Scent discovery has become something of a recent fascination of mine, odd because I never saw myself as a ‘fragrance person’. Maybe that’s because the fragrance experiences of my youth were really rich and over powering (Dior Poison, YSL Paris, The Body Shop Dewberry – remember those?). And also because perfume was mostly seen as a grown up, luxury pursuit and in my anti-glamorous youth, luxury was far from accessible or cool. Things changed a little in the 1990s when the gender-neutral scents of Helmut Lang, Joseph and Calvin Klein helped to round out my identity, an effortless and discreet addition to my Levis-and-Agnes-B-tee uniform. But then that was the thing, you would own one or two signature fragrances and that was it.
These days, fragrance has become a main part of the image industry that incorporates fashion, music, sport, entertainment, beauty and even art. Now we’re overwhelmed with choice and temptation – how do we choose, and how many?
This is where the changes in retail come in. To facilitate in the decision-making, perfume selling is moving away from the mass beauty hall model and the attendant commercial fragrances (and much feared tester-wielders). For the newly curious perfume connoisseur, there’s a more service-oriented offering and focus on discovery. Look at Liberty with its small but perfectly edited (and always rammed) perfume department, selling niche favourites Le Labo (below), Byredo and Frederic Malle. (Although Malle has just been snapped up by Estee Lauder so may not be so niche for long.)
Liberty’s discerning customer gravitates towards the knowledgeable staff and non-aggressive service, helped by the stream of self-education that comes from online editorial and fragrance blogs. Lesser known fragrance brands have another appeal; namely that without the huge ad campaigns of their megabrand competitors, the customer feels less prescribed to. The discovery journey feels more genuine without the brute force of advertising and branding.
But then there’s Harrods, which unveiled its Salon de Parfums to great fanfare last October. While its main ground floor perfume hall is still the bigger sales driver, on the 6th floor is Harrods’ grand 5,000 square foot niche-meets-mass scent destination. Here you have eleven custom designed fragrance boutiques for the likes of Dior, Chanel and Tom Ford, alongside Henry Jacques and Clive Christian, a.k.a the spendiest of luxury fragrance houses.
The result is an intimate setting that’s tailor-made to suit the store’s wealthy overseas clients, many of whom prefer to shop discreetly and privately. Here you find the best and the rarest that these brands have to offer. At Clive Christian, the star buy for the opening was a gold and diamond covered Baccarat crystal flacon filled with an ounce of the brand’s No. 1 perfume – a steal at £143,000. Meanwhile, I was captivated by Dior’s Musc Elixir Precieux (below), one of four highly concentrated perfume oils designed to be massaged into the skin (one small drop can linger for three days). It costs £225 for 3ml but that 3ml is presented in a very seductive and substantial, heavyweight bottle. The idea is to add your favourite Collection Privee perfume on top to make your own personal combo, a bit like a secret recipe. This sort of fragrance layering is popular with cash-rich types who don’t have six months to wait for a properly bespoke fragrance to be made.
Harrods head of beauty, Mia Collins, who masterminded the ‘Salon’, says the space is meant to encourage a conversation about fragrance and offer the sort of elevated service you might expect from a diamond jeweller. Although with the focus on huge money-spinner brands there’s an underlying feeling that these corridors of extreme luxury have almost been ‘SEO’-ed to deliver the obvious and flashiest brands, not the most interesting.
Which brings me to the Avery Perfume Gallery (below). This unusual concept lives in Avery Row, Mayfair, a standalone boutique with a personalised olfactory experience at its heart. Owned by Intertrade Group, the Italian-owned platform for contemporary artisan perfumery, it’s all about experiential retail and discovering a fragrance that you can call your own. You won’t find the likes of Chloe, DKNY or Intimately Beckham here. I loved the boutique-y feel and learning the stories behind the brands. Avery Perfume Gallery sells Nasomatto, my favourite niche brand whose owner Alessandro Gualitieri doesn’t reveal the notes or ingredients, letting the scent itself do the talking. On my discovery trip to the store (there are another eight stores globally), I was also introduced to Roads, Santa Eulalia and Re Profumo.
Roads is part of a three-pronged lifestyle brand based in Dublin that also encompasses book publishing and cinema. My favourite scent sample was ‘Harmattan’ a smoky, spice-fest, while ‘White Noise’ is a cool citrus, inspired by modern technology. All Santa Eulalia’s scents are unisex as is the modern way. (According to a recent quote by Holt Renfrew’s Wayne Peterson, gender-based marketing is old hat – why impose restrictions?) I warmed to the soft powdery notes of ‘Albis’ and the comforting sweetness of ‘Obscuro’. ‘Citric’ reminded me of A.P.C’s Orange Blossom cut with my favourite D.R Harris cologne – light and summery.
Although Avery Perfume Gallery likes the scent to dictate all, the bottles are as beautiful as the fragrances. Re Profumo presents its eau de parfums in the most handsome, majestic bottles. The brand is the brainchild of Italian writer Fulvio Fronzoni, who bases all his fragrances around a story set in Venice. Hence your bottle comes packaged in a box shaped like a book, it’s all part of the storytelling of course. All the scents I tried from Re Profumo boast an elegant Italian sexiness, from the subtle wood notes of ‘Adone’, to the punchy combination of lily, citrus and musk in ‘Sogno d’Amore’.
Fragrance shopping is a personal experience and the moment of discovery has become an important part of that experience. It’s why I would never buy a new fragrance online, although I might if I’m simply restocking. We’re also more knowledgeable and keen to learn about the craft and science behind what’s in our bottles. Thus, we’re seeing some very creative and even conceptual examples of fragrance marketing. In May, Harrods is exhibiting at the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show for the first time, installing a concept ‘Fragrance Garden’ (below). It will portray the art of perfume making on one side – all test tubes and oil extractions – with giant paper blooms ‘growing’ on the other, plus a visual digital component too. It’s an unexpected way for Harrods to market its perfume selling heritage, and a memorable one. And it’s as far from a generic department store hall as you can get.