Opium, Angels and Carnal Flowers


True confessions time: I think about perfume a lot. It’s something I’m minorly obsessed with. It doesn’t interrupt my life and I’m not cashing in on any insurance policies to get my fix, but I do find myself making detours to malls and department stores to stroll past perfume counters in a happy daze, eyes transfixed by glass bottles as my nose catches strands of delicious scents. I’ll catch a note of something that particularly enchants me — praline, maybe, bluebells, lotus flower, or a particularly rich version of orange blossom — and then wander up and down the aisles until I’ve located the source of my happiness and delight. And then I’ll spray a bit on some paper and hold it up to my nose and inhale. And for one little moment: experience pure beauty for beauty’s sake.

There are a lot of ways I enjoy fragrance. Some perfumes I like as works of art. I smell them — they are often from niche lines — and I admire their craftsmanship, their artistry; I revere them like I do Agnes Martin paintings, Francesca Woodman photographs, Tim Walker fashion editorials, Erik Satie symphonies. I’d rank the Frederic Malle line of fragrances up there, some Serge Lutens, the new line of Francis Kurdjkian scents, some of the more conceptual Comme des Garcons lines. In fact, I long to visit a museum of fragrance, where I can wander vast rooms of carefully curated fragrance exhibitions. Think of the possibilities! You could do a whole exhibition on a genre of perfume I call “the children of Theirry Mugler’s Angel”: voluptuous gourmands with deep, heady musk-patchouli bases. There are lots of them I like: Il Profvmo Chocolat, Coco Mademoiselle, Calvin Klein Euphoria, Lolita de Lempicka, Lancome La Vie est Belle, even something mass like Bath and Body Works Dark Kiss. Afterwards, you’d need an insulin shot and a divan to collapse on, both from the headiness and from delight.

Other perfumes, for me, work as fashion accessories: a lovely apercu to a fantastic outfit. Some of these come from fashion houses: I think of the Chloe perfume, with its notes of lychee and its general aura of fancy laundry detergent, as a nice accessory to a pretty floral dress or quirky outfit. (I know lots of indie ingenues who are very fond of it.) I liked wearing Marc Jacobs’ very first fragrance — a lovely ginger-and-gardenia scent — with a cashmere sweater, jeans and riding boots, a total ensemble that felt both subtly luxurious, understated and vaguely outdoorsy at once. Some scents feel like warm, cozy scarves to wrap around your neck — anything with the rich woody oud note works like this for me. But I’ve been looking for the fragrance equivalent of a spiky, punky, metal bracelet lately, to match the jewelry I already have. Something bold, a little spicy, but close to the skin.

But lately I’m starting to think about perfume in the way that I think about music: kind of a locus of emotion, memory and dreaming. I’d love to be able to make a mixtape of scents — maybe some scents, with their complex symphonies of top, middle and base notes, are whole mixtapes or songs in and of themselves. I like the narrative possibilities of scents. When I think of my life as told through a series of perfumes — the ones I’ve bought and worn in the past, and will wear in the future — it unfolds something that my monthly mixtapes or even written bios can’t capture in words or sounds. I’ll save the perfume-as-biography for another post, but the movie trailer would open with my mom’s Chanel No. 5 and a purloined spritz of Enjoli from my babysitter, and then plumes of Opium, The Body Shop’s Ananya and Carnal Flower would unfold to coincide with significant love affairs — and then it would conclude with a move to the countryside of wide-open fields and vast horizons, a trail of fresh jasmine, orange blossom and ripe woods scents traipsing behind me. Perfume is a story through scent that’s able to capture dreams, places, people, and affairs of the heart and soul in an quiet, elusive yet economical way. A story so utterly personal and poetic that words on a screen or page can’t even begin to capture.


Picture: A few of my current lineup. I like a mix of hippie, department store and luxe.

2 thoughts on “Opium, Angels and Carnal Flowers

  1. I’m not sure I even like wearing perfume, possibly because there’s so much anxiety around finding a signature scent, building a fragrance wardrobe (I can’t even build a normal clothing wardrobe!), etc. But for some reason I still love trying & smelling different perfumes, and learning about how they’re put together. That, and fragrance criticism is always so so lovely to read. Like you said: beauty for beauty’s sake.

    Also, you might be interested in this upcoming exhibition that Chandler Burr is curating.

    1. I only just missed this exhibition!! Wah!

      I actually hear you on the anxiety of finding a signature scent, or even a scent wardrobe — I actually think the ‘signature scent’ is a kind of thing that very few achieve. Of all the women I know, most don’t have just one — they have a collection. I’m fond of the collection idea myself! I just wish most perfumers made half-ounce bottles. So many beautiful scents, so little time and money!

      (Ugh, sorry I missed your comment earlier!! I’ve had my nose stuck in my novel manuscript…!!!)

      xo k.

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