At first sniff
An evocative take on the power of perfume by the late Wolf Hall author HILARY MANTEL, which first appeared in Vogue in 2009
dmg media (UK)
In any department store in January there is a reliably comic sight – buyers trying to choose discounted perfumes by sniffing the necks of the spray bottles. Scent makes sense on skin, and only on skin. Why are we such fools about fragrance? Led on by lush advertising, seduced by editorial gush in magazines dependent on their advertisers, we abandon natural discrimination and distrust our own noses. Scents are not so much objects as performances, processes, but we lack a process for appraising them. Book critics can be savagely partisan, opera critics sniffy, and film critics make you choose to stay at home. Could you review a scent as you review these art forms? Yes, I would argue. One word, for example, would sum up Beckham Signature: illiterate. Mitsouko [by Guerlain] would need a volume of essays. Where do they lurk, the perfume critics? There are scent blogs on the internet, often well informed. But most bloggers write carelessly, and, in such a subjective matter, some precision is needed. Hope for the enthusiast arrived late last year  with Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. The authors are in love with the subject, but they are sharp and funny. What women have always wanted to know is what scent drives men wild; researchers have the answer, say Turin and Sanchez, and it’s bacon. Picking up the cue, Burger King launched Flame, a body spray that smells of ‘flame-broiled meat’. If this Christmas you were given Daisy by Marc Jacobs, you’ll find it a pretty, amenable floral, the kind of scent that people describe as ‘very nice’. But narrow your eyes and ask yourself this: why do they see you as the kind of woman who wants a bottle with three plasticky flowers on top? Do they think you’re sweet but not very bright? Compare it with Stella Mccartney’s Stella Rose Absolute, which is, admittedly, more expensive. You could buy this scent for someone you don’t know well; that’s not faint praise. Its dark, chunky bottle could hold an expensive men’s fragrance; it has a gentle citrus drift that cuts through sweetness, and a light amber note for balance; it’s a lovely summery scent that doesn’t layer a persona over your own, just makes you pleasant to be around. It’s modern, fresh and natural; it gives rose enthusiasts enough to think about, but won’t alienate less floral types. I didn’t much want to like it; what’s Stella to me, I say, with the world-weary shrug of one who’s nearer in age to her father. But that’s why we buy scent, to meet our younger selves, or older selves, or the selves we could be. So I can know I’m grown up at last, I want to like scents from houses who were making them when I was a girl and only had the personality and the cash for Apple Blossom. Estée Lauder’s Sensuous startles me at first with dolly-mixture sugar, then a fleshy rush of premature intimacy. Thirty minutes, and woody notes creep through, bringing an enticing memory of peeping into the wardrobes of elegant ladies; and no, the note isn’t mothballs. Perhaps it needs a bit of body heat to potentiate it – it has to work hard on a misty winter day – but three hours on, it shows surprising stamina, and it’s spicy, interesting and adult, which is just what I want from Estée Lauder. And if there’s something here that still doesn’t convince, perhaps my own skin is to blame? It’s said that parfumeurs have stabilised their formulations so that they don’t vary, except in their top notes, from skin to skin, but you may have every reason not to believe them. Comme des Garçons 888: do the designers mean to unleash this bully, that slaps you around the head with a big blast of coriander? With wear, its manners become milder. But still, this is what to give someone if you mean to be remembered and don’t care how. The creators say they wanted to produce the olfactory equivalent of gold, but how they get from concept to the substance itself is a mystery. It will suit someone; I’m happy to meet her, after her Asbo is lifted. Perhaps I’m unfair. In eight hours of wear – which is what you really need to be sure – I might accommodate it. But equally, it might eat me. Who’s in charge here? It’s a question scent raises often. Are you wearing it, or is it stalking you? Will it faithfully follow you everywhere? Unscrewing the surprisingly frail plastic cap of Prada No 3 Cuir Ambre, I say to myself with a big happy smile, a dog is not just for Christmas, a dog is for life. You don’t wear this, it pursues you; it’s a gorgeous, insistent, leather scent with amber notes, smokily soft. It comes in a small nondescript bottle, its white label has small black type, it’s plain as you like; it has no sprayer, because you’re going to put this on drop by drop, learn it and learn to live up to it. You could perhaps mistake it for other leather scents, but what you couldn’t mistake is its pedigree and its expense. If you can’t afford it, just test it; you’ll remember, and maybe add it to the ingredients of a better life. Perfumes like this reorient us when life is grey. The ideal scent keeps the wearer interested, evolves with him or her; you can’t ‘solve’ it in one go like the plot of a bad detective novel. You need a perfect structure, like Chanel No 5, to keep you safe; and then from time to time you need to subvert expectations, with something that cuts against your style and even your gender. Scent is a demanding art. It privileges what is subjective, skin-close. So, seek out what no one else is wearing. Keep a notebook. Scrub off your mistakes. New year is a time for experiment, redefinition, and perfume is a fine place to start.