Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hermes Hermessence Iris Ukiyoe (2010): An Off-Beat Fragrance Review from a Club Patron

~by guest writer AlbertCAN
Voici des fruits, des fleurs, des feuilles et des branches
Et puis voici mon coeur qui ne bat que pour vous.
Ne le déchirez pas avec vos deux mains blanches
Et qu'à vos yeux si beaux l'humble présent soit doux.
J'arrive tout couvert encore de rosée
Que le vent du matin vient glacer à mon front.
Souffrez que ma fatigue à vos pieds reposée
Rêve des chers instants qui la délasseront.
Sur votre jeune sein laissez rouler ma tête
Toute sonore encor de vos derniers baisers;
Laissez-la s'apaiser de la bonne tempête,
Et que je dorme un peu puisque vous reposez.

(Here - some fruit, some flowers, some leaves and branches,
And here - my heart which beats for you alone.
Do not rend it with your two pale hands,
But let it be a small gift, sweet to your beauteous eyes.
I arrive covered with dew,
Which the morning wind freezes upon my brow.
Suffer me in my fatigue to lie at your feet,
Dreaming of sweet moments that will revive me.
On your young bosom let my head rest,
Still filled with your last kisses;
Let my thoughts subside after such a wondrous storm
And let me sleep a little while you lie by my side.)*

by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), from Romances sans paroles (1874)

No, the world hasn’t bestowed me the gift of colour blindness, but synesthesia deftly filled my mind in delicate verdant extravagence with the Paul Verlaine poem above; more precisely, in true Symbolist fashion,the aquarelle images of the poem glow in succinct progression one after the other. It happened late afternoon today, as I was sampling Iris Ukiyoé, the ninth instalment of the Hermessence collection by in-house master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, at the Hermès downtown Vancouver boutique.

At this point many avid readers of
Perfume Shrine—and my humble blog Les Tuileries—might just know the idiosyncrasy of the paragraph I just composed. By courtesy I should have cited Ellena’s muse, Water Iris and Grasshopper by Hokusai, and based on all official press release to date I doubt my mental short-circuit would be even considered logical by merit—but strangely enough my private recitation of the poem in hindsight is nonetheless a gentle launch pad in order to dive into the diaphanous story. Still, I should probably backtrack myself a bit and talk about how I got there, for the anecdote is probably one of the most bizarre episodes I’ve ever encountered: one could say that I was stranded in Hermès!

My tale to be told actually started this May when I requested maintenance service to my vintage khaki green Ex Libris silk scarf, since the once plump hand-rolled edges got dutifully flattened by a callous dry cleaner. It was the fourth time I went through a repair process at the downtown Vancouver boutique, and by all accounts everything was going to be routine—my sales associate sat down with me, examined the conditions of the item and filled out a specific form. Six months flew by and I figured, like all previous three times, I would simply show up and collect my treasure—in and out, ten minutes top.

Except this day, December 6th, wasn’t just a typical Monday: the intimate store was packed with patrons. My lovely sales associate Irina was in fact running around because she was in the midst of an intricate watch consultation. Ten minutes flew by before she had a chance to chat with me, “I’m so sorry, Albert! Your scarf is all ready for you.” And she turned to her colleague (who shall remain nameless for reasons that would be soon obvious) and said, “The client is here to pick up his scarf from Paris. It’s in the back storage room.” Irina promptly left, I was asked if I have my repair form with me.

Upon being told that I did not have my maintenance form with me the sales associate started raising her voice, “Just so you know, you will NEVER be able to pick up your item unless you have your form with you! Did you get a call from us?” There I was, in the middle of the showroom, with everyone looking at me! I was horrified as I explained that nobody in the past asked me to bring the form back and it was, in fact, Irina who helped me with the maintenance process last time so my identity should not be in doubt. Without the slightest pause the sales associate replied, “Very well, it’s probably best that Irina help you. Have a seat.” After expressing my desire to explore the store further the lady didn’t budge. “Have a seat.” It was then that I felt like a disobedient puppy that got thoroughly disciplined, but fortunately that was when I noticed the new Hermessence so I had something to do while waiting for Irina to come back. Five minutes went by; ten more minutes went by; another fifteen minutes went by as I immersed myself in Iris Ukiyoé, and my personal discourse with Verlaine promptly started.

To be frank I was prepared to be surprised by the opening of
Iris Ukiyoé, but nothing could prepare me for the neo-classical eau de cologne effect of the fragrance opening, complete with a tart green tangerine, petitgrain, neroli—except a mildly bitter vegetal/floral axis kept the whole story on track. And lo and behold the abstract floral effect started to take shape, aided no doubt by a slight aquatic, lily-like effect that Ellena visited in Vanille Galante (2008). Now I should note that the sillage, given its combination of lily and the refreshing bitter elements, reminds me of the original Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey (1990), but done so in a much more delicate, precise manner, meant as an evocation of morning dew instead of a mini zen waterfall.

I would be very hard-pressed to report that orris, the traditionally powdery extraction of
Iris pallida, is actively present. And my experience with Hermessence has taught me not to take any launch after Osmanthe Yunnan (2005) at face value: and since Paprika Brasil (2006) was a manifestation of spice via orris, Vanille Galante a study of vanilla from lily I presumed that this iris would come out of cocoa, as Ellena previously stated. The hypothesis, of course, is null. What we have here is an abstract blossom of Iris germanica, modern hybrids to be exact.
What most perfume brands would not tell consumers, while enamoured with the aspirational prowess of the costly orris root (with the scent best described as violet covered in chalk—works wonders when the right amount of gravitas should be called for, as classically demonstrated in Chanel No. 19 parfum), the mauve blossoms of Iris pallida smells exactly like inexpensive grape candies: quite sweet, in fact. Now the flowers themselves, which display the classic fleur-de-lys shape, are at no fault, but its harsh grape-scented accent would prove to be too strong in a fragrance.

Blossoms from the modern hybrids of I. germanica, on the other hand, are the almost exact opposite: the French word inclassable comes to mind. Based on the ones I’ve sampled a norm doesn’t exist, but most have a citrus backbone with a dash of fresh rosy nuance—soft and somewhat non-descript to be honest. (It doesn’t help that most irisarians value the bloom visuals over scent, and that the scent changes once cut.) Thus in order to create this iris Ellena needs to conjure up ghosts—a dash of non-descript floracy here (IFF’s hedione supérieure, complete with its clean jasmine facet, would be my guess), an icy rose accord there—to bring the whole thing to shape. In fact I would attribute (applying my no-doubt elementary perfumery knowledge here) the orris effect, which murmurs pretty much at the end as a velvety touch, more to a tea-like methyl ionone rather than orris absolute.

So in this sense of hologramism that I consider
Iris Ukiyoé true to the original transient nature of its Japense namesake artistic genre: so fragile that it never was, because it was precisely never there in the first place. Behind each ukiyo-e print block is a Buddhist caveat: it’s a painting of the floating world, and with the next turn of the world the picture would be all that remains. Iris Ukiyoé isn’t a realistic decoding of an iris blossom fragrance, nor has that been the point all along: it’s a composition of bubbles threaded together with precision, but done with so much care and quiet observance that one forgets the mosaic tiles, instead marvelling at the hologram.

In fact it’s that exact care coming from Ellena that, at least to me, differentiates
Iris Ukiyoé from mass launches: not only there’s cohesion in fragrance development, it feels as if the olfactory structure has been thoroughly hollowed out and knocked down before the whole was put together. To me this is very much a continuation of Ellena’s Hermès survey to the aquatic world ever since Un jardin après la mousson (2008), with a detour at Vanille Galante. But the story is there if one looks for it. The challenge to Ellena, of course, was to create an aquatic without using the traditional aquatic elements—Calone, musks... The master perfumer is averse to both, so a hologram on top of an iris blossom hologram. Still, underneath all that aquatic/ citrus / floral verdency lie a gentle frankness, a tenderness that reminds me of the Verlaine poem above. It’s the syntax after all, perhaps.

At this point I should recap what happened to my scarf. After 35 minutes of waiting, a third sales associate came along. Wendy—whom has seen me at the boutique for four years running now—asked me if I’ve been helped. Technically no, and I wasn’t amused…but she overheard what happened, so she quickly asked my name, dashed to the storage room and found my scarf. All done, wonderfully repaired—and true to Hermès generosity I was asked a reasonable price to compensate for the craftsmen’s effort. That’s why I’m here, I signed as I took my scarf back.

But that’s not the end of the story: Irina wrapped up her consultation around this time and apologized again for her delay. (She’s truly one of the best I’ve known.) And without hesitation she gave me samples of Iris Ukiyoé, and since the classic scarf box was out of stock a new rectangular Hermès orange box, enclosed with an additional box in the motif of Mosaique au 24 was given instead. All this was done with more apologies for the delay and the gentle explanation from Wendy that security measures would have to be performed for maintenance items. (I was promptly asked for my ID and my autograph on the official maintenance form.) Without a doubt I replied that, having been working at a major international financial institution for almost a year, while I can appreciate the thoughts behind the idea (God forbid if someone else walks away with my Hermès leather boots—and I couldn’t begin to imagine the horror any sales associate would go through if a crocodile Birkin is returned to the wrong person!) I was never told to bring my maintenance form—and the fact that I was ID-ed from the start from Irina as the right client added a whole new level of mystery to me. But at the end of the day I got everything I wanted: well, almost—I was disappointed that I couldn’t get any new silk tie and cashmere scarf because I already have had at least one of everything (that I like) from this season already. Well, better off since my drawers are already bursting with orange bags & boxes.

Would I be back? Absolutely, but maybe that latest Haut à Courroies bag custom order can wait for now. In the meantime I shall be busy experimenting with Iris Ukiyoé.

For a list of notes please refer to this link here. Iris Ukiyoé is now available at Hermès boutiques.

* English translation by Gary Bachlund

Scarves & samples pic: copyright by AlbertCAN. Bottle from the Hermes website


  1. Johns09:39

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Spam is not allowed. Sorry!

  3. LOL! Those Hermes SAs are at it again - I swear, Albert, there is one in EVERY boutique! We had one such experience in the Chicago boutique during our Chicocoa Event and it ...well, let's just say it nearly started a mano a mano battle right there in the store.

    I can't imagine why Hermes allows such bad manners - all it takes is ONE of those ill-mannered sales people to ruin a longterm relationship with the House. I am only 'just' going back to Hermes now...and ...well, you know...I dunno...maybe it's time to take my money elsewhere..

    ...glad you liked the Iris U, though! and I'm glad you got your scarf back, without any more incident!


  4. A necoclassical scent... I must absolutely try this fragrance.

  5. Anonymous00:53

    i'm sorry, but i got so totally distracted by the fact that you can buy that much at herme and still enjoy bitchtastic service that i didn't pay a lick of attention to your review. must go back and read. next time, please whine about hermesian service separately so i can process better. you whining about hermes is like one of those windows onto the lives of the rich and famous. wish i could whine about such things. maybe one day.



  6. Dear Musette,

    Wow, your situation at the Hermès Chicago boutique sounds so much more serious than mine! I'm quite speechless about the almost mano a mano part. And as for the SAs I'm not sure why some employees are conditioned to iteract with clients in a certain manner: hopefully there are in the minority, if not becoming obsolete in the near future.

    In my case I can understand why relevant policies were created in the first place: maybe the delivery in this case isn't perfect, however. The SA sounded a little incomprehensible when using the word "never" in this context while raising her voice, and her subsequent handling of my concerns could be improved. But a few days have gone by and I'm focusing on the big picture: all my items have been conditioned, and if I was treated quite nicely (like the other times) I would've not sampled IU, at least not diligently enough to write a fragrance review in the first place :-)

    I'm glad that IU proves to be enjoyable, too. I think the framework is really ambitious--using eau de cologne in an aquatic effect to render modern hybrid iris blossoms in a Japanese context is not a walk in the park to say the least, and I'm not sure the same idea would have work at the hands of a less-calibred perfumer. But ultimately it comes down to cohesion of ideas, from material selection to execution, that allows IU to stand out in my mind.

    Thanks so much for your kind words and hope you are having a great day!


  7. Dear VintageLady,

    So glad that you picked up on the neo-classical aspect that I had been exploring. To be honest the strong eau de cologne effect was very perplexing when I first sampled IU (under the context of iris), and subsequently it took me some time to comprehend the aquatic floral connection. At the end of the day please do give it a try and feel free to form your unique opinions on this fragrance: I believe that fragrance blogging, above all else, is about sharing ideas so individuals and making informed decisions. Thanks for dropping a line and we'll certainly catch up soon!

    Best regards,


  8. Dear Minette,

    No need to apologize, for who am I to judge? But I do wish that you could have paid more attention to the details of the review, for the backdrop actually serves two important purposes: a disclaimer on how the samples were obtained (a must in any substantial fragrance review these days) and that no successful fragrance can be created without its clients: after all, such is the reason why interweaving fragrance review with client experience isn't uncommon these days.

    I think anyone genuinely interested in Hermès cares about how the products--not just the fragrances but beyond--are developed and made, and the venerable house prides itself on going above and beyond for the right clients. It's what drives Ellena, in part, during fragrance development. Thus removing the client interaction part out of the equation in this case unfortunately makes no sense to me. (And I have reviewed Hermès fragrances in the past without mentioning the boutique, let alone my shopping experience whatsoever.) In addition, I also think that I have made it very clear in my review that I ultimately concur with how things are governed at Hermès--just wishing the delivery is more thoughtful in this particular case. After all, would you like to be told what to do while all eyes in the boutique are on you? I must commend on your courage should your answer is yes.

    As I have also eluded in this fragrance review I am from the service industry, and at the end of the day I know very, very well that I must stand behind the quality of my service. My clients know about it, too--because they make it clear to me that they share their client experiences in numerous ways: word of mouth, memos, phone surveys, snail mails, and e-reviews. Being honest about an experience thus doesn't constitute to me as whining, and certainly the underlying value to goods traded shouldn't be, in my humble opinion, any part of this service equation: should anyone be treated less because he or she is in a different store? I should hope not.

    I do have an interesting anecdote to share about your last comment. When I was a full-time fragrance development consultant I was told of that house's standard of wealth (annual income of $1 million, travels frequently for work and pleasure etc). I can tell you that I'm not even remotely close: I currently have 5 jobs in various capacities and I shop very, very strategically as my reward--and thankfully not famous enough in order to be honest about things.



  9. PS. Upon reading my last comment I mentioned about a brand's target audience--I just want to clarify that it isn't of any brand that I've mentioned in this post.

  10. Helg: it's official--I've gone senile! My spiel on target clientele should have been on net worth, not annual income! I stand corrected.

  11. Anonymous03:29

    dear albert. thank you for clarifying. to clarify from this end, i don't condone poor customer service anywhere, and always speak up when i encounter it. if someone did to me what that woman did to you, i would've challenged her quite directly (bullies need to be stood up to, or they continue to claw at the soft underbellies of those they think they can claw).

    you are clearly a sincere person, and i apologize for finding the story of your treatment at hermes a bit like a rich kid complaining about things most of us will never experience. but i did, and that's honest. also, i haven't been impressed by anything ellena has done in the past few years, so that probably added to my distraction. will go back to read your review, as you obviously put some effort into it.

    be well,

  12. Dear Minette,

    No worries. There are too many kids wondering around with too much money in their pockets anyway: thankfully I am not one of them. Besides, to me what's important about blogging is sharing a perspective--so long you form an informed opinions at the end of the day I'm, again, in no position to judge. It's this particular process that counts.

    I don't think Ellena is for everyone, but that's not what he is about. And I think this notion is never stressed enough--he has a unique perspective and is able to articulate it quite well--but if your paradigm is fundementally different it's not his job to make you a convert. Sure, he can try persuading you, but I don't it's his mission to be the zeitgeist (he is weary of it, actually).

    To me the great thing Ellena did to perfumery was separating perfumery from the aroma-chemical trade: if you look at the scents from the late 80s to the early 90s there was one thing in common--piling on ingredients after ingredients in order to drive up sales for the aroma trades. Ellena separated the two and started using only what's necessary. Sure, his creations isn't for everyone but I respect him largely because of it.

    As for the SAs it was actually a very hard decision during the final stage of writing--as Helg can attest I did consider blocking out the names altogether (and no, I never bother learning the name of the SA who has an attitude problem). In the end we ran the story as is because, again, a service rep must stand behind his or her service.

    Anyhow, thanks for commenting and have a great weekend :-)

    As always,


  13. Anonymous05:32

    hi, again, albert,

    i realized that i could have "armed" you (so to speak) to deal with sort of salesperson, and failed to do so earlier. please allow me to share with you a trick i've learned; it disarms this kind of bully salesperson and keeps one from feeling like a spanked puppy/child.

    in this case, there are two things i would suggest saying when someone treats you like this (or in any other way that makes you feel like everyone is looking at you).

    1. say something along the lines of "i don't appreciate the way you are speaking to me." you don't have to elaborate why you don't like it ( in fact, that can just give them ammunition), just state the fact and stop.

    2. tell her that you will return when someone who treats customers more politely is available, and then walk out the door.

    of course, in this case, sitting there gave you time to ponder the mysteries of this perfume, so there was a silver lining, but i gathered that you didn't like the way she made you feel, that's why i'm telling you what works for me.

    i think this works because what you are doing is calmly and politely stating your truth - and they cannot argue with that. in this case it was true that you didn't appreciate the way she addressed you, and true that you didn't want to go sit down like a schoolboy.

    telling her so, and then not sitting down would've given you back your power without escalating the confrontation. and the bonus: you would've felt better about saying what you were really thinking (i'm betting she is not used to having people tell her "no" in this quiet, polite way - some people like this are dying for you to create more drama for them.) this approach shuts that drama down.

    btw, the other customers might have been watching to see how you handled the situation so that they could learn how to deal with it themselves (not because they were bemused or entertained by it).

    just wanted to share what i've discovered works. hope it helps in future encounters.

    and yes, it's clear to me that ellena doesn't want to convert me. he hasn't wanted to for quite a while now, and i don't really care anymore. i expect to respect but not love what he does these days - so when people wax poetic over his newest creations i just kinda go "uh huh, that's nice." i much prefer his opulent creations with all the wonderful aroma molecules. thank goodness we can still find them. he did THAT sort of perfume really well.

    have a great weekend.

  14. Hello again Minette,

    Thanks for sharing: I'll keep what you've said in mind. And for the record no, I didn't sit down like I was told--for the whole 45 minutes of 'consultation' I refused to sit like a dear little school boy. That I'd known better.

    By the way, I must clarify that I'm not enamoured with all the stream-line compositions by Ellena. Sure, there are certain creations I really marvel without reservation (Osmanthe Yunnan), some that I enjoy (Un jarin sur le nil), some I wear from time to time (Bois d'Iris), and some I just cannot wear altogether, at least not anymore due to various reasons. But whatever it may be I have to give him some respect for formulating ideas and stick to them, because, well, it's all too simple in this trade to go with the flow and to churn out things for the sake of churning out things. I used to call them out as I see it, but these days I've made my choice: I'm not going to waste my time on them by sticking my professional integrity into things that doesn't deserve my time in the first place. That's why I blog less and less these days, and only when I feel like it.

    Actually, now that you've stated your taste I can tell you I don't forsee IU as your cup of tea. But it's okay--we need more people like you to make sure that diversity exists in the fragrance market! Otherwise it's uniformity all around and I should just stop blogging altogether--who needs to exchange ideas when everyone thinks the same?

    Anyhow, thanks again.

    Yours truly,


  15. When you live in New York or in Paris this kind of shopping experience happens to you all the time. I experienced major attitude from (ill-informed) sales people at Saks, Bergdorf & Goodman, Barney's, Le Bon Marche, well you name it!
    I know an older french lady who works at Hermes on Madison Ave, she can't afford to retire in France, I don't know exactly how old she is but she's old. My boyfriend bought my Doblis bottle from her a few years ago. She told me some customers can be very difficult, I'm glad I don't have to earn my life this way because I know I would lose it and get fired within three days.
    The bottom line is you'd better have a sense of humor because there's a lot of frustrated people out there who hate their jobs and think they deserve better.

  16. Anonymous01:44


    Funnily I had a similar unpleasant experience at a Hermès boutique in Stuttgart, Germany, some weeks ago.

    As I collect perfumes I really do test them on my skin thoroughly before buying, because I am almost drowning in scents.

    So in January I phoned Hermès in Stuttgart and I asked if they had Hermessence in stock. They had, I went and tried. Which took me some time, admittedly, and this probably did not please the sales lady. Finally I made up my mind to buy a coffret with 4 x 15 ml bottles: Iris Ukiyoe, Vanille Galante, Poivre Samarcande and Paprika Brasil.

    Whilst paying I asked the sales lady if there also existed samples. Yes, there did, but, unfortunately, they had run out of them, and only Blin de Réglisse was left, the one perfume I had liked the least. This dislike was actually true, so that's why she mentioned it.

    I left without any sample at all, which I think is a bit miserly, taking into account that their production cost goes well into the sales price calculation.

    Afterwards I got into touch with Hermès customer service in German and in French and asked if I could buy some samples, and received the same negative answer from the same person in those two languages: customer service had nothing whatever to do with samples, and I should go to a boutique and ask for some there.

    This left me kind of speechless.

    In the end I replied to the French e-mail stating that as I did not know if I would be treated the same way in another boutique in another town, I'd prefer to go shopping at Chanel's again, where luckily I had been welcomed quite differently.

    I'll definiely shun Hermès in the future.

    Petra from Germany


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