Cosmetic changes are heaven-scent

Many women, and probably a few men, would give their eye teeth to spend their working day with brands like Christian Dior and Estee Lauder. As Williams & Griffin's cosmetics buyer prepares to retire, she tells STEVEN RUSSELL how the industry's changed over the yearsGERALDINE Nokes is counting her blessings.

Many women, and probably a few men, would give their eye teeth to spend their working day with brands like Christian Dior and Estee Lauder. As Williams & Griffin's cosmetics buyer prepares to retire, she tells STEVEN RUSSELL how the industry's changed over the years

GERALDINE Nokes is counting her blessings. “I love perfume! I revere perfume!” she enthuses, genuinely. “There's a romance about them - a mystique.”

She's spent more than a quarter of a century with fine fragrances and cosmetics. Pretenders come and go but classics endure. Geraldine's favourite scent has been around for more than 80 years: Chanel No. 5.

“It's just beautiful. It's romantic; it's luxurious. You don't need to swamp yourself in it. Indeed, you should not, because it should be elusive: now you smell it, now you don't. If someone's virtually showered in it, it's not nice.”

Coco Channel created her iconic scent in 1921. “It's called No. 5 because it was the fifth fragrance she was given to smell, and she showed her clothing collection on the fifth of May. So she said 'Let's keep the number five.' And when someone asked Marilyn Monroe what she wore in bed and she famously replied 'Two drops of Chanel No. 5', well, that was it, really.”

The constancy of No. 5 aside, Geraldine's career in retail has encompassed numerous changes - from a kind of Are You Being Served? philosophy to a less stiff and starchy modern era.

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She started at a big independently-owned department store in Nottingham, at the age of 18, after grammar school and college.

“It was fabulous, but very, very high class. I can remember - and I'm talking more than 40 years ago - we used to have what were called floor-walkers. Do you remember Captain Peacock? (A character from the 1970s/1980s TV sitcom.) Well, we had two of those. We had uniformed lift attendants. We had a chauffeur who used to park customers' cars for them if they didn't come with their own chauffeur - and some of them did.

“It was very strict. You were literally lined up in the morning and had your nails and shoes inspected to make sure they were clean. But I learned a lot.

“They used to have 'first sales' and 'second sales', and the first salesperson always got the pick of the customers. If you only had one customer, say, every half an hour, the poor old second sales never got a look-in!”

Juniors were not allowed to serve customers for the first six months. Time was spent perfecting the basics - like learning how to wrap parcels. “Which is no bad thing for anybody; it gives you a good grounding.”

Geraldine was on a management training course, rotating between departments. She didn't actually work on the cosmetics side at that stage of her career, “but I can remember the cosmetics department then, and the girls were very . . . you could say 'haughty'. They did think themselves a cut above the other people. The staff never bought anything from them; they were frightened to death of them!”

Nevertheless, they were happy days. “They taught me a lot. I think it taught me respect for authority, because things were quite formal. Times have changed an awful lot, haven't they?”

They have. Her first store featured the products of a company called Charles of the Ritz. “They used to blend face powder. They had different jars of face powder - including green and blue and pink - and a little set of scales in the middle.

“The consultant used to blend powder for the customer, and weigh each amount, and then write the recipe on the customer's card so they could buy that powder every time they came in. That was wonderful; but can you imagine the time that took! You wouldn't have the time now.

“It was fascinating, and everything was treated with great reverence. This is why I absolutely hate the fact that perfume is sold in supermarkets. It's taken a lot of time and money and expertise to produce these things, and they're being sold like tins of beans, aren't they?”

Geraldine took a few years off when she had her daughter. The family moved to Essex and then, in the mid-1970s, she joined Bolingbroke & Wenley in Chelmsford. I was there for nearly 12 years. I became cosmetics and toiletries buyer - the same job I've got here - and also I bought the fashion accessories: handbags and hosiery and luggage and things like that.”

Again, it was a time of fun. “Like this, it was family-owned. You knew everybody and everybody knew you. There's a certain closeness. And also I think - and it goes on to this day - we're respected a lot by the suppliers because we don't have to take decisions by committee. The directors are on hand and you can get almost instant decisions.”

Years ago, the major cosmetics houses used to woo the buyers on a grand scale, with launches at luxurious hotels. “Most of the companies had what they called their Christmas showroom at their London offices. We used to go up and place orders, and then get taken out to a nice restaurant. It doesn't happen so much now; I suppose it's the economic situation, isn't it?”

The industry was much more formal then. “Not so much choice, either. Many of the main cosmetic houses were rigid. They insisted you stock every single thing that they produced and took quite a dogmatic approach to it, really”.

Geraldine's been at Williams & Griffin in Colchester for 14 years now, in virtually the same role as at Bolingbroke & Wenley - although last year she went part-time and concentrated on cosmetics.

Although there aren't really seasons as such - Christmas is busy, of course - there's plenty to keep a buyer occupied. As well as administering the departmental budget, there are targets to be set and approved by the directors. There are products to choose and buy, and reps to meet when they call to display their new wares.

It's vital to keep an eye out for promising new lines. Geraldine admits she still gets a thrill when a wonderful new scent appears on the scene. “We last year took in one from a Spanish dress designer, Narciso Rodriguez. That's become one of my favourites and we've done very well with it.”

How do you choose where to spend the store's money?

“You mustn't ever buy for yourself - whatever you're buying. That is a big mistake. But you've got to have a reasonably good feel about something. You've got to know your market. Think back on your history: you might have had something similar. See how colleagues in the trade are doing with something.

“People do say it's 40% research and knowledge and experience, and 60% intuitive feeling - and knowing your customers. I'd agree with that.”

Of course, when you're taking a calculated gamble, it doesn't always go to plan.

“I've had one or two failures over the year, of course I have, but I've been lucky in that in both places I've worked as a buyer I've had the fortune to have a supportive management, in that they allow us to take calculated risks. That's great, because we can make a decision on the spot, and if it goes wrong we get rid of it and start again.”

Expenditure on cosmetics has grown over time, and awareness has rocketed. “Television advertising has played a big part in that - and people have more money to spend.”

One major development has been cosmetics for men, though Geraldine says the sector didn't explode as quickly as the experts were predicting.

“Probably about six years ago all the trade magazines were saying it was going to be the big thing. Clinique produced a range, but there were very few about at that time. I did buy a range from a company in London. There was only Harrods, I think Jenners of Edinburgh and ourselves that were actually stocking it. It didn't take off as fast as we thought it was going to take off; there was a bit of resistance. And then Clarins launched their men's range; and now people like Floris do one, Crabtree & Evelyn do one.

“Men's is growing but not racing. But I think most men now realise they need a bit of something on their face, even if it's only a balm - something to stop your face getting chapped in a cold wind.”

Geraldine, now a grandmother, retires next month. There will be more chance to travel, garden and cook. “I might take up water-colouring. My grandmother was an artist - but it missed me!

“I love the job. I've met some fabulous people and I've been to some wonderful places. I like meeting customers on the shop floor. Nowadays they are much more enlightened and aware about skin care. Mind you, we've preached at them for years and years and years!”

Of course, heading a large cosmetics department means keeping one's own guard up. Geraldine, sitting at W&G's boardroom table with immaculate pink nails and not a hair out of place, says it's become second nature. “I've always looked after my skin, from being a young teenager. But, to be honest with you, I wouldn't be any other way. I wouldn't feel right if I wasn't looking reasonable,” she laughs.

Mind you, lovely scents and cosmetics weren't always in her thoughts. Geraldine says she didn't particularly yearn to experiment with make-up as a child. “We kept horses and I rode most of the time. You could say we were smelling of horses rather than something more fragrant!”

THERE'S a right way and a wrong way to smell perfume. Taking a great lungful is most definitely the wrong way. “You're supposed to draw it in front of your nose and sniff as it goes past,” explains Geraldine Nokes, demonstrating with a waft of her arm.

“You should wait for a little while because there are three sections to a perfume: there are the top notes, which you smell first. Then the alcohol evaporates and it dries down to the heart notes. And then there are the base notes, which is what it dies down to and is what you smell most of the time.

“So you should wait about 20 minutes for it to develop. You sometimes see ladies going like this” - she pretends to heavily spray scent on her arm and rubs her wrists together. “Well, that can scorch the perfume. You've got to let it develop; to wait for the base notes. We would spray someone on the wrist, a little, and let them walk around the store for a while to see if they like it.

“If you're trying perfumes, you shouldn't really try more than three, because your nose can't cope with it. But if you want to smell more than three, a good thing is - and we keep them downstairs - a sniff of coffee beans. It seems to clear the olfactory passages, and you can start again. You know how you have sorbet between courses during a big meal to clean your palate? The coffee beans do something similar.”

A cosmetic buyer's beauty survival tips

“I wouldn't be without an eye cream, and I certainly wouldn't be without a moisturiser for my face and neck. Definitely,” says Geraldine Nokes. “I've often thought that if I were washed up on a desert island I'd want to take my eye cream and face cream with me, and I wouldn't worry about anything else!

“It doesn't matter what it is, or what you pay for it, as long as you're putting something on your face to protect it. And that goes for men too. So many people sit out in the sun. It's crippling.

“Eat a balanced diet. Get eight hours' sleep a night. And drink lots of water. And do use some protection on your face and neck and body!”