Something In The Air

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There are green shoots out there. The light’s shifted, suddenly. And I don’t know about you, but at this time of year I begin – just begin – to think about changing the fragrance I wear.

Now, perfume, as many of you know, is hugely important to me. Life-enriching, For most of us, our sense of smell is akin to a seven-stone weakling; we drift through our days, barely using what Helen Keller referred to as ‘the fallen angel of our senses’, when there’s much, much more we can get out of our sense of smell. It was for that reason that almost three years ago, my friend and colleague Lorna McKay and I set up The Perfume Society (perfumesociety.org): an actual organisation whose mission is to help people improve their sense of smell via the medium of perfume.

We have some subscribers and followers who have a massive 600 fragrances! Others, with two or three in their wardrobe. (And lots of men, by the way.) But we’ve noticed something interesting: the people who are most likely to lament to us ‘I can’t smell my fragrance on myself any more’ tend to be those who have just one signature scent, rather than a wardrobe. It seems that when you wear a fragrance day in, day out, it becomes the olfactory equivalent of ‘wallpaper’, barely noticed.

So: if that isn’t excuse enough to go out and buy a new fragrance, I’d like to know what is. But as we all know, it’s not that simple – so I’d like to share what I’ve learned about successful fragrance shopping over many, many years.

Don’t rush it. Not least because there is a huge amount of pleasure to be had from the quest for something new to dab or spritz. Fragrance takes time to develop on the skin: what you smell straight away really isn’t what you get – and you need to give each time to develop.

Don’t eat spicy foods or garlic the night before. These literally ‘seep’ through the skin and change how a fragrance smells.

Wear clean clothes. Experts recommend a clean white t-shirt is best of all for perfume-shopping (though go easy on the fabric conditioner, which can clash). Traces of any perfumes you already wear will be detectable on cashmere jumpers, wool jackets or anything made of silk, especially.

Ideally, shop in the morning. Your nose is definitely fresher, and the department stores and perfumeries are generally emptier. Ideally, do it on a day off, so you’re not rushed: make a special expedition.

Spray onto blotters before making a ‘shortlist’. Blotters are little strips or squares of blotting-type paper, which you spray with scents before applying to the skin, in order to help you narrow down the possibilities. Most counters offer their own blotters. Everyone, but everyone, gets perfume ‘amnesia’: it’s literally impossible to remember what you sprayed where. And if you spray straight away onto your skin, you’ll soon run out of places to try scents – almost certainly, long before you’ve found something you love.

Use a pen or pencil to label every blotter. Boring and laborious, yes – but the only way you’ll remember what you’ve sprayed.

If you’re shopping with a friend, try to be immune to their impressions. Perfume’s entirely personal. What you love, and what smells good on you is going to be different from what they love and what smells good on them.

Spray, spray – and walk away. If you can possibly restrain yourself, initially just spray a few blotters (which you have labeled). Go and have a coffee, or a tea. Smell the blotters again, away from the over-fragranced setting of a perfume department, at your leisure. Give the perfumes time to develop and unfold, and for the initial rush of alcohol to evaporate. Eliminate the ones you don’t like by smelling two blotters, one after another for comparison, and then putting aside the one you like least, and so on until you’ve no more than three left on your ‘shortlist’.

Once you’ve ‘approved’ what’s on a scent blotter, then and only then try it on your skin. Ideally, try one single perfume at a time on your skin: wrists and neck. Two’s doable: we all live busy lives. But never more than three, or you’ll confuse your senses.

Maybe keep a sheet of kids’ stickers in your handbag to write on. Label which pulse-point you’ve applied which scent to. I’m not mad; honestly, this is what even the great ‘noses’ do!

Then walk away, and allow the fragrances to develop for at least an hour – but preferably overnight. This is where it’s really easy to get over-eager, sniff madly – and reach for the credit card. Don’t do it! Where most of us go wrong is choosing on the basis of the first fleeting burst of a scent, or the middle notes (which unfurl after 10-15 minutes). You need to understand a fragrance’s journey through its accords, so don’t make snap judgments. Above all, you should wait for the base notes of a fragrance to emerge before you make up your mind whether to buy it or not – and these take at least two hours to unfurl properly.

If you’re still in love with one of the scents after this, nip back another day and spray it all over. As my old friend Roja Dove (creator of Roja Parfums) once told me, ‘It’s the difference between looking at the dress on the hanger, and wearing it…’

The bottom line? As the song goes, ‘You can’t hurry love’. And since every new fragrance is a bit like a new love affair, that applies to perfume-shopping, too.

PS To help you take a short-cut to fragrances to try, check out FR.eD on perfumesociety.org, which is our very clever on-line Fragrance Editor. (Find it on the menu under FIND YOUR NEXT FRAGRANCE). Type in something you wear and like, and FR.eD – who I promise is almost psychic – will suggest six fragrances you’re more likely to love out of the thousands out there.

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