The world of perfume is never a dull place. To some, who have never ventured beyond a quick spritz at fragrance counters, it might seem just a confusing melee of competing eaux, not all of which are pleasing. But to those who find scent infinitely intriguing, this winter is a rather thrilling time, with certain enterprising “noses” offering up a rich, stimulating, innovative – even radical – range of escapist scents to explore.
As this year’s standout exhibition Perfume: a Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House described it, these contemporary “perfume provocateurs” are dispensing with traditional high-gloss concepts, gender boundaries and conventional notions of good taste to create “original and outrageous signatures which assault all of the senses”. For these maverick perfumers, it is not enough to develop a fragrance that merely smells delicious or makes the wearer feel attractive – they want to transport the wearer somewhere else entirely, to a place that’s rich, exciting and sometimes strange, and in doing so they are opening up a new and fascinating era for scent.
It could be a physical place, as in El Cosmico (by DS & Durga, £139 for 50ml EDP), David S Moltz’s stunning olfactory realisation of the nomadic hippie camp and hotel at Marfa, in the Texan desert, which offers guests “liberation from the built world”. Using indigenous plants such as creosote shrubs, sumac and Chihuahuan Mesa woods – mesquite, oak and pinyon pine – he has created an uplifting, nuanced fragrance that suggests the freedom and otherworldliness of the unique environment yet is very much connected to the earth.
Other perfume provocateurs play with time as well as place. La Maison Hédonique’s 5ème de Paris (£125 for 50ml EDP) – with its top notes of bergamot, Mentha citrata and mandarin, heart of warm cotton and soft woods, and base notes of coffee, hay and amber – cuts to memories of a romantic interlude in Paris, waking up on a Sunday morning between clean white sheets, with the smell of coffee and croissants wafting in the air. Lucy Akhurst, founder of the new perfume house, launching at the end of this month, seeks to “jog the memories of your soul”, capturing a sense of place, but also transience. 5ème de Paris one of four new scents, each “a riff on mystery and seduction” in an evocative place: a chance meeting with a stranger on the Côte d’Azur, a glowing fireside at a London gentlemen’s club when you should be in bed, or a midnight walk in the enchanted ruins of an Italian garden.
This “movement” has come about partly because of the modern fashion for owning a wardrobe of perfumes: these singular scents don’t have to please all day, every day, so wearers can be pickier – choosing according to season, mood and the time of day they want to wear them. The sophisticated customer is looking for something highly specific, personal and experiential, which means the perfumers themselves can be much more experimental, offering niche scents for adventurous moods and fleeting moments.
“A great fragrance should always transport the wearer,” says Michael Donovan, owner of Roullier White, who has just launched his own collection called St Giles. “This can be through time and space, or simply into another emotional headspace, but a scent should always move you from the very first sniff: if it doesn’t, then it is best to move on.”
Many of these new olfactory offerings seek to take wearers to darker corners of their personalities. Donovan has spent three years working with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour to develop his collection of five fragrances (£130 for 100ml EDP), which are designed to stimulate and amplify different aspects of our characters by setting a scene. This is not about appealing to potential partners; he is enabling wearers to immediately “place” themselves in a world and a state of mind. The Tycoon, a warm, luxurious chypre-infused power perfume, cuts straight to the boardroom or the bedroom, for those who want to feel self-assured and dynamic. But on the flip side is The Mechanic – an animalistic, hirsute, growling fragrance that places the wearer in the mechanic’s workspace, tapping into fuel, oil, rubber and hot skin to express the purity of doing something physical and how empowering it can be.
Even Clive Christian, normally associated with luscious, utterly seductive fragrances that appeal to more traditional buyers of the complex “great perfumes”, had a surprise for his fans when he launched his escapist Addictive Arts concept this autumn. The collection (£525 for 75ml EDP) captures the exotic and elusive scents of mood- and mind-enhancing narcotics – coca leaf, opium poppy and wormwood (used in absinthe) – to transport the wearer to far-off, forbidden lands. There are three pairs (Ecstatic and Hedonistic, Mesmeric and Psychedelic, and Euphoric and Hypnotic) inspired by moments of “dark, unspoken need”, to be worn only by the adventurous and the bold – those prepared to venture over to the wild side.
For a “dark” olfactory adventure (or perhaps misadventure), look to Bruno Fazzolari, a San Francisco-based rising star in the world of perfumery and a rare “nose” who – like Frédéric Malle – has synaesthesia, which comes to bear on his sense of smell and sight: he associates smells with colours. Fazzolari uses perfume to “connect” sensory experiences. His rather chilling Room 237 (£100 for 30ml EDP) transports the wearer to the spotless hotel room and source of all ills in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with fleabane, angelica, oppoponax, costus, olibanum and even a note of vinyl shower curtain. It’s a strangely constructed, dangerous scent – a million miles away from those conventionally sweet florals that simply charm and seduce – but some may find that, like Room 237 in the film, it slowly draws them in until they succumb.
Less “out there”, but still with plenty of grit, British perfumer and linguist Nick Steward seeks to recreate emotional connections to his favourite locations around the world through smell. His Gallivant fragrances (all £65 for 30ml EDP), dedicated to those he calls “urban explorers”, are like insider guides to the cities they celebrate. With each bottle – London, Istanbul, Brooklyn, Tel Aviv – the wearer is spirited to another, utterly different, world. With Berlin, for example, he conjures modern-day bohemians living in brutalist apartment blocks with the help of a woody, citrus, spicy formula that reeks of leather, smoke, spices, cups of black tea, black pepper and undertones of Haitian vetiver, cedarwood and patchouli. “I wanted it to evoke the city’s concrete and steel, its decadence,” says Steward, “but also the forest and lakes on the edge of the city: carefree summers, the freshness of the water, swimming at the Strandbad Wannsee.” For Istanbul, Steward sought to capture the sense of the ancient city standing at the meeting point of two continents and cultures, but with a freshness and modernity about it. He dreamed of coffee, creaminess, leather, suede, spices and incense, waking up in Moda, crossing the Bosphorus and spending a balmy night in Karaköy. This is an ambery, spicy scent that incorporates notes of cardamom, red thyme, lavender absolute, Egyptian geranium essence, sweet myrrh, sandalwood, vanilla, tonka bean, amber and musks.
Other adventurous “noses” invite the wearer to experience less elevated locations and emotions, the kind with which many city dwellers are now so unfamiliar. Orto Parisi has created the fire-red Terroni (£138 for 50ml EDP), a wonderful earthy scent – its ingredients are a closely guarded secret – that curiously takes its name from the slang (and derogatory) term for those who work the land in the south of Italy. But Alessandro Gualtieri, the “nose”, comes from this world – where his own grandfather was one such labourer – and is proud of it. Gualtieri, who broke all the rules when he launched Black Afgano in 2009 (the first dark-coloured perfume, and the first to use a type of hashish, alluding to a state of temporary bliss), devised the fragrance – partly geographical, part emotional voyage – as a connection to the volcanic soil around Vesuvius and was inspired too by the “beautiful” natural smells of the toiling human body.
Meanwhile, multimedia artist Paul Schütze’s Tears of Eros (£135 for 50ml EDP) takes us with him on a moving, spiritual and inspiring journey into the heart of an artist’s studio, and his memory of one particular night. He paints the whole scene: it is Paris in winter, a breeze is blowing through the moonlit open window, and the scents in the room – discarded clementine peel, a potted hyacinth and the dying embers of a stick of Japanese incense – have combined to create a narcotic, heady beauty.
All of these new, adventurous scents explore more interesting, often challenging, but infinitely arresting ways of creating fragrance, and encourage us to take different olfactory routes to discover what we really like, and why.