I remembered the Maison Margiela perfume display at Charles de Gaulle as comprised of postcards, but they are actually faux Polaroid snapshots: even more emblematic. Two tiered marble shelves curve around the countertop with sunken perfume samples before upright ‘photographs’. A white Fuji Instax camera nestles between the minimalist bottles, reminding you, lest you miss the themes, of photography and construction, of the pull between vintage and contemporary.
The clichés are filtered, lit and cropped for uniform appeal while offering the promise of personalisation and aspiration: a nude back before the ocean or tucked in white sheets, sunsets and foliage-framed shots. White borders invite inscription, notes of time and place to complete the instant and make it your own.
If you examine the labels, everything falls in to place: ‘REPLICA. Reproduction of familiar scents and moments of varying locations and periods’. The names speak not of fragrance but of states of being, or destinations or occasions, that correspond with the picture: By the Fireplace, Sailing Day, At the Barber’s, Lipstick On. ‘Provenance and Period’ comes before fragrance description on the label, reaching for the abstract with a Proustian flair. Funfair Evening is from Santa Monica, 1994, Promenade from Oxfordshire, 1986. Here, you don’t just buy the perfume. You buy the experience it evokes and adopt the memory for yourself.
Though I would never buy perfume in an airport or train station. It would always make me think of leaving and loss… absence instead of presence.
Or consider: presence in absence. She took me in her arms to say goodbye. When I left, my coat smelled like her, and her perfume bloomed in the cold air on the way to Port Royal. It is hard not to wax poetic.
My psychology professor on Miss Dior: ‘Dior worried that they weren’t appealing to you. Because of course you don’t care if your perfume is French; you just want something that you like. So they hired Natalie Portman to be their face and then they changed their recipe’.
This is true. I don’t care if my perfume is French. I wrote fledgling essays about Coco Chanel and Marie Antoinette’s scented gloves, and the first perfume I remember is my grandmother’s bottle of Jean Patou Joy. But I care so much more about what a perfume does for me than about its aura or provenance. Perhaps it’s hard to believe, but being French isn’t everything.
But while others in Rennes were learning the subjunctive, my language teacher had us read Süskind’s Le parfum. Years later in Paris, I filled a paper bag with mirabelles and thought of Jean-Baptiste. If you could make a perfume that smells the way a mirabelle – or better, a Reine Claude – tastes, that would be very good.
Back in Paris the next year, I bought two bottles of Atelier Cologne perfume: clementine for me, some kind of absinthe apéro for my mom. I don’t know if she liked it, but for me it was all part of the story I tell myself of my life, an assemblage of confected happenings and prefabricated, gold-plated memories.
Imagine getting a box of absinthe perfume directly from Paris. The vision itself is the idea-analogue of the gift box I sent, wrapped up in mental ribbons. Truly: it is the thought that counts.
For my part, I loved my clementine perfume. The bottle fit perfectly in my hand; I used it every day, with rose oil inside my wrists. I ran out a year later.
What about loyalty? What about having signature objects? Instead of replacing my clementine perfume, I tried Kabuki Blanche by Byredo. Top notes: aldehyde, pink pepper, white rose. Heart: neroli, peony, violet. Base: blonde wood, musk, sandalwood. Over a year later, I still don’t recognise it. It is a powder in a black stick that you brush on. I miss the feeling of the bottle in my hand, the crisp mist that lets me feel the perfume and not just its applicator, the bite of clementine in the air just like the spray of oil when you peel an orange.
Before coming to London, I spent a twilight month back in New York. I moved from apartment to apartment, admired different modes of living, tried on my best friend’s makeup so that I too could have shimmering eyelids and jasmine-scented pulse points. I didn’t even ask if I could: I went and bought my own, a little pot of persimmon-y pink balm. When my brother mentioned on 155th a craving for jasmine milk tea, I knew he could smell my perfume, magnified in the tropical city heat.
Anonymous but highly personalised, elegant but base and bodied. How intimate perfume is. It is a ready-made product until the consumer turns it bespoke. I am the final chemical element, and when you smell my perfume, you don’t just smell the eau de parfum – you smell me, the way it has reacted to my skin and my heat in particular. There is that exchange when women embrace, approach and slot in to place. Perfume is worn behind the ears, on the sides of the neck. Right where faces rest and lips brush: faire la bise. What else worn has so little to do with the boundaries of the body? We absorb one another, particles mingling.
You impose yourself on the world, you and your perfume. And while I love the idea of signature belongings as my own uniquely resonant significant forms, it is just as thrilling to consider being recognised. I want to make a sensory impression; I want to linger. I want the sharp spray of clementine to announce, evoke and recall me. This requires discipline and, indeed, loyalty. I should know better than to try Byredo Blanche… or Chloé Eau de Parfum, which I would very much like but resisted getting last week in Paris – at the Gare du Nord, of all places.
Perfume is so personal and unpredictable that I’d hardly think to select it for someone else. But what a power play. Give your perfume to someone you love: an aromatic love potion. Tread carefully, and give it to your enemy: remake her in your own scent.
If I ever give you perfume, wear it, and know that I have designs on your soul.
All photos taken by the author.