The Genteel
January 17, 2021

Best Kept Secrets

Le Labo fragrances. Source:
Le Labo perfumes paris

From the garlicky Gallic to Pepé Le Pew, Anglo culture has imposed a myriad of stinky stereotypes on the French for centuries - despite perfume being of utmost importance to the French since the 17th century. Today, wearing perfume is perceived as sexy and seductive, stamping the wearer with a personal signature. In the wake of celebrity fragrances and market domination by large fashion houses, is it still possible to sport a scent that truly is one's own? 

Having worn the same perfume for years, I've been thinking that it's time for a change. But, where to start? I wanted a scent that reflected who I am today; a unique mark that would be instantly recognisable to those who smelled it: "yes, that's Chere…" I've been living in Paris for over a year now and have become aware of the many unusual perfumeries in and around the city.

My first stop was Le Labo in St Germain. The shop looks very much like an apothecary, with generic white-labelled, brown bottles lining old wood shelves. Although the feel of Le Labo suggested that scents could be custom blended, in fact, all perfumes here have been pre-created by the company's "noses," who have categorised all scents into three main groups: spicy, floral or woody. They are, however, prepared freshly in the shop for each customer, which a spokeswoman of the shop assured me would guarantee the "freshness of the perfume, especially its more delicate notes." Le Labo perfumes come with a personalised label with the name of the scent, name of the wearer and date of purchase, but the labelling is about as bespoke as the perfumes here get.

 Beyond his prodigious talent, [Kurkdjian] is also known for having a rather quirky sense of humour: he filled the fountains of Versailles with scented bubbles, and agreed to create "the scent of money" for an art installation by Sophie Calle.

Still, I thought, at least the brand  - founded in March 2006 by Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot - is far less ubiquitous than the big fashion houses. Perhaps it would be worth buying a bottle? Some of the scents were quite lovely, from the seductive, softly feminine Jasmine 17 to the more potent, woody Oud 27. I contemplated purchasing the paradoxically feminine yet masculine Rose 31, but then realised this journey had just begun...better to sample more wares than to choose from the first ones under my nose!

My next stop was also in St Germain, this time to a jeweller's: Herve Domar. Domar worked with Catherine Disdet and Pierre Dinand, two of the noses behind Drom Fragrances, to help him produce a series of perfumes to commemorate his 20 years in the jewellery business. Each scent is meant to reflect the primal, intuitive feeling exuded by a gemstone. For example, Tanzanite is rich with clove notes; Sapphire sparkles with lilies, and Black Diamond celebrates a powdery fusion of amber and incense.

These are not bespoke fragrances, but bijou, produced in small quantities with an eye for quality - packaging is minimalist, in glass flacons, with a tiny jewel floating in each bottle to identify the scent. Moreover, I was told by the very charming Agnes working at Herve Domar, "Only natural ingredients are used. Mr Domar is very passionate about what he does and ensures only the best ingredients are blended in each bottle." Initially, I worried that all "natural" would mean the power of the perfume would quickly dissipate, but after taking some samples of Black Diamond and White Diamond home, I found the cut rose fragrance of the latter stayed fresh for several hours, and the non-chemical ingredients didn't provoke the whisper of a headache I get from most commercial scents.

Just beyond St Germain, across the Seine, lies Maison Francis Kurkdjian. Francis Kurkdjian is renowned in the world of perfume not only for his attentive bespoke services, but also for being behind the instantly recognisable scent of Jean-Paul Gaultier's Le Male, which he created in 1995 when he was only 25. Since then, he has created some of the world's best known commercial fragrances, including Eau Noire for Dior, Narciso Rodriguez's For Her, and Acqua di Parma's Iris Nobile. Beyond his prodigious talent, he is also known for having a rather quirky sense of humour: he filled the fountains of Versailles with scented bubbles, and agreed to create "the scent of money" for an art installation by Sophie Calle.

Chez Kurkdjian, one can most certainly create a scent that perfectly reflects the wearer, giving her a unique sillage - literally, "a vapour trail," or the ghost of a scent that lingers once the wearer has passed. Not only that, but I was told by a salesperson that couples often come in to commemorate anniversaries and weddings by creating scents that complement each other. A romantic idea indeed, but one that is far from new. Apparently, before his coronation in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned master perfumer Francois Rance to create two exclusive scents: one for himself and one for his wife, Josephine. He requested that the perfumes be designed so that when the couple were together, Josephine's fragrance would dominate, but when the couple were intimate, the two scents would merge to form a singularly delicious one.

Francis Kurkdjian perfume
Francis Kurkdjian. Source:

Kurkdjian is happy to fill these or any other requests. The perfumier offers dozens of oils, both natural and synthetic, from which clients can choose, and once blended, the newly born fragrance is exclusively copyrighted - all for the bargain price of 8,000 euros. This may seem steep, but I was gently informed by an employee at the shop that bespoke services at large perfume houses like Dior and Guerlain also exist, but prices start at 30,000 Euros and go much further beyond, depending on the ingredients chosen.

With far less than four figures to spend on my own scent, I continued the quest for something a little bit different, if not completely bespoke. Back in St Germain, I encountered Frederic Malle's Editions de Parfums. Malle sees himself as a kind of editor or curator of scent, selecting the best fragrances created by an international team of renowned noses. The shop takes its products seriously, and rather than spraying perfume on little cardboard strips, customers are encouraged to stick their heads in what looks like a glass body pod. This isolates the scent from others in the shop and allows customers to have a clear sense of the distinct symphony of notes that comprise each perfume.

After being asked which base notes I prefer, a salesperson suggested that Le Parfum de Thérèse would be best for me. This was once a bespoke fragrance, created in the 1950s by Edmond Roudnitska for his wife, but today anybody can enjoy the fruity tangerine and melon that fade to plum and rose, with underlying hints of leather and Vetiver. Whilst this scent was rich and unlike almost anything I'd ever smelled before, it did give me a bit of a headache.

Etat Libre d'Orange Sensations Magnifique

My final stop was a bit further beyond the 6th arrondissment, and you could say, beyond anything I'd seen thus far, at Etat Libre d'Orange in the Marais. In keeping with the libertine spirit of the neighbourhood, this shop specialises in perfumes with mischievous notes and naughty names, including Putain des Palaces ("Palace Slut"), Delicious Closet Queen and Secretions Magnifique. The latter is described as evoking the scent of "blood, sweat, semen and saliva" and claims that "this disturbing perfume is an ode to the pinnacle of sexual pleasure, that extraordinary moment when desire triumphs over reason."

In a way, Etat Libre d'Orange's outré claims were refreshing; after all, isn't scent ultimately all about primitive attraction? About the intimacy of smelling skin up close; of earth and decay and hair and soap? Maybe my own sillage was the best bespoke scent I could ever get.



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