Monday, November 16, 2009

Scratch and sniff and sigh ...

I wear fragrance pretty much every day, even if I'm in sweats or jeans (which is most of the time). I'm addicted to scent.

I remember precisely what the teacher's cologne smelled like the first day of kindergarden, but have never been able to find it "by nose" at any perfume counter in the world. I have near perfect recall of the earliest scents I used, as a young girl: Avon's Sweet Honesty, Love's Baby Soft. I can call them up in their entirety and re-experience them with near perfect clarity.

It's a strange talent, to be sure. I am haunted, in a mostly good way, by smells. Right now, late Fall smells fantastic.

I know what a dry down is (it's the only way I know whether I really, truly love a perfume). I know what chyphre is (and that I'm not particularly fond of it). I can tell you that I don't care for anything redolent of lavender or patchouli, but I cannot tell you why.

Love and hate are funny that way.

NY Times perfume critic Chandler Burr's provocative writing about perfume and the perfume industry are required reading if, like me, you are fascinated by all things fragrance. His books are quicksilver sharp and a glorious read for the fragrance-addicted.

Biophysicist/writer Luca Turin makes the vibration theory of olfaction (nearly) understandable to a lay reader in The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and The Science of Smell; the archive of his fascinating blog "Perfume Notes" is well worth a visit. I've yet to read Perfumes: The Guide, which he co-authored with Tania Sanchez, but it's on my short list.

My latest crush -- discovered via fragrance insert inVogue -- is Yves Saint Laurent's Parisienne (pictured, top). Billed as "a grand floral with a woody structure, luminous even in its mystery." Blackberry - Damask Rose – Sandalwood. There are no hard edges to this one, though it doesn't lay down and die, either. It's voluptuous but virtuous. Granted, this is not always a reliable gauge of what the scent is really like, but a bottle of Parisienne is the only thing on my Christmas list right now. Santa, are you listening?

I am a flowery/fruity/woody mix kind of woman. I don't like perfumes that smell maniacally clean (Estee Lauder's Pleasures comes to mind). My laundry should smell like laundry, but not my skin. Clinique's Happy has that same fabric freshener overload, though Happy Heart was an improvement.

Ralph Lauren's Lauren was ubiquitous in the 80's, and I wore it so often it fixed the floral/fruity combo as my perennial perfume of choice. In more recent times, Marc Jacobs' single note splash-on scents fascinate me in theory, but I like a melange. His Daisy is charming but I've resisted buying it (keep thinking it's too young for a 43 year old). Still, that bottle with its cluster of plastic Mary Quant-style daisies calls to my inner 14 year old! And Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls" bottles, with their tart little doll stoppers, aren't far behind.

They look like toys. I like toys!

Some scents come in the most enchanting flacons, but I can't abide the "juice" (trade term for the scent). Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely is a good example. I loved the ad campaign, I like her very much, the bottle is classically beautiful, and yet ... the stuff reeks. I know it was number one and quite a hit, but to me it smelled like a sad, lonely, overly made-up old lady in rollers washing out her stockings somewhere in the depths of New York City.

Not that I've ever met that woman, but this is what scent can do. It's mysterious that way. Even in its repugnance, Lovely is evocative.

Vera Wang's bottles look like wedding gowns, and the scents are pretty. But I wouldn't want to wear them on any day except my wedding day. They are so earnestly pretty as to be almost boring.

One of my favorite scents ever was Escada's Ibiza Hippie, which came in one of the most ridiculous bottles I've ever seen. It was a big, red heart-shaped mess ... but the beachy, flowers-meet-fruit elixir inside made it worth having. Again, another fragrance too young for me, but I held on to my 20's far too long in the perfume aisle. I can't be the only woman who's ever made this mistake, can I?

A long-time friend of mine has always had grown-up tastes in these matters. She is a Rive Gauche, Opium, Chanel kind of woman. The only exceptions I've ever known her make were Crabtree & Evelyn's Nantucket Briar and Cacharel's Anais Anais. I've tried both of these, and though they are thoroughly floral there is an unexpected piqancy in them that doesn't suit me. On her, they work.

I was a devotee of Lancome's Magie Noire in the 1980's. The faintly smoky sweetness was unlike anything else. In the 90's I went through an entire bottle of Lancome's Tresor, but it doesn't tempt me at all anymore. It was definitely a fragrance for a certain time, affixed to those years in particular, and perhaps they were unhappy ones ... wearing Tresor today would be like reliving them.

Thierry Mugler's Angel is a runaway success, but I made a very funny (as in not-so-funny) face when I finally clapped my nostrils on it. YSL Rive Gauche is an absolute classic, but on me it's like a siren blaring too long, too loud, too much.

Chanel perfumes are perennially popular, and I love them on other women, but when I try to wear them, THEY wear me. The only exception to this is Coco (amber, woody, complex), but that was a big 80's smell and slightly too much for me now, as are Poison and Eternity (though those two were always overwrought, and never in a good way). The scent equivalent of shoulder pads-- and can you believe they're back?!

YSL's Opium is a "big" perfume too -- a classic, really -- and I can see the appeal, but like the Chanel perfumes it wears ME. It's heady, potent, and bold.

Missoni intrigues -- I believe there is a hint of almond nestled among the woods -- and the dry down is faintly sweet. It's not a particularly feminine fragrance, though. Nothing floral about it, to my nose. On the other hand, Philosophy's Amazing Grace seems entirely about flowers and nothing else ... it is light and bright and pink and white (there is no other way to say it), but it never gets complicated enough. It just sits there on the surface of the skin preening itself like a pretty bird.

Armani's Code is coolly perfect, the equivalent of an Armani suit. Impeccable. Even I wouldn't wear it with jeans. Would I buy it? I probably wear jeans too much to make it worth the money. And perhaps too perfect is too bland.

There have been some fragrances I wanted so badly to love. Christian Lacroix's C'est La Vie, with its can-can hot pink and black box, reached out to me from the aisle of every respectable perfume counter in the 1990's, but I could never warm up to it. I wanted to, I truly did, as an admirer of Lacroix's clothes, his exuberant luxe and embrace of color, his love of some good, old-fashioned Old World drama. Just what one would expect of a man whose early career aspiration was museum curator. His clothes were Moulin Rouge gone upscale ... this was before I even knew what the Moulin Rouge was. I only knew that I adored the spectacle. Just not the perfume. On a related note, the Lacroix-designed Hotel du Petit Moulin is on my short list of places to visit if I ever come in to some serious money. Small dogs and cats are allowed in the rooms. Now THAT is sophistication.

For about a year I've been wearing a surprisingly good downscale mass market fragrance (it's got freesia and some jasmine in it, but not too much). I was hooked on Moschino's I Love Love for a time, but I try to keep it as an office-only scent. It's crisp and citrusy with a woody finish. Which sounds masculine, and for my tastes it is, but not in an offensive way. The base notes are delicious. It clings to clothing and smells better and better as the hours go by (the true litmus test). There was enough of it in the neck of my bathrobe that I put off washing that robe until I could no longer justify waiting. Funny enough, I Love Love has a reputation as a young woman's fragrance, but I think it's suitable for a not-so-young woman too.

Then again, my nose in love has been known to lead me astray. Wouldn't be the first time, though I rarely regret commitments to scent once I have made them.

An occasional spritz of Crabtree & Evelyn's Summer Hill always invites the same compliment from every person who notices it: "You smell pretty". And they're right, I do. Until twelve hours later, when it has completely evaporated on my skin. Must have something to do with my chemistry. It's also fine sprayed on bed linens, but too much and it's worse than a can of Glade.

As for men's fragrances, those are hard to get both right and novel at the same time. Like Code, Armani is a classic, and unquestionably "right" on any man above the age of 18, no matter who, when or where. Ralph Lauren Polo and the uber-popular Drakkar Noir are, for me, the scents of college boys (1980's) and will always be. My first love wore these, and it's faintly bittersweet to encounter them now. I do not believe a man is well and truly dressed and groomed without an appropriate cologne. Many men don't realize the seductive power of the right fragrance, judiciously applied. We shouldn't smell them coming from halfway down the block.

Demeter has released perfumes that smell of (among other things) dirt and tomato. Seriously. I don't even want to imagine what other odors they've considered! If I wanted to smell like dirt and tomato, a quick trip to the grocery store and a visit to the backyard would be a much cheaper fix. In the same mode, anything that smells like food should go in my mouth, not on my body. Smelling like chai, wafting a trail of vanilla behind me, seems downright silly. Then again if I were still 14 this might be the beguiling waft of the angels.

In the end, the most reliably wonderful scent of all is my cat's fur, especially after she's just bathed herself. Strange to think that that adorable but (let's face it) faintly foul-smelling, sandpaper tongue leaves her fur satiny sweet and perfect. That warm, soft coat is the smell of my beloved creature companion ... the smell of happiness and love.

The only other smells that can approach it, in their natural state, are freesia, curling woodsmoke on a cold night, lily of the valley, real maple syrup on hotcakes, lilacs in May, an infant's pristine skin, premium whole coffee beans, and fresh pine sap. But I'll take Kitten Girl's ambrosial fur any day of the week, and perhaps it proves that I'm not a hopeless scent snob after all. That my nose is ruled more instinctively by emotion than anything else. This wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Not at all.



  1. Laurie, I am so 'scent' challenged. Because of allergies I have very little ability to smell. Isn't that sad? I do wear perfume when I go out and my favorite is Shalimar. I know, it's an old scent and probably old fashioned of me to love it, but it's my favorite. Lindsey, on the other hand, is the Queen of Perfume in this household! Twyla

  2. Hi Laurie :) Love this 'sweet' post. The Love's Baby Soft and Sweet Honesty were my favs as a young girl as well. But I can recall an even earlier vivid scent. I remember having tiny dolls called 'Little Kiddles' that came in 'perfume' bottles. I still have one tucked away somewhere. Just the doll, not the bottle. I also remember those 'Tinkerbell' cosmetics. They had a splashy 'cologne' that I'm sure wore off as soon as I put it on. But it definitely set the stage for loving fragrance for life. Have a happy week. Warmly, Cathy