The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: How to choose the right perfume
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi advises on how to choose the right perfume, ignore shop assistants while buying one, and how not to look for the ‘latest’ and try everything on your own skin.
Is India suddenly discovering perfume? Well, perhaps that’s overstating the case but something is certainly going on. I have been surprised by the response to my last two perfume columns, and by the flood of questions that followed. Here are answers to some of those questions.
Q: What should I do at a Duty-Free shop when an assistant comes up to me and tries to sell me a fragrance?
A: Wave the assistant away. He or she probably knows nothing about perfume but has been tasked with pushing certain fragrances. The offer of help is meaningless. At many duty-free shops across the world, assistants operate on commission so they don’t really care about your needs. They are just trying to make money for themselves. This is why they can be so persistent.
The way it works is that even if you ignore the salesperson, he or she will hang around till you get to the cashier. Once you have made your purchase (even if it is a process to which the shop assistant has contributed nothing) he or she gets a commission. You don’t have to be rude; just be firm and tell them to go away.
Q: If I am on my own in the shop, then how should I go about looking for a fragrance?
A: Just browse. Remember that perfumes are not like clothes. If you like, say, an Armani suit or the style of Abercrombie and Fitch clothes, then you can probably rely on those brands. This makes clothes shopping easy.
That is not true of fragrance. Most fashion houses do not make their own fragrances or even design them. They commission them from a perfumer at one of the handfuls of fragrance companies that dominate the business.
Nor is there any link between the clothes and the fragrances. Giorgio Armani does not design Armani fragrances. Even when a house designs its fragrances (say, Chanel or Hermes) the involvement of the fashion designer is so minimal as to be irrelevant.
So don’t shop with brand-led preconceptions. Don’t say ‘I love Hugo Boss!’ (I use Boss only as an example but if you really like that fragrance range then consider getting medical advice.) Smell lots of fragrances without paying much attention to the brands before deciding what you like based on smell alone.
Q: Should I buy what I like right away? Or should I wait?
A: Jacques Polge, the legendary Chanel perfumer, used to recommend that you should always spray a little bit of a fragrance on yourself and then go home. If you liked how the perfume developed over the hours then you should go back to the shop and buy it.
It is good advice but sadly it is also now out of date. For a start, nobody has the time to make two trips to the perfume store. Most fragrances are bought on the first trip itself.
Secondly, Polge composed his greatest scents in an era when most fragrances had three distinct layers: the top notes, the heart and the base. Perfumers would wait several hours to see what the dry-down of a fragrance was like.
These days, perfume companies have realised that fragrance buying is a sudden and impulsive decision. So they put everything into the top notes (what you smell right away) and bother less and less with the layered structure. It is easier to make a quick decision because what you smell is about all you are ever going to get. But even so, wait at least ten minutes to see how a perfume develops on your skin before buying it.
Q: Should I smell the perfume on a strip of paper or should I smell it on my skin?
A: Good question. Perfumers only smell their creations on paper blotters so they are committed to saying that it does not matter how you smell it.
But this is not true. Different fragrances smell different on each person. That is something we already knew anecdotally. Now, scientists have discovered that each of us has a distinctive smell, caused by the bacteria on our skin. How perfumes smell on you depends on how they merge with your skin bacteria.
So, always smell perfumes on the skin. And remember they smell different on each person.
Q: How many perfumes can you smell in a shop till your nose gets clogged?
A: For perfumers, there is no real limit. For you and me: not more than five.
Q: Can perfumes cause allergies?
A: Yes. Ask my wife. If she enters a room where somebody is wearing a fragrance with ingredients that set off her allergies, she will start sneezing instantly. I have been banned from wearing some very nice perfumes because she is allergic to them.
Q: What is the most common mistake made by people who buy perfume?
A: Research has shown that customers always ask ‘what’s the latest’ or ‘what’s new’? This approach may (or may not) make sense if you are looking for a new song or the most recent fashion trend.
But it makes no sense with fragrance. Only about one in four new fragrances succeed. (Only one in ten lasts on the shelves for a decade or more.) So if you ask for a new fragrance, there is at least a 75 percent chance that you will end up with a dud and a soon-to-be-failure.
Never, ever, ask for the latest fragrance. In perfumery, new does not equal good.
Q: How do fragrance brands cope with the customers’ desire to buy something new?
A: They use it to their advantage.
More fragrances are launched every month now than ever before. The brands know that many of those perfumes won’t be around for very long. But as long as they sell lots of bottles to people looking for ‘something new” in the first year or so, they will break even.
Q: Is this why so many ‘new’ fragrances pick up from old ones?
A: Yes. You go to a shop. You ask for something new. They show you a confusing array of fragrances. You don’t know what to do. Then the assistant says “this is the new L’Eau de Issey Miyake.” You know the original fragrance. You know the bottle. So you are comfortable with it. When you are told this is a new, improved version, you grab it. (Big mistake. The original is far superior to the rubbish that goes out now, using the name.)
That’s why so many successful perfumes keep launching new versions. Guerlain seems to come up with a new version of its successful La Petite Robe every year. Saint Laurent keeps making new versions of Opium. Hermes did another (unnecessary) edition of Terre d’Hermes, its most mass-market fragrance, a few years ago.
Q: Are all perfumes that build on an original name basically the same?
A: Not necessarily. In the fragrance world, a ‘flanker’ is a fragrance that builds on the original brand but is different. So all the Opiums will have something in common but each will smell different.
But this is not always the case. Often the names can be misleading. Chanel’s Coco Noir has nothing in common with the original Coco. The first Kouros is a rude smell that suggests bodily odours. But Body Kouros which should build on this theme is a completely different (and more soothing) fragrance.
Q: How does this work?
A: It doesn’t. But it does remind you that in the fragrance world, nothing is what it seems. Smell everything yourself.
Even Chanel No. 5 has at least four different versions in the market with four different formulae.
Q: Is it a good thing if my fragrance is so strong that when I leave a space (say a lift or a car), my smell lingers?
A: No. You are not an aromatic candle meant to perfume your environment. Use less scent.
Q. Is there a real difference between men’s fragrances and women’s?
A: At the lower end of the market: yes. The women’s are usually better.
At the top: none. I use them both.
Q: What are your favourite ‘men’s’ fragrances?
A: Too many to mention. I love the classics like Eau Sauvage by Dior. (Do not be fooled by the new Sauvage. Dior hopes to capture the goodwill of the original Eau Sauvage but this is a bland, boring, new scent. Stick to the real thing.) I also like Monsieur Givenchy (now re-issued).
Among the later issues, Lime, Basil, Mandarin is still a rare good value Jo Malone fragrance. (I think it was only the second fragrance Malone ever put out before she sold her name to Estée Lauder.)
I like the reissue of Yohiji Pour Homme (now hard to find), Gucci Homme (always impossible to find), Sycomore by Chanel (unisex vetiver), Ormonde Man by Ormonde Jayne and Vanille Exquise by Annick Goutal, which always elevates my mood.
Q: Why do you never recommend anything by Creed or Tom Ford?
A: I don’t think Creed is worth the money. The perfumes are not bad, just workmanlike and mostly bought by people who don’t understand fragrance.
Tom Ford is a design genius who has done a great deal for perfumery. I just think you can smell as good, if not better, without paying those prices.
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