The best kind of writing stems from passion so deep it becomes infectious. Rachel Syme, whose 2015 piece on the selfie is one of my favourite (and most referenced) essays, knows how to excite you about something purely because she's passionate about it.
Case in point: I bit the bullet and ordered eight perfume samples after reading her NYT piece on animalic fragrances. Then I ordered a further 10 after reading The Dry Down, a newsletter Syme and Helena Fitzgerald co-write.
Over the last two weeks I've paid repeat visits to the fragrance section at every MECCA store within arm's reach, and sniffed samples until I grew nauseous. I'm keeping notes on everything I catch a whiff off, but that hasn't stopped me from talking everyone around me into a headache. I quickly learned that nobody likes you enough to justify smelling the perfume on your wrist before you ramble about it for the next five minutes. In fact, they'll often tell you, politely or otherwise, to go away.
If anything has come of this, I've opened my eyes to a world I hadn't considered before. I'm still new to perfume but I wanted to share some of the scents that have been, for better or for worse, driving me crazy. I encourage you to try anything that tickles your fancy.
A Contemporary Classic
Floriental, Comme des Garçons
Unisex fragrances are in no short supply, but few are able to strike a perfect balance between archetypal masculinity and femininity the way Floriental does. It's a spicy floral scent in the truest sense; neither side overpowers, but the two melt into an overall sweet but never saccharine aroma. Though not as creative or boundary-pushing as a Kawakubo collection, Floriental is a contemporary classic for anyone — familiar and inoffensive, but unique enough to intrigue.
Bell'Antonio, Hilde Soliani
This smoky number from Hilde Soliani's theatre-inspired fragrance line has only two notes: coffee and tobacco. Worn on the skin, Bell'Antonio is oddly enchanting; there's a faint sweetness to it, but for the most part it smells strong and organic. I love Bell'Antonio because it conjures very intimate memories. It smells like a secondhand scent, as if you're smelling the coffee and tobacco as remnants on an old sweater. The fragrance itself is devoted to Soliani's father, and it reminds a lot of people of their grandfathers. I can't imagine most people would want to smell like tobacco, or old men for that matter, but this is an interesting introduction to tobacco fragrances that, on the right person, can conjure vivid emotions.
Light + Fresh
Aqua Universalis, Maison Francis Kurkdjian
You should never judge a book by its cover, nor a fragrance by its bottle, but I have to start by noting that a Kurkdjian perfume is a thing of beauty right from the start. My encounter with Aqua Universalis was fleeting but it left a lasting impression. If you want to smell clean — squeaky clean, as if you were just washed and hung out to dry — this is the scent for you. Fresh, citrusy and floral, this unisex scent is bright and inoffensive — textbook office-appropriate. Compared to the other fragrances in this list, it's unremarkable, but it works, and it works so well that it deserves recognition. And it lives up to its name; it really is universally suitable.
Side note: if you're looking for something so light you almost can't tell it exists, OdeJo's single eponymous scent, which comes in an EDT and rollerball oil form, gets an honourable mention as the perfect summer scent for people who hate perfume. It smells like cucumber water, which is a plus if you're trying to convince people you're on a juice cleanse or something.
Dark + Mysterious
Bass Solo, The Vagabond Prince
Often the inspiration behind a perfume isn't olfactory, but rather the result of some other sensory experience. Floriental, for example, was inspired by a flower with no scent of its own. Bass Solo, a recent release from The Vagabond Prince, draws its inspiration from an African tree whose dense timber is used to create musical instruments. Bass Solo is, like its musical namesake, dense and dry. There's a slight saltiness to it, intermingled with zesty and spicy notes of lime, cardamom and lavender that keep this woody fragrance from smelling like two-by-four. Somehow, Bass Solo is an infinitely more appealing, refined version of that standard men's aftershave smell I've never been able to stand.
Zoologist is the line that sparked my newfound infatuation with fragrance. Try to imagine an animal-inspired perfume without suddenly becoming very curious. Bat was one of the first scents I tried and I'll be upfront: it's nauseating. It smells of wet, overripe fruit, with 'furry musk' and leather notes that call to mind an actual bat. It mellows after a while, but it's polarising. Bat is unlike anything I've ever smelled, and worth trying just for the olfactory experience, though I wouldn't rush to buy a full bottle.
Civet is different. It's warm, rich and sweet — altogether more wearable than Bat, though I can't emphasise enough that this is rich. It's a spicy floral that the brand aptly describes as sultry and moody. Civet skews feminine (if you care about that sort of thing) but its complexity evades the trappings of binary gender. Wear this on a night out in winter and the scent will envelop you like a warm hug.
Chances are at least one of the Zoologist eaux des parfums will click with you. I would recommend trying their full range sample set like I did, before you consider upgrading to a travel- or full-size bottle.
A Classic with Character
Oud Immortel, Byredo
Oud is very big in the middle east, and it's become something of a fad note in perfume. Byredo's Oud Immortel shakes things up with a unique limoncello note. It opens bright and citrusy, but soon settles into a melange of smokier, earthy notes, the likes of which have become a signature of sorts for the brand. Oud scents may be a fad in western perfumery, but this oud's unique character ensures it is, indeed, immortal.