To paraphrase perfume critic Tania Sanchez, every perfume lover goes through the following stages of fragrance obsession:
As children, we watch our mothers or grandmothers apply a classic Chanel or Guerlain (the “Mother’s Bathroom” stage); later, we begin our own perfume collection, starting with friendly florals and candy floss scents—or what we believe to be ~feminine~; eventually, we graduate to more sophisticated and “tasteful” woody, resinous, or leather-like perfumes and perhaps become seduced by the niche and obscure; eventually, we reach “enlightenment,” a stage characterized by our taking joy in perfume for perfume’s sake, regardless of its brand, scent classification, or popular status.
To this list, I’d like to add a conceptual perfume stage (perhaps it would be wedged between the sophisticated and enlightened stages). Maybe not many perfumistas have gone through this phase—but trends in perfumery indicate that’s all about to change!
What is conceptual perfume?
For perfumers, conceptual perfume is less about creating a pleasing smell (though certainly, most of us interested in conceptual perfume still want to smell good!) and more about creating an intellectually engaging fragrance that represents a particular idea—and the less conventional the idea, the better. Think less “sexy date night noir de noir” or “bridal bouquet happy pretty lady,” and more antique book collection, medieval ossuary, the year 1996…
Why is conceptual perfume becoming more popular?
Conceptual perfume is catching on right now for a few reasons. One, as our millennial shopping habits evolve and we become less likely to shop at department stores and more likely to seek independent, ethical designers, we’re also less interested in smelling like a department store perfume counter. In short, as we move away from interest in brand-name status, we move toward an interest in brand ethos and uniqueness. Also, it doesn’t hurt that conceptual perfumes are largely non-gender-conforming.
Two, as European fragrance regulations have recently (in the last decade) limited the number of natural ingredients perfumers are allowed to use for reasons pertaining to sustainability and human health, conventional perfume houses increasingly turn toward synthetic ingredients, which, although aren’t all bad, can make conventional perfumes more homogenous and even less compelling.
We don’t want to smell like everyone else!
Finally, conceptual perfume challenges the mind. Like expressionist music of the early 20th century, conceptual perfume isn’t about conventional prettiness. Rather, it asks us to question our tastes. We spray it on, and we have to think. Maybe it’s not an instant love—but it is instant intrigue. For those of us bored by the easy satisfactions of contemporary life (there’s a reason dopamine fasting is the latest wellness craze), conceptual fragrance is a stimulating antidote that doesn’t involve sweeping lifestyle changes.
Fortunately, for the most part, conceptual perfume is a little more intellectually accessible than an Anton Webern song. Furthermore, unlike the infamous conceptual fragrance Secretions Magnifiques by Etat Libre d’Orange, inspired by, uh, semen, the following conceptual perfumes are ones you can discuss with your Shalimar-loving grandma.
5 Most Intriguing and Beautiful Conceptual Perfumes
“fire walk with me”
With notes of fir needles, embers, incense, sage, pine, and sun-kissed dark skies, Incendo is an aromatic, balsamic perfume that conjures a ghosting of wood smoke, dessert wind, and church incense. Unsurprisingly, this highly creative fragrance was the winner of the 2016 Art and Olfaction Artisan Award.
For those who prefer fall to spring, dry to sweet, mystical to mass market.
A mist of Magazine Street opens the door to the lush neighborhoods of New Orleans. Vanilla, vetiver, magnolia, and botanical musk bring to life black lace iron balconies, fecund gardens, soft decay, and magic histories. Indeed, with a slightly sharp opening that dries down to rich amber, Magazine Street works its own spell on its wearer.
For those who read magical realism and don’t clean up spilled candle wax.
An olfactory interpretation of anima mundi or “world soul,” this perfume uses notes of rose, jasmine, immortelle, hinoki wood, and smoke to represent the spirit and life force existing beyond our consciousness that balances masculine animus and feminine anima. This dynamic fragrance eschews linear development, its essence shifting from moment to moment.
For those who possess a minimalist-chic tarot deck and loved that final episode of goop Lab.
LVNEA is one of my favorite perfume houses, full stop. Tasseomancy beautifully illustrates why. Inspired by the art of reading fortunes in tea leaves, Tasseomancy is a tea scent but one that is far more challenging than your standard, refreshing, I-just-took-a-shower green tea perfume. Smoky lapsang souchong takes center stage, flanked by warm honey, milk, and spice for a darkly gourmand sillage that recalls Laird Hunt’s haunting modern fairy tale In the House in the Dark of the Woods.
For those who listen to Chelsea Wolfe and know what phase the moon is in.
Developed by perfume scholar Barbara Herman, Ma Bête is a contemporary fragrance that combines elements of vintage fragrance that younger generations tend to loathe: big aldehydes and animalic skank. Notes also include nutmeg, cypriol, styrax, jasmine sambac, cedarwood, patchouli. It’s sexy, it’s old-fashioned, it’s self-aware. More specifically, it’s your grandmother’s Elnett meets the smell on your clothing after a night out—in the best way possible way.
For those of us coming full-circle, ready to reincarnate the timeless essence of “Mother’s Bathroom.”
Do you have any conceptual perfumes in your collection?
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