Which scents made sense in the year of no smell?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
As perfect storms go, the first half of 2020 was, for the perfume industry, about as “perfect” as they come. Crops went unharvested. Duty-free halls stood empty. Supplies of alcohol (the base ingredient of nearly all perfumes) were diverted to satisfy the demand for sanitisers. While many other categories moved their sales online, scent remained something most consumers were reluctant to buy without trying – at the beginning of the pandemic, sales declined more than in any other beauty category. Besides, who needed scent when the very act of inhalation was a source of such intense anxiety?
And then, of course, there were those who could no longer smell at all.
Early on, it became apparent that anosmia – the medical name for loss of smell – was a powerful Covid-19 indicator. From that point, those who could still wear and smell perfume were, in many ways, the lucky ones. (It’s thought that around 80 per cent of patients who report loss of smell regain their senses within a month, but for others the olfactory neurons may have been damaged beyond repair.) Now, parosmia – a new scent-related Covid-19 side effect in which everything smells weird or disgusting – is being reported as a phase many virus sufferers “pass through”, sometimes for months, before regaining their sense of smell.
The gallerist Sophie Oakley lost the ability to smell at the end of March. She remembers it as “a strange feeling – like a kind of numbness”. She cannot be totally sure it was Covid-related, because subsequent tests have revealed she has no antibodies, but it lasted for about two weeks (she was initially alerted to the fact by her inability to smell her toddler’s nappies – possibly the only upside to the experience). Eight months later, she remains entirely underwhelmed by the idea of wearing perfume. “I feel as if we have all retreated a bit into ourselves this year, and it’s made our worlds seem smaller,” she says. “For me, perfumes have seemed too ‘big’ somehow, like the aura they give is too much for how I’m currently living, which is pretty quietly and mostly at home.”
Certainly, for many of us, the experiences of this year have changed what we want to smell like – if not the whole reason we wear scent in the first place. But for many others, scent has come to represent a kind of lifeline. We have used it as therapy, reaching back for forgotten fragrances that call to mind a simpler time. It has been a way of travelling the world when no plane tickets are available, wearing scents laced with foreign extracts or perfumes usually reserved for holidays. It has even acted as a proxy for human contact; a way to bring someone close when you are unable to sniff their hair or nuzzle their neck.
“Traditionally, perfumes have been sold and marketed on the back of ‘seduction’ and illusion – belonging to a perfect world,” says Laurent Delafon, who together with his business partner, Christopher Yu, has just launched Ostens, an elegant new perfume house that takes a ritualistic approach to the application of scent. “Now that our world looks and feels very different, we are questioning what’s truly important to us and what makes us happy. It means we want to surround ourselves with products that make us feel secure.”
“Quiet” scents, which are soft and diffused and “underpin” rather than overwhelm, have been sought out by many. The hairdresser and perfume collector Adam Reed opened a new salon in Shoreditch four weeks before lockdown: not being able to operate and the various stresses of the pandemic led to a spell in hospital. The first scent he wore afterwards was Frédéric Malle’s Eau de Magnolia, “because it is so quiet and soothing”. He has since been drawn to outdoorsy scents of woods and earth, which are natural but without relying on floral sweetness. “There were times this year when I’ve looked a state, didn’t do my hair, didn’t get dressed properly – but my scent held me together,” he says.
Many perfumers have noted their customers looking for more “grounding” fragrances. And mossy, peaty, bark-filled scents feel perfect for this winter. The British perfumer Tom Daxon captures the atmosphere in his newish scent Riven Oak, its rich dose of oakwood absolute, rum, amber and vetiver suggesting something that feels spacious and outdoorsy but also quiet and intimate. In fact, it’s a particular atmosphere that British brands excel at: Haeckels’ Blean Woods, for example, is a beautiful scentscape conjuring an ancient and undisturbed forest.
But not everyone has wanted the reassurance of the familiar. Scents with global appeal have also been a way to escape the realities of the everyday: the “have pulse point, will travel” approach to perfume. This was the case for Aerin Lauder, whose own line of fragrances is now viewed as a jewel within the Estée Lauder empire. “Throughout the spring and summer, I found myself drawn to lighter, refreshing scents – especially my Mediterranean Honeysuckle, which evokes a feeling of true escape for me, and reminds me of visiting the Mediterranean as a young girl,” she says. For winter, she’s gravitating towards something more comforting: her new release is Ambrette de Noir, which is as deep and cosseting as its name suggests.
One of the year’s standouts – and, if we’re honest, there weren’t many – was Chanel’s Paris-Riviera from the Les Eaux de Chanel line: lighter, more refreshing, more cologne-like, which many people likened to a “breath of fresh air”. And they didn’t come more luminous than Loewe’s unisex summer release, named for Ibiza, a fantasy island of driftwood, coconut water, sand lily and frangipani.
Others became more nostalgic. “I gravitated back to Chanel No 19,” says the writer Sophie Dahl, who found it both adventurous and reassuring. “I wore it occasionally as an older teenager, and my grand-mother often wore it. It has the comfort of the familiar, but also feels somehow exotic and faraway, which is in turn quite helpful.”
For most of us, perfume in 2020 has been about finding something – anything – to elevate the everyday. “Broadly speaking, what we have discovered during lockdown is there is a very strong message from consumers that scent is an agent of wellness,” says Judith Gross, vice president of creation and design, branding and marketing at the IFF, a company that has been conducting consumer research on attitudes to scent since the start of the pandemic. She believes there is a historical precedent apparent that scent was used in “curative and therapeutic ways” in everything from the Plague of Athens to the Black Death – and that the tastes we’re displaying now are part of that same “red thread”.
The rise of slow scent
Each year, the IFF encourages some of its most accomplished perfumers to create a perfume entirely without constraint – of time, budget or imagination. The result is the annual “Speed Smelling” collection, a limited-edition box of perfumes available to buy (€150, from auparfum.com). This year, with the perfumers locked down at home, the process became even more personal and exploratory – hence why the name of this year’s collection has been changed from “Speed Smelling” to “Slow Smelling”.
Highlights include Fanny Bal’s composition, based around natural ingredients with “low vibrations, woody, resinous, appeasing”. And Nicolas Beaulieu’s experimentation with the company’s burgeoning array of upcycled ingredients featured a vetiver concentrate made from water previously discarded during the distillation process, and turmeric leaves usually removed and thrown away. A fascinating way to capture this unforgettable year.
For many, the smell of skincare, for example, has become an unexpected pleasure. I spent the whole of lockdown reluctant to wear any perfume, yet borderline addicted to the smell of Clarins Hand and Nail Treatment Cream and a Chanel Overnight Face Mask. Sophie Oakley says she enjoys scent now mainly via hand creams and soaps – particularly Byredo’s Bal d’Afrique hand cream, a distinctive and beautiful scent of violet, African marigold, Moroccan cedarwood and bergamot.
Yet perhaps the biggest shift in perfume this year has been the way in which, confined to our homes, we have scented our living spaces instead of our person. Scented candles and – whisper it – oil diffusers have often been considered the poor relation to the fragrance industry; more a mantelpiece accessory than true artistic composition. But as sales of perfumes plummeted, it has been candles that have kept many brands – and households – buoyant. Candle sales at Selfridges are up 54 per cent since the start of lockdown, while Net-a-Porter saw a 130 per cent year-on-year increase when lockdown began in March.
If our perfumes were about either nature or nostalgia, then home fragrances have generally been more therapeutic, offering specific mood-altering benefits or clean, singular aromas that make a home feel calm and not claustrophobic – quite literally clearing the air.
And when it comes to scents that soothe, Diptyque’s Baies is the one that most gently but perceptibly seems to cleanse a room. Also any of the candles in the Amoln range, a Scandinavian candle brand with clear, uncomplicated and lovely aromas. (No surprises that its Sisu Bouquet candle, created around the Finnish philosophy of sisu, which represents “determination, persistence and tenacity” – is currently sold out everywhere.) Sisley – far better known for its skincare – also has some truly exceptional fragrances, and the candle version of its classic Eau de Campagne scent is as close to the smell of serenity as anything I’ve found.
Perhaps what we’re doing with all these scents is attempting to root ourselves in a different time and place – so early signs that the perfume world’s next big inspirations will be found among the stars aren’t all that surprising. In August, Louis Vuitton launched Météore, a fragrance for men composed to “evoke power and light”. L’Ombre des Merveilles, the latest take on Hermès’ Eau des Merveilles scent, has a galaxy of stars scattered across its bottle, the scent laced with incense to intensify its otherworldliness.
But it is for Aesop’s new – and first ever – scented candles that the stars truly align. In a pitch-perfect launch for our current moment, each is named after an ancient Greek astronomer: Ptolemy – given a resinous and woody scent – who laid the groundwork for much medieval astronomy; florals, spice and tobacco for Aganice, a female astronomer who studied the moon; and an earthy, green and frankincense scent for the mathematician Callippus. The opportunity to zoom out of our current situation and take a planetary view would be a welcome one. Until then, all we can do is hope. And spray.