I’m mad about perfumes. There isn’t a trip I go on where I don’t come back laden without at least a few bottles of perfumes from the cities I’ve visited. Scents to me are little olfactory bookmarks, reminding me of places, adventures, friends and experiences, the memory of which can easily slip away over the years. But one whiff of a perfume I was wearing at a certain moment in time and the memories come flooding back in vivid detail, like Proust carried away by one bite of a madeleine.
I like to start every new year with a new scent. Out with the last vestiges of the old year and in with the new. Don’t be tempted by the post-Christmas sales offerings of perfume gift sets. Do you really want 2013 to smell like Christina Aguilera or Kim Kardashian’s latest confection? The perfume market is overwhelmed with hundreds of new perfumes released every year. Most won’t stand the test of time and are merely likenesses of other hits or cater to the latest trend and marketing reports. With a little research and patience you can find a unique perfume that is special, luxurious and speaks to and for you.
I’m not going to tell you to go out and buy Youth Dew (your mum probably wore it), L’Heure Bleue, Joy, or Mitsouko (one of my favourites still). They’re all classics, and they’re all wonderful, but they don’t work for everyone. Instead I will give you a list of several contemporary perfume brands, for men and women, where you’ll find the spectrum of olfactory groups – floral, chypre, woody, citrus, oriental- so you’ll be able to find at least one from the collection that will tickle your fancy.
Here are my top 7 favourite contemporary perfume lines (I simply couldn’t narrow it down to 5), without regard to market trends.
1. Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle
Frederic Malle has created a library of scents using the talent of some of the world’s top perfumers including Dominique Ropion, Edmond Roudnitska, Jean-Claude Ellena, and Olivia Giacobetti. Each ‘nose’ has been given complete freedom to come up with their own perfume, resulting in a range of artfully put together creations. Editions has a survey on its website which will help you find the right perfume for yourself and for others if you’re after a special gift. I was hard pressed to pick just one of these, so I got several, and keep adding to my collection. I love the warm spicy notes of Noir Epices used both for men and women, and Dominique Ropion’s Un Fleur de Cassie, a complex layering of florals, spice and herbs. Cologne Bigararde and Vetiver Extraordinaire have long been favourites with stylish menfolk friends.
2. Chanel Les Exclusifs Collection
Forget No. 5. Yes, its a classic, an icon. Yes, it pioneered the way for modern perfumery, but really, do you want to smell like millions of other women (and men) across the world? Not very inspiring.
Chanel has always had at its disposal great ‘noses’ and this is perfectly demonstrated by its Les Exclusifs Collection. Available only in Chanel boutiques (to maintain its luxurious and exclusive allure), it is often overlooked in favour of its more pimped out brothers and sisters. But these are luxurious scents and the effort taken to track them down will be well rewarded. Each perfume is symbolic of a particular story, memory or place connected to Coco Chanel. Coromandel, a resiny oriental fragrance carries the name of Coco’s beloved Chinese lacquered screens, snaking their way across her Rue Cambon apartment. Then of course there is 31 Rue Cambon, named after the apartment itself, a woody floral created by Jacques Polge. They come in a generously sized bottle, so they’ll last long enough to be considered your signature scent.
Born into the Guerlain perfume family, it may seem like a no-brainer for Patricia de Nicolai to follow in the footsteps of her great grandfather Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain and uncle Jean-Jacques Guerlain. But the perfume world like that of haute cuisine and wine, seems to be the preserve of men and de Nicolai over the years has been much overlooked and under-estimated. Now firmly established at the helm of her own niche perfume brand, I have to say, ever since coming across her shop in Paris and stealing away with a patchouli sample I’ve been haunted by her scents. There is no marketing or advertising for de Nicolai’s perfumes. The perfume bottles rely on the contents to do all the talking. What you get is a memorable and great quality perfume for a reasonable price, rather than a big budget blown on ads featuring hot buff men spritzing each other with scent (ummm… although I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).
Kurkdjian can safely be called a scent artist. His openness to experimentation and exploration has led to the creation of fragrances for the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent and Guerlain, and lavish fragrance installations at Versailles and the Fondation Cartier, where he made the scent of money for the artist Sophie Calle. His brand opens up a whole world of scent for your every lifestyle need – detergents, candles, incense, bubbles, leather bracelets and of course, perfume. Kurkdjian does bespoke too. The ultimate in perfume luxury!
I was quite sceptical of this one at first. There has been so much hype around this new entrant into the perfume world that frankly, that’s all I saw it as – hype. Sure the self taught perfumer, tattooed ex-basketball player Ben Gorham is ridiculously handsome and he has a legion of new celebrity and fashionista friends who endorse his line, but is it any good? Well, actually, yes, although I confess a few had to grow on me. But for the most part these are edgy and sexy scents that are easy to wear and have a subtle dry-down, so they’re great for those who love perfume but don’t want their scent to make more of an entrance than they do. I loved Seven Veils and M/Mink‘s layering and mixing of unique notes like carrot, pimento berries and adoxal, or incense and clover honey.
Not all perfumes necessarily smell of flowers and loveliness, and nor should they. For more unconventional scents check out Etat Libre d’Orange. The most experimental of the lot, Etat Libre won’t appeal to everyone, in fact, some of the scents are a thoroughly acquired taste, but they do push the boundaries of perfume. And you’ll certainly make a memorable impression. They have a collection of perfumes with great cheeky names and smells that aren’t for the faint of heart. There’s Jasmin et Cigarette, Don’t Get Me Wrong Baby (I Dont Swallow), Putain de Palaces, Fat Electrician and Vraie Blonde (inspired by Marilyn Monroe). Encens et Bubblegum is a fun mix of rose and resin whereas Secretions Magnifique … well, I’m sure you’re able to figure this one out. With synthetic notes of blood, sweat and semen, if you ever wanted to smell like sex, this is the scent for you. Etat Libre takes perfume into the realm of the conceptual.
If it’s beauty and elegance you want in a scent then you need look no further than Jean-Claude Ellena’s olfactory creations. The in-house ‘nose’ for Hermes has put together a lovely collection of ten artisanal perfumes, Hermessence, for both men and women. Lucia ven der Post says of Ellena, “He is to perfume what Mozart is to music”, and this collection certainly demonstrates this. Using only the highest quality ingredients, Ellena has created each scent around a poem, masterfully conjuring up osmanthus bushes in bloom in the Forbidden City with Osmanthe Yunnan, or irises and the “floating world’ of a Hokusai print with Iris Ukiyoe. Each perfume bottle may come with its own leather casing. Well worth checking out in Hermes boutiques.
Smells like a great new year!
Click here for my article on perfume for Harper’s Bazaar Singapore: Scents and Sensibility, Harper’s Bazaar, April 2011