Roja Dove talks to Basenotes about the Harrods' Perfume Diaries Exhibition, Diaghilev, and that scent he made for The Sun

On the 21st of September, after an event devoted to the work of European perfumers, I manage to grab a few minutes with Roja Dove, the enthusiastic and effusive curator of Harrods' Perfume Diaries and the brains behind the store's Haute Parfumerie. Whilst surrounded by several exquisite Dior bottles and a giant dummy of a Ferragamo shoe, I begin by asking him at what point he realised that the exhibition would be a success.
I basically had no doubt when Emma Hockley [Harrods' perfume buyer] spoke to me about the idea of the exhibition. I felt that if anybody was going to pull off a fabulous exhibition, Harrods was going to. Everything they do is fantastic. But also, I was sure every house was going to support them, because Harrods is Harrods. Emma was very concerned about whether we'd manage to get enough archival pieces. So we went off on this trip and met up in Paris, and we ended up going to Christian Dior, which was so elegant, you can't even begin to imagine. I showed myself up there, because when I saw the [bottle of the] little dog Tian, I went running into the room and I shouted at this man, "You have to excuse me, I can't control myself. On the bottom of this, it should say, 'My name is Tian, and I belong to Miss Dior,'" and underneath was the little label. We then went to Lubin, and it was like going into a room from the late 18th, early 19th century. And then we went to Boucheron, and I knew that they had some extraordinary bottles, made of rock crystal, with emeralds and diamonds, which were not produced commercially. So when we started to look, I really had no doubt in my mind. Everybody we phoned said, "Yes."
Would you say there's a difference between a British and a continental European perfumer?
Yes. First of all, I think that generally, a lot of French perfumery now is swallowed up by huge corporations. The approach is very much based around marketing, as you've heard this evening from some of the speakers. Whereas, when we had the British perfumers last week, no-one mentioned it; they were talking about how they'd resurrected a brand because they loved it. So I think that maybe British perfumery has always been about simplicity, understatement, elegance, and a slight quirkiness, and I think that's still alive and kicking very strongly. I've always made a comparison between how the British cook and how the French cook. If you take a typical English meal, it is meat with vegetables. If you take a French meal with meat, it has a sauce, and maybe it's en croute etc etc. So in England, we take a rose and leave it as a rose, but the French couldn't take a rose and leave it as a rose. They have to exalt it, to dress it up. I'm aware of the releases of Buzz and Diaghilev. What's next for Roja Dove Perfumes?
Well, the Buzz thing was totally a wind-up. Everyone who knew me was saying, "What is this?" But I was asked by somebody representing The Sun whether I would be prepared to create a scent to tie in with a new entertainment magazine called Buzz. So they came up with this idea: "Could you bottle entertainment?" And that made me think, "Entertainment bottled? Maybe it could be a scent." And I hate the idea that I would ever be exactly what people imagine I might be, so I thought this would be enermous fun. And The Sun has a bigger AB readership than both The Times and The Telegraph, which most people don't realise. So because The Sun itself isn't quite what people think it is, I thought the project was a great laugh. It was just a ten day thing, and that's the scent now finished. They gave it away as a present. I agreed I'd have four bottles upstairs [at the Haute Parfumerie]. Everybody who's smelt it has fallen in love with it, and I said, "Well, you shouldn't be surprised, because it is actually my work."
As for the V&A, that was a lovely thing to be involved with. Two years ago I gave a talk at the Victoria & Albert Museum for their exhibition, 'Couture: The Golden Decade 1947-57'. They asked if I'd give a lecture on perfumery from this period. It was very well-received, so they asked if I would come back. Meanwhile, I was introduced to the man who was about to start curating the Diaghilev exhibition that's currently on. And he asked me if I knew whether it was true that Diaghilev, when he travelled, had the drapes scented. And I said, "Yes, absolutely, not only do I know that, but I can also tell you what the scent was. It was Mitsouko."
Because of that story, we started talking about how Diaghilev was really the precursor of what became Art Deco, and how he brought all those people together, like Chanel and Debussy and Picasso, and all the driving forces of creativity. So they asked whether I'd create a scent. I created a chypre, because these were the scents of the period. I didn't want to make what I would call a retrospective chypre, purely because Diaghilev never looked backward, he was always forging brave new tomorrows.
Mitsouko gave us Femme, and Diaghilev is, if you like, the next step. However, anyone who smells it, always says it smells either like how Mitsouko originally smelt, or how the real Femme smelt. It went live on the V&A site a week ago, and they've already asked us about putting another order in. They're shocked by it, which is great. I also have two new perfumes coming next year, to go with the trilogy of Enslaved, Scandal and Unspoken.
I ask him if the new scents have been given names yet, which prompts a wink and a smile."Oh, most certainly," says Mr Dove, bringing the conversation to a close, "but I won't tell you what they are."
'Diaghilev And The Golden Age Of The Ballet Russes' is on at the V&A from 25 September 2010 until 9 January 2011; The Perfume Diaries is on at Harrods until 2 October. Roja Dove also confirmed an event on the evening of 30 September which has not been published on the leaflets: an audience with a representative from Baccarat.

About the author

Persolaise is a UK-based writer and amateur perfumer who has held a strong interest in the world of fine fragrance for over two decades. He is currently developing his own line of perfume. You can find out more about his work at or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com
About the author
Persolaise is a four-time Jasmine Award winning writer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has written for Sunday Times Style, Grazia, Glass, The Scented Letter and Now Smell This, amongst others.

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