The fifteen students of my intensive course for the London College of Fashion, “Decoding Fragrance”, had a single point in common: their love of perfume. Other than that, the sheer diversity was bewildering.
They came from all over the world: the UK, obviously, but also France, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Germany, Jordan, Belgium, Spain by way of the Netherlands or Brazil by way of South Africa… Their level ranged from hardcore perfume aficionados to people taking their first steps in the world of fragrance. They worked in finance, communication, marketing, perfumery and the media; there was a Pilates instructor, a nurse, an architect, an artist, a few students. Their ages ranged from 20 to 55, and a few of them had travelled thousands of miles to attend the course.
Daunting doesn’t even begin to cover it. I was delighted to have people of such varied origins since their range of olfactory references would be extremely diverse. But to engage so many different levels and ages seemed like quite a challenge… until I realized or rather, until my students made me realize that at any level, smells can speak to you, and with a bit of vocabulary provided, you can speak about smells.
Vocabulary was exactly where I started out. The first day was dedicated to the words of perfume: not only the verbal ones, but also “smell-words”, the raw materials being nouns with a trail of adjectives, their facets. We “blind-smelled” real things to activate the link between smells, memories and words; we linked those real things to materials that smell of them. We created olfactory illusions with two or three materials; we “decomposed” jasmine into its most salient molecules. Then we linked materials together by their common facets in an olfactory daisy chain that provided the first notions of the syntax perfumers use to organize their smell-words. Finally, we explored an array of perfumes in which we could find bits of the daisy chain.
The second day was also about words, but this time the words were stories and history. Rather than zip through over a century of perfume history, I’d decided to focus on the decades when most templates were conceived, the 10s and 20s, and on a parallel between François Coty and Jacques Guerlain, as well as a case study of Chanel N°5. To help the students envision the context in which those great classics were composed and worn, I also provided elements of the social, sartorial and artistic trends of the time. In our last exercise, we studied the fruity chypre across the decades, from its birth with Mitsouko to its latest iterations in the 21st century.
For the third day, I skipped over 80 years of perfumery, straight into the past decade, with a study of recent concepts, mainly “anti-perfumes”, the use of strange or ugly notes and perfumes as evocations of times or places rather than as an extension of personality… This was followed by a spotlight on three authors, Jean-Claude Ellena, Bertrand Duchaufour and Mathilde Laurent, all of whom have generously contributed their time to help me understand their creative process, their aesthetics and the structure of their compositions, as well as generous samples. Jean-Claude Ellena also graciously authorized the reproduction of his classification of aromatic materials, from his book Que Sais-je? Le Parfum, in the hand-out…
There's no way to sum up everything that happened during that course: the insights, the olfactory epiphanies, the beautiful things that people said about perfumes. In that scent-laden atmosphere, I could see eyes light up, lips moves as though someone was about to speak – but she was just formulating a thought to herself; the excited hum as scent strips were passed around and discussed; the crowding around the table were my samples were spread out when, at the end of the day, I’d allow everyone to spray themselves to their heart’s content.
The last hour was a round-up of everyone’s top five of the scents studied over those three days. Vintage Emeraude, Shocking and Mitsouko got votes; Le Parfum de Thérèse came up a winner; L’Eau Serge Lutens and Comme des Garçons Series 6 Synthetic: Soda were quoted by South-East Asian students, the first for its clean magnolia note, the other for its perky citrus fizziness. If I’d had bottles of Penhaligon’s Amaranthine for sale, I’d have moved at least half a dozen. Christophe Laudamiel and Della Chuang’s Kyoteau, an olfactory evocation of the city, won enough suffrages for me to hope it gets commercialized soon in the full-sized bottles designed by Della. Osmanthe Yunan and Vetiver Tonka from the Hermessences collection, La Treizième Heure from Cartier’s Heures de Parfum also gathered several votes.
But the real surprise came from L’Artisan Parfumeur’s cumin and civet-laden Al Oudh: the two men of the course, a Thai and a Frenchman, both said they’d get it for themselves; three young women, two Chinese and one Vietnamese, said they’d get it for their boyfriends… And there we were, thinking the Asian market was all about fruity florals! They got positively frisky about the dirty notes. Mind you, they had the right teacher… It’s all about pedagogy, isn’t it? One participant, who’d basically come along to keep her sister-in-law company, walked away saying: “You’ve completely turned round the way I think about perfume”.
I consider my mission accomplished.
Now that the pressure’s over and I’m rewinding the film, I can’t even begin to say how much I enjoyed doing this course, thanks to the active and generous way everyone engaged – and lent me a hand when I had technical glitches, such as running out of scent strips into day two… Some of them actually fanned out into the neighboring stores and stoles great wads of them; others cut them up into smaller strips, while others yet counted them out in piles of 16.
My deepest thanks to all of you: Dala, Yuanyuan, Winni, Naomi, Sultana, Kayla, Olga, Antje, Katia, Jacqui, Selina, Isabella, “Ali Baba” and Litwine. I mean it about Paris!
And a special mention for Florian Pedemanaud, whom most perfume aficionados in London have met at Les Senteurs, the city’s premier multi-brand niche shop: he is setting up as a scent stylist. Should anyone need advice on putting together a fragrance wardrobe or finding a new signature perfume, he’s the man to ask. Just email me at graindemusc at gmail dot com and I’ll give you his contact, or seek him out at the Frédéric Malle corner at Liberty’s.
I’d also like to thank the following people and companies.
For their support, advice and precious time: Mathilde Laurent, Bertrand Duchaufour, Isabelle Doyen and Céline Ellena.
For donating raw materials: Francis Thibaudeau of Robertet for the natural essences and absolutes; Angela Stavrevska of CPL Aromas UK for the synthetic materials; Julien Lévy of Osmoz.com for the Les Coulisses du Parfum coffrets.
For donating perfumes: Guerlain, Hermès, Chanel, Cartier and L’Artisan Parfumeur.
For authorizing the reproduction of a portion of his book: Jean-Claude Ellena.
Above all, I have a debt of gratitude to my favourite teacher, the perfumer and perfume historian Octavian Coifan (1000fragrances) and to Basia Szutnicka, Study Abroad Director at the London College of Fashion: she had the idea for this course and made it happen.
At the London College of Fashion, I would also like to thank Reid Aiton, Hannah Svensson McLeod and Karin Johansson for all their time and efforts! Hannah, I will return the scissors next time!