When I was a kid, a perfume was something only a grown-up owned. If you were lucky, an uncle visiting from abroad might offload a complimentary airline toiletries bag. If you were in really good luck, your mum might be in a benevolent mood and the tiny coveted bottle of eau de parfum in the bag could find its way to your spartan bathroom counter. To be used, drop by precious drop.
Deprivation became the mother of invention for me. I would play an imaginary game whenever I inhaled a fragrance (I’m referring only to the bottled variety). It could be right after I’d walked into a teachers’ staff room; gone past an empty corner where somebody sat, minutes ago. Now, their fragrance owned the space. Or I could have stepped out of an apartment, onto a staircase thick with the heady scent of somebody who’d just sprinted up the steps. Or there are those brief magical moments, say at a literary event, when somebody places a copy of your book right before you for an autograph. Even as you start to look around for a pen – another helpful hand offers you one. And in that exchange of pen to your hand, a perfume wafts up to your nose.
I love to give myself that miniscule pause when I inhale the invisible fragrance and let an image form, without looking up just yet.
It’s a nebulous image of course, a blend of the perfume and its user.
In my mind, I always find myself visualising a fragrance as a colour. It is fascinating to me to think of connecting one sense – the sense of smell, with another – the sense of sight.
All that talk about top notes, middle notes etcetera in a perfume is fine. The point is, the moment a fragrance hits your nose, it triggers off an associated memory. Sometimes, it could be as gentle and lilting as a sense of wild flowers shifting softly by a light summer breeze. I start seeing that fragrance in pleasing pastel tones – lavender, peach or the lightest of pinks. Paul Smith ‘Women’, Lancôme’s ‘Miracle’ or Ralph Lauren’s ‘Romance’ comes to mind.
Other times, a perfume can have the heaviness of an impending storm. I can imagine a dark, magnetic energy to it. That would be a midnight-black or velvety purple fragrance. Given the right occasion, you could enjoy it, briefly – if used very sparingly. But more often than not, I want to instantly wash a strong fragrance off my pulse (Dior’s original ‘Poison’ and ‘Hypnotic Poison’ – so strong they can set off a migraine; for me, even Kenzo’s ‘Flower’ can do that in its overly sweet way.)
There are exceptions to the strong perfumes. Some have a palpable sensual energy to them. ‘Very Irresistible’ by Givenchy… Ooooh. It’s the equivalent of slipping into Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Now that’s a perfume that rightfully belongs in a hot pink bottle!
There was a lady in the neighbourhood I grew up in, whose home was a go-to place for agony aunt advice, palm readings, endless tea and hugs – all on-the-house! Aunty Velu was a big hearted lady with long, thick, fully hennaed, flame coloured hair. One time, I was perched on her kitchen counter watching her go about ironing a saree she was wearing later that evening. It was a rust coloured Kanjeevaram. “What colour will you wear with that Aunty?” I asked. What colour of fragrance, I was about to elaborate but before I could, she’d understood. She laughed, pointing to her hair, “Orange, of course”. Off we toodled to her bedroom, where she let me hold and sniff her bottle of ‘Opium’ (by Yves St. Laurent). The discovery for me that day was that even though the orange packaging of the Opium perfume suggested the obvious association, the fragrance had such an intense spicy and heavy quality – my imagery of it was of a much darker colour, maybe a maroon.
There are so many variables in what makes us pick up a particular perfume on any day. The season. The mood we’ve woken up in. The mood we want to be in. Where we’re headed to and of course, our basic personality. Try this exercise. Think of things you love and the scents associated with them. A crackling bonfire? The jasmine flowers in a house you grew up in? New leather? Hot chocolate? The pomegranates on a tree you used to climb? A stack of freshly cut grass? If you were to close your eyes, the notes of that scent you remember will give you a clear direction of the perfumes you are more inclined towards.
Once, on a backpacking trip in Europe, I was floating around in Grasse, considered the world’s perfume capital, where trained ‘noses’ can distinguish between as many as 2000 different fragrances. I’d become friends with a woman who I later discovered owned a small perfume store. We’d spent the day caffeinating and hanging out together. I’d discovered that I didn’t need to know French nor her English, for us to connect. I was particularly fascinated watching people come and go in her store and noticing some patterns. One of which was that women who were really glam (and this was harder to distinguish in France mind you, where looking glam is probably a pre-requisite to getting a French passport), people who looked like they obviously loved dressing up and had a ‘notice-me’ outlook would invariably choose more spicy fragrances. Scents that I associate with woodsy and dark colours like, ‘Silences’, ‘Havana Pour Ellis’ by Aramis and ‘Black’ by Bvlgari.
By contrast, people who looked like they loved the outdoors and wore less make-up – would pick up fragrances that had a fresh, clean scent. The kind of fragrances that I am most drawn to. These are always and always in the blue and green colour space for me. I only have to spritz some DKNY ‘Be Delicious’ (the green one, now that there are so many variants) and I’m transported to a memory of a tented trip in Kullu Valley, under the shade of apple trees.
When I think blue in fragrance terms, it is in fact anything but ‘the blues’ as the phrase might suggest. Whether it’s a fragrance like Elizabeth Arden’s ‘Mediterranean’ or a Davidoff Cool Water ‘Woman’ (on a chore-running-day) – the effect is of instant mental transportation to sandy beaches, salty air, oceanic vastness, blue skies and clouds changing shapes. All this with the whiff of a fragrance.
Some people like to pick their perfume to match the occasion. A formal occasion could justify stronger scents like oak, moss… and so, stronger colours too. I know others who choose their perfumes based only on the season. Spring suggests something floral (in my fragrance-colour speak, that would be the pastels family.) With summer already here – the best options are from the citrus and aquamarine family – the blues, greens, lemon, and tangerine. Try the summer edition of Le Eau De Issey Miyake, reminiscent of a cool breeze and you might see it as I do – a lacy white fragrance; while something like ‘Happy’ by Clinique is so citrusy and refreshing – it’s a yellow.
Why buy a perfume the first time you try it? Instead, consider hovering around a duty-free shop on an out-bound flight and let your instinct take you to a bottle. If the bottle and you connect, and you like what you see, allow the fragrance to touch your skin. Look, you have the entire duration of the flight to discover if you actually have chemistry. Like any first kiss, the experience has to have you hooked. The good thing about falling in love with a fragrance is it doesn’t have to tie you down for life. Have a short fling. Pick up the 30 ml. A fragrance that promises to be all rosy and pink could turn out to be clingy. Before you know it, all you’ll be yearning for is to be rid of it and have something that lets you breathe. Long after the fragrance fades, what stays is how it made you feel.
Who knows – somewhere in the process you might find a ‘keeper’. The kind you keep coming back to. And you’ll have hit gold.
Photo Magic: Vikram Natarajan
Image Makeovers: Nagapati Bhat