The Long Read : why the future of buying fragrance is online

What a time we are living through; we hope as you read this, you and your loved ones are well and safe. There’s so much going on in our lives currently, talking about perfume can seem a little off the point. But – strange as it may seem – evidence shows that fragrance can help.

Figures out from the UK’s Fragrance Foundation show that social media conversations about fragrance increased 11% after Lockdown commenced. Conversations on social media varied from how fragrance makes people feel more normal, to how some people are using it to boost their mood, even to make themselves feel more productive. The research accompanies the Fragrance Foundation’s first ever consumer-facing advertising campaign, Fragrance Lasts, initiated at the end of lockdown to remind us of the deep and complex relationship we have with scent, including its ability to transport us through memory to other (perhaps better) times and places.

As fragrance wearers we’ve all learned we can use fragrance to make us feel better, even help us with our mental health. We’ve definitely been spritzing our favourite scents to keep us anchored with that feeling of familiar reassurance during bleaker moments. And we’ve turned to the more uplifting and joyous perfumes in our collections to feel optimistic and hopeful. A favourite has been Björk & Berries Fjällsjö, which smells of Swedish mountain lakes, fresh cotton towels and freedom.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who read our Confidence Boosting Scents feature, where we came just short of declaring that a favourite perfume should be part of your First Aid box (although since hand sanitiser is practically EDT then maybe we should all keep a bottle tucked in with the plasters and paracetamol).

We’ve been saying it for a while now, but fragrance is important to our emotional wellbeing and this awful pandemic has made more of us realise this. Six months ago this would have been a very different feature to write, one that might have seemed a little fantasist in its claims of emotional strength through inhaling and building a close connection to our favourite fragrances through their social media. But here many of us are, reaching for our daily spritz of scent and watching InstaLIVES with perfumers to try to help contextualise what now passes as normal.

Lockdown has seen fragrance brands jump onto social media to bring the perfume community, both shoppers and makers, together. Over on our We Wear Perfume instagram grid we had fun featuring some of our favourite artisan perfumers and brand owners who, being stuck at home just like us, were more than happy to tell us what fragrances they were wearing each day to keep positive and stay strong.

We also took part in the wonderful Digital Scent Festival, organised by perfumer Yosh Han and Aroma Village, who managed to create an online festival of fragrance which was so comprehensive and broad reaching it felt like it must have taken years to organise, but in fact burst into life at the beginning of lockdown and kept us entertained for six, joyous weeks. We took part in the Scent + Startups panel and were thrilled when Maya Njie won! Check out our instagram feed for more on Maya and her excellent collection, it’s well worth hunting out.

So as we look forward to a new normal, one where we might be using perfume to add an emotionally strengthening layer to our day, we look at the new reasons to buy fragrance, and crucially, how to shop online for it.

Scenting From Home – the safe testing ritual

We’ve been banging on about discovery boxes for years here at WWP. It seems such a logical move for brands that sell directly from their websites to have a well designed discovery box of sample sized scents to try and the pandemic has accelerated their development. How else are we going to discover fragrances if the shops are closed and we can’t travel through a Duty Free store?

We all love and miss the personal touch a good salesperson brings, so smart brands are adding an emotional layer to sampling boxes sent to our homes, creating a more experiential testing moment. We love Anima Vinci’s home based Master Classes, where founder Nathalie Vinciguerra will send you a fragrance discovery box which also includes some of the raw perfume ingredients she’s used in the collection, so she can talk you through how her fragrances are made. It’s all done via a Facebook Live session. Maison Crivelli has a discovery box that links to an online ‘experience’ journey, where you can inhale a scent and watch and listen to inspirational film on the brand website, to gain a more sensual connection to the testing process.

We like the sound of the discovery box from Ostens, which contains all six of the brand’s fragrances – we’ve been wearing the crisply grounding Cedarwood Heart during lockdown with its comforting tobacco and pine notes. We chatted to the brand co founder Christopher Yu recently, who said that they wanted to try and replicate the personal touch of their customer service, which usually occurs face-to-face in a lovely town house location with someone from the brand, with an ‘appointment in a box’ experience, where perhaps the whole family could enjoy the testing ritual and could be linked into the brand via a Zoom call.

It’s going to be a time of innovation and learning for fragrance testing over the next year, so get ready to enjoy it.

Scenting for Comfort – and other emotional values

As a result of these newly elevated discovery boxes, we might find we all learn more about fragrance ingredients and how they can affect our emotions. We’re coming to understand the power perfume has to boost our moods and change our emotions, it makes sense that we might start to buy fragrance for its mood-altering power.

When perfumer Ramón Monegal, creates a new fragrance, he consults his Olfactory Universe Map, a complex listing of ingredients with an emotional value attached to each one, for example Ramon attaches the Radix family  of carrot, orris, liquorice, ginger etc to values of security, stability, reason and strength, amongst others.

He told us recently “My Olfactive Universe is my Bible, it has evolved with time, age and experience and I invented it when I most needed to understand and decipher the language of smell.” Ramón started with the premise that odour exists primarily to identify and communicate a message, be it of attraction, or a warning, or of safety, “Otherwise” he continued “it wouldn’t be needed and therefore wouldn’t exist”. So every ingredient he uses he tags with an emotional value, so he can construct a fragrance that doesn’t just smell good, but makes you feel a certain way too.

And despite his many years as a master perfumer he’s still adding to the map. “Basing it on my three olfactive pillars which are nature, cultural history and career experience,” he explained, “I have developed a language of values for the ingredients, which I expand and update constantly to improve my olfactive communication.”

Nowadays, Ramon chooses every ingredient with a purpose, he continued “For example, it’s my personal perception that we are crossing a grey period (in history), convulsive, virtual and I would say even cold. We can counteract this with olfactive messages that hold emotive, warm, optimistic, positive, happy or vital values, and are supported by values that are affirmative, protective, full of strength, vigour and security.”

This is wonderfully represented for us by his fragrance Cotton Musk, a softly comforting fragrance that seems to wrap you up in clean sheets and fresh air. It’s been one of our comfort scents during lockdown, spritzed to enhance a sense of grounding. It uses vetiver and incense, which both register on Ramon’s Olfactory Universe map with values of security protection and serenity.

Perhaps it’s time we all consulted an Olfactory Universe map before buying our next scent? To help us on our way, the Fragrance Conservatory, an online resource open to all, aims to help perfume wearers understand what goes into fragrance, from how it’s made to explaining ingredients. It’s super useful and will help you plot and understand your own olfactive preferences, as well as being a great step towards making the perfume industry more transparent.

Creating an online fragrance narrative –  a surprisingly personal connection,

As fragrance shoppers we are becoming super-interested in where our fragrance comes from, what goes in the bottle and just how sustainable the whole process is. Often we’ll do that first-touch research directly with a brand website, and smart perfumers are starting to make that first engagement an enjoyable- as well as knowledgeable- experience, with great visuals and a clear narrative about their scents.

Although researching fragrance online can be daunting (not all of us want to be perfume geeks, we just want to smell good) the depth of knowledge it supplies you with can make it well worth the time spent, allowing you to really chose a brand that totally aligns with your values. Once you’ve found your brand, the online store is likely to have some jolly good incentives to get your attention at this moment too, so it’s worth connecting to discover the special deals and even hard-to-find limited editions with random distribution.

Perfume brands have been a little slow at developing their online worlds, but with shelf space limited they are realising that online is where their investment needs to be for the future and we expect to see some great online action in the coming months. Also stores often don’t stock the whole range of your favourite brand, whereas the website might reveal your new-love fragrance comes as a body wash and body lotion. And if that’s something you like, the wonderful Histoires de Parfums is doing Bath On Demand, where you can bespoke its standard bath gel and body lotions with your favourite fragrance from the line, at your required concentration.

We are impressed with the Stories website for this reason. The layout is clear and informative but there’s also a friendly narrative that hooks you in, tells you a story, suggests further reading on a particular scented subject, and offers an attractive gift with purchase (sorry, but we’re suckers for a good add-on).

The fragrance we’re hooked on here is Stories No. 2, a comforting, memory jogger of a scent that Stories Founder Tonya Kidd-Beggs describes as “an invitation to walk among the flowers, shed your shoes at the river and recover that which has been lost.” It’s a scent created to remind her of days spent with her pipe smoking father and grandfather as they pottered around their prized flower beds, stuffed with roses and orange blossom, dipping occasionally into a verdant, patchouli plant filled greenhouse and scrambling around the nearby riverbed, memories of a carefree time spent having fun. FYI, any purchase of £50 made on the Stories website gets you a free hand and body wash. I know, tempting, right?

Our beautiful imagery here is by Kate Anglestein