I’m still distressed by the news that Henri Bendel will be shut down in January 2019 by its owner, L Brands, due to low profits. Last week I took a look back at The Gilded Cage, Henri Bendel’s shop-within-a-shop for perfumes and cosmetics. Today I’ll share five memories of Bendel from my own scented timeline.
When I was very young, and Henri Bendel was still located on West 57th Street, my mother brought me there once in a while. I remember the first-floor “Street of Shops,” which was so unusual for its time, particularly the Scentiments counter. We would stop there so that my mother could purchase some Agraria Bitter Orange potpourri as a special gift for someone.
Agraria’s Bitter Orange was a product that redefined potpourri as something truly luxurious and sensual (meaning, it really appealed to multiple senses—smell, sight, and touch) and Bendel was the only New York store that carried it.
Skip ahead to the mid-1990s: Bendel had settled into its new home at 712 Fifth Avenue, the former (and beautifully restored) Coty Building. The fragrance “department” was a wall at the rear of the first floor, at the foot of a curved staircase.
That’s where I first met Christopher Brosius, when he was promoting his own line, Demeter Fragrances. It was the first time I’d met an actual perfumer, much less one who had his own business. He’d even written down his most important thoughts about fragrance, to share through copies of his “manifesto”—a statement that began, “I hate perfume…” I kept that little sheet of paper for a long, long time.
I immediately fell for the signature Demeter fragrance, a blend of geranium and frankincense. A year or so later, I’d go back for Demeter’s single-note Lavender scent.
It’s hard to explain how unusual these fragrances were at that moment. They were pared-down, nature-inspired, made by an individual who felt deeply about what he was creating. I was also fascinated by the idea that you could use them either on your body or as “atmosphere sprays.”
I’ve continued to follow Christopher Brosius’s work, up through his current projects as CB I Hate Perfume.
I was visiting Bendel for an event with Sniffapalooza in 2006. The fragrance department had expanded to a space on the second-floor mezzanine, with views down to the first floor and up to the higher floors. It was an airy and beautifully lit spot, and the fragrance selection was carefully edited, combining old-world glamour like Caron with new, hard-to-find niche brands like Aqaba.
You can read my September 2007 “shopping report” from Henri Bendel here.
Henri Bendel had a long tradition of inviting select independent designers to hold “trunk shows” in the store, and at Sniffapalooza I met perfumer and artist Alexis Karl, who was showing her line Scent by Alexis. I bought a hand-gilded bottle of a fragrance named Venus in Furs (which I still own, nearly empty) and chatted with Alexis. I remember how she packaged each perfume in a small black box with a single black feather tucked inside.
Alexis and I became friends and I’m still a big admirer of her work with fellow perfumer Maria McElroy as House of Cherry Bomb.
I started writing for the blog Now Smell This in December 2006. It was still the Golden Age of Blogging, as my friends and I nostalgically refer to it, and I was invited to so many fragrance launch events. Henri Bendel hosted some of the best ones.
I was invited to meet perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and try the newest release, Traversée du Bosphore, in October 2010. (That’s the invitation for an evening event, not the daytime one that I attended, but close enough!)
(I’d been a fan of L’Artisan Parfumeur since the 90s, when my mother shopped at Bendel for their Mûre et Musc. Bendel was the only “uptown” location to carry L’Artisan at the time.)
I had a morning appointment, even before the store was open to the public, and it really was a treat. I was able to sit with Bertrand in a section of the mezzanine that had been specially decorated for the day, with patterned draperies and low, cushioned seats suggesting a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern tent interior. We smelled Traversée du Bosphore together while he explained its inspirations to me. I also remember tea and fruit being served on a table-tray in front of us.
Henri Bendel was the first New York retail location to carry État Libre d’Orange, a Paris-based brand that quickly became notorious for its provocative fragrance concepts (and provocative label illustrations). The punch line? The fragrances were/are actually very, very good.
Etat Libre has also created some of the best celebrity fragrance collaborations ever, including Eau de Protection with Rossy de Palma and Like This with Tilda Swinton. I attended Bendel’s public meet-and-greet for Like This in June 2010. Tilda answered a few of my questions, signed my bottle of Like This, and posed for a photo with me. She was every bit as gracious, brilliant, and stylish as I could have expected.
You can read my summary of the evening here.
You’ll notice that I don’t have any recent (post-2010) moments to note here. I continued to shop at Bendel, but things started to change. Some interesting perfume brands were dropped from the line-up. Some of the knowledgeable longtime fragrance sales associates were no longer around. The fragrance department moved to a large landing on the main staircase but seemed to be staffed by newer sales associates who didn’t know much about fragrance and weren’t too sharp about customer service, either.
Bendel stopped carrying clothing in 2010 and eliminated all “third-party” brands (i.e., everything except Bendel-branded merchandise) in 2014. By then, my visits were infrequent.
I miss the Henri Bendel I knew, and I’ll still cherish the fragrances I bought there, and the memories that are attached to them.