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Frédéric Malle & Friends

Smell is a powerful memory trigger, so when you die, it will make it easier for people to remember you.

Article By Molly Butterfoss, February 11, 2013


Clinique Happy makes me so sad (other tragedies: double spaces after periods, when sweaters pill). It gives me flashbacks to junior high afternoons spent roaming the mall as a young prude who had to ask her mom before buying a bikini instead of a one-piece. (Did you know that Joan Didion once wanted to be a mall developer? I thought that made hanging out at the mall very intellectual.) 

Despite this, on a day-to-day basis, I would rather smell something good instead of the bus fumes and discarded french fries of Chicago's streets. Perfume always works; clothes get worn out and need to be hemmed, and sometimes your black shirt is a different shade than your black pants (go home and change). Even if you're wearing your pajamas to work, perfume makes you feel legitimate, like wearing a virtual blazer. And one time on a tour of the Parisian sewer system (apparently an architectural wonder) when I was hungover, I sniffed my rollerball of perfume and it helped me survive the entire nightmare. So, perfume is important. 


Many people, usually the sort of women who are profiled in Vogue testifying that their ex-supermodel mothers are their style icons, have what is called a signature scent. It is gross to describe your chosen scent this way—the perfume equivalent of referring to yourself in the third person. Just call it your favorite perfume. That aside, it is nice to fantasize about your own magazine profile in which your 'signature scent' is identified and favorably discussed at length. Also, smell is a powerful memory trigger, so when you die, it will make it easier for people to remember you.  


There are a lot of tricks out on the market. I am appalled by perfumes that mimic the smell of clean laundry. That should be your starting point. I hope to god you already smell like clean laundry. Don't get these. They don't even look good on your dresser—it's like setting a huge bottle of Febreze up there. 


This brings us to a critical component of perfume ownership. How good the bottle looks on your dresser is 50% of the game. I am really susceptible to branding, so maybe 65% for me. My friend with the best bottle collection ever explains that she likes how there is something kind of medieval about perfumes. "Like in cartoons when witches sell you bottled potions for love or revenge or whatever. I like having lots of bottles on my vanity and feeling like a powerful wiatch."  [Real word!]

Ironically, the one perfume that looks the best on your dresser is not great. I hate Chanel No. 5. I read about it for years and it became the gold standard in my mind. Every classy lady in every memoir and movie would just dab it on her neck and wrists in a sensual ritual before she went on a date with someone like James Bond. I'm pretty sure even the mom in Peter Pan put it on before leaving her kids with the nanny dog. When I finally smelled it, I was shocked. It is repulsive. I was pretty devastated and eventually diagnosed with a form of Paris Syndrome. I gave up on perfume for years. If I didn't like the best, then what was the point? 


Luckily, there is a middle ground between disgustingly classic perfume-y overload and smelling like a t-shirt. I discovered this by taking a quiz on the Frédéric Malle website, designed to discover your perfect Malle scent. The quiz is like a logic exam and I struggled through it feeling like I was writing something half diary entry and half cover letter. I humbly submitted my quiz and waited. 

Malle's magic took time. I researched online forums and some people had never heard back (embarrassing for them!), others heard back after months, a few heard back in a week or so, and some superior beings actually received samples and handwritten notes in the mail from two angels at Frédéric Malle, Hélène and Tiphaine. 

People seemed to approach it like horoscopes, either with total faith, or with skeptical amusement. One girl aggressively tested the system with her demands: "I basically said I wanted perfume to impart a sense of well-being. When asked about my fashion tastes, I merely replied that I was 'somewhat eclectic.'" 

After a month I got an email with my quiz results and tentatively went out to test my new fragrance. It was perfect. It smells like summer but not in a clichéd way; it smells different on me than it does on my friends; it's pretty but not boring with specific notes of coconut, tuberose, and neroli. 

Now Frédéric Malle is one of my favorite perfume lines. They even have a perfume specifically for hair, which is a luxurious level of specificity. Charming bonus: Malle's grandfather was Serge Heftler, the founder of Dior perfumes.  

If you need a new scent, go take the quiz right now. And there are other avenues to investigate while you await your quiz results. I like Le Labo, OLO, Tom Ford, and men's cologne from Marc Jacobs. Good luck and please don't get Clinique Happy.


Images via Frédéric Malle, Guillaume Luisetti, Jacques Giaume