One Thousand Scents

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Sacred And The Profane

Perfumery--this is not a new insight or a great revelation, but it may come as a surprise to some people--is entirely about sex. It is about altering your perception of yourself, and other people's perception of you, to make you sexually appealing, whether the scent you choose to apply to yourself makes you innocent or worldly, brash or shy, commanding or retiring, strong or delicate. What, after all, is a light floral scent but a subliminal indicator that the wearer is a fragile flower? What is a rich ambery oriental scent but an amplification of the smell of hot, sweaty skin and genitalia?

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On the way back from London, at Gatwick Airport, I was awed by the size and scope of the duty-free shop. The airport itself, once you're past the international gate, is really a shopping mall, and the duty-free store, dominated by its fragrance department, is astounding, like nothing I'd ever seen before.

As I strolled through it, though, I became more and more disenchanted. The prices didn't seem to be that much better than I could find anywhere else. The products were the same as I'd seen throughout the UK: there were a few travel collections, sets of miniatures or special editions of things, but nothing genuinely exciting. Scents make me happy, and the prospect of finding something new, or a real bargain, make me even happier, but there was nothing here to thrill the soul. (Clearly I had been ruined by another fragrance-shopping experience a couple of days previously, about which more in a bit.) As I walked through, becoming more dispirited by the minute, it struck me: if fragrance is about sex, then this is its government-sanctioned red-light district, everything out in the open, no mystery, no secrets, just product product product and sunshiny procuresses willing to sell it to you.
(I did find one thing I hadn't seen anywhere else, Dior's limited-edition Eau Sauvage Fraicheur Cuir, but at £35 (about $80), I couldn't justify it, not after all I'd spent already. Was I going to use up even a reasonable fraction of a 100-mL bottle? Never. Did I need another leather scent, nice though it was? Not really. Bye-bye, Fraicheur Cuir.)

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If the Gatwick duty-free shop is a whorehouse, then the Harrods fragrance department is a temple of sex, a holy place.

On entering Harrods, you walk through a vestibule and into the cosmetics department, a brilliantly lit warehouse of white walls and mirrors, the better to show just how awful you look without its products. Once you're through that gantlet, you enter its polar opposite: a large room, but as dark as the previous room was light, black floors, black walls, low lighting, and a large staff of salespeople; if they're not all clad in black, they give that impression nonetheless. Harrods is a temple, and they are its votaries. They want you to submit to the mysteries of the sex they have to offer, and you will, because you must.

The room is not brightly lit, but there are bright lights: they're focused on the scents themselves, which seem to glow with a mysterious power. They compel you to stop and sample them. I found myself sniffing things I already knew, just because they were there. I sniffed everything. I wore my nose out.

The votaries do not undersell their deities. I saw one of them pick up a bottle from his counter and spray the air in front of him a half-dozen times; for his own pleasure, or to lure another worshipper? As I sampled Serge Lutens (Chergui! Rousse! Daim Blond!), with each new scent the priestess would pick up a fresh blotter and spray it front (psst psst psst) and back (psst psst psst) before handing it to me, the better to overwhelm my senses.

And there, in a far corner of the store, was the Caron counter, and there in the middle of it was my holy grail, the object of my adoration: Coup de Fouet.

I didn't need to smell it, but I did anyway. Took the blotter, wandered away, my eyes a little glazed, my heart beating a little faster, sniffing again and again. Finally, satiated, I made my way back to the counter and bought it--the price was irrelevant at that point--and can finally worship at its pedestaled, perfumed feet.

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