Perfume Promiscuity: Why Signature Scents Are a Thing of the Past

Today's fragrance enthusiasts aren't picking favorites.

Clothing, Dress, Shoulder, Shoe, Photograph, White, Formal wear, Gown, Style, Bridal clothing,
(Image credit: Archives)

"Everyone has a white shirt and jeans in her closet, but also those pieces that are more of a statement—this is right in between." That's not a fashion designer talking. It's perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, describing how his new floral, Féminin Pluriel, fits with other perfumes in the Maison Francis Kurkdjian Paris line. His analogy touches upon a growing trend in the fragrance world: treating perfume as part of your wardrobe, more akin to the clothes in your closet than to the shampoo in your shower. Fragrance expert Chandler Burr, author of the new book Dior: The Perfumes (Rizzoli), takes it a step further: "Perfumes are works of art, so it's about curating a collection."

This recent scent revolution reminds perfumer Mandy Aftel of the way we started looking at food differently a decade or two ago and have since become obsessed with the provenance of what we consume. "Putting more thought into what we buy makes us want to experiment," says Aftel, whose book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent ($27.95, Riverhead Books) comes out this month.

The proliferation of blogs and websites dedicated to perfume probably has something to do with the craze. "Fragrance used to be so mysterious, but now it's more approachable, which makes it more fun to collect," says Bradley Skaggs, cofounder of Fragrance Republic, a company that's helping to draw back the curtain on the insidery perfume world. Take his Fragrance Republic club: Members receive preview samples of original perfumes from world-class perfumers and are asked to rate them, comment online, and suggest names for the scents. "We're making the work of these artists more accessible," Skaggs explains.


Of course, there are still plenty of women who won't give up their signature scent. "In the U.S., about one in three women say they wear only one perfume, and another third own several but have one that is their favorite," says Arnaud Montet, the global director of consumer science at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF). "That other third are the women who rotate between multiple scents."

Brooke Baker, 27, an assistant to a producer in Los Angeles, is one of those women. She used to wear Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey religiously because she felt it worked for every occasion. But about three years ago, she discovered a whole new world of options when she wandered into Scent Bar, a West Hollywood shop that serves as the retail arm for, a website specializing in hard-to-find perfumes. "I realized I could be changing things up based on who I would be meeting or where I was going," she says. "Now, fragrance is a part of my outfit."

Sophie Conti, 26, a fashion publicist who recently moved from Paris to New York City, had a similar journey. In high school, she wore YSL Paris and Lolita Lempicka regularly, and then there was a year and a half when she sprayed Balenciaga Paris nonstop. But these days, she rotates between several scents for about six months before moving on to new ones. "Just as logo madness and wearing the same designer head to toe every day is no longer cool, I don't want to buy one perfume and wear it all the time," she explains. "But the scents in my wardrobe can't be too far away from each other. I want there to be a common thread, so if you smell me during the day in one, you'll still get me at night, in something else." In fashion, that's called style.


Some companies have caught on to this trend and are releasing multiple perfumes at a time. Earlier this year, designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen teamed up with Sephora to launch Elizabeth and James Nirvana Black and Nirvana White simultaneously. And this month, Drew Barrymore debuts three scents at once for her Flower line. Givaudan perfumer Stephen Nilsen, who created the Flower trio (Cherished, Radiant, and Sultry), says they share a sparkling, floral characteristic. "Energetic and effervescent," he calls it.

The actress offers her own description: "I think of the collection as a woman's personality, with each scent representing a different mood," she says. Cherished, a powdery, creamy floral, is for "snuggling in bed with my family," while Sultry, a spicier floral, is her date-night scent. And the third one? "Radiant is the one you spritz on at the office at 3 o'clock when you're fading," she says, laughing.

Barrymore is on to something, according to Montet, whose job at IFF is to research the way women shop for and wear fragrances. "Many women choose perfume based on their personality," he says. "But mood, season, time of day, and occasion also play a role." Conti often takes into consideration what she's wearing. One of her regulars, Le Labo Santal 33, is for "button-down" work meetings. "It's subtle, but commands a room in a professional way," she says.


If you're not necessarily a "fragrance person," collecting can seem daunting. But, as Aftel points out, perfume is more forgiving than fashion: "You don't have to worry about it fitting—and it's less expensive than designer clothes."

To start, follow the advice of fashion designer and perfume maker Sonia Rykiel and treat your collection like a wardrobe: Begin with a base scent and then add others "just like [you] would add a belt to an outfit." Something with a touch of citrus is great for casual occasions. "Citrus is like blue jeans—inoffensive and easy to like," says Aftel. Vanilla goes with everything, like the perfect white shirt. Rose is the always-appropriate little black dress of fragrances, and jasmine is another type of dress—the one that shows more skin. "Natural jasmine has this undeniable allure," says Aftel. "Beautiful but also putrid in a way—it's that yin and yang of dirty and gorgeous."

Ultimately, it should be a personal collection of scents that work for you when you need them most. Take Conti's secret weapon, Bulgari Jasmin Noir: "It's an Oriental floral I wear when I need to be a tigress, like when I know I'll see this one girl who's a little too friendly with my fiancé," she says. "The Bulgari lets her know what's up."


Perfume Versions of Your Closet Must-Haves

1. THE LEATHER TOTE: Coach Poppy Wildflower Eau de Parfum, $68; macys.comSmoky patchouli and cedar give this floral gravitas.

2. THE TRENCH COAT: My Burberry Eau de Parfum, $125; burberry.comBergamot adds crispness to the floral blend.

3. THE MINISKIRT: Michael Kors Sexy Rio de Janeiro Eau de Parfum, $98; michaelkors.comAn alluring melange of jasmine, gardenia, and musk.

4. THE CROSS-BODY BAG: Kate Spade New York Live Colorfully Eau de Parfum, $95; nordstrom.comWarmvanilla balances the citrus-floral notes.

5. THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS: Acqua di Parma Rosa Nobile Eau de Parfum, $120; sephora.comThis light and airy rose spray is a new classic.

6. THE JUMPSUIT: Prada Candy Florale Eau de Toilette, $70; sephora.comA girlish mix of citron and honey.

7. THE SEXY PUMPS: Jimmy Choo Stars Eau de Parfum, $98; sephora.comSensual orchid with a surprising toffee accord.

Jennifer G. Sullivan

Jennifer Goldstein is the former beauty & health director of Marie Claire and co-host of the award-winning beauty podcast Fat Mascara. In her quest to uncover the world's beauty secrets, she’s gotten tattooed in New Zealand, dug up turmeric in India, harvested shea nuts in Ghana, and squeezed enzyme-rich eggs from salmon in Norway. She can pluck eyebrows like a pro and has read the FDA monograph on sunscreen labeling and effectiveness—but she still can’t get liquid eyeliner to look the same on both eyes.