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Eau d'Italie Eau de Toilette by Eau d'Italie: Positano in a Bottle

Smells evoke memories, so it made sense for one of the Amalfi Coast's most beloved hotels to create a fragrance that takes you straight back there.

It’s a scent that started with a single childhood memory. Specifically, a memory of racing across an expanse of sea-green maiolica tiles on the terrace of a hillside villa in Positano, warmed by the Mediterranean sun, the air wafting with the pungency of the Tyrrhenian sea sparkling far below. It’s a beautiful image, full of romance and nostalgia – but a fairly esoteric thing from which to create a single scent, much less a small perfume empire. Such, however, was the genesis of Eau d’Italie, the signature fragrance that’s inextricably linked in the minds of those who love it – and they are legion – to Le Sirenuse, the hotel in Positano for which it was created. The site of the scene described above, it’s elegant, immaculate, and synonymous with the glamour of the Amalfi Coast.

In 2001 the hotel was celebrating its 50th, recalls the Roman-born former filmmaker Marina Sersale, who with her husband, Sebastian Alvarez Murena, created Eau d’Italie, which would go on to proliferate into a multi-fragrance collection. “My [late] uncle Franco [Sersale], Le Sirenuse’s owner, wanted to throw a big party that October, and they invited everyone. Longtime guests from all over the world, as well as basically the whole village – you can imagine the wonderfulness it would have been.” But then the 9/11 attacks happened.

“Obviously everything just halted. No one was flying, the hotel was completely empty,” she says. So in October, Antonio Sersale, Franco’s dapper son – who now owns and runs the hotel with his wife Carla Paravicini Sersale – decided to invite a few people down for his birthday instead. Among the guests was Argentine-born Alvarez Murena, who would become Marina’s partner in both business and life. “We all got together again soon after, in early 2002, to discuss other ways to celebrate the hotel’s 50th; really we were just playing with concepts. Someone came up with the idea of creating a fragrance, which everybody loved.” Alvarez Murena had recently left his job as a dealer of leaf tobacco; the documentary Sersale had been about to shoot in New York had been scuppered by the attacks. “So it turned out that Sebastian and I were the ones with the most time available to make it happen,” she says.

Alvarez Murena’s background had provided him with some training in aromas; but neither had experience in perfume production, “though both of us had always gravitated towards what are now called ‘artisanal’ scents,” Sersale notes, and wanted to create something in that spirit. They met with Bertrand Duchaufour, one of France’s most acclaimed “noses”, who has created fragrances for Commes des Garçons, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s, among many others. The three got on well, and Duchaufour was invited to Le Sirenuse. “We had defined what we wanted to do, which was to distil an essence of Positano,” says Sersale. “Bertrand wanted to know about my memories of summers here; and one of the strongest was of racing Antonio and my sister Giulia across the terrace where Le Sirenuse’s pool now is, which used to be covered in these beautiful green tiles. We’d start at the restaurant end, and whoever made it to where the pool bar is now first was the winner. I remembered the hot, dry smell of the tiles, and the sea, and vines growing on the terrace. It was really the most wonderful part of my childhood.”

Forging a scent from a childhood recollection was an interesting abstract intellectual exercise; “but it also needed to smell good, clearly,” says Alvarez Murena. At the time, Duchaufour was experimenting with new molecules – synthetics that carry their own signature note. “There was one in particular, called argile,” recalls Sersale – a mineral molecule combination (argile is French for clay); it became the base, around which were “embroidered” a handful of carefully selected notes. Among these were frankincense, bergamot, sweet yellow clover (“there’s a local species of it that grows up and around the mountains above Positano,” says Alvarez Murena), and blackcurrant buds (“extremely, transportingly fresh, fresher even than citrus,” Sersale enthuses).

The process took two years; initially family members discussed it regularly, but once the necessary duration became clear, she and Alvarez Murena took ownership. “People weighed in, of course – though Franco was actually anosmic, so couldn’t smell anything; he’d just say, ‘I don’t know, is it good? What do you guys think?’” recalls Sersale. “But it was, in all the major points, a collaboration. Gae Aulenti, for instance” – the prolific architect-designer who had just created Le Sirenuse’s thrillingly contemporary jewel box of a spa – “was at the hotel once when we were there, and she came in and smelled it, and adored it. So even she was sort of tangentially involved.”

At the time, the idea of a hotel having a signature scent was unique. But what really put Eau d’Italie on the map – and what to this day brings particular joy to its many devotees, and lends it as much cachet as does the scent itself – is its stunningly beautiful packaging. Bold, colourful and contemporary, it is as at home on a shelf in the bathroom of a downtown Manhattan loft as it is in the pristine white-tiled bathrooms at Le Sirenuse.

“The obvious thing would have been to go for a baroque, heavier style, given the architecture and period of the hotel,” says Sersale. “But Le Sirenuse has always been fundamentally different from other hotels like it in one important way, which is that it has never been old, or fusty or dusty. From the day it opened in the 50s, it was always ahead of its time. So we didn’t want something that looked like it should be in an old Amalfi coast hotel. We wanted something minimalist, urban.” Eau d’Italie’s angular glass bottle, spray-painted white, recalls the bright white houses of Positano; the delicate sea-green face captures the shade of those terrace tiles of Sersale’s childhood; the bold oxblood detailing is the exact colour of the iconic façade of the hotel.

Eau d’Italie debuted in Milan in June 2004, with a launch party alla Positanese, complete with potted lemon trees and strolling musicians from the hotel’s restaurant, La Sponda, flown up from the south. “The first thing that happened was that Franca Sozzani [the late, great Vogue Italia editor] gave it an entire page in the following issue,” Sersale recalls. “We had no idea this was going to happen. Then US Vogue picked it up; and suddenly we were being contacted by concept stores in New York and LA and London, asking to stock our brand. We were all saying to each other ‘brand – what do they mean, brand?’

“So we altered the packaging for commercial sales, made it bigger, and began distributing,” Alvarez Murena continues. “After a point, though, it became too complicated and time-consuming for the hotel to be doing this, so eventually we decided to set up a separate company. But it wasn’t just for ease of sales, because by that time we’d really begun to love it.”

In 2005, the idea for a second scent was born: Rose Paestum, named for the spectacular Magna Graecia-era temple complex south of Positano, just above the Cilento coast, which was famous in antiquity for its profusions of wild roses. “At the time, I was wearing a rose-based fragrance, and basically I wanted to make my own,” says Sersale. Rose Paestum is lent an unexpected edge by a foundation note of myrrh, inspired by a trip Sersale had made to Ethiopia’s Omo River valley. “There were these children by the side of the road, selling what looked like little miniature rounds of provolone,” she says. “But they were actually myrrh. It was incredible; I brought as much as I could home. When we were making Paestum Rose, I sent a little piece of it to Bertrand and asked him to incorporate it.”

 The idea to create a collection that proposed a sort of olfactory journey around Italy cohered with the third and fourth scents. “That’s when the penny dropped,” says Alvarez Murena. “We were working on the idea of Italy in winter, and we had created two scents simultaneously – Sienne l’Hiver [Siena in winter] and Bois d’Ombrie [Umbrian forest]. We couldn’t choose which we loved more, so we launched them at the same time.”

Since then, Eau d’Italie has launched roughly one scent a year, always taking inspiration from a particular place on the peninsula. Jardin du Poete, with its crisp, sylvan notes of cypress, pink peppercorn and basil softened with vetiver and grapefruit, pays homage to the citrus gardens of ancient Greco-Roman Syracuse. Magnolia Romana, a poem to the huge trees that line the avenues of the Villa Borghese, is lent structure (and sexiness) by base notes of cedar and white musk. The incredibly dense, exotic Baume du Doge layers the spices and attars which made Venice the world’s most prolific trading centre one into another: saffron, frankincense, myrrh, cardamom. Many of the scents are notable for being universally wearable – very much by design, Alvarez Murena confirms. “Basically our style, up until about our 10th fragrance, was to make unisex scents.”

Each is singular, its striking white bottle adorned with two unique colours. But Eau d’Italie – that first, signature scent – remains the object of particular adoration. “I’ll be travelling in some faraway place and a former guest of ours recognises the scent of Eau d’Italie I’m wearing,” Carla Paravicini Sersale told me recently. “Every time, it’s a moving encounter; people tell us about their experience at Le Sirenuse, inevitably linked to romance, or love, or just happiness, their eyes dreamy with recalling their days in Positano.” A beautiful memory in a bottle.

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