I remember the last time I loved perfume. And I mean loved it, with a capital ‘L’. I was nineteen (a whopping nine years ago) and my objet de désir was Michael Kors Eau de Parfum – a heady mix of tuberose, freesia and incense. I used to bathe myself in clouds of the stuff, morning and night. I used to carry a bottle in my handbag, leave one at work and keep one at home, such was my olfactory obsession.
I had a paramour of course, Narciso Rodriguez For Her – a sophisticated, distracting white floral that I’d spritz ever more frequently in my early twenties, until eventually I lost interest in my Michael Kors. My relationship with Narciso, originally inspired by a romantic campaign shot of Carmen Kaas (still iconic today), blossomed for a couple of years thanks to a boyfriend who said he loved it. The boyfriend then bought it for his mother, which is probably the reason why, at the grand old of age of 24, I stopped wearing it and, dear reader, never wore fragrance again.
It sounds dramatic but for the past four years I have avoided fragrance. As a Beauty Editor, you can imagine how hard that is. I just couldn’t find something I loved whole-heartedly as my own and I couldn’t bear to wear something “casually”. At each fragrance launch and each smelling session I faked it. Terrible, I know. ‘Mmmm yes I’d so wear that,’ I’d lie as a sniffed my fifteenth blotter of the week, knowing that I’d never pick it up again.
I believe that in part, my ‘scent estrangement’ has been exacerbated by the fragrance industry. The mass and masstige markets have a very real problem with churning out ten fragrances a minute and then discontinuing them when they fail to connect with the consumer after six months or a year. It is hard to commit yourself to a soulmate when you know they will leave you eventually.
At a recent Hermes smelling session the legendary grand perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena bemoaned the state of the mass fragrance market today: ‘It is a sadness that perfumes now are launched with no chance of becoming iconic, like they used to be.’ (Hermes, coincidentally is a brand that has only ever discontinued one fragrance.) ‘Once it has been taken off the market you can never bring it back, it just won’t work. You loose consumer trust.’
So am I doomed to never love again? In this world, where new scents are so ephemeral, is it possible to find ‘the one’? I decided to take drastic measures. I booked myself in for a fragrance profiling session at Penhaligon’s, Covent Garden – kind of like Tinder or Match .com but for perfume. I met with Nick Gilbert, their Fragrance Expert, who has a background in psychology and who began by asking me series of questions about myself: what textures I liked, what was my favourite drink, what was my ideal holiday, my favorite weather and the food I liked to eat.
My answers (denim, gin, up in the mountains, cold and curry) didn’t seem particularly revealing but Gilbert insisted he had a clear vision of me. ‘From just a few questions and a chat I can get a good sense of a person and someone’s character tells you a lot about the perfume they are going to like. Knowing your fragrance past I can build a picture.’ He then led me through a series of Penhaligon’s perfumes starting with Juniper Sling (a gin & tonic inspired perfume). ‘That’s too obvious’ he explained, ‘but I never start with the one I think is right for you.’
After smelling six perfumes, we settled on a final two: Gardenia, a much less cloying version of a 1970s classic tinted with a ‘watercolour wash’ of magnolia and tuberose, and Vaara, a magnolia with honey and resins, commissioned for His Highness Gaj Singh II. Are you beginning to notice a theme? Apparently I do have a type after all: white creamy florals with soft, warm spices.
Had Gilbert seen cases of scent estrangement like mine before? ‘Oh I see it a lot and it’s often to do with age. People grow up in their twenties and begin to understand who they are, what they really like but finding the right way to translate that into fragrance is not an easy thing. There aren’t that many people who can do that for you – most salespersons have targets and are only interested in selling you a new thing rather than the right thing.’
I took my two new hot dates back to my desk with me in an attempt to get to know them a bit better. I got fed up with Vaara quite quickly – he was a bit too needy and too sweet, which was a turn-off. Gardenia however, I could see myself with. He smelt a bit cooler and a little less try hard and my friends and colleagues agreed that we were a good couple. I also started to look at the perfumes landing on my desk in a new light. When Connock London’s Kukui arrived, I noticed that it contained Gardenia and I felt more connected to it than I previously would have.
The next day I did something your best girlfriends advise you never to do. I picked up the phone and called in a bottle of Michael Kors. As I unwrapped the bottle a familiar rush came over me – hello old friend. I could immediately remember what I loved, still loved about the fragrance and how I had come full circle by finding Penhaligon’s Gardenia. They say you should never go back but actually, if you you’re searching for a new signature fragrance, you almost certainly will.