I've been in the fragrance game for eight years now. To be clear, I've been collecting perfume since 2009 and have been writing about it since 2012. According to many standards, this makes me old. Just like many old people, I am prone to reflection and often starting my sentences with "back in my day".
The truth is, eight years doesn't feel like a long time and if you ask me how things were back in my day, I can't give you an answer. I don't even know how far back my day was. See, I try to live in the present, so I don't pay much attention to the past, especially if it brings me no value.
Despite my intentional myopia of the past, I often think about perfume, collecting fragrances, and what the purpose of it all is.
A disclaimer about the latter (e.g. the purpose of it all): don't ask me what it is because I have no idea. Over the years, however, I have come to realize certain truths about perfume. The more I reflect on them, the more truthful they seem. So, I think it's worth my while to put them down here for you and me to ponder on.
I think about these truths as pieces of advice I would have given to my younger self. Of course, my younger self would have promptly ignored them all. Nevertheless, it is better to know and ignore than to ignore because you don't know.
1. Only You Care about Perfume
This may come as a shock but it's true. Most people are not into fragrances. They don't collect them, analyze their notes, or brood over their performance. Most people see a perfume as a functional thing. You put it on to smell good. End of story.
When I first got into fragrances, I used to share my excitement with anyone who would listen. I used to tell coworkers about the latest "Holy Grail" (more on that later) and how it had changed my whole life. My zeal was often met with blank stares or distracted oh-that's-nice's.
The more I read people's stories about how others react to their hobby, the more clear it became to me that we are a small tribe. What we lack in numbers we make up in passion, so I channeled mine to the communities that truly care about scent. My non-frag head friends thank me for it.
Share your passion about perfume but don't expect people to share it back. Chances are they won't. I don't want to discourage you, just to set expectations.
2. Perfume is as Meaningful as You Make It
This is simple. Just like anything in life, you decide what perfume means to you. I'm talking about individual scents and perfume as an art form. The forums are flooded with posts of people seeking validation if their favourite scents are worthy of their love.
"Is Tabarome worth a full-bottle purchase?"
That's a question no one can answer for you. The short answer is: it depends. If Tabarome evokes childhood memories of you bonding with your dad, then it's priceless. If it's just another bottle in your closet, then you are better off saving your money.
The worth of something depends on the meaning you give it.
"What is your number one panty-dropper for the summer?"
A sales rep once told me men should wear fragrances women like. I told her the confidence to wear whatever I please has always worked better for me.
The whole idea of ranking fragrances by their ability to make women drop their panties is ridiculous. Wearing a certain scent just to get others' approval is worse than you think. At best, it never works. At worst, it says about you things you don't want your date to know.
Eight years later, I have a wardrobe full of "signature" scents.
The real expression of confidence is wearing a meaningful scent even though you know it is difficult one. I knew a pianist who wore Cuir de Russie on every performance. He told me he smelled like an old lady but the scent transported him in another time and made him play the piano with his soul.
3. There is No Holy Grail
Recently I read a research report on the fragrance market. It said a certain segment of the market continues to search for the next best perfume. The context of this statement made it clear they were talking about those of us who incessantly seek the new Holy Grail; the fragrance that will surpass in quality and luxury all other fragrances; the miracle juice that will be everything we will ever want.
Eight years ago I embarked on the same quest for the Holy Grail of perfume. My journey started off as a rather innocent endeavour. I was looking for a good versatile fragrance I could wear to work and maybe on the weekend. Ideally, it would be something I would never get tired of and I would make it my signature scent.
Despite their claim to creativity, most designers approach their fragrance offerings just like airlines approach their in-flight meals.
Eight years later, I have a wardrobe full of "signature" scents. Each one of the first 20 or 30 bottles was meant to be my ultimate one. It used to take me two weeks to get over the latest addition and embark on my quest again.
Sometime after my second year of sticking with this hobby, I stopped fooling myself that the next bottle would be the ultimate one that would put an end to my journey.
Now I buy perfume simply because I like it. I find the discovery of unique scents thrilling. Sticking with a signature scent for the rest of my life sounds silly to me. It's just like saying that as soon as I discover my favourite cheesecake flavour, that's all I am going to eat for the rest of my life.
If you are just starting out in the fragrance game, don't chase unicorns by looking for the next best thing. Buy perfumes that stimulate your senses and move your spirit even if you know you can never wear them in public. Art is art because of the emotional impact it has on you, not because of its utility.
4. Quality is Common, Originality - Not So Much
Finding a good quality fragrance is not hard. Nowadays, most designer and niche fragrances maintain a relatively high minimum level of quality. By quality I mean ingredients (natural and aroma-chemicals) that meet certain standards and technical composition of the perfume. Put simply, most designer and niche fragrances are not made of crap that will give you a rash and are professionally blended by real perfumers.
The truth is, no one wants to wear a truly original fragrance.
The problem of today's perfumery is not quality but originality. It's hard to find a fragrance that is truly original, especially among the designer releases. The reason for this lack of originality is the commercialization of the art of perfumery. Despite their claim to creativity, most designers approach their fragrance offerings just like airlines approach their in-flight meals. It's either chicken or pasta. It's standard, mass-marketed and very bland.
Burberry took the same approach when they decided to re-enter the fragrance market this year. Mr. Burberry was the chicken and mashed potato meal they served to their male customers. It would be a feat of ingenuity to play it any safer.
Those familiar with the conventional wisdom will tell you that you don't go to the designer counter to look for original scents. It is the niche brands that are the true purveyors of creativity. Unencumbered by corporate interests, these small players make perfume for the love of it and are unafraid to take risks.
While niche houses were indeed the driving force behind fragrance creativity several years ago, nowadays many of them bet on what has been tried and true. The acquisition of many niche houses by large fashion corporations has accelerated the conformity of their offerings. The business model for many niche house owners is to build a business around a popular line, which they can sell to a corporate conglomerate.
Even when no acquisition deal is on the horizon, niche house owners decide to produce offerings that have a generally wider appeal. In an interview with Fragrantica, Victor Wong, owner and creative director of Zoologist, explained that he reformulated his fragrance Beaver because the original composition was falling behind in sales. For him, it was a business decision.
Put simply, going niche doesn't guarantee originality. For all this talk about originality, the question that come to mind is does it really matter?
5. Originality is Overrated
Many people in the fragrance industry hold originality as a virtue of the highest order. The truth is, no one wants to wear a truly original fragrance. The truly original scents are unwearable. They are odd and often repulsive. They make great concept fragrances but nobody actually likes wearing them.
Take Secretions Magnifique by Etat Libre d'Orange. It's in the fragrance hall of fame for its creativity. It's a great concept fragrance, which smells like the cross-over between sperm, blood, and saliva.
What people like to wear are fragrances that are familiar but a little different. We can call it incremental originality. Perfumers achieve it by adding familiar notes in unusual combinations. Parfum D'Empire achieved it in Ambre Russe by adding salt and vodka to a beautiful and familiar amber base. Creed achieved it in Aventus by mixing pineapple and smoke.
The same principle of unusual combinations of familiar things applies to food and music too. What we consider original foods are not things we've never tasted. It is the unusual combination of two familiar ingredients. Chocolate covered bacon is such a combo. There is nothing new about chocolate and bacon on their own but bring them together and you've got something new and interesting.
A long time ago I read an article that argued that hip-hop became popular because it first sounded like rock. Think Run DMC and Beastie Boys. They are classic hip-hop bands but their sounds does resemble rock music. That familiarity, plus the original rapping style is what made hip-hop mainstream.
I don't mean to say that ultra-original fragrances have no place. They do and I love smelling them, just like I like looking at a vant-garde piece of art. I just don't wear them because I don't think they are meant to be worn. By definition, making a fragrance wearable is making it more utilitarian and, hence, moving it away from the realm of art.
What I am warning against is blindly pursuing original scents just because they are original. I've worn some hideous perfumes just because they were unique and I thought of myself as an artiste. Then, I realized that wearing a scent that smells like raw cow hide is not nearly as pleasing and inspiring as wearing a beautifully composed citrus scent.
6. You Won't Wear Most of the Perfumes You Buy
Occasionally, I go through my fragrances and try to pick the ones I will wear a given season. Invariably, I discover many buried bottles, which I haven't smelled for years. Most of my bottles are more than 50% full and the ones I have finished count on the fingers of my hand.
Perfume plays to your emotions and, therefore, buying a fragrance is an emotional experience. When I shop for a scent, I am looking for a smell to fit a certain emotional state I am experiencing.
I bought Florentine Iris by Zegna on a rainy afternoon when I was feeling particularly melancholic. It spoke to me and I made a moment's decision that I need to have it. I've worn this scent maybe twice. The full bottle sits in my closet.
Last winter, when I was in a particularly festive mood, I bought two bottles of A*Men Pure Malt by Thierry Mugler. The smell of boozy fruity notes and malt was just perfect for the festive atmosphere around me. I wore it a couple of times and then the mood festive mood evaporated and never felt like wearing it ever since.
I don't regret buying A*Men Pure Malt. It's a great fragrance to have when the mood strikes. Unfortunately, the mood strikes rarely for me to have enough occasions in my lifetime to ever finish the two bottles. Why I got two bottles? I was afraid they were going to discontinue it.
It is important to buy fragrances that speak to you. Following your emotions when purchasing a fragrance is key. Yet, we have to be practical. Before you splurge for a 100 ml bottle, ask yourself - am I really going to wear this scent regularly?
If the honest answer is "no", then maybe a small decant would make more sense. Otherwise, you risk turning your closet in a perfume graveyard. A place where long-forgotten, never worn fragrances go to die.
7 Pre-Planning Fragrance Purchases is Silly
I had a period when I wanted to plan what fragrances I was going to wear for a given occasion. Tired of the heavy winter scents, in March I used to start picking out fresh scent I wanted to wear in the summer. I would purchase a couple of bottles in hopes that when the summer comes, I will be ready to wear them.
When the summer rolled around, I would look at my brand new bottles, sniff them, and decide that I don't feel like wearing these scents. It's not that they were bad; it's just that my idea of what I should be smelling like that summer had changed. Remember, fragrance preference is based on emotions and emotions are fickle.
I used to go through the same planning and advance purchasing of fragrances for trips too. Three months before a vacation, I would purchase a fragrance for the trip - something I thought I'd love to wear and help me remember my vacation by that scent. Invariably, when I would never wear the scent I had packed for my vacation. They didn't seem as thrilling and exciting as three months ago.
Learning from this experience, my new rule is to buy fragrances right when I want to wear them. No more buying in advance. I want a new fragrance for the Fall, I'd buy it in the Fall. A new summer scent? I'll buy it in the summer. Moods and emotions change and how we feel about experiences changes with them. Therefore, buying scents in advance just doesn't work.