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What lies behind a passion for vintage scents?

A perfume blogger on the addictive allure of vintage scents

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What lies behind a passion for vintage scents?

September 01 2011
Odette Toilette

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With the fragrance industry rolling ever forward towards the next big launch – of which there are hundreds each year competing for our attention (no, I don’t want to have the scent of Justin Bieber hovering around me, thank you) – where better to escape the noise than by delving backwards into the archives to discover the perfume equivalent of the out-of-print book or first edition: the vintage scent.

To date, vintage perfume collecting has been a small yet fervent cottage industry fulfilling the olfactory dreams of the curious, obsessed and deranged (I write from personal experience of late-night eBay forays). A warning: it is both intensely gratifying, and potentially addictive. As a perfume geek, it has fascinated me and my wallet for a few years, but strangely, there’s very little out there to read on the subject. So here is Part One of my introduction to this weird and wonderful world.

What exactly is a vintage perfume, would be a good place to start, as “vintage” is a much-abused word. Vintage clothing now covers almost anything a couple of decades old (or Spice Girls era, in some shops). With champagne, it’s the distinction of a particular harvest, while cars usually only get the “vintage” tag if they pre-date 1930. And with cheddar, it means it’s so strong it’ll blow a hole in your palate.

I called the vivacious Emily Maben, head of marketing for Penhaligon’s and an avid vintage perfume collector, who suggested three ways of defining it: “There are fragrances which were released in the 1920s, ’30s and so on, which are completely off the market and hard to find, like my personal favourite, Shiaparelli’s Shocking (1937). Or it might refer to an older edition of a fragrance that is still for sale, but where the modern incarnation smells quite different due to reformulation – perhaps to keep pace with changing tastes, or because certain ingredients became unavailable. There are also contemporary fragrances like Penhaligon’s Cornubia, which have a heady, ‘noirish’ quality, redolent of a certain style of perfumery which you might describe as vintage.” As a quick recommendation, for an evocation of the 1930s, try Frédéric Malle’s disturbing chameleon of a perfume, Une Fleur de Cassie (available in the UK from Liberty and Les Senteurs).

Whichever definition is most fitting, interest in vintage fragrance is fast catching up with its counterparts in more established categories such as clothing, watches and cars. This both annoys me (because I’m more likely to get outbid) and delights me (because discovering that a mysterious old bottle really is magical, and more enthusiasts should have an “in” to this pleasure. I just hope people wear the stuff rather than keeping it in a vault).

To understand the allure, I went to visit Rebecca Rose, founder of the online vintage dress boutique Juno Says Hello (www.junosayshello.com), at her showroom. Over a dainty glass of elderflower cordial, she shared her thoughts: “I think that vintage fragrance taps into a different part of the imagination because it has a real history and mythology. The more it’s mentioned in our culture and in literature, the more this builds up – think of Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love wearing Guerlain’s Après L’Ondée (1908). As with vintage dresses, this is hugely appealing and arouses the buyer’s curiosity: did the original owner get it for an occasion? What parties did they wear it to? Did they have a flaming row with their lover?” The advantage of perfume over a one-off dress is, of course, that more people can experience these olfactory narratives, and you can be in your tracksuit if you so choose. Maben told me she enjoyed the opportunity to access history, quite literally: “I just love to smell a decade: its society, its culture, its politics.”

The desire to track down the rare also flourishes in reaction to the age of the celebrity perfume. At one of my Scratch+Sniff events in London, I met Mia Clarke, a former HR professional who has quit her job to found the niche perfume e-tailer Estellana. I wanted to know why she is drawn to vintage perfumes: “It’s like finding treasure. I want to feel I am wearing something unique. Vintage fragrance has a sophistication. It can’t be copied, and it’s timeless.”

For some avid collectors, vintage perfume has more than a touch of Holy Grail syndrome about it, with impossible demands placed on the scent and the painful expectation that it can, somehow, answer a question. Unending online conversations can be had discussing batch numbers, barcodes, and whether the Mitsouko from 1981 is more oak-mossy than that of 1990. I remember my first vintage purchase: Dior’s Diorissimo. I had the current, widely-available version, but thought, I need to experience the original, as intended by the great perfumer Roudnitska. Trying not to tear the packaging, I doused myself with it, then sat on my sofa, sniffing my wrists in an obsessive/addict fashion. My frantic thoughts went something like this: “It really is better. That is wonderful. Is it? Not sure it is. It’s different, isn’t it? Yeah, but only a bit – it’s a bit more melony. Yep, that’s right; all worth it. Uh-oh; I just spent rather a lot of money… what have I done? Quick, hide the bottle, hide it; no one must ever know I spent that much on a perfume.”

As we leave my past self in this rather difficult moment, and with the hope that you will not be unduly put off vintage perfume by the mania it may (may) inspire, do watch out for Part Two of this guide – in which we will discover just how emotive vintage fragrance can be in its ability to conjure up the past. Part Three will be a collectors’ guide for intrepid enthusiasts.

Pictured: Vol de Nuit, Mitsouko and Jicky, all by Guerlain.

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Perfume