Who: Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House. Excitingly, Somerset House is holding its first fragrance exhibition, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent. Claire is co curator of the show, along with author Lizzie Ostrom and a self confessed perfume sample addict.
Today I’m wearing El Cosmico by D.S. & Durga. It is a perfume I first came across in Marfa, West Texas. D.S. & Durga founder David Seth Moltz made it especially for El Cosmico, a very posh trailer camp based in Marfa. It’s like a hotel but you sleep in vintage trailers or teepees, it’s lovely and also very trendy.
They asked David to make a perfume for their gift shop, I came across it there after having fallen totally in love with West Texas on a road trip, with its beautiful desert skies and empty roads. Marfa is a wonderful art town, it’s where Donald Judd set up his foundation and loads of New York artists have set up home there. So the perfume absolutely reminds me of Marfa and it makes me feel free, which is why I love to wear it.
I’m a bit of a magpie for perfume samples. I wear perfume every day, but I don’t wear the same thing. I have a huge collection I’ve sent off for, anything that sounds interesting. I also look for places like Lucky Scent, which does selection boxes of samples.
I live in the country and I find that walking the dog is the best time to try perfumes because the fresh morning air is fantastic. That damp peaty smell of the earth and in the spring you get the bluebells, in the summer its all dry grasses. I find that the combination of fresh air and those wonderful smells really enhance what you’re wearing. The walk lasts about an hour and a half, so you start off smelling all the top notes and by the time you get to the end of it, you’ve gone through the journey of the scent. Then you come home, have a shower and it all comes off. I try a different one every time I walk the dog.
I don’t really like the more mainstream perfumes but recently I have got into the original Miu Miu. I would normally never get into something like that, but for summer it’s great and good fun to wear.
Normally, I spray wrists and the back of my neck, so you catch wiffs of it. If a perfume’s really strong or sweet and I don’t want to smell it all day, I will spray a cloud of it and walk through.
I love bitter almonds, I can’t get enough of that smell, it’s the smell of arsenic. There was a wonderful Body Shop body oil back in the early 90s, called Vanilla, which smelled of it but it’s not the same one now. GripFix made a glue that smelled of it and occasionally I find it lurking in a perfume, but it’s never quite what I want. Heliotrope by Etro has a tiny bit of it.
I wanted to put on an exhibition that was about taking perfume seriously. Most people don’t appreciate how powerful perfume is because it’s become diminished by massive marketing budgets and the celebrity fragrance hype. For most people, perfume is about TV adverts and duty free.
Perfume is important and it’s different now from 20 years ago, there’s a whole generation of perfumers coming to the fore on the back of the niche perfumery industry, which has allowed them to have a voice.
It’s not just about wanting to smell nice any more. Perfume has become an art form in its own right. Perfumers want to take it to a different level because people aren’t just wearing perfume to smell fantastic or sophisticated, but to be taken on a journey. Sometimes its an uncomfortable one and I quite like that. You read a book that’s horribly sad or watch a film that makes you cry, so why can’t you wear a perfume that does that? That’s something new.
The exhibition is trying to tell people about these new developments and introduce them to ten extraordinary perfumes that have been touchstones of change. Apparently people can only appreciate seven in one go, but that’s a bit of an odd number so we’ve pushed it to ten. You can’t smell more than that and still have a meaningful experience.
Scent is is taking centre stage in art too. American artist Anicka Yi did an installation asking what the smell of feminism looked like, and one recently asking what dementia smelled like. In the digital age, I think it’s about getting back to something visceral and powerful. Scent is one thing that hasn’t yet been digitized.
Each decade smells different*. For me perfume is a powerful medium, there are so few works of art that are quite so democratic, that reflect society as a whole and reflect the hopes and dreams as perfume.
People want to smell unique and different, your signature scent is the essence of yourself. But does that actually exist? I’m always looking for my perfect scent but I haven’t found it yet, I kind of hope I never do, because wouldn’t that be sad?
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, Somerset House June 21st – Sept 17th 2017.
*Check out Lizzie Ostrom’s excellent book A Century Of Scents for further confirmation on how scents change through the decades.