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Beauty Incognito: Holiday Fragrance

Five male reporters head out on an undercover mission to report back on how male-friendly the fragrance shopping environment is.



I’m an early bird by nature, and on a 70-plus degree Friday in early October, I decided to get a head start on my holiday shopping. I was in the market for a fragrance for a 37-year-old female French friend, and headed to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to see what I could find. I learned that picking a women’s fragrance from an innumerable selection of scents is daunting. Extremely daunting. I had decided on gift sets to simplify the process—after all, what’s better than receiving a nice box containing multiple scents and lotions? But what aromas would appeal to her? What perfume should I buy?

Lord & Taylor
454 Fifth Avenue

At about 1:45 p.m., I walked into the mildly crowded beauty department. The brilliance of the color cosmetics area was a bit intimidating, but the perfectly manicured makeup artists and sales associates were even more so as I zigzagged through trying to locate the fragrance area. Was I being judged?

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When I located the scents (what guy asks for directions?), I scrutinized the bright glass cases lined with hundreds of bottles, grouped by designer and brand.

A spritzer looked my way but didn’t say anything. After looking at the extensive Chanel assortment and browsing other brands nearby, the spritzer softly asked from around the corner if he could help me. I told him I was “holiday shopping for a female friend.”

“What does she like?” he asked.

“In terms of…” I trailed off.

“Like light, sweet, spicy?”

He saw it was obvious I knew little about her fragrance tastes, so he pointed out that the store would in a few weeks be getting in value sets, and that I might want to consider that option (was it because I was dressed down in jeans, sneakers and a pullover?).

As he led me down an aisle past numerous upscale names, he pointed to his Chanel T-shirt and amicably joked, “Chanel pays my rent.” His brand loyalty not in question, he conveyed an impressive understanding of numerous brands, and was inforative without pushing a hard sell.

We stopped at a Versace Bright Crystal gift-set display. He described the scent as light and sweet, spraying a blotter card and handing it and a pen to me to check off the name on the back of the blotter.

Noting some gift sets from the likes of Versace and others range in price from $50 to $60, he added that sets from “prestige brands like Chanel and Bulgari” go for between $80 and $90.

We approached Chanel again, where he keyed in on Coco Mademoiselle. “A lot of young ladies like this,” he said, and after taking a few whiffs, I put it on my short list.

597 Fifth Avenue

At Sephora, the lines were long and there were make-overs aplenty in the store’s bustling Beauty Studio.

I scampered past the lipstick consultations and, instinctively switching to tunnel vision, spotted a staircase up to the scents at the back of the store.

There I found a mind-boggling number of men’s and women’s fragrances in all sizes and colors with prices marked. The open-sell displays had clearly been picked over during a busy afternoon.

I meandered from end to end for a few minutes— which allowed some time for my heart rate to settle and for me to get comfortable in the department—then sprayed Tom Ford’s Grey Vetiver on my wrists in an attempt to get a nearby associate’s attention.

A store “consultant” who works at multiple locations approached me. I told her I was getting a head start on holiday shopping but didn’t know where to begin.

The first thing she did was ask the age of my friend, then what she likes.

When I told her I had heard good things about Coco Mademoiselle, she sprayed a blotter strip and handed it to me, describing the aroma as “heavy and sweet. I’m in my 30s and I wouldn’t wear it,” she said, indicating in measured words that the scent is for a “mature, older” woman. Really?

She bounded off and quickly returned with a Bulgari bottle. She wet a blotter with Bulgari Omnia Crystalline, which I liked a lot. Add another to the short list.

Seconds later, she had a bottle of Narciso Rodriguez’s “new” scent Essence in hand.

I suggested maybe I should have my friend smell one of them first but added I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.

The consultant, who had a cellophane-wrapped pack of 1-ml. Essence spray vials, handed me one slyly, saying, “Have her smell this and tell her it’s for someone else.”

Things began to crystallize at Sephora, perhaps because of the open-sell environment and the consultant’s accommodating, pressure-free approach. But was it possible for me to get out of my Chanel-Bulgari-Narciso Rodriguez comfort zone?

After the consultation, which lasted a mere five minutes (she was busy), I thanked her and wove my way through the dense crowd, clutching my blotters and sample of Essence.

Bergdorf Goodman
754 Fifth Avenue

At Bergdorf Goodman, I felt like a fish out of water, so I kept the music coming through my headphones as I descended into the sea of cosmetics and fragrances on the store’s lower level.

I poked my head into the Tom Ford nook and returned to my comfort zone, though, thanks to the familiar aroma of Grey Vetiver. After hearing about my mission, the sales associate picked up Noir de Noir from Ford’s Private Blend collection of unisex fragrances. He took me through four more scents: Champaca Absolute, Neroli Portofino, Bois Marocain and Oud Wood, handing me a glass full of coffee beans between each scent (thank you) and explaining that, of the dozen or so fragrances in the collection, these were popular among women.

Next I headed to the Creed space but was corralled by a gal at the fragrance bar who suggested I try Chanel’s new men’s scent, Bleu de Chanel. I told her I was looking for a women’s gift and she led me straight to the countertop display of Les Exclusifs de Chanel.

Sycomore definitely struck a chord, but still I set off for Creed, blotter in hand.

I shouldn’t have bothered. A man and a woman stood at the round Creed table. I looked down at the array of bottles fanned out on the table. They continued to talk to each other without acknowledging me.

Maybe the jeans, sneakers and pullover?

A moment later, Montgomery Taylor, the creator of the fragrance company of the same name, greeted me and asked if I’d like to see his first fragrance, Ambra di Venezia. He told me the story about how he composed the scent and blew the glass perfume bottle ($350) himself in Murano, Italy. He suggested I give my friend the Ambra di Venezia set, which includes the scent and the brand’s body cream. Who could resist such a pretty presentation with a compelling tale behind it? I was impressed by the craftsmanship of the collection. I left, confident about my choices but not ready to make one yet.



It was on a sunny Saturday afternoon that I set foot on Mexico City’s bustling downtown district to buy a fragrance for my friend Giselle. I was fairly unprepared and unaware of the brands she prefers, so I figured the best way to find the right gift would be to describe her personality to the staff at the different stores I planned to visit.

Calle Tacuba No. 59

Before hitting the department stores, I thought I’d try a small, specialist perfumery. I was told family-owned Mishka has a good range of international fragrances, so I headed there first. I was disappointed. The shop’s interior and decor were fairly run-down, and I had to pull the saleswoman’s teeth to get her to give me any useful information. I described Giselle as a “fairly fashionable, confident and flirty” 26-year-old who typically wears fragrance and is familiar with many brands.

“Can you give me a couple of good choices?” I asked. With a fake smile, the sales associate reached for two: DKNY’s Be Delicious Fresh Blossom and Chanel Chance, both of which smelled wonderful but I wondered which would suit Giselle best. Be Delicious is “floral, fresh and fruity,” the woman explained, ideal for a 20- to 30-year-old woman, while the Chanel juice is “sweet and fresh,” also ideal for a “young and flirty” lady, she added.

Based on that description, both products seemed a winner, but when I asked if she could recommend a third choice, she insisted those were the best she could think of, and I wondered, given the plethora of brands out there, if she was just being a bit lazy. She did, however, mention the store’s prices were five to 10 percent below department store rates (which interested me a bit), but given her lack of enthusiasm and lack of product knowledge, I thought I would be better off heading to her larger competitors.

Palacio de Hierro – Tienda Centro
Avenida 20 de Noviembre No. 3

I walked over to the nearby upscale department store chain Palacio de Hierro’s outlet on Avenida 20 de Noviembre. This was a much more positive and stimulating experience. First, the store (like most Palacios) is gorgeous, and the beauty department is elegantly and attractively decorated. The section is also powerfully lit by an ultrahigh, multicolored glass ceiling that gives it a cathedrallike feeling. The store’s design presents a fusion of modern and colonial architecture, as it was once the home of Mexican liberator, Porfirio Diaz, who led the country’s independence from Spain.

Palacio’s staff were proactive, well-informed and friendly, inviting me to ask questions and answering them in great detail. When I described Giselle to one saleswoman (who actually approached me before I had a chance to reach the counter), her first recommendation was Yves Saint Laurent’s Parisienne eau de parfum spray. The juice, a concoction of blackberry, damask rose and sandalwood, is made for a “young, modern, feminine and sensual woman,” which fitted Giselle’s description well enough. I was intrigued but wondered what else she had in store. She reached for YSL’s Elle, which she called “elegant and daring,” two qualities I noted Giselle has. The scent smelled fantastic, but I was thrown off by the sales associate’s insistence that the scent wasn’t age specific. “Fragrances are for any age,” she insisted. At about $110 for the 90-ml. eau de toilette, I also thought Elle was a bit expensive, and when told Parisienne’s $95 price included a free lipstick of any color, I was sold.

Dufry Shops
Mexico City Airport, Terminal 1

But before buying anything, I thought I’d give the airport shops a go, as I had to travel that day.

I popped into Dufry at Mexico City Airport’s Terminal 1. This experience topped all others. The shop was beautiful and boasted well-lit fragrance displays. The staff was friendly and seemed even more knowledgeable than those at Palacio.

I was warmly greeted as soon as I stepped into the store, where a gregarious saleswoman encouraged me to sample Hermès’ Kelly Caleche, noting it was ideally suited for a 25- to 30-year-old female. But what impressed me the most was her product knowledge. She went well beyond the call of duty to describe the ingredients with great minutiae. Kelly Caleche, she said, contains notes from Mexico’s white tuberose flower, as well as from the climbing and mimosa roses. It also has a subtle leather infusion that makes it as soft as “an angel’s wings” and evokes Hermès’ image as a purveyor of luxury leather goods. My only reservation was her product description as one made for a “confident and dominant yet feminine woman.” I thought this was a bit inappropriate, as Giselle is not really ultraconfident or “dominant.” The other product she recommended was Quizas by Loewe, which has a pretty strong presence in Latin America, given its Spanish roots. The scent was gorgeous, based on strong lemon citrus and flower notes, and the product description, as one made for a “daring and confident woman who likes to be sensual,” fit Giselle quite well. At $82.50 for a 100-ml. eau de toilette, the price seemed a bit high, but given Loewe was including a beautiful beach bag with the purchase, I thought this was definitely worth it. Sold!



It’s tough shopping for a perfume for my wife, who rarely finds a fragrance light enough to accommodate her strong allergies. She’d just as soon opt for the cash equivalent in Brazilian chocolate if given the choice. But I’ve built up an impressive streak of husband surprises so far this year and believe I can find someone in São Paulo who’ll have the right scent on hand—and patience for my endless questions.

Contém 1g
Shopping Continental, Av. Leão Machado, 100

I entered this working-class mall looking for a store that could make fragrance shopping an easy and educational experience for me. I bypassed two specialty shops bustling with traffic that had walls stacked from floor to ceiling with scents, because, frankly, the number of choices seemed overwhelming. A more welcome site was the smaller, quieter shop of Contém 1g, a well-known 26-year-old Brazilian makeup company with 200 stores nationwide.

A saleswoman listened intently as I explained my total perfume ignorance and the ideas I had for my wife. The store had three choices (each about $42), and while the small selection may have disappointed some, I’d later come to appreciate its simplicity.

The saleswoman offered clear, detailed and down-to-earth explanations of each that impressed me with how much empathy she was able to show this first-timer. It seemed to me that the three options on hand were different enough from one another to satisfy the needs of anyone. Within minutes, I felt confident that a Carolina Herrera scent—lighter and more refreshing than the others—was the right choice. I promised to return and complimented the saleswoman on a truly helpful effort.

Shopping Iguatemi, Av. Brig. Faria Lima, 2232

From there I headed to Shopping Iguatemi, São Paulo’s ritziest mall. A little more confident this time around, I entered the pungent abyss of Faurè, a high-end fragrance superstore with bottles covering every wall from floor to 20-foot ceiling.

I went through my routine explanation about the wife, her allergies and my own cluelessness to the small army of saleswomen at the entrance. One woman took the lead and pulled me by the arm away from the group, I assume signifying she either knew the most or was simply next up in the sales rotation.

From a wall of countless options, she chose Givenchy’s Ange ou Démon ($147), sprayed a slip of paper and passed it to me. I smelled it and waited. It smelled good, I guess. But I wanted to know why she chose it for me, what set it apart from the 100 or so other options in front of us. At least 20 seconds passed and she said nothing, so I finally asked, “Why this one?” “Because it’s light,” she replied, and “fits your needs.” I waited for more details; she offered none.

Already I felt less comfortable in this environment. Where would we go from here? Did she know what to offer me next? Should I lead the way? It’s clear I wouldn’t know where to start, with hundreds of options on hand. I humored her minimal effort with a second and third option, Dior Miss Dior Cherie L’eau and Lady Million by Paco Rabanne.

All three smelled nice, but none much different from the option I liked at Contém 1g that was nearly a third of the price. I left, eager to reward the saleswoman for being on the same wavelength with me.



I generally think scent is a highly personal thing that the wearer should experiment with and choose for herself. That being said, I know my friend pretty well and she trusts my judgment—or at least my advice. She is my best friend, in her midthirties and usually likes fragrances that are neither too girly nor too floral. She’s not afraid of wearing masculine scents, and she usually likes mine. But I decided not to go cross-gender this time.

3 Quartiers, 23 Boulevard de la Madeleine

I entered 3 Quartiers and went looking for Marionnaud, which is at the back of the mall. That didn’t give a luxury vibe. The store isn’t very large and is similar to typical French beauty sellers, with bright lighting and white shelving lining the walls. Here, the shelves weren’t fully stocked and not clearly designated to a particular brand. As I looked for the fragrance area, a saleswoman quickly came over to offer assistance. She immediately had me sample Forever and Ever from Dior, a reedition of an older scent—not what I was looking for. Next came Sisley’s Eau du Soir, which isn’t bad but not exactly what I was after, either. Then I noticed Untitled from Maison Martin Margiela and I told her that was what my friend really had loved lately. The saleswoman said she adored it, too, and had worn it all summer. She had me sample the Balenciaga fragrance, which despite being floral is different since it mixes violet and leather notes. Next up was Thierry Mugler’s new Womanity scent, but I quickly nixed it because of its bottle design—definitely not my taste.

She went back to Dior and made me try Miss Dior Chérie, which didn’t fit the bill. By now, I was carrying around five testers and starting to feel dizzy from all the smells and not knowing which was which. I asked her to throw all out but the Balenciaga. I tried to drive her in a new direction by asking for an eau de cologne—even an old-school one—and she quickly brought out Roger & Gallet and then went back to Dior to spray a blotter with its eau de cologne, which smelled very classic.

I thanked her and left without a clue of what I could possibly buy. I had an impression that despite the saleswoman’s kindness she was being paid by (or otherwise told to push) Dior.

Le Bon Marché
24 Rue de Sèvres

This department store immediately gives the impression of luxury, making me feel at ease. At Guerlain, I explained my quest to the sales associate. She proffered Mitsouko, then suggested a new edition of Shalimar, called Ode à la Vanille. Surprisingly, the scent was interesting, as its vanilla was balanced by citrus notes.

She wrote the name of each on the blotters, which I found convenient. Next she introduced me to Jicky, then suggested I clear my nose by smelling some coffee grains in a jar—a very efficient move.

Since I said my friend likes musky and woody scents, she presented Guerlain’s L’Art et la Matière collection. I was very pleased by Rose Barbare and Bois d’Arménie. We eliminated the ones I didn’t like and kept only the blotters, perfectly labeled, of those of interest.

The niche fragrance area had only one saleswoman (the rest had gone to lunch), but she rapidly offered assistance. She was enthusiastic and knowledgeable—especially about Miller Harris. I asked about Fleurs de Sel, whose name excited my curiosity. I absolutely loved its mix of salty notes with citrus, since it reminded me of a vacation at the seaside. Piment des Baies was another revelation with its spicy, fresh notes.

It’s the one I liked most for my friend so far. I told the saleswoman I love Byredo. I tested Bal d’Afrique and Chembur. The latter was the most interesting, as spicy and musky notes are something my friend would probably like. I kept the blotters of almost everything and decided to take a short walk to clear my head.



In October, I realized that I desperately needed a gift for my publisher in Turkey, who had single-handedly arranged the publication of my three nonfiction books in Istanbul. I was scheduled to go there in 10 days but had never before met her. All I knew was that she is a fiftysomething upper-class Turkish lady married to a world-famous scientist. What gift would be appropriate? Indonesian batik, maybe, but how to select an appropriate pattern? A silk scarf? That could be too personal. A bottle of cognac? She may be religious and not touch alcohol. Fragrance appeared to be the most neutral and elegant gift, but I needed professional help.

Metro Department Store
Pacific Place Mall

First I drove to the Pacific Place Mall, a Mecca of high-class shopping in the capital. I headed to the fragrance section of Metro Department Store, which was bright, elegant and in good taste, pleasant aromas wafting from the entrance. I made eye contact with two assistants. I don’t know if this happens to other men shopping for fragrances, but right from the beginning I felt that I was breaking some rules, that I was being scrutinized and that my replies were untruthful.

Both ladies were friendly, but they came at me from two sides and began their interrogation. “I need an elegant perfume for my publisher in Turkey,” I told them. “Publisher?” asked the first, mistrustfully. “How old is she?” asked the other. “In her fifties,” I replied, afraid I didn’t sound convincing. The saleswomen exchanged glances. I felt exposed and vulnerable. I should have probably said that I was buying a gift for my lover or my mother-in-law or any other more credible person.

At the end, the ladies showed some mercy. They even demonstrated good knowledge of their products and a natural desire to please the customer (me).

They proposed Delices de Cartier, telling me it was newly launched, a supremely feminine fragrance with a timeless blend of distinctive fruits, like iced cherry and zesty bergamot, blended with the spice of pink pepper and floral notes like violet, jasmine and freesia, finished with warm amber, musk and sandalwood. I had no idea whether the assistant memorized all that or was just improvising. In any case, I was impressed and overwhelmed by the complexity of the scent. The other associate introduced me to Prada’s d’Oranger and gave me a long speech about its origin (jasmine specially grown in India). For my purpose, I felt most comfortable with the simple elegance of Prada. However, I wanted to visit one more store.

Glow Living Beauty
Plaza Indonesia

I drove to the upscale mall Plaza Indonesia to visit Glow Living Beauty, which is advertised as “the first large and upscale specialty store for beauty needs in Indonesia that offers luxury cosmetics, skin care, fragrances and well-being treatment products from international multibrands.” Unlike at Metro, here each scent had its own representative competing for the customer’s attention. Although this store “specializes” in perfumes and cosmetics, it felt much more impersonal, and the service was pushy. I found it very diffi cult to navigate through the ocean of choices.

I learned about new scents from a variety of sales associates, one representing Elizabeth Arden, another Vera Wang and Issey Miyake and a third who worked for DKNY. But finally I decided to return to Pacific Place Mall and purchase Prada d’Oranger.

What influenced my final decision? I actually love the scent. I also found it more simple and elegant than the others, making it a perfect gift for someone who I’ve never met before. I also liked the atmosphere of Pacific Place Mall, as well as the service I received there.

The price (about $120, including a free 100-ml. bottle of body lotion) was steep, but what good things are cheap these days? I had my elegant and neutral gift wrapped, and I was all set to depart for Turkey.