I’ll never forget the first time I was “perfumed” in Paris. After spritzing and sniffing numerous scents at a parfumerie in the Marais, I settled on L’Eau d’Issey by Issey Miyake, a citrusy floral just right for warmer weather. The chic saleswoman held the tester aloft angled in my direction. “Je vous parfume, mademoiselle?” she asked, dousing me head to toe in a scented shower of Issey.
Not since have I worn quite so much scent but will admit to feeling quite glam that afternoon as I trailed its sweet essence through the streets of Paris. It was an early lesson in the seductive power of fragrance.
That was more than ten years ago and I’ve tried many perfumes since. While I love the idea of a signature scent, I can’t seem to commit to just one. With so much wonderful choice and temptation, why settle? But whether true to one fragrance or scent schizophrenics like me, French women are united in a deep devotion to perfume.
The average French person spends 40€ per year on it, more than anywhere else in the world. Like fine lingerie, fragrance is deeply embedded in the French style psyche – both for its sensuality and evocative powers. Icons of French style perpetuate the mystique.
Catherine Deneuve – a great lover of perfume and muse to renowned perfumers Francis Kurkdjian and Frederic Malle – claims to vary her scent for different roles. Her enduring favorite? The classic, l’Heure Bleue by Guerlain. As for men’s fragrance, she has said that she once loved a man who wore Dior’s Eau Sauvage; she finds it intolerable on anyone else.
For those looking to add scent to their seduction arsenal à la Parisienne, here’s our look at some enduring favorites as well as tantalizing modern French scents.
Les Best Sellers. It’s a rare day in Paris that I don’t get a waft of Angel, Thierry Mugler’s enormously popular signature essence. It’s so big in Paris that perfumeries carry shiny tanks of the stuff for easy refills. Dior reigned supreme in 2011 with two of the year’s three top sellers: J’Adore, described as “the essence of absolute femininity” on their website, and Miss Dior Cherie with ads featuring the ubiquitous image of a sweetly seductive Natalie Portman.
Les Classics. Few scents are as emblematic of France – indeed of perfume itself – as Chanel’s original N°5, the scent worn by “Mademoiselle” herself. It’s the world’s top selling scent, continuously in production since being selected by Coco (the fifth scent presented to her by perfumer Ernest Beaux) in 1921. The house of Guerlain refreshed its signature Shalimar in 2011 with the release of Shalimar Parfum Initial, a temptingly luxe floral in a similarly iconic bottle (even if the intentionally girly jus is pink.) Hermès continues to tempt with new offerings such a Un Jardin sur le Nil, part of its “un jardin” series by master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena (like wet flowers after the rain!). The series complements Hermès mainstays, Calèche and the delicious white floral opulence of 24 Faubourg.
Les Artistes. For French perfumers such as Serge Lutens, Frederic Malle and Annick Goutal (run by Annick’s daughter Camille since her death in 1999), the concept of perfume as art is alive and well. Although their brands are global, they have retained their allure as niche – and deeply French – perfume houses that remain true to traditional methods of creation and production. Relying on natural flower essences and the expertise of a master scent creator or “nose,” these perfumers describe their work as creative, artistic and inspired by memory and romance.
Ask a French woman about her scent and you’re likely to hear a passionate story. She will tell you that her scent is deeply personal and even offer tantalizing tips on how to wear it. Behind the knees, between the breasts and on the neck, bien sur. Unsure where to apply yours? As Coco Chanel said, “wherever you wish to be kissed.”