Perfume-what does it mean to you? A memory, an emotion, an item that completes your beauty routine, before you leave your home and go out into the real world?
I grew up with the appreciation of the scent and loved smelling glass perfume bottles that belonged to my grandmothers and mother, but you have to remember that perfume in Soviet Union, apart from the one manufactured by our own industry, was a fairly rare thing. Even though, truth be told, I never got to love Chanel No.5 either, when it made an appearance in our family apartment.
Some women love perfume and are extremely knowledgeable about them, but sadly for me, I don’t belong to that group of connoisseurs but a small article about the recently launched British perfume brand called Shay & Blue, grasped my attention, as if by a firm and comfortable embrace. Maybe it was the blue packaging or the description of perfumes, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but one Saturday in March I ventured to Shay & Blue boutique, in York Street and to start with, couldn’t get in, as the door was a little stuck. I was let in by a charming man, who even though he was casually dressed, had a very particular way about him, from his looks to how he put his outfit together. I looked around, smelled the perfumes, ran my fingers through the pages of a couple of books that the Boutique sells ( chosen by one of the creator’s of Shay & Blue, Dom De Vetta ) and promised myself to come back- I was curious about the brand’s founder, as well as intrigued by the perfumes created by Julie Masse, a young but incredibly talented perfumer.
A week or so later, thanks to the power of Twitter, I came into the boutique and was welcomed by a tall, handsome and very European looking man, the likes of which make me think of old-fashioned manners and charm that is almost missing from daily life. Dom, dressed in jeans, smartly expensive shirt and cardigan, an elegant belt running around his waist, smiled at me and within minutes I was sitting opposite him and talking about his work, life and perfumery dreams.
Dom grew up with fragrance and loved perfume from early on- after all his mother was French. The family moved to London before Dom was born and since the day that he made an appearance, he was surrounded and brought up with a close family atmosphere. At the time lavender water was de rigeur in England among women and yet Dom’s mother and grandmother used perfumes by Chanel, Dior and Guerlain, so Dom’s nose was exposed to pretty sophisticated fragrances from a young age, so much so that it really did filter into his subconsciousness.
The first perfume that Dom bought for himself was Ralph Lauren’s Polo-he must have been about 12 at the time, a pretty sophisticated and bold choice for a young boy, don’t you think? I felt a bond forming there and then, as to this day it remains one of my favourite perfumes that seems to stand the test of time ( and later, when Dom and I talked about perfume references as I smelled Shay & Blue six fragrances, that was one of the reasons why I felt so drawn to Suffolk Lavender and wear it now, as I write this, late into the night ). Aged 14 Dom bought Kouros, an aromatic Fougere fragrance by YSL and incidentally, Julie Masse, Shay & Blue perfumer, trained under the perfumer who created it, Pierre Bourdon. Dom’s next purchase was by Christian Dior’s Eau Savage, after a summer spent in France and as Dom says ‘it was a natural evolution of fragrance’ for him, that gave him the appetite to continue exploring this avenue, without truly realising its importance for him at the time.
After school Dom read English and French Literature at Oxford and enjoyed acting, thinking of it as part of his broad cultural education. Dom has Italian blood from his father side, so his creative side also found its release in painting as well. His first job, however, was for Lancome and in the course of his work for this beauty brand he worked in different departments, one of his most memorable though, was working on Lancome’s Tresor launch in the early 90s ( I hold this perfume particularly dear and it hasn’t dated at all, but truth be told other deviations of this fragrance haven’t tempted me away ). Sophia Grojsman, a perfumer at Lancome ( whose list of created perfumes is overwhelming in its variety and quantity ) in a way began a small wave of innovation in the long-established perfumery circle and led way to the discovery of the so-called ‘gourmand notes’, tying the passion for food and its smell to perfume, the trend that led to the phrase ‘good enough to eat’ when talking about perfume that a person is wearing.
Life didn’t stand still and Dom found himself working for the veritable institution that is Chanel, both in London and New York, absorbing the knowledge like a sponge soaking in water. Listening to Dom, who speaks softly and with eloquent elegance to his words, I felt like he was teaching me a wonderful lesson, that only made me crave more and more knowledge.
Chanel was a great inspiration and learning curve for Dom, bringing the importance of all the parts of the brand together, the packaging, the service, the sense of history and yet having the modernity and relevance in the moment in time. Dom’s progress within the brand led him to the revival of the idea of the perfume boutique and creating Chanel’s own line that was available through Chanel boutiques. Under Dom’s watchful eye a new line of Les Exclussives perfumes was rolled out, as Chanel not only had, but most importantly wanted to invest money is this branch of the French house and Dom accepted this project, spending the following two years working with Chanel’s formidable perfumer Jacques Polges. Dom calls those two years, from 2003 to 2005, ‘the gift of my career’, as he learnt every single day and had an opportunity to have an emotional perfumery experience with one of the world’s greatest perfumers, who was as generous, as he was knowledgeable and kind in his attitude to the people he worked with. The team had no constraints, could choose to use any ingredients and yet there were no expectations from Chanel, apart from ‘make it special’. A towering expectations that could weight down a titan, yet Dom doesn’t appear to have been daunted by it. He still has a childishly excited expression on his face when speaking about his work with Jacques Polges, who is now in his 70s and still the head of Chanel Perfumery.
Dom’s next place of work was for Jo Malone, after the brand was bought over by Estee Lauder and Dom worked there for about four years, still not realising what his special dream was. He focused on taking Jo Malone, a truly British brand, world-wide and working between London and Paris with the perfumer Christine Nagel. Dom knew that the best perfumers are based in Paris and truly thought that he would be doing his job for the rest of his professional life.
Life has a way of teaching us lessons and one day Dom just woke up, knowing with full clarity that he wanted to create something of his own, unplanned and true, so the idea of Shay & Blue started taking shape about 18 months ago, in autumn of 2009. Was it the grey light of autumn or the beauty of the foliage changing colours or the smell of bonfires and wetness of leaves on the pavement that projected Dom on the path that he didn’t seem to imagine for himself?
He started talking to his contacts and noticed that his collegues were surprised, yet supportive of his venture, taking shape. He holds the opinion that creative teams can be nice too and carry good energy with them, yet he was surprised by the generosity that his contacts extended to him. Most of the expert perfumers Dom knew had at least 20 years experience in the business but he strongly felt that he wanted someone from a new generation, just at the beginning of their career journey. Dom interviewed five candidates and one was pretty obvious to him, as she had a perfect energy that matched his vision. Dom says that not withstanding his experience working in the perfumery industry, he is by no means a ‘nose’, nor is he a trained perfumer. He views himself as ‘conductor, to Julie’s being a piano player’ and they constantly bounce ideas and creativity off each other. The important ingredient at the start of the partnership was to get the chemistry right and Dom smiles with pride when he says that ‘Julie has the right signature, the right handwriting in perfumery, her handwriting’ that I have to say is quite distinct, as I now know from personal experience, when people stop me in the street, when I wear Shay & Blue and ask me what perfume I have on.
Julie Masse has family roots in Grasse, as her father worked for a perfumery based in that magically mysterious part of France but she was born and lived in Tokyo till she was ten years old. She attended an International British school there and was surrounded by many international flavours and traditions. She truly was a perfect fit for Dom, with her understanding of the British sensibilities and even speaking British English. Dom volunteers that Julie is half her heritage and half global maturity, having been exposed to travels and meeting different nationalities and learning about cultures as she was growing up. Dom, with his French mother & Italian Father, having been raised in England, yet spending a big part of his professional life in France is also a unique character. Now imagine when two different, yet quite similar in some ways, people come together professionally and create something unique, modern, which appeals to their ever expanding international clientele. When I speak to Dom a young couple comes in, him-British, her-Russian. Dom attends to them, attentive, with true gentlemen-like formality, yet completely respectful, allowing the young couple to make up their mind. They spend about 15 minutes in the shop and left with a purchase, a gift for her birthday.
The atmosphere of Shay & Blue is unlike in any other shop that I have ever been to before. It is classic, quite manly in some ways, but it also invites curiosity and exploration of not only perfumery but books too. Dom loves artists like Picasso and Turner, but admits to not being drawn to the work of Dali, for example. He also loves photography and you can buy a few of his carefully curated books from Shay & Blue boutique. Which ones? I am not going to tell, just give into the curiosity and go an explore the boutique yourself, I am sure it will be worth it from the cultural, as well as perfumery exploration point of view.
When it comes to Shay & Blue perfumes, for the time being there are six of them:
Atropa Belladonna-‘An intoxicating beauty’. Heady, mesmerising. Beware of Overdose.
Blood Oranges -‘Exclussively juicy’. Demanding. All-consuming
Sicilian Limes -‘Ruthlessly Risky’. Sharply turned out. Ready for action.
Amber Rose -‘Entitled and Decadent’. Seductive. Head-turning. A temptress
Almond Cucumber -‘A Watery Nympth’. Soft. Gentle. A subtle whisper.
Suffolk Lavender -‘Darkly Expressive’. Intense. A midnight experience.
each one of them has a certain composition, according to Dom, that is masterful but each one is a modern interpretation of certain perfume references from the past, allowing you to enjoy the ‘’lovely richness of past masterpieces that are modern and relevant’’.
I ask Dom where he finds his inspiration and he says that it comes from life in general, on a daily basis, but also from writing and poetry. He trusts his instinct and listens to Julie, who is the one who creates the perfumes.
We talk about each of Shay & Blue perfumes, which are born with the help of mood boards with images and endless conversations about each perfume’s brief. Dom thinks that Blood Oranges, for example, ‘ is amazing because it has depth and contrasting heritage, with notes of leather, amber, charred roots, yet thanks to Julie it is also ‘petillant’’, meaning it has a sparkling freshness to it. Blood Oranges was inspired by African Savannah, leopards and tigers, jaws of leopards, so the end result is very sensual and animalistic. Imagine the smell of leather with the smell of blood on it and then the actual fruit, the blood orange, bursting into life.
Julie is a totally new style of perfumer, multi-tasking ( in the past many old-school perfumers would only work on one perfume at the time and wouldn’t hear of creating several at the same time ) and exposed to the digital media.
Amber Rose was the first out of Shay & Blue perfumes to be completed, the horse that came first in the multi-race. Each perfume had its own journey, some ideas came to dead ends and some took Dom and Julie into new grounds and unexpected directions, almost like going into an unknown stretch of the woods and following the woodland paths, seeing where they would lead you.
Shay and Blue also makes candles, so your perfume can be not just on your skin, but weaving through the air at home. The website, www.shayandblue.com ships anywhere in the world and when I ask Dom about online orders I am surprised to hear that many people order ‘blind’ ( one in five online orders is from overseas and a third of the customers is male ), just based on the evocative perfume descriptions-they do read like passionate poetry, and I did mull over descriptions first, before coming to the shop. I chose two based on the catalogue descriptions, however having spoken to Dom at length, I purchased two completely different ones from my original choice. To me, Suffolk Lavender is a slightly mannish scent, yet I feel comfortable in it, as it reminds me of strong male influences in my family. My other choice, Amber Rose, is the exact opposite, a feminine scent that I enjoy putting on in the evening and even if I am wearing a cashmere sweater and jeans, instead of a dress, it makes me feel like a chic woman, subtle & self-assured. I, of course, ask Dom about where to spray the perfume and he suggests spraying it on the hands, as well as the pulse points.
Shay & Blue ( Shay, by the way, was Dom’s grandmother’s surname ( Grace Shay ) and Blue, well Dom clearly loves the colour, in all of its variations. He designed all the packaging around it, as well as the boutique. It is classically timeless, as somehow it helps you to focus when you pop in, concentrating on the smells and focal points, like paintings or books. The brand has a very clear British identity, but all of the fragrance oils are imported ( it’s a question of infrastructure really ) and perfumes mature for three months in mature steel barrels in the UK, before they are poured by hand into glass bottles.
Even though a few weeks have passed by now, since I interviewed Dom De Vetta, it’s easy for me to write this somehow, surrounded by two perfume bottles, Shay & Blue catalogue and a very clear image of Dom, sitting in the chair and talking to me like a wise professor who educates his student, without imparting judgement or being superior. Dom is an elegant man, who after years working in the perfume industry seems to be full of passion for what he does, yet somehow he still seems surprised by the realisation of his dream that he didn’t see coming. His knowledge is extraordinary and when you buy a bottle of Shay & Blue perfume its effect on you will surprise and mesmerise you. Thanks to my visit and two hours with Dom I view perfume industry differently and I know that Shay & Blue is here not only to stay, but it will take us on a journey of modern perfumery that ties up together the past and the present, while respecting both.
Shay & Blue Boutique: 80 York street, London, W1H 1QW tel. 08455480113
Shay & Blue fragrances come in two sizes, 30 mls (£30) & 100mls (£45), as well as Home candles.