To those of you who live in big cities, the following will contain no surprises. I suspect people in New York and Chicago are accustomed to expertise at the fragrance counter. Here in Memphis, things are slightly different. You are pounced upon at Macy's; regarded suspiciously at Sephora. Perfumania sometimes stares coldly at you as if daring you to ask for one more smell strip. Only one store carries anything remotely niche: and only Bond No. 9, at that.
I spent the last week in Los Angeles, and while most of my time wasn't killed anywhere near the perfume counter, I did go to Barney's and the Luckyscent shop, and during these brief visits I felt like I was making up for a lot of lost time. My top priority was getting over to the Chanel boutique on Rodeo Drive. I'd read a lot about the Exclusives line, particularly Cuir de Russie. I heard it was like nothing else and wanted to verify that high praise. It was several days before I could get over there, and when I did, I had four travel companions in tow, none of them the slightest bit interested in perfume--at least, not in smelling it for hours on end.
Chanel was pretty close to the picture I'd imagined. Rich, portly men buying impossibly expensive trinkets for younger women, who pulled out credit cards as if to pay their own way but were intercepted by said men, who then explained that the bills all come to the same place anyway. One saleswoman held up a petite, quilted handbag, pricing it at 2400 dollars. There were two floors. The fragrance counter was stuck in the back near the door onto the parking lot. The Exclusives were lined up along a high shelf. The bottles are about 6 ounces, chunky things, with magnetized caps which snap shut with a strange gravitational suction. Cuir de Russie was everything I'd been told to expect, and more, and they were out of it, and wouldn't be getting any more until after I left town. I was given a miniature and, once it was determined I wouldn't be accessorizing, sent on my way. I did pick up a bottle of Antaeus before leaving. My friend Bard wrinkled his nose, delivering the usual verdict. "Cat pee."
Knowing the patience of my friends was quickly wearing thin, I raced down Rodeo, first to Lalique, then to Dior. Versace was a bust. Inside, someone stated that Versace only made two colognes and when I asserted otherwise he stared at me as if he might call security. Two enormous Arab women with cheap hair squiggies took up most of the room at Lalique, asking questions which sent the sales staff running around in circles to find prices and check stock and dry the sweat under their arms in the privacy of the back room. It won't surprise you to know they left without purchasing anything. I suspected they'd done this many times, but, when they do spend money, they throw it around like confetti at a wedding.
The exasperated woman who ultimately helped me wore a skirt she probably doesn't do a lot of bending over in, and her hair was piled high on her head artlessly. The effect was very chic, making me feel overdressed and under-dressed at the same time. They had one more bottle of the divine Encre Noir, a peppery, grungy vetiver which is Guerlain's vetiver with a cigarette in its mouth, a bit of a hangover, and a big, boozy, let's screw this very minute look on its face. Dior is one long row of a place. with the clothes off to one side, threatening to gang up on you. Luckily, the fragrances are on the other side, where you instinctively rush for refuge. Eau Noire is similar to Annick Goutal's Sables, though I didn't recognize it until I got home to Memphis. Of the three masculines in this Slimane trio of special issues, it smelled the best, at least at first. Later, I smelled something incredible and found that it was Bois D'Argent, which I'd sprayed on my other wrist and lost interest in instantly. Now it smelled richer and deeper and kept evolving in ways that surprised me.
As we left Rodeo I spotted an Etro store, and wished I'd insisted on going in. I made a mental note to return, but it was several days before I could get back. The next day, I was again in the area, but after my extended trek down Rodeo I was given the option of one shop and one shop only, and the obvious choice was Barneys, where I could kill many birds with one stone. As we entered, my friends disappeared--to me at least. I'm sure they were still there. They might have been standing in front of me, waving bloody stumps where their arms had once been. All I saw was Serge Lutens and L'Artisan, Yosh, Strange Invisible Perfumes, S-ex, Baghari, Iris Nobile, and fill in the blank.
A dark-haired woman with an accent I took to be French approached and, ascertaining my familiarity with perfumes, went right to the good stuff. After spending several minutes with her, I realized she wasn't trying to push anything on me, and she knew the answer to almost every question I had. When I expressed my appreciation, she explained that she isn't in sales. A specialist, her only real job is to know what she's talking about.
She even had her own opinions, based on personal taste rather than sales figures. She had no interest in Baghari (I loved it) and, to her, the only outrageous thing about Outrageous was how synthetic it smelled. She convinced me to buy Daim Blond. I needed no help when it came to Iris Nobile and Bois de Paradis. The former is rich (I bought the EDP) and robust. Bois de Paradis is nutty and grassy and lists among its notes French Rose, Cinnamon, Blackberry, and Fig. It smells incredible; to this nose, the best of the Delrae line. The specialist gave me eight small decants to take with me. Among them: Arabie, Noir Epices, and Baghari.
Days later, when I made it over to Etro, I was less than enthused. Expensive clothes don't impress me; even with dangly, flashy things hanging off them. Yes I like your pants. I'm even vaguely intrigued that you paid several thousand dollars for them, but only because I'm imagining how much perfume I could buy with that kind of dough. It impresses me even less when you treat your small but somewhat impressive line of fragrances as if they were trifles you hand out as free gifts with purchase, ugly things cluttering your counter's real reason for being.
They had no tester for Messe de Minuit and had no intention of opening one. They only really sell it at Christmas, they said, as if I had the nerve to think of it out of season. They were gracious enough to let me smell a dust-laden candle, then laughed openly at me when I shipped my purchase back home to me. "You're sending it to yourself?" the salesman snickered. "Why yes," I said. "Should I send it to someone else and have them forward it to me instead?"
In case you're wondering, Messe de Minuit is sublime, an incense as true to its name as the Comme des Garcon line, it adds to their dry iterations a fantastically resinous quality, giving you both smoke and source.
The rest of the week was fairly dry, until I discovered, my last day in town, that the Luckyscent Scent Bar was a mere two blocks from where I was staying. Obviously, I raced right over. By the time I left, I had purchased five bottles of perfume. I returned from my car to buy one more. The saleswoman was polite and informative but decidely remote, as if she'd left the oven on at home. She answered my questions patiently but in such a way that the patience I required was made clear. I told a few jokes and she laughed, so I know she wasn't talking in her sleep. For a while I wasn't sure. I got to smell things I'd only read about, like most of the Parfumerie Generale line, Eau D'Italie, Heeley, Kilian, and others I forget. There were so many to smell. No wonder the saleslady was out of it.
I left with Heeley Fine Leather, Sienne L'Hiver, Les Nereides Patchouli, Un Crime Exotique, and Cedre Sandaraque. I returned a few minutes later for Washington Tremlett's Royals Heroes 1805 (I'd mailed everything else home. I needed SOMETHING for the plane trip).