Perfect scents

Changing attitudes, celebrity launches transform world of fragrance

October 29, 2006|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN REPORTER

NOTHING ELSE A WOMAN -- or man -- wears is quite so complex, suggestive or memory-laden as scent.

Perfume styles come and go, and what seems new is often just a recycling of past successes. But attitudes are changing about scent, and with those changes are some genuinely new trends. Who would have guessed even five years ago that a rap star would have this year's biggest prestige fragrance launch -- for men or women?

Personal fragrance is a paradoxical business. Sometimes it seems as if it's all about fancy packaging and overwrought marketing. (Remember Tabu, which was sold as "The Forbidden Fragrance by Dana"? Or Calvin Klein's kinky-sex ads for Obsession?)

"The industry is hype-on-steroids," says Cathy Newman, author of Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent. At the same time, a great perfume is a work of art, perhaps even more so than fashion. It can contain hundreds of ingredients. (The record, says Newman in her book, is probably Estee Lauder's Beautiful with 700.) A complex perfume has top notes, what you smell immediately; heart or middle notes, the scents you pick up after a few minutes; and base notes, which remain after what the industry calls "dry down."

This fall The New York Times hired its first fragrance critic, Chandler Burr, who has compared the scent of Guerlain's Rose Barbare to "the silent, massive shadow of an Airbus A340" and said Pomegranate Noir by Jo Malone "is like a box of truffles with the lid on, sweet bits of darkness, waiting."

Most of us, though, are happy if a spritz of eau de toilette or a dab of perfume smells good to us and the people around us, and maybe suggests something about who we are or who we want to be.

That's why Sally Ann Davis, 41, wears Jessica McClintock. She's a mother of two who works in advertising and lives in Roland Park. She loves the fragrance, which was introduced in the late 1980s, with its notes of lemon, rose and jasmine.

She wears it almost every day, Davis says, unless she's having a serious meeting with clients. "I thought a couple of years ago I ought to try something else because I was 'maturing,' so I switched to Marc Jacobs. But after a couple of bottles I switched back. I think it says something about me.

"If I was less energetic and acted my age, I'd probably wear a more mature scent," she adds with a laugh. Davis considers Jessica McClintock her signature fragrance, one she's intensely loyal to. Many people have them, although it's a concept that's been out of style in the last few years. One of the biggest buzzwords in the personal scent industry these days is "fragrance wardrobe." Perfume manufacturers, as you might expect, love the trend.

The idea, says Victoria Kirby, beauty editor of Allure magazine, is that women don't have just one scent anymore. They have a scent for work and a weekend scent and a vacation scent. "They wear it to express a mood."

"I like different kinds of smells," says Latrisha Nelson, a 21-year-old bartender who lives in Mount

Vernon. She loves Bulgari perfumes. She wears Versace's Red Jeans, a floral blend with musk and vanilla, to go clubbing and Elizabeth Arden and Ralph Lauren perfumes once in a while "to change it up."

"I just bought Britney Spears," she says. "It's light and fruity, a daytime fragrance." Recently she gave her family a whole list of perfumes. It's all she wants for Christmas.

Consumers like Nelson are one reason the number of new perfume introductions has increased so remarkably in the last couple of years, although it's hard to pin down cause and effect. Last year there were more than 100 launches, and that trend is continuing in 2006. (However, the average launch stops selling in a year, says Karen Grant, senior beauty industry expert with the NPD Group, a New York-based research company.)

These new scents tend to be impulse buys, explains Debbi Hartley-Triesch, Nordstrom's beauty director, who hastens to add that launches "continue to be good for us."

"But what's appealing about a classic scent is that it brings back a memory," she says. "It evokes a thought, a mood, an emotion. It's different than fashion."

As with clothes, perfumes go in and out of style; but unlike fashion, the classics continue to be best sellers. Last year Chanel No. 5 was No. 2 on the best-seller chart of brands sold in U.S. department stores.

That's because if you put on a sweater set with a string of pearls you look like your mother. When you dab on a world-famous prestige perfume like Chanel No. 5 or Joy by Jean Patou it interacts with the oils of your skin to create a fragrance subtly unique to you.

And because memory is such an important ingredient in perfume (the industry-supported Fragrance Foundation estimates that people recall scents with a 65 percent accuracy after a year, while visual accuracy sinks to about 50 percent after only three months), an evocative perfume from your past may be the one you stick with.

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