Fragrances are divided into seven main families: floral (romantic, literal floral notes); oriental (spicy, musky, typically warm); chypre (woody, mossy, often leathery and sophisticated); fresh (clean, light and citrusy); woody (earthy: like chypre, without the flowers and fruits); fougère (green ferns, citrus, full-bodied); gourmand (sweet, warm and dessert-like), plus myriad subcategories.
If you’re instinctively drawn to one or more (I’m generally an oriental and chypre girl, with a hundred exceptions), then that’s a good start, and an online resource such as Guerlain’s fragrance consultation will take it from there. But if you have no clue where to begin, it’s worth using an online fragrance finder. The Perfume Society has a useful tool that allows you to enter any fragrance you already enjoy, then responds with six suggestions to try. If you know only an everyday smell you love (rum, bananas or grass, for example), then visit the brilliantly useful wikiparfum.fr, which will list dozens of perfumes that evoke it.
Keep an open mind
There’s nothing groundbreaking about “unisex” fragrances: olfactory nerds have always scoffed at gender-specific perfumes, and the earliest scents and colognes were made for all. There are few perfumes that truly scream one or the other, since there’s no logical reason why rose should be for women and sandalwood for men. For the most part, the gender of a perfume is as elastic as in the consumer population, and our binary perception is driven by marketing. Despite its name, Frédéric Malle’s now iconic Portrait Of A Lady, a big, slightly boozy mix of rose, patchouli, clove and berries smells exquisite on any man with the confidence to wear it, while the Hèrmes masterpiece Terre d’Hermès, travels frequently from my husband’s bedside table to my wrists, despite its classically “masculine” woody notes. To pick a team is to lose out.
Try before you buy
The Covid-induced closure of shops, and the withdrawal of testers when they reopened, means that perfumers have had to be agile in facilitating trialling of their fragrances. The Perfume Shop, Les Senteurs, Frédéric Malle, Ormonde Jayne and many other brands have samples and discovery sets available via their websites (prices vary). French fragrance house Diptyque now sells full-sized bottles with an ingenious separate tester vial, allowing you to test the scent without irreversibly unwrapping the cellophane, returning the full size if necessary. Spray testers on to paper and leave for 30 minutes. If you’re keen, apply liberally to skin and live with it for a day or two.
Think beyond the pulse points
Some skin types struggle with direct exposure to perfume, but there’s no need to forgo fragrance altogether. A mist of eau de toilette on your clothes will smell much the same as on your skin, and won’t ruin everyday fabrics (avoid spraying perfume on to silk and satin).
You could also try a hair fragrance. These once-gimmicky brand extensions are now made with as much thought and care as traditional perfume. Chanel’s inimitable No 5 (100 years old this year) is now available in a hair mist. There’s no nasty hairspray can: the frosted signature flacon is every bit as beautiful and gift-worthy as the original scent. If your hair is dry or textured, try wearing your favourite in a scented hair oil, such as Dior’s J’Adore Dry Silky Oil or Nuxe’s Huile Prodigieuse, one of the all-time great summer smells.
Think you don’t like perfume? Unwilling to accept defeat, I’ve converted many a hater to cologne, a lighter, fresher, less lingering and (relatively) inexpensive type of fragrance that smells cheerful, breezy and not a million miles from a quality soap. Atelier Cologne (which sells a discovery set if you’re not sure) and Jo Malone London (try Blackberry & Bay) are both brilliant at these wearable, unobtrusive scents. But my personal favourite is Thierry Mugler’s wonderful Come Together. Somehow both bright and cosy, clean but just a little smutty, it’s glorious worn either alone or as underwear for something stronger.
Be more sustainable
There was a time when luxury perfume meant lavish packaging and waste, but in the last two years, there’s been a huge push towards more ecologically mindful fragrances – thanks in part to the influence of brands such as Le Labo (their Santal 33 is a modern classic). British perfumer Floral Street uses sustainable vegan ingredients, recycled and recyclable packaging, and fair trade farming throughout its manufacturing process, while still selling its perfumes and candles at an affordable price. Classic fine perfumery houses Guerlain and Chanel both manage their entire ingredients’ supply chain themselves, ensuring that flowers, herbs and other raw supplies are grown and harvested sustainably.