining myself to do research into the world of perfume, to see what it would be like to review perfume. I wanted to see if I could put my thoughts about scent into some kind of coherent prose form…and then one thing led to another. To my utter amazement and delight this blog started being read. A few months after I started the blog Harrod’s did a major perfume exhibition called the Perfume Diaries and many people came to speak including Jean Paul Guerlain, Thierry Wasser as well as representatives from Baccarat, Givenchy and many other brands. I wrote a little article about some of the events, and I sent it to Basenotes to see if they would want to publish it, and they did. And literally it was a case of the audience growing, coming, and showing some appreciation. A couple of years after that I was commissioned to write my book Le Snob: Perfume, which is part of the Le Snob guide series.

How has blogging changed over the years?
People told me I needed to do YouTube although I’m more of a words guy than someone who is comfortable in the visual medium. I don’t like to hear my voice or see my image over and over again, so when the live videos happened it was ok for me because I never had to watch each episode after it was broadvast .And if something funny happens – well it’s live, it’s ok.

That’s so interesting because you seem so relaxed and you have such a great rapport with your audience. How do you go about building the relationship?
The really honest answer is I don’t know!! I have worked in Education and I think that it has helped me over time to be able to identify who of my viewers is the cheeky person, who understand me, who is informed. I think it comes from a very relaxed attitude, and because it’s live, it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake or if I forget the name of a perfumer because my audience will tell me in the live feed. So I’m having fun with it – and I think it’s obvious I’m having fun with it! These people are tuning in from all over the world – Australia, California, Pakistan - and now they know what kind of reaction they will get out of me when they share comments. We have this community together.

What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the fragrance industry in the past five or ten years?

The first thing that instantly comes to mind is the acquisition of a lot of independent brands by some of the big players. L’Oréal acquired L’Atelier Cologne, Estee Lauder acquired Killian, Francis Kurkdjian is under LVMH. That is a massive change. Some people would say it was inevitable because as those independent brands were getting bigger and better, the large players wanted a slice of that cake. Niche perfumery also became so successful that a lot of people thought they could start a brand. For investors with deep pockets, it may not be a huge investment in the grand scheme of things. That mindset has caused a deterioration of the independent market. Whereas ten years ago If an independent brand were being created or the brand was releasing a new scent, you could have a fair amount of confidence that this was going to be good stuff and the perfumes would be worth your time. Now in the independent sector there is so much rubbish! An independent brand charging 250£ just because of an expensive bottle and a fancy name angers me more than a mainstream brand charging 60£ for rubbish!
For people with genuine vision and taste….it’s so hard to make themselves known and get their voices heard because the middle sector has been eaten away. You could say at one end of the scale there were super independent brands like Neela Vermeire, then at the other end of the scale you had brands such as Chanel & Dior, and in the middle you had brands like Frederic Malle and Le Labo who were still independent but with boutiques around the world. There isn’t really an independent middle anymore. .
I do think lots of beautiful fragrances are still being made, but the number of releases is insane. In any given year we have about three or four or five beautiful masterpieces being launched, which is probably actually the same as before, but it’s much harder to find them. Try giving all of the launches a fair shot: you can’t wear every single one and you probably can’t properly evaluate them on a blotter. It’s harder to find the gems. But they are out there! And it’s why the work we do – you, me, the other critics, serious bloggers, the Art & Olfaction Institute – is so important.

What do you think about customization? About brands and boutiques that offer workshops in creating your own scent?
I think a lot of people assume I would be really into it but I’ve never been crazy about it. I do think Emmanuelle Moeglin at the Experimental Perfume Club is doing it right though. She has good bases and people can make something with these in her workshops. She’s releasing slowly, doing things carefully. But with 2000 perfumes launched a year, can people really not find what they like? Well, why not if it’s what they want to do? I’m more excited if I know a perfumer like Andy Tauer is launching a new fragrance!

How can we grow fragrance usage? How can we encourage people who don’t wear it to make it part of their routine?
Good question and the cynical part of me would say, if they aren’t interested they won’t do it. Some cultures aren’t interested in fragrance. Japanese love perfuming their home but they feel that their personal odor should not invade your space. In England, the cliché is that a woman has one bottle of perfume and that she receives that fragrance for Christmas – and then the same fragrance every year after! How do we change the thinking that it’s enough to put two spritzes and then you smell clean?
People in my family are now interested because they have had constant exposure through me. I think there comes a moment when people understand that it’s not about smelling nice but rather how do you want to smell? in the same way as you ask yourself how do you want to look? There is a great quote that goes something along the lines of “Every morning when I am deciding what I’m going to wear, I’m actually deciding who do I want to be today.” So people realize they can actually convey a message with this stuff, and it’s not just smelling nice: it’s smelling authoritative, it’s smelling friendly and nice, or it can be smelling adventurous and feisty, or sophisticated. So I guess the key is to present this as a way of tying in with what you want to project.

Now I’m going to turn a few of your questions on you. Has your fragrance usage changed during and after lockdown?

When I go to work, an eight to ten-hour day gives a perfect opportunity to wear a fragrance to see how it develops and how it wears on me. In the initial stages of lockdown the brands all went very quiet, so there were fewer samples for me to wear, test and evaluate. I took the opportunity to go back to some old favorites because that’s the one thing I miss by being a self-created, self-made perfume critic: I don’t wear perfume for me. I could wear and enjoy Guerlain’s Habit Rouge, Andy Tauer’s Lonestar Memories, and Calice Becker’s version of Cuir de Lancôme.

What do you wish the fragrance industry would do?
Release less!! In fact a perfumer who I recently interviewed said it would be amazing if every single brand agreed not to release anything for a whole year. If they could just hit the pause button because as we know from the past and from the experience of people like Edmond Roudnitska, Guy Robert, Ernest Beaux, Germaine Cellier -those really classic perfumers - that It takes time to create a fragrance of originality and real beauty. Imagine being someone like Edmond Roudnitska who didn’t release many fragrances in his lifetime, but everything he gave us including Eau Sauvage, Diorissimo and Eau d’Hermès, was a masterpiece. And then someone like Dominique Ropion who I rate very, very highly, who has also give us some real beauties, but probably also many that he has just had to churn out It would be really amazing if we could slow down, hold back on the flankers and just release less. Give perfumers time and give the product time to perform. It will be interesting to see what the total number of releases ends up being this year.

What advice would you tell your younger self?
Oh I do ask people this! I would say: Yes, it is worth waiting! Don’t worry, it’s worth the effort!!!

Le Snob: Perfume