So, it's official: I am smitten with Chandler Burr's latest book, The Perfect Scent. Read it; you won't regret it. Burr, the perfume critic of The New York Times, was gracious enough to talk with me about perfume last week. Be sure to read his opinions on why a celebrity scent succeeds or fails, and read on to find out why a perfume can seem so great on paper, but can smell different when you wear it.
In your book, you mention that perfumes are now created to smell good on paper when you're in the store, rather than being formulated only for the skin.
It's the new construction because of the way people buy perfume. The way that people buy perfumes today has a huge impact in how a scent is constructed. It used to be that one would go into the atelier at Guerlain or Coty in Paris, and put the perfume on, and the assistant would bring cakes and tea. You'd smell the perfume and it would stay on your skin past an hour or two hours — for an entire afternoon. Today, you're trying to grab 10 minutes between the movie or the next business appointment, and you're not putting perfumes on skin because you're already dressed. It's like buying clothes without trying them on.
For Chandler's advice on shopping for perfume,
So how should we shop, if the typical way doesn't work?
It's easy: Even if you have 10 minutes before the next meeting, go to work without any goddamn perfume on! Go to Sephora, you do a little bit of homework online, you think about what you want, you walk in, you have four perfumes you want to try. Put one on your wrist of your left arm, one on the wrist of your right arm, one above the elbow on your left arm, and one above the elbow on your right arm. Walk out of the store — and you wear them. You smell them, and you smell them 10 minutes later, 30 minutes later, an hour later, and four hours later. You live with the perfumes, and that's how you do it.
Sometimes I'm confused when perfumes are described by their notes alone. How can we train our noses to identify certain scents?
It's actually a problem, because you can't use any of the raw materials. Somebody should set up a series of courses; those would actually be popular. If somebody entrepreneurial ever did this, I think there would be quite a market for it. Somebody should set up a place where you can go in and actually do a perfume course, and have raw materials — your basic woods, your basic greens, your basic musks — and learn what these mean. Obviously I've thought about this quite a bit!
If you can't do that, then you should just do what's in the industry called a market product. Woodsy scents, for example — Gucci Pour Homme, that was a sort of paradigmatic wood perfume. If you're going to do floral, you should know Joy, you should know Chanel No. 5, you should know L'Air du Temps. Chypre, you should know Coco. And you could actually go in and learn the categories by smelling the perfumes.
Certain scents are associated with their time. For instance, Obsession was everywhere in the '80s, but now it feels very dated. Are there any scents that you wish would come back, or are there any that you think will be linked to this point in time?
Scents are always related to their points and their eras, even if they continue to be successes, like Chanel No. 5, which was a 1921 perfume. Or Eau de Sauvage, which is a 1966 perfume. Angel is early-nineties. These things have a life. Rive Gauche for women is one of the quintessential 1970s perfumes, as is Opium. And you can still wear them. Vintage works, I think, better in perfume than it does in clothing in a lot of ways. It really depends on the scent. Some of them simply smell so much of their era that you wouldn't want to wear them. And others are more timeless.
I think Gucci Rush — and maybe I'm deluded — is going to prove very strongly resistant to time because it's so unusual and it's so beautifully constructed. It's definitely a modernist perfume, but I think it will wear very well.