I have a habit of accosting strangers in the street and asking them what perfume they are wearing. I also do it with customers in the shop where I work. No one seems to mind my incredible nosiness because I am always careful to make it a complement. It is one thing to be asked where you got your lovely boots, but I find that people are even more deeply flattered when they are asked about their perfume.
My second question, if it seems appropriate, is why they chose that particular perfume. The reactions I get are fascinating. Some people know exactly why they are wearing their chosen scent, whilst others look suddenly panic stricken at the blank that this question draws in their mind. Some look at me like I’ve gone mad and say “well, because I like the way it smells of course!” I find the second question far more revealing than the first. The motivation behind choosing a scent comes before the selection of the scent itself. Few people would walk up to a perfume counter and start sniffing bottles at random, settle on the one that smells nicest to them and buy it without any further thought. There is always a more complex reason behind your choice, and that is what I’d like to take a look at further.
It is a nuanced and immensely personal question to ask, but I believe that a person’s choice of perfume stems from one of the following motivations: scent by star association, scent as accessory, scent as memory, scent as armour and finally, the serious perfume enthusiast.
Scent by star association.
Let’s start with scent by star association. The majority of customers who buy celebrity fragrance are buying an association with that person. Admiration of the aforementioned celebrity’s fashion choices, musical talent, glowing personality etc is enhanced by having the opportunity to smell like them too. For the most part it is as simple as that. A person likes a singer, the singer launches a perfume, the person likes the perfume and buys it. Celebrity fragrance is almost always fairly generic, because it has to guarantee huge sales. Bubblegum and candy or sheer florals are usually the theme. For the person buying the fragrance, it is the close association with the star, the novelty of the bottle on their dresser and the idea that wearing the scent gives them the same confidence and allure of the person they idolise is the motivation. It is less about whether the perfume itself smells exactly as they would want, the association is what sells it.
Brands can also use famous actors in advertising campaigns to great effect. Although the scent itself is not linked with the star, the advertising is so effective that the perfume and the star are forever after combined. I cannot smell ‘Coco Chanel’ without imagining Keira’s pouty face, it’s the same with Gwyneth and ‘White Linen’. Uber successful actresses selling big brand designer fragrance is a winning combination if you want to make money.
There will always be someone who throws you a curved ball though. Proof of this is in my dear friend Grace, who showed up at my house smelling of sparkles and hairspray and lollipops. When asked the obligatory question she replied “Britney Spears.” When pressed further on why she was wearing the perfume of a star who’s music she didn’t even like, she replied “it’s not about that. We’re going out tonight and I wanted to smell skanky.” Proof that even negative association with a star will still create sales.
There is also association with a non famous person that will lead people to choose a particular scent. I do not mean a memory, that is something different. I mean a choice that you make because you admire that person’s style or personality. This used to happen all the time at school. The popular girls would bring their bottles of perfume to gym class and within a few weeks every girl in the year would smell the same. I can remember a particularly frustrating period of time when every single female member of my class was wearing ‘Tommy Girl’, including me. I remember thinking at the time that it would probably be so much more interesting to buck the trend and go for something totally different, but I’d asked for a full bottle for my birthday. Again, it wasn’t so much about the smell of the perfume itself, it was the association with being eccepted and ‘cool’.
Scent as accessory.
The second motivation, scent as accessory, links in fairly closely with the first. This is buying a perfume by a particular brand or perfume house because you admire what they represent, but also because you love the aesthetic and the kudos of owning something with a label.
For example, when I was about twenty I bought myself a bottle of ‘Diorissimo’. This was before I became very interested in understanding perfume and my choice was based purely on the excellent sales tactics of the counter assistant. I was wandering the perfume aisles, trying to decide whether to go for another bottle of ‘Issey Miyake’ (bought for me by an ex-boyfriend) or try something else. I had been avoiding the Dior counter because I hadn’t associated myself with the brand at all. It was too polished and classic for my scruffy student tastes. But the sales assistant did a stirling job of convincing me that this could be my ‘going out’ fragrance, one I would wear when I put on my high heels and nice jewellery. Her words were so persuasive that I bought it and actually found myself dressing up for my perfume, taking extra care over my makeup and choosing my nicest outfits to wear out! To this day I would only wear ‘Diorissimo’ if I was going out somewhere very nice (although I don’t wear it at all anymore because something has changed in the formulation and it gives me an almighty headache.)
To buy a perfume because of it’s label is the same sort of thing as buying a designer handbag. The bottle looks great on your dresser, the fragrance has been featured in all the latest fashion magazines and if asked about what you are wearing you can name drop with the best of them. On the other end of the scale, people may choose fragrance from a brand with which they share an ethos. For example, most of the people that choose fragrance from Lush do so because they share the company’s attitude towards environmental, animal and human rights issues. They feel that perfume created by a company they admire better represents them as individuals. Like wearing a slogan t-shirt instead of a designer label.
A similar attitude could be applied to those who search for niche/art perfumes combining extreme combinations of notes and edgy, dynamic branding, with a price tag to match. These people want a perfume that sets them apart, marks them as unique and unwilling to swim with the masses. Like a bright feathered headdress worn to the supermarket, these perfumes shout “I smell weird and I love it!”
Scent as memory.
This is a far more nostaligic attitude towards choosing perfume and one that is usually free of any brand association or following of trends. These people wear a perfume to remember a time in their lives or a particular person that is very important to them. If you are a person that wears lots of different scents, as time passes each of these smells will impregnate themselves into your mind in the form of olfactory memory. You might enjoy going back to them from time to time to remember that particular phase of your life. You might seek out a perfume that reminds you of a loved one who is no longer with you, or a bygone era that holds a special interest. For those with a historical fascination with perfume, finding and wearing the vintage classics, like ‘Mitsouko’ and ‘Jicky’, ‘Shalimar’ and ‘Chanel No.5’, will be a lesson in great perfume making and a vivid flash back to a time when you were not yet born.
This attitude of nostalgia is not always an easy one, it can also completely spoil an otherwise beautiful fragrance for you if the memory it provokes is negative or very emotional. It can also make a particular note difficult to wear. The best example of this that springs to mind is perfume blogger Kafka and her aversion to lavender. She says that it has such strong associations with her childhood in France, where dried lavender sachets seemed to fill every drawer and the air was thick with swathes of blue scent in summer. It makes even really stunning, complex lavenders like Vero Profumo ‘Kiki‘ impossible for her to enjoy. I have a similar problem with very powdery rose scents like Frederic Malle ‘Lipstick Rose’. It is so evocative of my grandmother’s dressing table, her powder compacts and wardrobes filled with dresses. It’s not an unhappy memory, just one that belongs back in that room and not on my skin.
Olfactory memories are potently strong and I have found myself physically swayed by scent. I think people that seek out perfume to induce nostalgia do it for the emotional thrill it gives them. They want way more from their scent than to simply smell nice. They want a relationship with it, to forge an ever lasting connection, to make the perfume an indelible stain upon their memories.
Perfume as armour.
Wearing fragrance like a costume is a habit for the more seasoned perfume lover, and those of us who have the opportunity to wear and experience many different scents. I think we can all name at least one perfume that makes us feel really confident and another that makes us feel sexy and so on. Some people, however, can take this to a whole new level. Perfume is seen as the final layer of intricate armour that they don every day, choosing different scents dependant on how they are feeling. When they shop for perfume they have a clear idea of what they are looking for and on which occasions they intend to wear it.
Perfume for work, perfume for quiet nights in, perfume for dinner parties, perfume for clubbing. Perfume for every occasion and situation. Perfume to cheer yourself up, perfume to exude sex appeal, perfume to comfort and perfume to sleep in. Scent becomes such an integral part of life that it is as important as putting on underwear. It must take years to build up and refine such a varied collection of fragrance. Whereas some rely on a slick of red lipstick or an expensive watch to make them feel complete, others feel naked without a spritz or a dab of exactly the right perfume. Make the wrong choice and it might just spoil the entire day.
I grew up with the notion that perfume was a luxury item, you had one bottle at a time and you didn’t buy another until the existing one was empty. I also have an irritating tendency to feel overly loyal towards things, meaning that if I have more than one bottle of perfume I feel somehow like I’m cheating on the one that came first. I know that this is ridiculous, I’m overcoming it slowly. Imagine what I was like before I realised I could order samples! I love the idea of owning a beautiful wooden cabinet and filling it with only the most exquisite scents, each for different occasions. The reality though is that I have neither the cash or the personality to manage it just yet.
The perfume enthusiast/perfumista.
Wow. These are a group of people whom I have only recently become acquainted with and my god their perfume stashes are vast and their knowledge encyclopaedic. Scent is their passion and their hobby and it is how they choose to spend their money.
There is serious dedication involved in building up a collection of scents. Trawling flea markets and antiques stalls for pristine, unopened bottles of vintage perfume. Owning all the classics in every formulation. Staying up to date with new launches from designer, mainstream and niche houses, ordering great packages full of samples and understanding the different notes and compositions. Being able to pull from memory all the best perfumes containing mimosa or the benchmark sandalwood fragrances which all others should then live up to. It is a serious business and one that takes years of learning and copious amounts of cash. Online forums such as Facebook Fragrance Friends and Basenotes are excellent places to chat to fellow fume heads and broaden your knowledge.
In a questionnaire, these people will write ‘perfume’ in the space where you state your interests and hobbies. It is a life choice. Having a full bottle of your favourite ‘Tom Ford’ is as, if not more, important than doing the food shopping. However fanatical about fragrance they may be, I have also found them to be extremely accommodating and friendly, more than willing to answer my naive questions on forums and happy to share their experiences of different perfumes. I would advise anyone who wants to learn more about perfume to join a fragrance forum, just as one helpful blogger once advised me.
Serious perfume enthusiasts are motivated to buy fragrance for all the above reasons with the added passion of collecting rare and vintage items, beautiful bottles and obscure perfumes. If it’s out there, they have sniffed it, or they are hunting it down with the focus of a predator. They are not afraid to tell you their opinions but the wonderful thing is that everyone tends to be fairly open minded. Scent is so personal that there is no correct interpretation and people are generally accepting of that. It’s a little like falling down the rabbit hole for these people, once you’ve taken a peek there is no going back.
I’d say that I started out as a person who bought perfume as an accessory. As I learn more about the fragrance world and continue to write I find myself hunting down scents to provoke memory, scent to create new memories and also to armour up a little bit. I am very far from being a perfumista but I think I may end up there one day. So what is your motivation for buying perfume? Do you find yourself falling into one or more of the above categories? Or do you have a different motivation entirely? I’d love to hear your thoughts…….