How to Buy Perfume for Someone Else

It's a hard job, but somebody has (chosen) to do it.
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Eliza Brooke
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It's a hard job, but somebody has (chosen) to do it.
The fragrances from Le Labo. Photo: Le Labo

The fragrances from Le Labo. Photo: Le Labo

So, you want to buy your honey/mother/sister/brother/BFF a fragrance for the holidays. Great choice. While it's not the easiest thing to buy — a scent will have different emotional ties for different people, and you can already feel your nose giving up in exhaustion after smelling several dozen bottles of the stuff — the payoff of getting someone a perfume they truly love can be immense. 

To help you truly nail it, we talked to three fragrance experts to get their pro tips for buying a fragrance for someone else. First and foremost:

1. Have no fear

I could put this tenet at the bottom of this post as a heartwarming kicker, but it's going up top because it's a good guiding principle. Fragrances are a very intimate gift, and although that can make buying one for someone else seem intimidating, it's also what makes them fun and awesome. Don't get worked up by the well-circulated theory that everyone should have a signature scent that is the literal distillation of their soul. It's just perfume. People can and do have multiple, and they wear them depending on their mood or the occasion.

If your loved one has an expansive mind, this is your chance to go crazy. Frederick Bouchardy, the founder of Brooklyn's Joya, recommends buying a fragrance that's typically considered "feminine" for an adventurous man and vice versa. 

"Don't worry so much about the ingredients and just go for something unexpected —challenging, if you can find it," Bouchardy says.

2. Look at her style

How someone dresses can say a lot about her taste in perfume, says Anne Serrano-McClain of the Brooklyn-based MCMC Fragrances. Does your friend wear a lot of leather and tough jewelry? She'll probably dig a darker fragrance, like MCMC's Kept, which comprises notes of red roses, leather, clove and black tea. If she's into ladylike looks, she might appreciate a more classic rose perfume. Conventionally masculine scents with wood notes stand a good chance of appealing to someone who dips heavily into tomboyish tailoring.

3. Figure out the personality of the perfume

Stay with me here. As Isaac Wolf-Tanner, the manager of Le Labo's New York stores explains it, there's something very metaphorical about fragrances. Perfumes are designed to be way more than the sum of their ingredients. They're evocative — that's the whole reason  people get so obsessed with them. As you go sniffing around, think about how each fragrance might be personified, and whether its vibe works with that of your loved one.

4. Know what notes are polarizing

Popular as it is in home fragrances, lavender can be divisive for personal wear, Bouchardy says. Serrano-McClain expands that list to include other herbal scents, as well as perfumes with particularly spicy notes. Musks can also be a tricky buy, says Isaac Wolf-Tanner.

This isn't to say you should panic and buy the sweetest, most innocuous thing in the store (see guiding principle #1: Fearlessness). If you know your recipient is way into weird, heavy scents, run with it. If you're less confident about her taste, you might consider ruling out the most polarizing options. It's hard to go wrong with a floral or citrus.

5. ... But do consider offbeat ingredients

Let's talk about that friend with daring taste. For citrus and floral fans, Serrano-McClain is a fan of neroli, which comes from orange blossoms. If your recipient is into woody smells, then cedar, vetiver and sandalwood fall a little farther from the beaten path. 

Wolf-Tanner is also an advocate of "scary scents," like oud -- a sweet, dense, woody ingredient that also happens to be exceptionally expensive.

"Oud is terrifying," he says. "It's more intellectual. It has more subliminal, complex layers."

6. Work by process of elimination

Choosing the best fragrance for someone else can be like finding a needle in a haystack — and even then, you can never be sure it's the right needle. To make your life easier, start by eliminating fragrance categories you know won't work. Your companion hates heavy perfumes? Nix those and focus on fresher or floral scents. When you already know what won't work, you've cleared a path to finding one that does.

7. Think about the format

Fragrances come in so many forms: Sprays, roll-ons, solids, oils, lotions. Roll-ons, which allow for greater control when you're dispensing them and are often oil-based, tend to be less of a commitment, Serrano-McClain says. If you're feeling cautious, this might be a good choice.

But in Wolf-Tanner's opinion, it's better to just go all-out with the full potency, alcohol-based spray bottle and ditch the roll-ons, lotions and eau de parfums. Go big or go home, you know.

7. Go for great packaging

As Bouchardy puts it: "Packaging matters." For a number of reasons, the most obvious being that gifts are special, and you want the recipient to feel special every time he or she looks at that bottle. 

A perfume's packaging can even be helpful in the selection process. As Serrano-McClain explains, "Packaging is the visual essence of what it should smell like." So looking closely at the bottle — is it minimal? Flashy? Cutesy? — is a good way to get a read on how it's going to wear. 

8. Follow the brand

Niche fragrances may seem *cooler* than ones bearing the name of a well-known fashion label, but in Serrano-McClain view, there's no reason not to buy a scent from your loved one's favorite brand. Is she saving up for a Chanel handbag or constantly ripping Chloé advertisements out of magazines? She'd probably appreciate a bottle of Coco Mademoiselle or Roses de Chloé.

And as Bouchardy points out, "Perfumes in a duty-free shop can be just as good as ones in a niche apothecary (rare though it may be)."

10. Don't write off bestsellers

They are that for a reason. If you're completely flummoxed, ask the salesperson what the store's most popular scent is. If you're completely flummoxed but you don't want to choose a completely ubiquitous scent, maybe don't go to Sephora. Hit up a store that sells smaller labels and ask what its best sellers are.