Coco Chanel said “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.” Harsh! But who would be so unwise as to not listen to Coco Chanel? I mean, do you want to take that chance and risk finding yourself futureless and smelling like health food store underarm deodorant? Hell naw. I am banking on my future via a seemingly inexhaustible supply of samples from the Jo Malone counter at a department store I will not mention by name because I don’t want to get a sister in trouble – let’s hear it for the cosmetic ladies who are GENEROUS with the samples, shall we? You know who you are! Thanks for keeping me feeling like Jennifer Aniston in Friends with Money, sans the shame! Anyways, my bestie Beth, who I’ll call Beth, has been jonesing after a new scent for some time. She was considering the Balenciaga perfume cause she smelled it in a magazine and it smelled good. Let’s look at their ad starring the Balenciaga muse Charlotte Gainesborg:
How lovely! Is the placement of the hourglass to suggest that the scent is timeless . . or that it is the essence of time itself? Ooh! I love Charlotte Gainesborg really for no reason other than she’s pretty, French and has loads of privilege. Two people who I’ve been predisposed to dislike have said that I look like her, and so it is safe to say that I will be cool with them forever. Look at Ms. Gainesborg chillaxing by a lovely lily pad fountain in a sweet piece of lingerie worth more than you – Oh, there is bottle of expensive perfume on one of the lilly pads! That’s magical! Her frog prince must have left it there for her. Anyway, Beth tried the Balenciaga and didn’t like how it smelled on her skin. Cause that’s the thing with perfume – it changes it’s smell based on your own smell! Wild. I don’t think I have a sensitive enough nose to get the nuances of such things, but Beth does, so I accompanied her to the perfume counter at Barneys, which is staffed by serious perfume nerds, so she could find a scent and thus secure her future.
When you Google image ‘Barneys Perfume Counter,’ this is what comes up.
Beth enjoys perfumes that are known in the industry as ‘dirty’, or ‘animal’, which means they’re musky. Years ago they were mad with the musk glands of animals but now they’re all synthetic because that is SO MEAN!
Beth has been doing her fragrance homework, both online and by reading the immensely readable book The Perfect Scent: A Year in the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr who writes for The New Yorker and the New York Times and followed the creation of Hermes’ first in-house fragrance and also ran around after SJP while she was putting together Lovely, which she actually made herself, because she is awesome and has a work ethic and isn’t laying around eating bonbons while suits slap her name on bottles of horseshit. I love SJP. SJP has made entering one’s 40s, which I did over the weekend, a joy. Thanks, SJP! Incidentally, people who suggest I resemble her in any way will also find themselves eternally in my heart, even if they set my house on fire or delete work-in-progresses from my computer. Let’s look at her:
So, we hit the perfume counter at Barneys and a pretty lady named Lilly with perfectly winged eyeliner starts telling us everything we need to know about perfume. Beth is interested in Serge Lutens, in particular his Musc Koublai Khan, which is wicked musky . Says Lilly, “That draws people in with the pheromone quality. It’s described as animalistic. It has rose and vanilla. If you smell it straight, you get the rose and vanilla. On the skin you get the animal quality.”
“A lot of fragrance consumers gravitate toward Serge Lutens because they’re long-lasting and 98% synthetic-free,” explains Lilly. That 2% is the synthetic musk. Beth is also interested in a line called The Different Company, which is the line designed by Jean-Claude Ellena, who was profiled in the Perfect Scent book, and his daughter.
“It’s a family of three generations of perfumers. I love these bottles, because they’re decanters.” That means you can pour the perfume into those little atomizers that spritz the perfume on you like you’re living in another era with a different budget:
The most animalistic of the Different Company scents is Rose Poivree, a scent that people are obsessed with.
If you like roses, which I do, it is maybe the ultimate amazing rose perfume you’ve ever smelled. Beth is interested in it because it’s so famous! It’s like a celebrity perfume. Lilly introduces her to another dark scent a Capricorn woman such as Beth would be interested in: Serge Lutens Chergui. “It’s described as ‘the warm wind that blows over Morocco’. It has sweet tobacco, hay, incense.” I take a huff. It smells like liquor. Like really expensive booze you’d drink in Morocco as a warm wind blows through your hair.
“Serge Lutens won a FiFi Award for Ambre Sultan.” (That’s an award from the Fragrance Foundation. Like, the Lambda Literary Award of perfume, basically) “We sell it equally to men and women.” I sniff it; it smells like pepper. “That’s a good way to describe it,” Lilly says, and I feel so affirmed in the sophistication of my nose it is embarrassing. Thanks, Lilly! Seriously – don’t be scared of the Barneys perfume counter. The people who work there are SO NICE and they just want to shoot the shit about perfume and give you a million Kiehl’s samples. Barneys is so expensive hardly anyone even shops there so they have lots of time to spend with you. It’s also the most calming place in the world. Really. I was having a sort of hectic bad day and after I left Barneys I felt like I’d spent a week seaside with people bringing me ice tea all day. Anyways, Lilly continues: “Because it has coriander, it has a peppery smell.” Yes!
Beth asks Lilly more questions about original musk. “They sometimes used deer,” she said. “Did they get the enzyme from the anus?” Beth asks boldly, for Beth has no fear and generally does not give a shit. Lilly isn’t sure, but I’ll tell you that it was extracted from a gland in the abdomen of that adorable fanged Musk Deer up above, and the gland was dried in the sun or submerged in hot oil. Whoa. How do people figure out that there is a gland in a deer’s abdomen that maybe someone would like to smell like? Weird.Beth asks what the oldest perfume is, which sends another worker deep into his smart phone for the duration of our visit. Perfume nerds! So cool! He comes up with 1917, Parfums de Rosine by Paul Poiree. They were rose-based fragrances. Chanel came around in 1928. Another worker comes up to hang out regretfully shares that she can’t wear clothes from Zara because her bosom is too big, to which Beth replies, “That’s a luxury problem! I’d kill for that problem!” We’re so having girl talk at the perfume counter! Amazing.
I’m interested in the Byredo Parfums because they have a fragrance named Fantastic Man, after that cool men’s fashion magazine. “They’re best seller is Gypsy Water,” offers Lilly. “The base is Amber and Vanilla. It’s very fresh and clean and light.” I realize that I’ve been hanging around snorting perfume for like a half hour and I don’t have that headachey feeling I get from just passing through the wall of stink that is the Macys perfume department. I ask Lilly why. “Because most of our fragrances use natural components instead of synthetic. Most commercial fragrances use a lot of synthetics, they give people allergies and headaches and drive people away. These draw people toward you.” I sniff Serge Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger, which blows me away. I prefer flowery smells I guess, and due to a stroke of good fortune have found myself in the possession of not one but two bottles of Jo Malone Orange Blossom, which I love. But this smell is even better, cause layered around the orange blossom is jasmine and tuberose, which I also love. Yum.
Beth is torn between Serge Lutens and The Different Company. She muses on Muscs Koublai Khan. “I’m partial to everything about this company. The label, the name – I love the name Serge. But the Rose Poivree feels like a celebrity. How could I say no to a celebrity?” She ends up leaving with the Serge Lutens, which I think is the best choice because she came in search of an animal scent and she got it. As we ascend from the basement on to the floor loaded with Balenciaga bags, Beth shares her own fragrance knowledge. Basically, all perfume companies, even the rarefied indie scents at places like Barneys, use synthetics, because they last longer. How come the Barneys perfume counter doesn’t smell like hell, then? “Americans like their fragrances to smell ‘clean’, so they have the same notes as laundry detergent,” she explains. Which is why the perfume department at Macys smells oddly similar to the cleaning supply aisle at Walgreens. Our heroine, SJP, had initially wanted Lovely to small like “Comme de Garcon, an African essential oil plus cheap drug store musk,” but the suits said it was too dirty and animal for Americans. Stop shaming SJP! We are all, after all, dirty animals.