Please Don’t Touch The Bottles



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“Madame? Please don’t touch the bottles.”

I look up from my reverie, hand wrapped around a large rectangular bottle of Bois des Iles, my fingers wafting the velvety woody-spice scent. There are different approaches to spraying perfume testers. One: you spritz firmly, confidently. A fine mist comes out and covers your paper testing strip, or your wrist. You are the consumer in charge. But then there is Two: which is hesitance—that of the unknown scent, or of loving it and then being very afraid of asking the price. With Two, what one receives is not a mist, but a dribble that leaks onto the neck and down the glass, forever scenting the grips of the future perfume-curious that come through the door. They are mainly tourists around here, The Market Building in Covent Garden, a place that until a few years ago was still fairly dominated by cheaper shops, the kind of places you could buy Beatrix Potter figurines and Wedgewood factory rejects for a fraction of the price. It’s been revamped now, in a big way. Chanel, Dior and Burberry are all here (beauty, not fashion, because beauty is an easy impulse buy for the tourist), all restaurants are European style cafés, and the ‘authentic’ London gift shops are relegated to the outskirts of all this luxury. This is the new Covent Garden. If you took Eliza Doolittle out of Shaw’s Pygmalion to sell flowers here now, they’d be black calla lilies and out of season peonies at £40 a bouquet.

I glance at the worried look on the assistant’s face and idly think that her Parisian counterparts would eat her for petit dejeuner.

I am in Chanel’s tiny makeup and perfume shop. There is a procedure here, which is the same at most upscale perfume boutiques in France. The consumer is there to be taught, seduced into purchase. They are not meant to handle the bottles themselves unless it is an unmarked smaller tester bottle. The large, branded versions are for the fresh-faced sales assistants, chicly dressed all in black, ready to tell you the stories behind No. 19, a brisk galbanum, iris, and leather scent; Coromandel, all powdery wood and dark patchouli, inspired by the elaborate Chinese screens in Chanel’s Rue Cambon apartment; and Cuir de Russie, rich leather and birch, most likely a nod to her lover, Dmitri Romanov. But this is London; politeness reigns. I have been holding onto this bottle for at least 20 minutes, recalling everything I know about Chanel’s scents, the poor assistant next to me pleading to no avail. She’s British, so she won’t give me the same almost imperceptible frown and shake of the head the way vendeuses would in Paris or even take it out my hands (it’s happened). No, instead she stands there, probably thinking of her sales training, how she must behave (hence “madame”), how the proper Chanel consumer is expected to behave. But I need to be tactile with scents—oxymoronic, I know—and feel the weight, shape and quality of the bottle and cap in my own hands. If you won’t let me touch, I probably won’t buy. I glance at the worried look on the assistant’s face and idly think that her Parisian counterparts would eat her for petit dejeuner.

It was a canny move, Chanel coming to Covent Garden. I think they might have been the first, opening a temporary Christmas pop-up shop (what is more an indicator of an area wanting to rebrand themselves as luxury or hip than the pop-up?), which proved so popular that they decided to become permanent. But it is also a very good barometer of the British temperament: here the non-tourist can come because the atmosphere is less forbidding than the larger boutiques scattered around the city where the shop assistants have shed their timid milk teeth and are fully fanged, ready to pounce on you. Covent Garden is probably the testing ground to see if salespeople have what it takes to move up to the Bond Street locations. I think my little assistant would fail miserably. “I’d just take the bottle away from me,” I tell her, laughing. She colours up in embarrassment (Le Blush Crème de Chanel match: Affinité) and then has a burst of boldness. “Oh, but if you step this way, we can spray some onto a strip!” She waves towards the unmarked testers.

“That’s alright,” I say. “I’ll take this.” I hold my branded bottle high in the air, triumphantly.

Chanel, 3 The Market Building, Covent Garden, London WC2E 8RF

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