Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!
For an industry built on playing with your emotions, there is a puzzling lack of intimacy in many of today's fragrances. We've become accustomed to selling and buying scents as a form of identity aspiration — I wear, therefore I am. A small subset of perfumers, however, have been signaling a shift recently. Rather than fragrances developed to generate an emotional response, this new crop of scents is meant to pick you up and plop you right in the heart of a place — I wear, therefore I'm there.
Think of it like a scented snapshot that transports the wearer into the heart of the city (or garden, or club, or street, or… well, you get the idea) that it's meant to evoke. "Scents inspired by a location can transport you to a specific place and a moment in time and what was experienced there," says Ben Gorham, the brains behind fashionable fragrance darling Byredo.
While expedition eaux may take their cues from a very exacting map, that doesn't mean there isn't room for individual flair. Just as Cobble Hill has a different energy than Harlem, and Paris is no Provence, so too does each perfumer draw upon different experiences to craft their perfume vacations.
Nick Steward, formerly of L'Artisan Parfumeur and current founder and creative director behind the globetrotting Gallivant brand, zeroed in on four distinct cities — Brooklyn, London, Istanbul, Tel Aviv — all of which he describes as both familiar and alien to him. He notes that while there have been attempts at travel perfume in the past, he feels they have been too romanticized and, in many ways, pretentious. "It's a bit naff, really — 'dream' places that I'm not interested in going to," he laments.
Instead, he drew upon things like "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys for London, drinking negronis and walking around Park Slope in May for Brooklyn, bustling Istanbul's gateway to the Middle East vibe, and the white Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv.
Another prime example of this movement is Maison Margiela's Replica collection. Launched in 2012, the scents "evoke well-known images, specific places, or a special moment," explains Marie Salamagne, the Firmenich perfumer behind the line's Beach Walk and By The Fireplace juices.
According to Louise Turner, the Givaudan perfumer who devised Replica's At The Barber's, formulating a destination scent is a more structured process. "When the fragrance is based on a location, I know straight away the directions that I have to follow," she explains. "Therefore my focus will be in recreating this space in the most truthful way possible. For a non-location based scent my focus will be more free as what I'm trying to represent olfactively are the emotions that recall a specific situation."
That's not to say these scents are strictly about the physical. Salamagne explains that she's trying to evoke a sense of attachment with her scents, fond feelings for a place or time. "I need to exactly remember the emotions I perceived to best translate them into a scent. Every single detail is crucial to help me remain true to the exact emotion." With traditional signature fragrances, however, Salamagne notes that her inspirations are abstract memories. "I feel free to reinterpret them and craft new emotions. I may play with abstract ideas and let my creativity flow naturally," she says.
As Gorham and Salamagne alluded to, these types of scents can also spotlight a particular place in time, which is exactly what Gorham aimed for with Velvet Haze, Byredo's newest launch. "I have gotten really into rock climbing in the last few years and spent some time studying the rock climbing communities of 1960s California," he explains. "Velvet Haze is a focus on nature and the environment. It's playful and uplifting — there is an airiness and a lightness to it."
While these fragrance freeze frames all sound well and good, the question remains of how exactly brands are communicating this concept to consumers, who are used to being sold to with fragrance as an identity (are you sexy or romantic? Free-spirited or sophisticated? A rebel or a classic?), something online brands like Pinrose and Scentbird, each of which offers a personality quiz perfume finder, literally bank on. Steward asserts that travel perfumes are actually easier for consumers to "get."
"I fear most consumers really struggle to identify notes in perfumery. So I'm not a fan of talking the language of ingredient lists, as it just baffles people," he explains. "Instead, I'm trying to conjure up a vibe and a city story that people can identify with, even if they've never been to the places."
Steward notes that there is plenty of opportunity for this subset to grow (which he is already seeing evidence of), especially as the demand for transparency and clear storytelling becomes more standard in the industry. "[Consumers] are looking for something more original, not what everyone else is wearing — which clearly mirrors what's happened in a lot of other sectors, where people are interested in the materials and back-story."
With more scents in the works — Steward launches Amsterdam and Berlin this month, while Margiela has a music-festival-set fragrance on the books for end of this year — it's safe to say there are plenty more opportunities for olfactive tourism. "You're always looking for new ideas, continuously searching for things whenever you come to a new environment. Wherever you find different smells you're always thinking, how could I reproduce this?" notes Turner. "Every journey is a new opportunity."
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