Just like a dress code, fragrance moulds the mood to the moment. And at this time of year, that mood is distinctly glamorous. But whether a scent will out‑style the competition depends on a finely tuned sense of occasion: it must fit the look and the hour. Enter a tribe of well-dressed fragrances with something of the night about them.
Following a strategy spearheaded by Armani, no self-respecting fashion house can be without a “collection privée” – a cut-above edit of fragrances to complement its couture offering. This autumn, Celine joined the ranks with its nine-strong Haute Parfumerie collection (two more will follow in the spring), the house’s first fragrance launch in over 60 years. With their deco-style fluting and black lacquered caps, the bottles promise a restrained yet palpable elegance seldom seen in these days of “too sexy for my bottle” lab-style generic scents that are entirely unconcerned with evoking emotion. This is the best of Paris old-school, ushered mindfully into the new age by the maison’s creative director Hedi Slimane, who has overseen the project from scent to style.
The designer has form: during his time at Dior, Slimane’s involvement in the acclaimed Maison Christian Dior collection (begun in 2004) was doubtless seminal to Haute Parfumerie. “This outmoded notion of haute parfumerie is no doubt a return to a tradition I’ve always loved, the quintessence of French taste, like haute couture is to fashion,” he has said of his involvement, which he describes as “probably the most intimate and personal part of my creative project at Celine”. The process was as much art therapy as fashion statement: each fragrance is autobiographical, a moment in time resurrected in smell.
All are fashionably androgynous, for sure, but what distinguishes them is their sense of the apposite. This collection is divided into day and night camps – a brave move in times when an anything-goes mentality reigns. He describes the obviously dressy and nocturnal Black Tie, for example, as “a strict interpretation of my style in fashion, a sharp and dark composition” that’s white metallic and leathery. Meanwhile, Nightclubbing (cue Grace Jones’s throbbing growl) evokes nights spent at Le Palace or Les Bains-Douches.
It would take a fashion house to remind us that scents of occasion define a fragrance wardrobe. Cotton-fresh, citrusy colognes mean business: they make us pleasant to be around but won’t distract. At dusk, however, a spritz of something stronger can be the difference between owning a glamorous look or having it wear you. Yet for some time, we’ve been bullied in broad daylight by eye-wateringly clamant scents – not only pungent but disorientating.
According to James Craven, fragrance expert at Les Senteurs, this age of overkill has made us averse to deferred gratification: if we want it, we want it now and damn the etiquette. “Yet a treat on demand ceases to be special, hence the tawdrification of so many precious perfumes,” he says. Fine fragrance is, by definition, not something to be sloshed around 24/7. “I see people wanting to return to something special to mark the occasion. Successful wearers adapt their fragrances not only to the mood, but to the weather and especially the time of day.”
Furthermore, considered designer scents encourage us to think beyond the bottle in terms of texture, shape and colour – a synaesthetic approach that is fundamental to a fragrance wardrobe. Enveloping woods, for example, have a cosy, cashmere quality. Jasmine can be diaphanous, luminous; rose, soft and plush as velvet; and musks like warm, naked flesh.
Evening scents with suave “baritone” ingredients such as woods, leathers and resins (often cradled in velvety vanilla) are natural nocturnals. Darkly nuanced, they’re often found in suggestively sleek, black bottles that are superseding lab style as the new niche vernacular. Craven welcomes this blacklash against non-committal packaging. “Black bottles are shorthand for chic,” he says. “They also heighten a scent’s mystery because you can’t see what’s inside them. Think of the effect of Ray-Bans or blacked-out Porsche windows.”
Importantly in these gender-fluid times, black is a universally stylish statement that invariably carries clout. If the bottle is black, expect intensely resonant facets with audacious pairings, such as those in Acqua di Parma’s exquisite Signatures of the Sun collection. Alongside lighter colognes in clear bottles, opaque black flacons lead us to more intensely vibrant interpretations of the house’s classic cologne recipe. Oakmoss was never so suave as in Quercia, a polished woody chypre pepped up by cardamom. Birch tar and frankincense give Leather a smoky thrill, while neroli and heliotrope make Vaniglia the freshest vanilla-based fragrance you’re likely to have encountered in some time.
Named after creative director Eric Rousseau’s grandparents and inspired by Riviera villas of the belle époque, Alex Simone’s absolus make perfect sundowners, dressed as they are for cocktails in their black bow-tie bottles. When smoky, agreeably boozy En Terrasse meets darkly jasmined Villa Simone, it’s the perfect snapshot of the blue hour, when everything seems just a little arcane.
Later, glimpse the dark side with MiN New York’s Moon Dust. According to the brand’s founder Chad Murawczyk (the sunglasses from his SoHo store grace the noses of New York style mavens), the moon is said to smell of gunpowder after desert rain. Smoky, flinty and earthy and anchored by smooth black musk, only one batch of this futuristic scent is made each year.
Also space inspired, Romano Ricci explores his fascination for black holes with Into the Void from the Juliette has a Gun luxury collection. Dense woods, black orchids and a crafty nip of liquorice evoke infinite possibilities. Darker still, Lalique’s Elégance Animale 1989 is a purring, woody oriental with a smoky, leathery, faintly wild-catty undertow; and Liquides Imaginaires’ Beauté du Diable is a wicked cocktail of gin, absinthe, cloves and woods over a flinty cobblestone accord. Soul duly sold, then.
Even floral fragrances can have a distinctly after-hours aura. In Atkinsons’ Tulipe Noire, tuberose – a bloom whose perfume intensifies at night – is partnered with sandalwood and musk to create what’s claimed to be the scent of divine love. In Van Cleef & Arpels’ Rêve d’Ylang, meanwhile, perfumer Fabrice Pellegrin has ramped up the sensuality of ylang ylang with vibrating patchouli and vanilla.
Celebrating 25 years of the acclaimed cosmetic range and offset by its simple black glass flacon, Nars’ Audacious Fragrance is a compulsively exotic sketch of make-up artist François Nars’ Tahitian retreat. Perfumer Olivia Giacobetti (who has also made scents for Diptyque and Hermès) blends frangipani and heady tiare flower with incense and sandalwood to create a mysteriously dreamy impression, shrouded in shadow. “His first words to me were, ‘I don’t want an obvious perfume. I’m looking for a mystery, a flower in the night,’’’ recalls Giacobetti of her briefing with Nars. Her own description of the resulting scent is “something secret, intimate, spiritual”, which, at the end of the day, is everything a black-tie scent should be.
“An evening fragrance should be exotic, lingering, tangibly sexy and obviously expensive,” agrees Craven. “It should ignite the wearer and intrigue whoever encounters it. By no means least, it should relax the wearer into their most beguiling aspect.” It’s going to be one of those nights…