Monday, May 4, 2009

In Which I Fragrance Consult

I don't mean professionally this time (although it has been done); this is about a spontaneous and completely monetarily-disassociated consultation with a young woman I casually met at Sephora. (Contrary to my uncanny instincts and my hard-earned experience I continue to do this sort of thing when I see an aimlessly wandering soul amidst the aisles of department stores: When will I learn??) But it's a fun little story and worth mentioning in detail to illustrate a point or two.

Sephora happened to have a 20% sale for select VIP (?) customers and yours truly was invited through a post-office delivered mail:"Only for you and only for two days, everything 20% off, blah blah blah". My default question on examining such a proposition up close is "What ISN'T discounted?" I reckon eliminating all the non-possibilities makes for an easier list than trying to retain all the discounted brands info. The one brand that features on each and every one of those "Isn't-on-sale-despite-all-others-being-so" lists is Chanel (along with -brace yourselves- Mugler and Miyake: I attribute the latter two to the extreme popularity of their bestselling perfumes in my local European market). This time the reply from the SA was rather suprising; and probably borne out of a meaningful roundtable discussion concerning the economic recession and the repurcussions on the average Sephora-maniac's purchases at some central branch office of the esteemed firm. "EVERYTHING is discounted at 20% for you, EVEN Chanel!" she emphasized. was getting rather interesting!

Intent as I was on securing any batch of older Chanel's fragrances I could find still tucked away in some of those deeeeeeep drawers full of old stock they have at Sephora I came across her: She was a slip of a girl, a very young woman in her early 20s, skin to paint a Boticelli with, natural honeyed curls in a messy cute updo, casual attire that showed some care (a military pair of trousers with a neat, khahi T-shirt and a nice white denim jacket on top). The "wall" of Chanels above me loooked particularly enticing to her and I don't really know whether the VIP invitation reverberated in her pocket as well with the dire command "use me for something good!" or not, but she seemed intent on finding a Chanel for herself. Usually I don't really pay attention and I only notice such things as an inward nod to the power of successful marketing. Someone who is obviously ignorant of how things smell at Chanel, is clearly being led by her eyes, not her nose...This time was different, though and I was soon to find out how.

Spraying a bit of Chanel No.19 on those paper strips, she instantly exclaimed "Ewww, that's AWFUL!" with such passion in her grimace that it was hard not to take notice from 10 paces away. I feel such occurences literally beg to be addressed (and not just because I love No.19 to bits) if only to show what a profound difference the whole testing experience makes when one actually tests things the proper way. So lo and behold I stretched my crouching self and replied confidentially "Oh no, that's their very best" with a tone that implied I was at the very least sharing Pentagon secrets. It was completely understandable that she belonged to a generation who had been raised on Light Blue and Burberry Brit, while her mother would be probably still wearing L'eau d'Issey, so embarking on a diatribe on the matter of good taste or art would be sorely wasted; plus it was plainfully obvious No.19 was as completely alien as if she was given to taste Pluto-dust-laced dirt-balls. After all, I don't believe good taste is a generational thing and art is too often non quantitative. So I chose not to embark on such diatribe.
Apparently the trick of laconic pronouncement caught on: She paid attention and looked at me with quizzical eyes. "You just need to give it lots of time on the skin to mellow out the bitter start, it becomes very sensuous...", I quipped with almost a wink. Thus appeased she showed some signs of recognition of someone who really appreciates perfume.

Confidences then gust forth with all the gusto of Perfumistae Anonymous. She was emotionally tied to Bulgari Omnia Amethyste (I'm afraid she got a blank stare from me at this profound confession despite my best effort to look deeply engaged), but she was "so bored with all the perfumes on the shelves", she liked to change perfumes all the time, never sticking with anything for long because "they often got on her nerves". Clearly the customers are not complete morons, do note, dear perfume companies; by the end of a bottle of current juice they come to realise just how bad and utterly trite it was, not wanting to replenish ever again!

Sensing she was desperate for iconic black-and-white austerity, bearing cross-stiched glamour CCs (aka Chanel) I suggested Cristalle Eau de Toilette (this is usually a perennial safe bet on blind tests I conduct with friends from time to time; no one seems to hate it) , as well as hastily suggesting No.5 Eau Premiere, when I saw her tentatively reaching out for that bottle of No.5 Eau de Parfum. (I swear I didn't want to embark on that "old lady" conversation this time, I have heard arguments from both sides so many times and I disagree with each and every one of them). My recs rested on two salient -in my humble opinion- points: 1) Summer is coming and 2) Modern tastes like lighter juices. "This is quite modern, young, optimistic", I said. Although she showed signs of mild interest, I couldn't see her too impressed by either and she did test on skin this time. I fear that teenagers and people in their early 20s have been sadly conditionned to expect instant gratification that surpasses even the speed of making an instant Nescafe (that is nanoseconds to pour cold water on the granules, btw)! How low can you go, right?

Still, as a dare, I suggested Lolita Lempicka L Fleur de Corail, a floriental variation of the original and lovely salty-sweet L de Lempicka, which nevertheless left me rather cold personally, but which I could use as a litmus test regarding sweet-teeth-factor. I even mentioned how it is a "gourmand" with a nod to gustatory delights. Foody is a big word with very young people judging by what they buy and I was honestly curious to see if her tastes ran to the sweet-and-fatty despite her lithe physique. Apparently, there's hope yet. With a disenchanted look she dismissed it as "too sweet for her", almost apologetically, changing stance however when her eyes lighted up upon recalling "But I adore Lolita Lempicka in the purple, apple-shped bottle for the winter!". Brava Annick Menardo, I inwardly thought, but time was ticking away for me and we left it at that.

She didn't seem like she found the Chanel she was looking for on that day. But I came out feeling that young women are not complete airheads and just because they don't know how to properly test fragrances (and who is there to teach them anyway?) and they often can't seem to find a Chanel to claim as their own, doesn't mean they should be relegated to wearing something by Paris Hilton. Perfume people, present them with something really good to wear for a change!

Emma Watchon photographed by Karl Lagerfeld from Crash magazine. Photo by Steven Meisel (2007) via


  1. I wish every young woman could be lucky enough to encounter a scent mentor with your taste and knowledge at Sephora. That could change the fragrance landscape in short order!

    It sounds as if you planted a seed in fertile ground. I hope you rewarded yourself for your good deed ;-)

  2. Oh E., how i wish i met you in my local store! :-)
    Another convert for our side, she now is.. ! Brava!

  3. I smiled reading this, as a fellow perfume fan who shamelessly accosts anxious or baffled-looking people in Nordstrom and Sephora, offering my services... those places should pay me a commission. And my experience is yours -- that talking intelligently to someone about fragrance choices, with no pressure to buy (hey, I'm not on commission!) often leads people to new delights. Which gives us our own pleasure, doesn't it?

  4. Very funnu, but it is really a true kind of story, sometimes I force myself not to give advices in perfumeries. And sometimes it is better not to do.

  5. Fiordiligi19:30

    She may not have realised it but it was definitely her lucky day!

    Well done, dearest, and let's hope she learned a little from her encounter. Maybe we will have another convert joining the fold soon.

  6. Since becoming a perfumista I have really enjoyed making up little sets of samples for friends, and can now say I've made three converts, which pleases all of us greatly!

    At our Sephora, though, if one of those SA's you see lined up against the wall eagle-eyeing the potential shoplifters, er, customers -- these ladies should be wearing camo, really -- saw a "civilian" advising a customer, that advisor would be shown the door.

  7. Maria00:56

    That's a nice story, and as I was picturing it I remembered my own experiences of the time when I was only developing interest in perfume. That was actually just about 2 years ago and it sprang out of my interest in general olfaction. I was looking for new olfactive experiences and perfume shops are evidently the easiest way to get them as they are everywhere. I knew rules of (skin-) testing fragrances, but I didn't care to observe any as my aim was to train my nose to better differentiate smells and broaden my olfactive experience. So I stepped into one of our largest perfume and cosmetics selling shops. Now imagine that you walk into such a shop and see a girl in her mid-twenties, who's applying one perfume on her left wrist, then another on the upper side of left hand, then another on the other side of it, then come fingers, then (as it was summer) the inner part of the elbow, then her upper arm, and she's ferociously sniffing herself all the time. Remember she still has her right arm all ready for some more, and she WILL use it, believe me! Would you interfere with advice? SAs didn't! :-)

  8. Anonymous06:30

    Hey Helg,

    Read the Chanel No. 19 stories and will comment on those later. Just want to let you know that the newest Chanel No. 5 commercial is now uploaded. I have posted the one-minute version on my blog but as usual has everything you'll need.

    BTW take a look at the "Chanel No. 5 Story" section...I was right all along...Chanel can and will keep on talking about the French jasmine. No offense but I don't agree with Octavian--he knows and we agree to disagree on this issue. Anyhow, hope all is well and gotta run.


  9. lovely story- I am so often tempted to go and prize the latest from x or y 'personality' fragrance out of people's hands and offer them a serge or something!

  10. stella p12:02

    Thank you for sharing this nice story! :)
    I have been in the girl's shoes, but that was in a wine shop in Spain. I still thank the pleasant man who learned me quite a bit about the wines from the Ribera del Duero region! (after first having asked me if he could replace the ones I had already chosen with better ones) :)

  11. I completely understand the desire to have a Chanel perfume for the sake of having one - the bottles are very elegant and the interlocking C's are instantly recognisable. Nothing like a little instant glamour for the dressing table!

    In the past, I have used Allure, Chance and Chance eau fraiche - all of which I loved. I am of the younger generation, I guess, which explains why I do veer towards the lighter, fruity (and sometimes sweet) fragrances. No 19 leaves me cold - sorry E! I, too, have had the "Eww!!" reaction to this one. No 5 is too powdery, it smells old. Eau Premiere is better - I do like the way it settles on my skin. The only other one that I would buy is Coco Mademoiselle.

    Hopefully the girl in your story finds a Chanel she can love and take home.

  12. M,

    I wish there was more training on perfume consulting in general. I distinctly recall such bad advice when I was very young which already sounded illogical, but I was too polite and young to point it out, I guess.

    As to my reward, well, I couldn't resist grabing something from said brand. A good catch too! ;-)

  13. N,

    wouldn't it be terribly fun if we could meet up in a store and critique every single one of those things? Or, even better, grab blotters sprayed with the most interesting things and then go to a cafeteria and eat some strudel and talk about everything!
    I'd love it :-))

  14. M,

    delighted to hear you get exactly what I am talking about and do the same: injecting the perfume love bug, so to speak. An enjoyable bug that actually does some good! :-)
    I think the actual "no commission behind this" stance is what makes all the difference in the world. It's pretty bad when someone disregards everything they hear and they need to steer the customer to what they wanted/were appointed to sell in the first place: I mean, "listen woman, the cystomer is telling you what she wants more or less!".

  15. Aromacsa,

    I kind of feel that most of the time it's best not to, like you say, even though the temptation is great. I've been eyed with a weird look before :/
    But sometimes it "catches" on and it feels nice.

  16. D,

    I'd like to think that she could join our realm. In general when the discussion leads up to why I am doing it I mention some of the online fora (POL, MUA, BN) ~gather maybe the people would like to read.

  17. P,

    that's great to hear you have converted three of them! Way to go, baby, high five!!

    Absolutely correct on the American SAs at Sephora (and some in Europe as well, it varies from city to city and shop to shop, I find). The eyeing-you-like-a-shoplifter-routine is something I have perfected against. Please see relevant part in my article 6 tips on how to try as many fragrances as possible. It needs a very specific "look"!

  18. Maria,

    thanks for chimming in and recounting your experience. Sounds like you were a very inquisitive person with the desire to sample as many things as possible. Theoretically that would be a field day for an SA, one would think (someone who is actually interested and pays attention!) But yeah, not many do...
    Yet you found like-minded people here so all is well :-))

  19. A,

    I will be looking forward to what you have to say about this strange case of No.19. I am expecting more when my reader does go ahead and gets her bottle, I am sending her samples of my own bottles for her to compare.

    Yup, posted about the No.5 already and I have to admit that the site & campaign is very well made. Of course the jasmine story is going to get rolling, like before. Even if not technically true 100%, it aids the myth because the average customer does not know about details of reformulations etc etc. And it is a myth. No one disagrees on that I believe?

  20. K,

    I say "do it!". It's never late to introduce people into better things. (OK, if in Sephora or a similar store, try to find something good to suggest from within the store so they don't kick you out for lost revenue!! LOL)

  21. S,

    sounds like it was a wonderful experience if it was imprinted in your mind like that. I find that wine drinkers have so much finely tuned palates and noses, I bet he'd make a good smell instructor in general (the language is also often the same).

    Which city were you in, btw? I loved almost every single city I've been in Spain (I need to make this an article for Perfume Shrine), although Toledo literally stole my heart. *sigh*

  22. Audit,

    succinctly put: the brand has an irresistible cachet and good taste glamour behind it.

    No offence taken on the No.19 ewww, as I well understand. If women in my family weren't wearing it so I would be familiar from a very young age I might have reacted the same, who knows? I am certain that a young woman would like Eau Premiere, hence it was my strongest suggestion. I really didn't want to suggest Coco Mademoiselle, not because it's badly made (it's not; although not my first pick within the brand) but because it's so insanely popular here. I wanted to find her something a little more special.

    I hope she found the one to claim as her own :-)

  23. stella p09:45

    Re: Madrid.
    would have loved an extended stay in Spain (Toledo, Bilbao, just to mention two for me compelling extremes..), later in life that's a priority!

  24. Stella P,

    I would have loved to overstay in Toledo myself: as we were passing that bridge overlooking the town, my heart was sinking, longing to stay behind.
    Hope your travels take you back again!

  25. pragmatic11:36

    At the mall when i was seventeen, an older woman had a tray full of Chanel fragrances. And she stopped me by asking if i ever tried such fragrances. The answer was no of course and she asked me what i was looking for in a perfume.

    Different, nothing cloying like those sickening sweet teen things, and unique.

    I tried a couple on skin. She sniffed my arm and told me, this is the one. It smelled the best out of the lot, i wasn't too convinced, no income, a novice in perfumery... i really could not appreciate what i was smelling.

    Time and time again, the allure flanker at the chanel counter always got my attention. Test runs revealed its the frag i get most compliments on. I cannot believe, i picked this up only years and years later. I completely regret the lost time i could have enjoyed this wonderful eau. Rumours of it beind discontinued struck fear in my heart before i could ever snag a bottle. This is not true, only that it has more limited distribution now

    Btw my first chanel was no18 and my second is the sensuelle

  26. Pragmatic,

    I admit I surmissed about the Sensuelle from the context, but couldn't quite figure out which Exclusif was the first one (could be a few of those). Thanks for mentioning them!
    And yeah, doesn't a scare of reformulation/discontinuation prompt us to seek more?

    Enjoy!! And thanks for sharing with me and our readers.


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