Buying fragrance from a store can sometimes be distressingly unsettling. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons we set up We Wear Perfume; over lit, over heated department stores with blaring music and store staff more concerned with hitting sales targets than picking out your perfect scent are not conducive to considered, calm selection. Even when you do find a helpful store with kind staff, the pressure to buy can often confuse your brain. What to do?
Do not panic. In our series of helpful How To’s with fragrance, we’re here to help. As well as our years of experience, we’ve recruited possibly the very best fragrance salesman around, James Craven, perfume archivist at London indie boutique Les Sentuers (regular readers may remember him from here) to help. James tells us “Perfume is all and only about pleasure: let’s keep it that way!”. So, are we ready? Let’s have some fun.
Take Your Time. Perfume is not grocery shopping and needs time to be done well, as co founder of The Perfume Society Josephine Fairley once told us, ‘You’re not buying knickers’. Set aside time to experience the fragrances in store and expect to bring it home and live with it for a few days before selecting. Think about trialing a few new scents over a period of a week to a month, you may fall in love immediately, but then discover it’s a short-lived affair.
James say’s, “It is better to travel than to arrive. Don’t rush. This is not an hour’s quest, nor a day’s. It can take weeks, months, years. Enjoy your odyssey and what you learn en route. You may end up with more than one prize on the way. It’s not a race. Shop when your body clock’s right and you feel in the mood: relaxed, patient, instinctive and curious. Don’t make perfume selection a tiresome chore: make it your delight.”
Go On Your Own. Despite what you may think, other people’s advice is not always welcome because, remember, the fragrance is for you.
James say’s “Discretion is the better part of valour. Don’t take your mother, son, best friend or lover with you when you go perfume-shopping. Go out alone upon your search! Each of us perceives smells differently. The opinion of companions is irrelevant and will only distract and disturb you. You need to concentrate, think and feel – not listen to kibbitzing and criticism. When you find the perfect scent it will fit and enhance you to a ‘t’. You’ll be delighted and so will everyone else. By the same token, never solicit approval of your perfume. Your neediness will nearly always attract a negative answer and no one needs that.”
Start With The Blotters. We suggest you start your fragrance trialing on blotters, those little strips of soft card most stores use to present the fragrance on. Take a pencil with you and write down the name of the fragrance on the blotter because, trust us, you will forget which one’s which. Let the blotter dry a little before sniffing, and do your first ‘yes ,’no’ edit. Get yourself down to around five to six scents you quite like. Do not think that sniffing the tops of the bottles will suffice, you’ll only pick up the top notes this way.
Spray On Your Skin. Once you’ve got your initial selection on blotters, revisit each one of them and edit down to four possibles. Use your left and right wrist and arm (nearer the elbow) to spray-trial these four on real skin. Again, wait for the fragrance to dry a little (or you’re just smelling too much alcohol from the initial spritz) and then try each one. Four seems to us, after years of experience, to be the most comfortable number of different scents your brain can handle at one time.
James say’s “Goodness, how obvious! But we still must emphasise that spraying on skin has to be done. It’s no good sniffing bottle tops or caps. Sprayed strips give an idea but no more than that. Paper strips are dead: scent and your skin are alive. They must be brought together to see how they will interact and react. Again, be very patient. Apply perfume then wait…and wait…and wait again. It can take hours for a fragrance to reveal its whole bag of tricks. Don’t rush to judgement. Wait it out. Leave the shop – take some air – drink some coffee – walk the dog – observe what is happening.”
Ask For Samples. Even if you are a quick selector and make your mind up in the store, we strongly advise you to ask for samples to take home with you. Your scent will change, often significantly, during the day and you may not like what it does on the dry down*.
Try Fragrances Light To Heavy. Generally, citrus, greens and lighter eau de cologne / eau de toilette strength fragrances should be tried first, then move to heavier florals and orientals finally the woods and ouds (oud has a way of sticking to the inside of your nose once inhaled…) It’s a little like wine, once you’ve started on the heavy reds, it’s hard to go back to the light whites. If your nose does get confused, simply walk out into the fresh air for a bit, or you can ‘reset’ your nose by inhaling your own skin, which your nose is familiar with. Using coffee beans to clear your nose is a nonsense.
Try A Fragrance Profile Service, such as at Penhaligon’s or Miller Harris. We’ve tried these and they really help as well as being great fun, you’re in the hands of experts and you learn a lot as you try too. You will end up with a fragrance from that brand obviously (although there is no pressure to buy anything).
James say’s “Visit a specialist independent store: they tell me Les Senteurs is excellent. Make friends with the staff. Ask advice of a knowledgeable, sympathetic but dispassionate sales assistant who knows her/his product. Keep your own counsel; keep quiet: never complain, never explain. Silence is golden. When I was young a wonderful woman who had once been Revlon’s salesgirl of the year said to me: “Stop talking. Listen. Say nothing”. I believe Mrs Lauder used to give very similar advice.”
Our beautiful images are by talented artist Jean Phillipe Calver
*Dry Down = the way in which the fragrance matures and ‘dries’ on the skin after spraying.