Every now and again, an idea comes along that’s so good, you wonder why no one has ever thought of doing it before. According to Michael Donovan, PR supremo and part of the team behind new, quintessentially British perfume brand Union, it’s because it’s simply too difficult. On the face of it, the Union concept doesn’t seem ridiculously hard – a British perfume that contains ingredients that come entirely from UK shores – but according to Donovan, to say it’s been a challenge is nothing less than an understatement.
‘No other brand has ever done this,’ he says. ‘It’s totally unique but it’s been hugely challenging.’ The main reason for this, he explains, is that not only is it impossible to find commercial sources for many British flowers, fruit and leaves, others, English bluebells for instance, have necessitated completely new techniques. Bluebells are a particularly interesting part of the Union story. Although other brands, Penhaligons among them, have launched bluebell fragrances, these have been inspired by rather than made from the woodland plant. This, chimes in perfumer, Anastasia Brozler, is because they’re difficult to find, require a licence to pick and are hard to get oil from. What’s more, there are no commercial growers. Anastasia’s solution was to approach her friends for help.
‘We managed to find some landowners with licences who were willing to let us pick some of theirs [bluebells] and we had a lot of help from Natural England, who gave us a lot of advice,’ she explains. ‘They told us about picking two or three bells per stem so you don’t kill the bulb. Because we’re grooming them, much in the way that commercial hyacinth growers groom their bulbs, they will come back stronger and hopefully, we can make people more aware of them.’
Bluebells aren’t the only wild flower to make it into a Union creation. The four fragrances in the range contain a mixture of British garden classics, wild flora and, unusually, weeds. Not, it has to be said, any old weed. Holy Thistle, a wonderful green scent that evokes a real sense of the Scottish Highlands, is based on the holy thistle (Cnicus Benedictus), along with a dose of bay, bracken and pine resin. What’s more, like the best organic and local food, the origins of the ingredients are spelt out: the thistle comes from the Kinra Estate in the Scottish Highlands, the bay from Pembrokeshire and the bracken from the Borders. It really is Scotland in a bottle. ‘Because everything is handpicked and comes from the British Isles, it has to be the most low carbon perfume ever!’ exclaims Donovan, gleefully.
It isn’t just the smell of the Scottish Highlands that’s captured by Union though. The brainchild of two Scots, one Englshman and an Irishman, the four perfumes came about after the quartet looked for – and failed to find – fragrances that resonated with the smells of their childhood. ‘They thought, “Why can’t we get smells like this?”’ explains Donovan. ‘They came up with a great idea but one that was difficult to do.’
Capturing the scent of the Victorian cottage garden is Quince, Mint and Moss, which resurrects a forgotten British fruit in the quince. As with Holy Thistle, the ingredients are traceable, with the quince grown in Somerset and the moss in Ireland. Balancing the earthiness of the moss and the tanginess of the quince are English garden mint, Caledonian juniper berries and gorgeous wild thyme from Snowdonia.
Offering a similarly English experience is Gothic Bluebell, which combines English bluebells with Devonian violet leaf and ground ivy from Dorset. While most bluebell fragrances are floral in the extreme, here, the dark undertone provided by the ivy results in a fragrance that’s less fairytale and more Tim Burton. Rounding off the range is the wonderful Celtic Fire, which smells of a misty autumn morning and features an earthy mixture of peat, oak and pine pepped up with a shot of – you are reading this right – marmite. It ought to be a disaster but in Brozler’s hands, it has become something rich, warm and utterly striking. ‘These are landscapes in a bottle,’ says Donovan. ‘Big sky fragrances, not flowers.’ And he’s right. Each of the four evokes a landscape and whether it’s a dawn portrait of the Highlands or a chilly autumn morning in Derry, all are instantly, recognisably, British.
Holy Thistle, Gothic Bluebell, Celtic Fire and Quince, Mint and Moss cost £125 each and will be available at Selfridges from mid-June. For more information, see www.selfridges.com or www.unionfragrance.com
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