In an interview for W Magazine, legendary perfumer, Frédéric Malle, talks about the first time he fell in love in his early twenties, with a woman who wore Paris by Yves Saint Laurent. “It was so right for her,” says Malle. “Paris was a huge part of the reason I fell in love with this person. I’d lived with girls who smelled good, but this was really… this worked like a magnet on me.”
I think of the first time I fell for a boy who wore Chanel Allure Homme Sport (chichi AF for a 15-year-old who lived in a suburb littered with Lynx Africa, redolent of fresh garbage bags and its $6.99 price tag). When I left for a 2-month holiday with my family, he gave me his bottle of Chanel, and I, in exchange, gave him what every other teenage girl was wearing in 2005: Ralph by Ralph Lauren, plucked from the half-off bin at the local drugstore.
It’s scary to think that “in those days” is now only 10 years ago, and it’s a testament to how fast our world is moving. But truly, in those days, teenagers didn’t really use Skype. There was no such thing as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. If I wanted to talk to the boy who wore Chanel, I would have to do so via email from a pokey Internet café in Paris, Rome, or Toulon. For the remainder of my time away, that bottle of perfume was all that kept him close.
Somewhere in the far reaches of our underdeveloped, hormone-heavy minds, we must be aware that smell is one of our most powerful senses. It transports us across continents and through time. Making my way across a department store a few weeks back, I walked into a cloud of Allure Homme Sport and was immediately struck by the distant yet familiar sensation of first love and heartbreak. Naturally, I pulled out my phone and went straight to Chanel boy’s Facebook profile—for what would a modern love story be without a cyber-stalk segue? I took one look at a photo of him now and was left cold. It was smell, not sight, that transported me to that time in 2005, and it all comes back to science: our olfactory nerve, located at the top of the nasal cavity, talks directly to the same part of the brain connected to memory and emotion.
Scientists and speed daters are still trying to prove the function of pheromones in humans, and they are doing so in ways that are questionable, if not mildly entertaining. Take the neurobiologist in Israel who made grown women cry, collected their tears in test tubes, and then—get this—got the male subjects to inhale these tiny sacs of misery after which they experienced a decrease in sexual arousal and testosterone. Next, there’s Romancing the Armpit: a speed-dating event in London that puts paper bags with little nose-shaped holes over the heads of hopeful singles before asking them to nestle their faces into the armpits of strangers so that they may find love without having to ‘swipe right.’
This unsettling detour brings us to what French women have known all along: (a) never use tears as a tool for romantic bargaining, and (b) stay loyal to one perfume, but not necessarily one man or woman—that is the key to the art of seduction. For la femme française, leaving the house without perfume is like being stark naked (which is not the worst thing you could do if trying to be seductive, TBH), yet still, in her eyes, a woman must always wear her signature scent, and must “always, always be fuckable,” (their words, not mine) whether going on a date with a billionaire or down the road to buy milk. Spray it in your hair, at the base of your neck, on your clothes, on your pillowcase, on your lover’s pillowcase, on your underwear, but never in your eyes. Wait for men and/or women to fall at your feet.
When I interviewed perfumer Barnabé Fillion a few months back on Hwyl, his recent composition for Aesop, he told me that a fragrance should be an expression of its wearer and never the other way around. On contact with your skin, a scent should produce a unique alchemy. It’s the reason why a masterpiece, such as Dior’s Bois d’Argent, smells like the tears of virgin angels on one person and stale kitty litter on another. But there’s also something a little more abstruse that paints an associative image of style, aesthetics, and personality. Base notes of tobacco and leather is a person who leaves the club at 4am with a brooding stranger. Amber and sandalwood is the sensuous sister who moves to an ashram on the backwaters of Kerala. Gardenia and tuberose is a freshly showered woman wearing diamond baguettes. There’s some reasoning behind it, but mostly, you can’t really explain why a fragrance fits. It just does. It’s kind of like, once you find the right one, you couldn’t imagine wearing anything else.
I guess what I’m really trying to get at here is that you should never underestimate the power of your smell. It’s the most seductive tool in your kit; even the most “magnetic,” according to Malle. In the very least, it will endure long after you’ve left, lingering and bashing a you-sized shape into the objects of your affection.
Words, Rose Howard.