The fragrance bar has long been decried for the confusion caused by too many competing offers. But retailers and brands alike have revamped. Here, our intrepid beauty reporters go undercover to report back on whether the scent shopping experience (be it for oneself or a gift), has bloomed into a pleasurable experience.
This story first appeared in the May 7, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
For as long as I can remember, if it wasn’t flowers, it was perfume I gave on Mother’s Day. But as the years have worn on, my mother has become an even more discriminating customer, not to mention a better-stocked one. And so my mission has become ever more challenging. The question remained whether Paris boutiques would be up to the task.
9 Rue Des Martyrs
The Sephora-before-there-was-Sephora perfume chain may not be as vast as its better-known cousin, but the sales force at my local outpost has always been a pleasure to shop from. (The last time I was looking for a pink lipstick, one stalwart assistant literally tested, on her own hand, every single peony-ish shade in the store, ending up like a pop-toned mosaic. And still she smiled and waved when I walked out without buying.) The only problem: The scents on offer are almost all from big houses, and available in the U.S., so the novelty factor for Mom suffers. But you never know.
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Upon entering, a chipper fortysomething lady asked me promptly if I needed help—a rarity in Paris. I explained that my mother prefers green scents (Chanel No. 19 and Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey are her two big favorites), but that it would be great to get something new and different. She sent me immediately to the “Spanish designer” Narciso Rodriguez’s For Her (and actually held firm when I told her he was Cuban-American. Ah, Parisians). Based on its trio of musks, it was not an obvious choice on paper, but it was fresh and floral, and could have worked.
Still, it has very strong distribution in the U.S., so I didn’t want to risk buying her something she might have already tried and passed on. Picking up on the Issey Miyake tip, and keeping in mind the exotic factor, my sales help next led me to the new L’Eau d’Issey Fleur de Bois, whose French launch was a few weeks prior to America’s. On the sample strip it had potential, so I asked her to spritz me. Usually I test on my solar plexus, the warmest part of my body, and so the best place to get the fastest sniff of a scent’s full dimension. But that’s a bit uncool in a shop. She asked me which hand I write with and suggested that wrist instead, as it would move around more quickly and let the scent fully develop that way. Excellent idea, but it fast revealed Fleur de Bois to be a little too sweet for Mom. Another attempt was made with YSL’s Parisienne (too young) before we called it a day. I headed elsewhere.
213 Rue Saint-Honoré
As it was novelty I was seeking, Colette was the next logical stop. Detractors accuse the chic multibrand boutique in the center of town of being snooty. I disagree entirely. The staff may be across-the-board hot, but the cuteness does not usually come coupled with attitude. The only complaint I have ever had is that, depending on whom you get, the help can be a little unserious. Unfortunately, my trip to the new, second-floor fragrance counter didn’t do much to change that impression.
The gamine young gal who worked there was friendly as can be, but she was a little out of her league. Her first move was right on: (Untitled) by Martin Margiela, who can do almost no wrong in my eyes. But it was a little grassy and masculine for my mother, who is less avant-garde in her leanings. Not thinking to label paper strips as we went, neither did she know much about the notes in any of the scents she showed me. Luckily, there was printed material on hand she could consult, and she was happy to do so.
Next up were two eaux de toilette from Byredo, a Stockholm-based indie helmed by an American ex-basketball player with a terrific knack for unusual, but approachable, scents. Gypsy Water, with breezy-smelling iris and black pepper to freshen up the vanilla, was closer than musky Baudelaire. But both were a little short lasting for a woman who likes a lot of bang for her spritz. Our last attempt was our most absurd: Francis Kurkdjian’s C 16, which, when sprayed on my wrist, smelled of rubbing alcohol, and then, moments later, of nothing at all. Was this a mistake? Kurkdjian may be an avant-gardist, but he’s also the man behind Gaultier’s Le Male, the aforementioned Narciso Rodriguez For Her and Acqua di Parma’s Iris Nobile. Had someone switched out a tester fi lled with makeup remover? The salesgirl couldn’t be sure, so we called over a manager. No, this was the scent itself, a “subtle, sensuous” musk fragrance (really?) that one could also mix with other scents. Easy enough when you’re basically undetectable.
Of course I will come back to Colette. I love Colette. Just not for my mom. Or for C 16.
Franck et Fils
80 Rue de Passy
Refocused on the person I was actually shopping for, I headed to Franck et Fils in the haut bourgeois 16th arrondissement. A small-scale department store, its fragrance offering is broader than Colette’s, but still heavily weighted toward small companies like Stéphanie de Saint-Aignan, Diptyque and L’Artisan Parfumeur. Mom might have been able to find some of these back home, but she’d have to search.
A saleswoman for the latter brand was the only one visible. Fate, it turned out, dealt me a good blow. She knew the lingo, was solicitous but not syrupy and continued to ask me questions about my mother as we went along. Offering to label each paper strip, she ended up sampling a total of eight scents out of countless more.
Her first suggestion, Thé Pour un Eté, was almost right, if just a teeny bit close to another Mom favorite I hadn’t even mentioned to her, Bulgari’s Eau Thé Vert by perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. Next, she walked me through (and could blind identify) two different versions of Premier Figuier, both close but still not it, and then, like a palate cleanse, “just to amuse you,” she waved another Ellena creation, the feather-light floral Bois Farine by L’Artisan Parfumeur, under my nose. When she sampled still another Ellena juice, L’Artisan’s L’Haie Fleurie, a rich, joyful jasmine, we knew we had a winner.
Now, the practical considerations: Could Mom exchange it back home if she needed to? The saleswoman proceeded to tick off every U.S. boutique where the brand could be found, and said it should be no problem. Sadly, we’re going to have to keep those boutique names on hand because when my helper went to check for a bottle, the store was out of stock. To be continued.
A little fragrance shopping session for upcoming Mother’s Day sounded easy because, in truth, every day is a Mother’s Day in Shanghai, a city ruled by perfectly dressed ladies with serious spending power. I coaxed my local girlfriend to come along for the expedition because she speaks Shanghainese and knows all the top shopping locations like the back of her hand. We drove up in her SUV and glided into Shanghai’s top luxury destination—the Meilongzhen Isetan on Nanjing East Road—for a little look-see.
Isetan Department Store
Nanjing East Road
We stepped outside the elevator entrance into Isetan, where a small fragrance counter in the entryway showed off nearly a hundred different fragrances. Kenzo, Burberry, Bulgari, Ferragamo, Nina Ricci—you name it, they were there, neatly spaced out one by one in a three-tiered display. The very well-groomed girl behind the counter wore a nicely knotted silk scarf around her neck and politely sprayed little paper strips with scents as we pointed to the ones we liked the look of.
When we asked her to suggest a few that my mother might like, she immediately mentioned Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps and noted, “It’s a classic.” My friend pointed to Guerlain’s pretty crystal bottle containing Aqua Allegoria Mandarine Basilic, and she told us that it’s a fresh, clean scent. We were dazzled by the array and didn’t know which to choose. The young woman said her own favorite was a men’s cologne, Bulgari Pour Homme Soir. We then noticed a sleek purple vinyl bag on display, which was a gift-with-purchase from Kenzo, and were seriously tempted—however, Isetan has many more counters inside, so we bid the delightful girl adieu and told her we’d come back.
Inside, we passed by Kiehl’s, which only has one fragrance, but we did sign up for the member card so that we might get an announcement for members-only special offers. My friend noticed that the brand’s prices here were not much higher than the prices at the Hong Kong duty free and immediately bought an acne cream for her son.
We moved on to a dashing display of Guerlain, which was heavily promoting the youthful Idylle. We got confused by all the prices, however, because the store’s staff hadn’t put the correct bottles on display. When we asked about the difference between perfume, eau de toilette and eau de perfume, the sales associates couldn’t tell us that, either. The younger woman apologized, and said that she hadn’t finished her training yet, while her older counterpart just snubbed us. My friend told her off for being rude and away we went.
We passed an Estée Lauder display, where Pure White Linen Light Breeze and Pleasures Intense were very attractively displayed, but the sales clerk couldn’t be bothered to take her time with us. We then paused at the dramatic Giorgio Armani counter staffed by two men in suits who were promoting Armani Code. We were put off by the male salesclerks, however, and headed out.
Just as we were leaving, a very cheerful stand of Fruits & Passion attracted our attention. The sales associates explained it’s Canadian and showed us a special box on offer for the week that included a shower gel and a lotion. The set was very fetching, and the sales staff was extremely effusive—even offering to throw in a mango scent for free—but we decided to head elsewhere.
Huai Hai Road
After interfacing with too many sales people at Isetan, we were happy to hit the nonpressure, funky ambience of Sephora. A saleswoman came over right away offering to help. When told of our Mother’s Day mission, she led us directly to the boxed value sets on offer. Unfortunately, everything seemed geared more toward a young consumer, like the boxed set of Harajuku Lovers, over which a 20-year-old female customer next to us was agog.
All of the classic scents for older ladies were on the upper shelf and languishing away. A cheerful male salesclerk in his 20s greeted us in English and politely showed us his favorites, including Tous and Lola Marc Jacobs, noting his favorite choice for mothers is Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria. He also told us that if we purchased 1,500 yuan, or about $220 at current exchange, worth of products, we would get a VIP card that offered a 10 percent discount during the store’s special happy hours. We left feeling well looked after.
Huai Hai Road
A few blocks down, we peeked into Watsons, our favorite drug store, to ask about fragrances, but learned that they don’t sell any. The only scent they sell is for men—Adidas. Both my friend and I bought some wet wipes (on sale for two for one) and called it a day.
– Mina Choi
Johannesburg, South Africa
Not too long ago, fragrance shopping in Johannesburg meant a limited choice in generic department stores and nondescript pharmacies. Today, with malls and shopping centers dotting every neighborhood, the array of choices is impressive. Finding a fragrance—from the latest Chanel sensation to that elusive limited edition blink-and-it’s-gone cult Robert Piguet scent—is no longer such an impossible feat. What I was hoping to discover on this shopping mission was a fragrance that was fresh and feminine, perhaps with a hint of green or citrus notes. But I didn’t want to smell like everyone else in Johannesburg—here, they are obsessed with having the latest from the best-known brands. I wanted something not so easily identifiable but definitely memorable.
Edgars Department Store
34 High Street, Melrose Arch
If it’s mainstream prestige fragrances from the likes of Dior, Chanel, Lancôme, Guerlain, Prada, Tom Ford, Dolce & Gabbana and Estée Lauder one is after, Edgars is the place. I headed to the flagship, where the new beauty hall is the star attraction. With its spacious counters, white marble floors and black-suited staff, it almost feels like being in an American department store.
Walking through the beauty hall, however, I was largely ignored at the near-empty store until I stopped at the Chanel counter. There, the sales assistant was brisk and friendly, expertly explaining the newest offerings from the celebrated French house. She skimmed through the history of Chanel, invited me to try the latest version of No.5, Eau Premiere, which she said, is lighter, fresher and younger. She urged me to sample Chance Eau Fraîche and Eau Tendre, both of which she described as fresh, and eschewed the paper strips for a spritz on my skin. She advised me to “let them sit for a few hours to let the scent develop,” so off I went.
In the main perfume hall, where the fragrances were displayed in rows against the wall or on shelves, the sales staff was huddled together, busy chatting while I sniffed around. I was attended to only after a manager noticed me. She was pleasant and polite, automatically pointing out the latest offerings from Dolce & Gabbana, Viktor & Rolf and Hermès, and asking what I was looking for, dividing scents into two categories: strong or light, fresh or floral.
But none of the sales staff could tell me what made a particular scent stand out apart from its newness and its popularity. In the end, although the setup of the store did make me want to linger and experiment, I ended up not buying anything from lack of guidance from the staff.
Hyde Park Shopping Centre
Stepping into Metropolitain is like entering a private club open only to those in the know. The brands available are not your everyday department store names—they conjure exotic locales, velvet-drenched boudoirs and amorous adventures.
Inside, the store is a cross between Space NK and a chic Parisian pharmacy—clean and well ordered, with the products displayed with sophisticated symmetry. On the day I visited, the sales staff was poised and immaculately groomed, and incredibly knowledgeable about the products. They greeted me with warm smiles as I entered, and within seconds, one was at my side, smoothly asking if I was looking for anything in particular.
She introduced me to the Serge Lutens brand, explaining that Lutens is an acclaimed French perfumer who lives in Morocco and who created the groundbreaking Fémininité du Bois for Shiseido. She spritzed a few scents onto paper strips. She didn’t push me to buy anything, but clearly delighted in telling me the stories behind each, such as Eau Suave from Parfum d’Empire, which, she said, was inspired by the Empress Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte’s “one true love.” She pointed out the rose notes (“the Empress’ favorite”), as well as the hints of spice.
I loved that she didn’t focus on the newest or most hyped fragrance. Rather, she emphasized the emotional and sensory connection of each. Her manner was enthusiastic yet subtle. Without any attempt at a hard sell, she managed to give a sense of ceremony and meaning to what has become in other stores a pedestrian experience. And she seemed to read me right—the very first scent she suggested, Fleurs d’Oranger by Lutens, embodied the balance of femininity and freshness I was looking for. I felt I could spend hours here without feeling pressured to buy anything until I was absolutely sure it was “me.”
Blubird Shopping Centre
Dis-Chem claims to offer the best prices for branded and store-branded items, and makes no pretensions about offering atmosphere or service above and beyond the mundane, even if the particular Dis-Chem I visited was marketed as “upmarket,” located a mere five minutes from an affluent suburb.
The fragrance section was at the entrance of the store, with brand-name prestige and masstige scents housed in glass shelves behind the counter and along the aisles. Every conceivable mainstream brand was represented, from Bulgari and Dior to Calvin Klein and Aramis—even Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Paris Hilton. There were gift sets on display, as well.
People were milling about, checking out everything from cosmetics to prescription drugs. The staff members were generally helpful and approachable, but as they were not always dressed in uniforms, they were difficult to identify. I was ignored for a good 10 minutes, left to stare at the shelves. Finally, I approached a sales assistant who had been hunched over the counter doing paperwork the whole time I was there. She was pleasant, but immediately talked price when I asked to see The One by Dolce & Gabbana. She told me it’s at least 20 percent cheaper than elsewhere (which is true) and explained that Dis-Chem doesn’t get its fragrances straight from official channels, but from other distributors, which allows it to offer better prices. Some scents are even sold cheaper “without the box.”
To be honest, I didn’t expect much at Dis-Chem. But I still found the lack of finesse off-putting. Dis-Chem is the place to go to if you know exactly what you’re looking for and aren’t willing to pay department store prices. But if it’s a whiff of romance or seduction you’re after, you’re better off at Edgars or Metropolitain.
New York, USA
A kiss on the hand may be quite continental… but sometimes it can go too far. The mission that I chose to accept this month was to search for a new perfume. Fragrances, of course, go back to antiquity, and were widely used in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Shakespeare depicts Cleopatra’s barge as trailing scented panels of fabric, while essential oils were among the commodities that made the Silk Road what it was. And who can forget the Bard’s Lady Macbeth wailing, “All the perfumes of Arabia cannot wash this blood from my hand”? My own biases are much in favor of scent made from natural essences, as well as those of the heritage variety, all of which are often labeled with the unfl attering term of “old lady.” While I am certainly getting up there agewise (I’m a Baby Boomer), it should be said that I preferred “old-lady” scents even when I was in my 20s. As a young woman, after a brief flirtation with Oh! De London, I began to wear Casaque, supposedly the perfume of George Sand. Today, I particularly like the work of Serge Lutens, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Histoires de Parfums (in fact, I wear its George Sand 1804 scent almost every day).
J.C. Penney, Manhattan Mall,
100 West 33rd Street
My initial destination for this story, however, was a little off the beaten track for me. At J.C. Penney, in the Manhattan Mall, the Sephora store was immaculate, with plenty of blotter-paper strips. It was also very much self-service, which I prefer. Signs said, “Start Spritzing,” so I did.
I tested Marc Jacobs Daisy, Flora by Gucci and Miss Dior Cherie, along with Kat Von D’s Saint and Sinner fragrances, ranged beneath a cardboard figure of the tattoo artist (uncomfortably reminiscent of Michelle “Bombshell” McGee). The tag line for the last two scents was the ungrammatical “There are two sides in all of us.” Although none of the fragrances were to my personal liking, no one approached me and I couldn’t have been happier when I left.
Saks Fifth Avenue
611 Fifth Avenue
Saks Fifth Avenue’s newly revamped fragrance floor was beautiful. It was easy to navigate, and all of the members of the counter staffs were both highly professional and welcoming. To a woman—and man—they were immaculately turned out, very knowledgeable about their respective fragrance lines and helpful without offering even a soupçon of high-pressure salesmanship. The service was nothing short of spectacular. In fact, they all appeared to be taking part in a carefully choreographed service ballet, so intricately thought out that it could have been transferred sans alteration to the Lincoln Center stage.
I visited the store on two separate occasions. One day, the floor was surmounted by a giant photograph of Scarlett Johansson channeling Marilyn Monroe for Dolce & Gabbana. I headed to the Cartier counter, where a handsome, dark-haired man tried to sell me a gift set of the luxe jeweler’s latest, Délices de Cartier. I told him that it was too fruity for me, adding that I prefer fl orals. After a pause, he sprayed me with a more floral Cartier fragrance—So Pretty—which I found charming. I picked up a bottle of Le Baiser du Dragon and asked him whether it was an oriental. It was. He sprayed it on me and suggested that I walk around and see how I liked the fragrances after a while, so off I went.
On another day at Saks, I visited the Giorgio Armani counter, where, at my request, the sales assistant found me the most powdery of the Armani fragrances, which was Armani Mania and gave me a sample of another Armani fragrance, Onde Extase. Elsewhere, the Guerlain counter, to my delight, had an ample selection of such heritage house fragrances as Shalimar, Mitsouko and Jicky, while the other side of the counter offered variations on Fracas by Robert Piguet.
898 Madison Avenue
Entering the tiny, jewel box Frederic Malle store was like walking back in time—just as its designer, architect Patrick Naggar, intended. I was almost immediately intercepted by a tall, slim, beautifully dressed young man with a shock of hair and demeanor that suggested those of the young male lead in a Twenties musical comedy. Keeping up a nonstop patter about the notes and perfumers involved in fabricating the new set of Malle master scents, he put three fragrances, Iris Poudre, Dans tes Bras and Une Fleur de Cassie, on scent strips. I told him that I preferred Dans and Une Fleur, and he then sprayed one on each wrist. I sat down in one of the two deep, worn leather chairs for a moment…and he flattened his entire, flowerlike face on each of my wrists in turn, breathing deeply and saying something about how good one of the scents was on me.
Utterly astonished by this turn of events, I jumped up to leave, whereupon he ran into the back to get samples of the two fragrances. As for his unique method of taking in the way the fragrances smelled on me—it may work beautifully with the Ladies Who Lunch, but it scared the living daylights out of me.