Alternative scents smell like winners

January 01, 1998|By Joanna Bober | Joanna Bober,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Shopping for a bottle of CK One or Tommy Girl at Aedes De Venustas, a jewel box of a perfume boutique on Christopher Street with a cult following, is like asking for irradiated apples at an organic food store.

"We represent a completely different market from stores that sell widely distributed fragrances," said Robert Gerstner, an owner of the store, standing with Coco, his Shih Tzu, in his arms.

A Macy's perfume counter it isn't. The shop's red-velvet walls and gilded cabinets are accented with swags of leopard-skin prints. Its nearly 100 fragrances, mostly from small, old-fashioned French and English perfumeries, are as likely to suggest fig, tomato leaf and basil as the citrusy and floral scents common in the mass-market scents.

They are made by houses like L'Artisan Parfumeur and Creed, which has been in business since the mid-1700s and whose Green Irish Tweed once was the favorite fragrance of Cary Grant and today is favored by Naomi Campbell.

Aedes De Venustas is a case study in what's hot in hard-core perfume circles, where consumers crave vintage and "alternative" scents.

Small perfume houses represent only a tiny slice of the multibillion-dollar fragrance industry, but their appeal has been recognized by some department stores, including Nordstrom, Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue, which have added them to the more commercial brands.

One such line, L'Occitane, made by a fragrance and body-care company in the Provence region of France, has done so well with its wholesale business in the United States that it has opened three boutiques in Manhattan in the last year.

Fragrances like green tea and a fig-based eau de parfum are top sellers, said Stephanie Guinard, vice president and general manager of L'Occitane Inc. Almost all can be purchased for less than $50. The company holds up its cost-saving choice not to advertise as a kind of marketing stance.

"We don't advertise our products," Ms. Guinard said. "Our customers would not like that. It's purely through word of mouth and press that people know about us."

It is the thrill of the undiscovered that seems to lure the fragrance cognoscenti to shops like L'Occitane and Aedes De Venustas. All day, either Gerstner or his other co-owners, Karl Bradl and Celeste Induddi, shake crisp white paper scent strips under the noses of their clients, murmuring of basil, frankincense and bergamot.

The buyers, the owners said, include Elton John and the designer Todd Oldham, both of whom are partial to fragrances from the British line Czech & Speake. Liza Minnelli, they say, orders from the Julique line of aromatherapy products from Australia. And Molly Ringwald has bought tomato-leaf perfume from the Artisan Parfumeur collection.

This line, Gerstner said, consists of recipes inspired by 17th- and 18th-century perfumers who traveled to the homes of wealthy Parisians with trays of scents, mixing combinations to order. One fragrance, Navigateur, is a mixture of coffee, tobacco and vanilla notes.

"A lot of women love to wear Navigateur," Gerstner said. "It's incredibly deep and warm and sensual." For those who prefer the shore to the high seas, Riviera Palace -- including myrrh, amber and narcissus -- is meant to conjure up the grand Riviera hotels of the 1920s and '30s that played host to Picasso, Coco Chanel and Cole Porter.

The prices at Aedes De Venustas are on a par with those for commercial perfumes, from $25 for a 15-milliliter bottle to $90 for 100 milliliters. (One ounce is 296 milliliters.) One popular scent is Premier Figuier, which is meant to re-create the smell of a fig tree and also contains notes of almond milk, sandalwood and coconut.

Many fragrances are associated with aristocratic figures of the European or Hollywood variety. The family-run house of Creed, for example, not only counted Cary Grant as a customer, but was also commissioned by Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 to create its best-known scent, Fleurissimo, for his bride, Grace Kelly.

A Middle Eastern monarch is supposed to have insisted upon a gold bottle to package his own fragrance, Millesime Imperial, today a top seller for Creed, a blend of spicy bergamot and amber with hints of orange and mandarin.

Another popular line in the shop, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier, was created by the perfumer Jean Laporte. "Gantier" is French for glove maker. It refers to the origins of perfume making in the 16th century, when sweet scents were used to mask the unpleasant odor of newly tanned leather. Gloves were perfumed before being sold, a practice still embraced by Laporte, who sells not only perfumes but also perfumed gloves in his Paris boutique.

His company literature describing one of his latest fragrances, Secrete Datura, reads like a page from a spy novel: "It was during my travels throughout the Mediterranean, in the Andalusian gardens of Rabat, Grenada, on the hillsides of Tunisia, in the farthest corners of the gardens of Cairo, that I discovered the sensory shock of Datura."

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