On the eve of summer, after a year the likes of which we’ve never known, we’re more grateful than ever to have 2020 in our rear-view mirror. The time is nigh for a fresh start, and along with it, a new scent. Of course, that’s easier said than done, because while the act of spritzing may be straightforward, finding a fragrance that speaks to you is no easy task.
“When something bad happens, some people want to start fresh and adopt a new fragrance for a new era.”
It’s difficult to find something (or someone) with which you share chemistry. That’s because what resonates with our olfactory bulb (where our brain computes smell) depends on so many things. Not least of which is what’s happened in our lives in the lead up to that first sniff.
Smell and emotions are stored as one memory in our brains, which explains why I still cannot get a whiff of Joop! without a split-second tightening in my chest over a break-up that occurred more than 20 years ago. Inhaling the citrusy cologne takes me momentarily back to that feeling of being a girl who would do anything to get the boy back. Anything. And don’t even get me started on Giorgio Beverly Hills, a fruity ’80s fragrance that my mum wore at the height of my parents’ divorce. When I smell it, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, the cobweb-covered corner of my teen memory bank lights up. And I feel ever so slightly adrift for a moment.
Perhaps most odd, the scent I wore that whole time, Kai, doesn’t repel me at all. In fact, even though I don’t wear it anymore, I still love it. Dolce & Gabbana’s perfumer Violaine Collas says it can go both ways: “When something bad happens, some people want to start fresh and adopt a new fragrance for a new era,” she says. “But because fragrance is often something you wear to indulge yourself, it can also be a powerful support. A scent you really love has the power to reassure you, to make you feel comfortable, to make you feel beautiful, even to make you feel protected. So why not think of fragrance as a shield against sorrow?”
All of which makes me feel like crying because I know how true this is. Only the other day, I passed a woman who smelt so much like my late grandmother that it stopped me in my tracks.
“A scent has the power to reassure you, to make you feel comfortable, to make you feel beautiful, even to make you feel protected. Think of fragrance as a shield against sorrow.”
Part of the fantasy of having a signature scent is for people to associate you with a beautiful fragrance, and to have your loved ones think of you when they smell it elsewhere. Perhaps we want others to ride the same nostalgic highway we jump on when we get a whiff of someone we love. But that also could be why we put too much pressure on ourselves to find that perfect match. It may be too much to ask, says Collas. Instead, “start by looking for a fragrance that evokes a place, a moment, a mood or more nuanced and complex emotions”, she advises.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. You might smell something on a friend and decide to wear the same – that is, if she’s willing to share. Some women guard their fragrance fiercely, so as not to find their scent on another woman’s neck.
Reading about perfumes doesn’t always help, either (said no beauty journalist, ever). Being told a scent is a blend of citrus top notes with a dash of patchouli might stir some interest, but it’s only when that scent reacts to your unique body chemistry that you’ll know if sparks are flying. Once it has dried and the top notes have evaporated, that’s really when the rubber hits the road. The heart of the scent shows up after 10 minutes, but it may still be evolving and changing hours later. “Sometimes it’s love at first sniff,” says Collas. “But other times you might start wearing something without feeling that connection at all and then come to understand and appreciate it – then love it immensely. There is no rule.”
One thing we can be sure of is that what we love in a scent is often rooted in familiarity. For me, I gravitate towards white florals such as jasmine and gardenia. Is it a coincidence my childhood home was covered in jasmine? Or the flower my mum had in teeny vases around the house was gardenia? As it turns out, childhood tends to be the period that determines which smells we will love and hate for the rest of our lives because it’s our most developed sense until we’re 10. “Memories indeed have an influence on how you perceive a smell and therefore a fragrance,” says Collas, noting that personality plays a huge role, too. “Are you an explorer or someone who enjoys simple things? You may want something very creative or be attracted to more classical constructions.”
“Start by looking for a fragrance that evokes a place, a moment, a mood or more nuanced and complex emotions.”
When Collas set out to formulate The Only One for Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, she set to work around an iconic flower. “I chose violet because I thought of the parma violet, which inspired in me an idea of Italian floral romanticism … but I wanted to completely reinvent it from a modern and original point of view. So I decided to unite violet with a vibrant coffee.”
Collas’ ambition for every fragrance is to create a scent that women will love to the point of obsession. Is there an X-factor, I wonder, to those fragrances that many love? “I wish there was … and to be the only person to know it!” she says. “But the beauty of perfumery is in its mysteries. There is no recipe.” In the end, it’s up to you to feel your way towards something new, to be open to creating new memories with a whole new signature. So take a whiff of something unexpected. If you’re lucky, it might just take hold.
How To Test Fragrance:
- Only try three fragrances at a time. Any more than that and your olfactory centre will be sent into overdrive.
- And only spritz. Rubbing your wrists together heats up the skin and changes the scent.
Photography: Sevak Babakhani