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September 5, 2012

Worldly Scents

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China, with its many different regions, has varied tastes that tend to correlate with the climate. Woody notes do better in dry Beijing, and fruity florals thrive in warmer Shanghai. People in the hot, humid southern areas prefer refreshing but pungent fragrances—Kurkdjian explains that dialed back in strength, light scents would simply disappear into the sultry, overwhelming mélange of food, flowers, and people. That's in stark contrast to the Japanese, a more reserved society that eschews the heavy scents of other cultures and prefers delicate, well-balanced fragrances like Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey. Rather than flaunting one or two standout notes, you find "nothing overpowering—almost smelling cosmetic-like," says Bhasin. "A bit more musky, with white-flower notes and a powdery background. Very creamy, but not with a strong vanilla like you get in some of the American products." This less-is-more approach is exemplified when it comes to application: Traditionally, it's all about using softly scented body lotions, soaps, and shampoos rather than hearty spritzing. That said, young people are starting to embrace more incense-like scents, once considered taboo because of their association with the iconic yet scandalous geisha.

Americans, known for our insatiable appetites and all for knocking one over the head with an olfactory hammer, love gourmand notes like vanilla and sweet, fruity notes like strawberry. And although fresh, "clean" scents are also typically American (CK One started a revolution when it was launched in 1994), the most popular fragrances in the U.S. have traditionally been feminine florals such as Ralph Lauren Romance and Lancôme Trésor. This is no doubt left over from our shared history with the British, who are known for, and still enjoy, English-garden floral notes of rose, lily of the valley, and violet. (Consider Penhaligon's classic Bluebell.)

But as culture dictates our shared fragrance vocabulary, in the U.S., change is afoot. With the rise of the Hispanic population (whose tastes, Kurkdjian notes, tend to be more aligned with locales like Spain and Italy) and the surge of niche perfume brands coming from Europe, deeper chords are on the upswing. "Woody notes are very trendy right now," says Mary Ellen Lapsansky, vice president of the Fragrance Foundation. Last year, the best-selling women's prestige fragrance in the U.S. was Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, a scent with a somewhat heady patchouli, vetiver, and musk base. "The world is getting smaller and the door is open to experimenting with different fragrances," continues Lapsansky.

Of course, Americans may be embracing fragrance globalization, but there's one practice you'd be hard-pressed to find outside of the country: the ol' spray-and-walk-through perfume method, said to have been invented by none other than Estée Lauder herself, a born and bred New Yorker.

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