Shalini: Poet, Artist, Designer, Perfumer – Continued

Chapter Two: Scents and Sensibility

Twenty years ago a successful couturier, Shalini serendipitously met Maurice Roucel at a social occasion. The world celebrated perfumer had  just moved to New York from Paris. “I was wearing Hermes24 and he said, ‘I made that.’ I didn’t really believe him and responded, ‘Oh yeah?’” She emits a girlish laugh. Shalini had been drawn to Hermes because of its Neroli notes. An essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree – not the fruit – it’s sweet, honeyed and a bit metallic. “We had orange trees where I grew up.” She smiles.

The two connected. When Roucel walked into her atelier, Piaf was playing. “`La Vie en Rose’ is one of my favorite songs. I prefer to look at life through rose colored spectacles – not because I’m naïve – I want to look at things that way.” “He was homesick. There were tears in his eyes,” she recalls. He looked at the fashion. They had lunch. Kismet. Shalini asked whether her new friend could recommend a tuberose scent for herself. He responded, “Why don’t we make one?”

Maurice Roucel

“One Saturday morning, I get a phone call. Maurice asked whether I wanted to make the fragrance that day! “ Her eyebrows shoot up, but it’s clear Shalini is also bemused. “We went to the Symrise (the maker) studio. Maurice said, `If I was Gauguin, I would paint you, but because I’m not, I’ll make a painting of your soul…’ He used Neroli, jasmine, mouget (lily of the valley) sandalwood, musk, coriander – all the nuances of who I was then, in my twenties.”

The signature scent “had a virginal, poetic quality. It’s the emergence of a woman from a chrysalis, like a butterfly.” (Shalini) It was 2003. Hermes24 took five years to formulate, Shalini, one afternoon. Clients loved the fragrance. She had small Lalique bottles made and gave them away. Stasis couldn’t last. Patricia Saxby, divisional head at Bergdorf’s encouraged making it available to the public. The haute parfum debuted there in 2004. It would be 10 years before the designer gave up fashion.

Introducing Perfume

Shalini heritage brand is created with purity and attention to detail the woman herself applies to any art, in fact, to life. Again, only the best will do. She would no more add chemicals than she would’ve used polyester in her couture. “Certain naturals are very expensive. Bulgarian rose we use in Amorum Rose can cost as high as 13,000 (over $14,000) Euros per kilo. The Assam oud (from one of the rarest and most expensive woods in the world) we use in Jardin Nocturne can cost up to 60,000 Euros (over $65,000) per kilo… It’s not every day I get to work with such exceptional ingredients… With Shalini, I’m free to create what I think is best, regardless of cost.” (Maurice Roucel.)  

Namesake Fragrance

Their communication is rife with allusions, inspiration, metaphors. Shalini will refer to art, music, literature, a place; Roucel will interpret. She uses Louis Malle’s 1957 film Elevator to the Gallows to exemplify their relationship. When the director finished, he gave the film to Miles Davis who scored its entirety with no interference.

“To me, the strength of a formula is to be short and create an emotional connection with the wearer beyond something that just smells good. Shorter is better, but also harder.” (Maurice Roucel)  He might be alluding to architecture or fashion. Roucel and Shalini speak the same language.                                                                                                                                      

Photo by Hernando Cartwright

Filling the world with beautiful, healing scent is a mission. The perfumer hasn’t raised prices in seven years. It’s been suggested the brand do just that merely so people realize the quality. “I call it (the seven fragrances) a museum collection. Everything speaks to everything else,” she remarks. Healing is very much a part of Shalini’s personal life as well. “I think intention is everything in the world. It’s in the ether, the atmosphere…That’s why I never like to say anything negative. I bring the light as best I can…”

The Collection

The collection is based on principles of classical French Perfumery with a 25 percent concentration of the finest absolutes and extracts. Shalini conceives it as a journey: Shalini – sweet, innocent, beginning; metamorphosis. Jardin Nocturne – sensual, sexual, passionate. Inspired by Debussy, the glamour of nightlife, spice souks of oud and attar. Amorem Rose – inspired by Pablo Neruda’s poem I do not love you: I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz, /or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off./I love you as certain as dark things are to be loved in secret, between the shadow and the soul… Great love and its elusive nature. Wear it near your heart.

Paradis Provence is your soulmate, the sun;  Iris Lumiere,  the full moon, the tides, the rite of Spring. Twin souls. Vanilla Reve – Feelings of joy and pleasure. The sweetness of life. Fleur Japonais– Inspired by the revered cherry blossoms of Japan; the final stage of Nirvana. Seven perfumes, seven precious stones, the seven wonders of the world.

Shalini in Provence

The next series, a gleam in Shalini’s eye, will feature three related fragrances. Then perhaps “candles, linking perfume to its origins and bath products which connect to ancient rituals of cleansing body and soul.” As to her own future, she conceives of more writing, painting, a home on the Mediterranean in the South of France, and a partner with blue eyes who will arrive in his own time

Chapter Three: Taste Notes – Shalini Parfum and Chef’s Social Club at The Pierre

According to science, food and drink are predominantly identified by smell and sight or either alone, not by taste. Our brains fuse taste (from the tongue and roof of the mouth), smell (from nasal passages) and touch (texture) into a sensation we call flavor. The nose communicates to the mouth through olfactory referral. Sometimes everything happens at once. At others, in the case of a gourmet meal for example, one might receive taste “notes” in succession, like perfume.

The Event: Chef Ashfer Biju and Shalini

A few weeks ago, Shalini Parfum held a feast for the senses at The Rotunda in The Pierre New York, a Taj hotel. The room is decorated with charming murals and handsome architectural details. Lavender and purple floral arrangements referred back to the Shalini scent Iris Lumière, though the hotel’s signature choice is the purveyor’s Amorem Rose. Taittinger Champagne was served as guests sampled each of seven parfums in French glass bottles. I was instructed to let a scent breathe before attempting to identify what “noses” call top, middle, and ground=dry down notes. It makes considerable difference.

Executive Chef Ashfer Biju, who worked closely with Shalini herself, sources regionally whenever possible. “Incorporating fresh ingredients is easy here in New York because you have so many sustainable options to choose from. In addition to regularly visiting Farmers’ Markets, I spend time at the key farms we work with, connecting with our food and beverage partners regularly every season.”


Left:  Avril Graham, fashion and beauty director of Harper’s Bazaar U.S. (Holding the seven blotters); Center: Shalini; Right: Linda Levy, president of the Fragrance Foundation U.S. 

Chef introduced each course of the meal that followed, every one inspired by a scent. So as not to overpower taste, we were given fragrance blotters (long white, flat sticks) with which to reacquaint ourselves. Smell and taste combine at the back of the throat. To our brains, “taste” is actually a fusion of a food’s taste, smell and touch into a single sensation. (Scientific American) It takes an artist to prepare in accordance.

Cuisine is immensely artful as well as delicious, imagined as nuanced combinations to delight vision, scent, texture and taste. Chef Biju has epitomized Shalini’s poetic approach to the senses.

Shalini Parfum

All photos courtesy of Shalini

Read Part One

About Alix Cohen (1773 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.