Last Sunday morning I found myself in a sweet smelling spot. Vibrant morning light filled the beautiful little patio behind Antelope on Valencia Street where Tigerlily Parfumerie is located. The mornings in the Mission District of San Francisco always seem the brightest and warmest of all the neighborhoods in The City and never more so than in late Spring when the sleepy fog hangs over Twin Peaks not daring to descend any lower than Upper Market Street.
I was there to meet my friends and fragrance specialists extraordinaire Michal Gazinski and Hilary Rayvis Randall for a nosey perfume chat. Under a poppy orange umbrella we sipped on steamy cappuccinos and sampled lovely pastries and fresh nectarines.
Looking at this truly beautiful woman I have known for a little over two years I mulled over how we met. I bumped into Hilary at a Diptyque launch for Volutes. Amidst the swirling notes of that perfume we clicked, over the following weeks we became good friends. Hilary speaks both French and Japaneses, was a teacher of English as a second language, she has even been a chef. Food, Florals and French! At all seems to have lead her to fragrance. Most recently has represented many perfume lines including L’artisan Parfumeur, Byredo, Arquiste at Barney’s and Dior Fragrances at Neiman Marcus. She also holds top honors as a nationally recognized fragrance specialist. She presently works at Barney’s New York on Stockton Street as well as being a fragrance consultant for Tigerlily. Hilary became my fragrance history teacher, my perfume guide and beautiful ambassadress to the ever blooming garden of fragrance I was discovering.
Through Hilary I met Michal; she referrers to him as the “Nose of Union Square”. He is the man everyone goes to who is serious about perfume, those who want to know more than what is the hottest thing on the market today. Michal is a fascinating man, an actor, a gentleman, and impeccably stylish and sophisticated. Open, warm and a mesmerizing raconteur he is simply a wonderful guy. He can tell you just about anything about any perfume past of present.
Over the following months I met up with Michal at different events or just popped in to see what was new at Neiman Marcus. Though these meetings with both Michal and Hilary the idea was born to interview both of them.
Now at last we were together for the long anticipated interview. This sun was shining on us, our own personal key light. The stage was set and the curtain was rising on a new act for three fragrant friends.
THE ABC’s OF MICHAL AND HILARY
Lanier: “Where were you born?”
Michal: Warsaw Poland
Hilary: Philadelphia Pennsylvania
Lanier: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Michal. As a very little boy I wanted to be a classical pianist.
Hilary: up to 10 a Ballerina, from 10- 12- Mortician 14-20 Geisha 20> Chef
Michal: from 10 up and Actor.
Lanier: What opened the door to your life in the perfume industry?
Michal: My grandmother, the smell of her perfumes. Then in the 80’s a friend took me to Dior and introduced me to their perfumes. First in Grenoble then in Paris .
Hilary: My Mother,. She would descend the stairs in a cloud of Diorissimo. She was dramatic. She talked to me about her perfumes and taught me about them. Since she was a gardener and expert flower arranger, she would take me out in the garden and teach me everything about flowers and how they were transformed into fragrance.
Lanier: How do you gauge a client?
Michal: I don’t judge. I never judge a book by its cover. I ask questions and over time I discover the personality, where they live, work, their lifestyle. I use my imagination to put all this together. I engage them in dialogue.
Hilary: You can’t judge a client. I ask questions and look for non verbal clues as well. It is all about finding solutions. What do they own, what notes to they like. And what part of the world are they from. That plays a very large role in the process. Northern Europeans, Scandinavians generally prefer lighter florals; in the south they like heavier florals or Orientals. I try and see how adventurous they are.
Lanier: Are there skin palettes as there are color palettes for skin tones?
Hilary: No not by color if that is what you mean. The skin itself, the age of the skin. Older skin that has lost its oils needs a bolder scent. The skin’s natural oils are no longer there to support the fragrance’s diffusion. And self identity is important in choosing a perfume and the skin’s chemistry as it reacts to a perfume is important. Perfume is a form of communication that speaks to the right brain, the limbic system which houses emotion and memory. It is a non verbal way to present a part of yourself that may be the secret you, the part of you that can’t be expressed verbally. Perfume is the invisible language. Its aura casts a spell !
Michal: Psychology is an important aspect. Why do we wear scent? Attraction plays a role for many clients, Perception of others, or how we want to present ourselves is a part of it. There was a big change in perfume in the 90’s. People stopped smoking. A woman who smoked could wear Santos and it was beautiful. It might be too much on a non-smoker.
Fragrance involves people and can take them to a place they have never been. You wear a certain perfume that says “ Paris ” to you, and you are IN Paris.
Lanier: What is your favorite type of client and least as well?
Michal: I like people so there are no favorites. My least, never mix perfume with politics. I once had a client from Texas who was looking for a perfume for his wife. When I presented him with a Cartier fragrance and explained it was French he said, “I don’t want anything French!”
One must be a diplomat with clients; we are the ambassadors of fragrance.
Hilary: My favorite clients are thoughtful, open to new ideas, non-judgmental. A person with imagination and who is confident in their choices and in their opinions. I like a good dialogue with a client based on trust. My least favorite would be someone with a closed mind. Also boasters, who come in and talk about how many hundreds of perfumes they have and lists of notes.
Lanier: Who was your mentor in the world of perfume?
Hilary: My mother and Michal. Reading every book published on fragrance, all the blogs and being a chef for 15 years have contributed to my scent knowledge.
Michal: Not a person, but books and travel were my mentors. I grew up isolated in Poland . Imagine my wonder when I was first exposed to Yves St. Laurent’s Opium or No.5.
Lanier: Where do you want to be in five years?
Hilary: I want to be sharing my passion for aromas, fragrance and food in a global venue.
Michal: I want to have more time, personal time to pursue my interest. I will be in San Francisco and still traveling.
20 smelly questions for Monsieur M and Madame H. (inspired by the ten question asked by Bernard Pivot on the French television show “Bouillion de Culture”.
1. Who inspires you?
Michal: Marguerite Yourcenar
Hilary: My daughter , Sasha
2. What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?
Hilary: The idea of learning something new that day, perhaps meeting someone intriguing!
Michal: Early morning is my favorite time of the day. The fresh air of a new day
3. What is your favorite sensation?
Michal: Looking at nature and feeling a part of it. Mendocino!
Hilary: Letting go when I drift off to sleep.
4. What is your favorite word to describe a perfume?
5. What is the most over used world to describe a perfume?
6. What is your least favorite perfume note?
7. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
8. What perfume turned you on this month?
Michal: Kouros Sport
Hilary: Muguet by Guerlian (2014)
9. What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Hilary: Negativity ~ no sense of humor
Michal: Vulgarity ~ no sense of humor
10. Who excites you in the world of perfume?
Michal: Olivia Giacobetti
Hilary: Edmund Roudnitska then, Bertrand Duchaufour now.
11. What turns you off about the industry side of perfume?
Hilary: Focus group generated perfumes
12. What natural smell in nature do you love?
13. What smell in nature do you hate.
14. What historical person do you imagine would have smelled Wonderful and why?
Hilary: Lady Murasaki ~ because of the beautiful bathing “ofuro/onsen” ritual of the Japanese with wonderful botanicals and incense.
Michael: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette ~ because they appreciated perfume, had their own perfumers. On a side note: Catherine de’ Medici who was a great influence in perfume.
15. What is your favorite language other than your native tongue?
Hilary: French & Japanese
16. What is your favorite curse word in that language?
Michal: I would rather not say
17. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Michal: Classical musicianship. Any aspect of classical music; be it conducting or playing an instrument.
Hilary: Shakespearean Actor
18. What profession would you not like to do?
Michal: Working in a slaughter house, or being a butcher.
19. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Michal: Relax honey.
Hilary: My dear, you look and smell fabulous!
20. What perfume would you like God to be wearing when he says that to you?
Hilary: Joy; vintage Joy from fifty years ago because I would know my mother was near and I would be with her once more after so many years.
Michal: En Passant. A heavenly scent.
I hope you enjoyed this time with Hilary and Michal. They are indeed extraordinary people. As Sales Associates in their stores they go beyond what is expected giving great service to every person who comes to see them. More than that, they are wonderful friends that I am privileged to know.
If you come to San Francisco drop by Barney’s for Hilary and Neiman Marcus for Michal and say hello. Bring your open mind and your nose ready for a fabulous journey. Let them be your guides, just as they have been and will continue to be mine. Tell them Lanier sent you.