Sunday, 28 November 2010

Persolaise The Personal Shopper

For the last week or so I've been playing the role of perfume consultant for a very close relative who'd like me to buy him a bottle of something for his birthday. The experience has been great fun, but it's also raised all the familiar issues of subjectivity and the difficulty of finding a shared vocabulary of scent.

I decided pretty much straight away - for several practical reasons - that for this particular birthday boy, I'd focus my attention on État Libre D'Orange. He said he liked the idea of wearing something smoky, so we started with a sample of Jasmin Et Cigarette.

"Urrgh," he immediately exclaimed, "that's got that cat stuff in it!"

It took me less than a moment to realise that his mind had taken him straight back to an evening when he was mildly traumatised by the contents of a bottle in my lab... a bottle containing some synthetic civet.

"That's probably the jasmine you're smelling," I said. "It's quite animalic, which makes it similar to the civet in some ways."

"Yeah, whatever. It stinks!"

I thought we ought to try smokiness of a different sort, so I reached for my vial of Fat Electrician.

"It's... interesting," he said, "but... I don't know... it's sort of spicy... but not in a good way. I don't mind spicy, but not this sort of spicy."

"It's not exactly spicy. What you're smelling is vetivert, which has a smoky, woody, grassy, sweaty feel to it."

"I don't want to smell of sweat!"

"No, no, it doesn't exactly smell of sweat, but it has a sort of sweaty aspect."

"No. It's spicy. And I don't like it. What's next?"

I decided to lighten things up a little with Antihéros.

His response was immediate. "No way! That's horrible. What is that stuff?"

"You tell me. Try to describe it."

"It's horrible."

"It makes you think of old ladies, right?"

"Old ladies? Why?"

"Because it's basically a lavender. And the usual English response to lavender is to say that it smells of old ladies."

"I don't know about old ladies, but I don't like it."

I had to consider my next move carefully: head further into conservative territory or change direction completely? I opted for the former with Je Suis Un Homme.

"Umm... that's not bad," he said, "is it... is it lemony?"

"Yup, well done, it's got a very strong citrus aspect to it. Do you like it?"

"I'm not sure. I don't think so, to be honest. It's a bit... a bit ordinary, maybe?"

"Okay, fine. How about this?" I reached for Secret Weapon #1: Rien.

"Woah, that's good!" He closed his eyes and breathed in for several moments. "That's really spicy. And Arabic! I like that."

"Arabic? Why?"

"I don't know. It just is." The borderlines of his olfactory landscape were becoming increasingly clear: citrus was pleasant but boring; strong florals were stinky; smoky woods were spicy in the wrong way; but leathery spices got the green light because his memories of growing up in the Middle East made him read them as exotic and exciting.

"Okay," I said, "so if you like that one, how about this?" I handed him Secret Weapon #2: Tom Of Finland.

"Wow! That's excellent! That's even more Arabic. It's... really spicy."

"And woody?" I wondered if he'd detect the saffron-sandalwood accord.

"I don't know. It's just... Arabic, I guess. I don't know if it's woody. What does woody mean, anyway?"

I tried to explain, but in the end we decided it would be easier if I just gave him all the samples so that he could wear them to work and 'live with them' for a while.

After a few days he decided that although Rien was his favourite, he wouldn't be able to wear it very often because all his colleagues had found it too overpowering. Despite my attempts to persuade him to stick to his guns, he decided to go for what he saw as the safer - but still suitably 'Arabic' - option: Tom Of Finland.

Mission accomplished.

To conclude, I should reveal that he still doesn't know the real names of any of the perfumes he was trying: I presented them to him anonymously in order to prevent any influence caused by images of white petals, obese maintenance men etc. So when he opens his present next week and sees the packaging in all its glory, I wonder whether he'll still find it Arabic... or woody?



  1. Great anecdote, you made me smile! It's not easy being a personal shopper, is it?? Tom of Finland seems to be a success with so many people, I have to smell it someday....Still, you didn't have him test Secretions Magnifiques??

  2. Marla, NO, I most certainly did not release my sample of Secretions Magnifiques from its hermetic seal! Besides, I think I'd already inflicted it on this particular relative at some point in the past.

    And yes, I quite like Tom Of Finland too: the sandalwood drydown is very convincing.

  3. You're great at being a personal perfume shopper! And that image you posted is hilarious!

  4. Frida, thanks very much... and I'm glad you like the picture.

  5. Great post Persolaise. Very funny! I wonder what your friend would have made of Vierges & Toreros with its weird Leather, burnt something or other and tuberose!?

  6. Michael, thanks very much. I suspect he wouldn't have like the tuberose. Actually, he'll be opening his presents in about three hours. Can't wait to see his reaction...

  7. This is hilarious! Especially the last line. :) I love Tom of Finland's art, but I have to admit, was previously ignorant of a fragrance existing until now. I think you should go around to all of your family members to choose fragrances for them, and document it for us all to read. Too lofty?

  8. Carrie, thanks very much. If my next perfume consultation produces such amusing results, I promise I'll come back and write about it ;-)

  9. Absolutely hilarious and much enjoyed!! I have gone through similar phases with friends and clients.
    It's always illuminating to ME as well as the person getting the consultation. And Tom of Finland...Arabic. And woody. Man! :-)

  10. Perfumeshrine, thanks for writing. You can see what he means by 'Arabic' though, can't you? The safraleine and the sandalwood create a decidedly Middle Eastern feel.

  11. You see, this is funny, because I myself I have a similar experience lately:-) Now that vetiver is mentioned, I can imagine that there is an amount of olfactory memories that mix in our emotions when we smell a perfume eyes closed. Ah, the Middle East is too much attached to my emotions, that is why...

    Beautiful and great post.winks

  12. Vintage Lady, you're absolutely right. Our olfactory memories play a massive role in the way we respond to perfumes.

  13. That last line made me giggle! I adore Tom of Finland - over the summer, last year, Harvey Nichols had a massive sale of TOF, because they stopped carrying the ELdO range. I managed to get 2 bottles at £10 each! (Now I wish I had stocked up more...)

    ELdO is amazing - I received a bottle of Tilda Swinton Like This for Christmas and have given it my hand in marriage. It's stunning. Would so love to try Rien, too - I've had my eye on that one for a while.

  14. Jaacq, now that's what I call a discount.

    I'm generally a fan of ELdO too, although I don't personally own or wear any of their perfumes. I suppose I respond to their irreverent, anti-establishment vibe.


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