Earlier this year I was asked to give a lecture to a group of fashion journalism students at Condé Nast College – an event that was swiftly moved online thanks to the pandemic. It goes without saying that giving a lecture to a group of students looking back at you from a Zoom grid is no less intimidating than doing it in real life, so as I got ready for the event, I did all the things I could to pump up my confidence: I slipped on my favourite denim shirt, I slicked back my increasingly shaggy lockdown hair and, finally, I sprayed on one of my all-time favourite scents – Hermès Eau de Néroli Doré, a zingy, energizing citrus number with a grown-up saffron afterglow.
Of course, there was a bit of muscle memory here from a grooming routine pre-pandemic. I have always worn fragrance before going out to meet people, especially those I want to feel my most confident and professional around. But spraying it on for a virtual meeting when no-one else was there, confirmed something: all along I’ve been wearing scent for me, not for them. As lockdown progressed, fragrance became more important to me. Trapped indoors, scent offered not only an escape for my brain, but an organisational project that was long overdue – I had to build a “fragrance wardrobe”.
Having a fragrance wardrobe is the opposite of finding that one perfect signature scent. The idea is that, much like having a closet that’s filled with clothes you can mix and match, you should have a selection of fragrances that work for you, depending on your mood and the occasion. The problem was that most of the fragrances I possessed weren’t actually of my choosing.
I write about fragrances so some were samples sent from various PR teams, but most were gifts from relatives and friends – meaning there were very few I actually loved. Just like a pair of shoes that’s a half-size out, wearing a fragrance that doesn’t feel right, or fit perfectly, becomes unbearable pretty quickly.
Our ability to smell is the oldest and most developed of our five senses. As cell-like life forms, before we could touch, hear or see, we learned to primitively respond to chemicals around us in the air and water. This is why the human nose contains more than 1,000 smell receptors while our eyes have just four light sensors. Scent is hard-wired into our brain, enabling us to experience it in a far more visceral way.
It’s always been crucial in terms of maintaining our survival, says Dr Caroline Allen, a psychology lecturer at Newcastle University who specialises in the role that scents play in human interactions. “Odours contain important information about hazards, such as contaminated food, potentially communicable diseases, and other people’s emotions,” she says. “The fact that we have such a large fragrance industry, which has existed since the early Greek civilisations, and choose to add fragrances to a whole range of everyday items shows us how important smell is.”
So, without the olfactory stimulation of the outside world, I started to do just that – think about what I really liked about the scents I already had. In this way I could build a fragrance wardrobe that would be perfect once lockdown eased. Assessing my fragrances, I realised I had far more dark and moody evening scents (all heavy woods and spices) than light and breezy daytime ones. In other words, despite being a double denim kind of guy on a day-to-day basis, I had the fragrance wardrobe equivalent of a rail of tuxedos. Of the fragrances I loved, most tended towards the fresh citrus or the floral. A quick corroboration with the encyclopedic database of scents on fragrantica.com revealed the sort of notes I liked: rose, bergamot, lavender, coriander and, to my surprise, musk (an ingredient that gets treated like the oaked chardonnay of the fragrance world by most people: achingly uncool).
Focussing on this in lockdown had an unexpected side effect. Since my nose was starved of real olfactory stimulation, I began to get interested in “hyperrealistic” scents – ones that have been designed to smell as much like the real thing as possible. Examples like Jo Malone London’s Grapefruit Cologne, Tom Ford’s Lost Cherry and Vilhelm Parfumerie’s Modest Mimosa (dedicated to the yellow flower, not the cocktail), all use other notes in their background to highlight, exaggerate and enhance the key ingredient they’re trying to replicate on your skin. Luckily, scents with a singular focus make a great base for your fragrance wardrobe as they tend to be ones that are more straightforward to layer together, too.
This is perhaps the most controversial “next level” move you can try with your retooled fragrance collection – spraying two or more fragrances over each other to create something new. Much like clothes, it’s great to have a closet that is packed with outfits you can wear to various events, but – of course – it’s even more advantageous to have a tighter edit of pieces that can be mixed together and worn in different combinations. However, when it comes to fragrance, this is something perfume purists consider, frankly, scandalous – although those attitudes are changing.
“We don’t believe in being told what to do. We think life’s more interesting when you’re constantly discovering, not just following,” says Matt Brown, co-founder of British grooming company Thomas Clipper, whose range of four “Unite” fragrances (City, Country, Coast and Mountain) were designed specifically to wear both together and separately, recreating the feel of the areas of the UK they’ve been inspired by.
“We wanted to make scents that developed in their own right,” he continues. “Only once the prototype fragrances had passed that test did we consider them for layering. That way, the promise of our fragrances is that you can be completely new to blending and still come up with something that smells great every time.”
Cool New York scentmaker DS & Durga has a similar philosophy. In 2018 it introduced I Don’t Know What, an ambiguously named juice designed to be sprayed over your existing scents as a “fragrance enhancer”.
“It’s a perfume with my favourite enhancing molecules that blend with any other perfume,” says David Moltz, a former musician who co-founded DS & Durga with his architect partner, Kavi. “It’s got no real heart, rather a selection of soft, neutral notes that are renowned for their subtly transformative powers. One spray and you have the best patchouli, oud, vetiver, neroli… anything.”
We all know that the possibility of being confined to our homes looms large, but at least I’m now prepared. I have scents not only that I love but that take me to the Italian Riviera (Acqua di Parma’s Chinotto di Liguria), the beach (Tom Ford’s Soleil Blanc), and out to grassy American prairies (Byredo’s Rodeo). Experimenting with fragrance may have been triggered by staying in, but when I venture out, I’m taking what I’ve learned with me.
I’ve just ordered a few of DS & Durga’s new “Auto” car fragrances, too, for when I next venture on to the road. They are swing-tag upgrades of those post-carwash pine trees, infused with scents like Big Sur After Rain and Portable Fireplace. If scent can make something as dismal as lockdown that little bit more enjoyable, surely it can do the same for a traffic jam in real life…
Nick Carvell’s best scents for lockdown
For the workspace: Diptyque Electric Wall Diffuser (£90, diptyqueparis.com). Whether you’ve headed back to the office or are still working on the kitchen table, this new electric diffuser from Diptyque will fill your workspace with mind-focussing fragrance. Slot in a fragrance insert (I recommend Fig Tree) and prepare to be transported to the garden of a French Chateau.
For the car: Lime Basil & Mandarin Car Diffuser by Jo Malone London (£48, available in November, jomalone.co.uk). Why shouldn’t your car smell as good as your home? This diffuser attaches to the air vents to release scent throughout your journey.
For the cloak room: Suede Hand Wash by Byredo (£38, byredo.com). Never underestimate the space-filling power of a scented hand wash. Infused with amber, violet, pear and musk, this liquid soap is crisp, comforting and rich without being overpowering.
Nick Carvell was previously editor of The Jackal, spent five years as British GQ’s Associate Style Editor, and prior to that was social media editor at mrporter.com