Scent-lover Lizzie Ostrom, aka ‘Odette Toilette’ is an expert on all things perfume and author of A Century of Scents in 100 Perfumes. Here she shares her knowledge of the fragrance industry and what goes into making a memorable scent
Tell us how you Odette Toilette came about?
So I was just your average perfume fan, albeit slightly more into the stuff than most women. A few years ago, I started hosting evening events about scent because I thought: there are so many ways we can talk about fragrance and olfaction, yet often we don’t quite know where to start. Since then I’ve organised a good few hundred events on all sorts of themes, whether that’s the Ancient Greeks and scent, or the history of men’s style through fragrance. I’ve organised perfume poker nights where we turn fragrance-making into a betting process, and recreated historic rituals live, including Japanese incense ceremonies and Aztec copal-burning. I then started being asked to speak about perfume and produce olfactory installations and exhibits, and that led to my book. Rather than being a perfumer or industry veteran, I’m very much coming at this from the point of view of the consumer of fragrance, and making the subject accessible, fun and creative.
What is it that fascinates you about perfume?
I love that perfume can tell so many different stories. You’ve got the collective memories and nostalgia that latch onto particular scents–- whether that’s layering on the Obsession in the 1980s before a hot date, or a remembered love of Brut – and which can act as a sort of key for people to talk about their personal history and identity. I love that perfume, both the product itself and how we talk about it, can help us understand the trends, fashions and taboos of a particular culture or era. And of course the technical stories of what’s in the bottle and how they changed the way we smelt.
Most importantly: perfume is such a crucial part of self-expression and it’s a privilege to be able to bring such beauty to everyday life. If you let it work its magic.
What does it take to be a perfumer?
So traditionally, and to a large extent this is still the case, becoming a perfumer is a gruelling process, requiring the flexing of the mathematical mind as much as the creative impulse. It’s horrendously competitive to get into the prestigious perfumery schools in France, and the training lasts for years, involving identification of many raw materials at various concentrations both in isolation, and when incorporated with other ingredients into accords. They then need to understand how molecules perform in different applications, the conventions of the craft and of course navigate the maze of regulation and safety. Many go on to work, not just in fine fragrance, but in functional products.
There is a small, but increasing group of perfumers who are either self-taught, or who have learned outside of traditional educational structures, and their path has been made more possible through the internet: both being able to get hold of small quantities of raw materials, and sharing knowledge with others in online communities. They’re energising the industry though at the same time there’s sometimes a bit of friction between the traditional and non-orthodox camps.
Your new book, Perfume: A Century of Scent, explores 100 perfumes – what’s the most memorable story and why?
It’s so hard to choose. To me the most memorable are the surreal stories. I think my favourite is the story of Black Satin, which was a mass market women’s fragrance released in the 1940s by two American enterpreneurs who completely ripped the perfume rule book apart with their brand Angelique. They were complete chancers and used to stage these PR stunts like releasing perfumed ‘bombs’, snow and bubbles over US cities, and caused no end of intrigue and upset. At the time they caused a huge stir and but now they, and Black Satin, are completely obscure. I keep waiting for a brand to announce they’re going to tip scented snow over New York or Paris!
What defines a great perfume?
Originality? Distinctiveness? Controversy? Very few perfumes manage this. And they might be seen as ‘great’ when they first come out, but then if everyone starts wearing it, the scent evokes so strongly of a particular era or style, that it dates within a decade and seems seriously ‘past it’. To me the ones that get in the hall of fame weren’t necessarily the most strikingly novel, but they managed to create and reinforce a mythology that generations of women and men collectively willed into being and fell in love with. And then when all the other similar perfumes from that era faded away, they came to stand for a particular style. I’d say Guerlain’s 1925 oriental Shalimar is a great example of this. It slowly accrued such legend that the fragrance itself – so inviting and unfastened, with that lean-close smoked vanilla – took on this extra mantle of glamour. It still sells really well in France, that one.
I should confess though that perhaps against my better judgement, Shalimar didn’t make the final cut in the book as one of the 100!
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