During a French radio interview, Thierry Wasser, the redoubtable head perfumer at Guerlain (and the first person ever to be entrusted with that job outside the Guerlain family), once made a throwaway comment that he believed perfume should be available for free on the Sécurité Sociale. The quote, he says wearily, has “followed him around” ever since – but he stands by it. “Perfume is good for you,” he says. “I truly believe that.”

Few would argue. But exactly where its true power lies is starting to shift. For the past 40 years – from 1980s-era Calvin Klein Obsession onwards – our notion of perfume has become almost entirely bound up with sex. But physical attraction wasn’t always the aim: when the world of modern perfumery began in the ’20s, perfume was about feminine evocations of confidence and power (with scents such as Chanel No 5 and Lanvin’s Arpège), much more than the pursuit of love. 

“The idea of perfume as a way of attracting a mate – that’s not the fragrance, that’s just the marketing,” says Wasser. He has another theory – and it is one that is currently emerging across the industry – that one of the things perfume does best is to ignite a sense of personal creativity, of reinvention and reimagining in the wearer. The idea, he says, was entrenched in his mind aged 13, when, lagging behind his puberty-reaching friends, he wore Guerlain’s Habit Rouge as a way to create a “character” for himself. “It was my superhero cape and costume,” he says – and to this day he keeps a lab sample in his pocket that he “continually resprays like an addict”.

In a world where individuality and freedom of self-expression is encouraged, creativity is the new self-care – and scent is being explored as a way of broadening the mind, trying out new ideas and making space for inspiration. It’s a notion being brought to life by perfume brands such as Roads, which grew out of an idea for using scent on stage to create atmospheres for plays; Brooklyn-based DS & Durga, whose line of fragrances encapsulates “all that we love in music, art, nature and design”; and Escentric Molecules, the cult brand turning 15 this year, whose Beautiful Mind Series is inspired by the disciplines of dance and writing. 

Above, clockwise from top: Aesop Erémia, £140 for 50ml EDP. The Beautiful Mind Series Volume 2 Precision & Grace, £95 for 100ml EDT. Roads Improved Silence, €98 for 50ml EDP
Above, clockwise from top: Aesop Erémia, £140 for 50ml EDP. The Beautiful Mind Series Volume 2 Precision & Grace, £95 for 100ml EDT. Roads Improved Silence, €98 for 50ml EDP © Adam Goodison

The connection between scent and creativity was on perfumer Barnabé Fillion’s mind when he was working on the new trilogy of fragrances for Aesop, Othertopias. “It was a conscious decision with these perfumes to try to encourage the ability to dream,” he says. The idea came four years ago, when he and a philosopher friend were discussing the way writers used the idea of place, which led to “the idea of how perfume can transport you from the physical to the abstract. When you wear a perfume on your skin, it acts as a departure point to reverie, and can unlock dreams as well as memories.” 

The reason scent can be so helpful in unlocking creativity, says Fillion, is that the act of smelling can give you “presence accuracy” – in other words, it can plant you firmly, exhilaratingly, in the moment – which, he says, “is interesting for being creative in any discipline”. It’s an idea that the British perfumer Azzi Glasser has turned into an art form: alongside her collection of fragrances, The Perfumer’s Story, she works with a clientele whom she describes as “very fussy and creative” – actors, musicians, writers and artists – either on creating bespoke scents for them or, as in the case of actors such as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter – making perfumes to help them get into character. “It gives them a sense of confidence, a creative power,” says Glasser. “When you’re finding a character, you’re trying to unlock a part of you, and perfume is one of the most incredible ways anyone can do that.”

One of Glasser’s best-loved scents is Old Books, which, she says, releases a kind of creative power in many of her literary-leaning fans. Its scent is part beautifully musty old library, part absolute essence of a sort of “sexy aftershave” smell. “It’s Johnny Depp’s favourite, and Douglas Booth loves it, and so does Stephen Fry and also [23‑year-old English model and poet] Sonny Hall.” When Glasser herself wants to feel at her most creative, she wears her Amber Molecule perfume, a soft, powdery scent that has a sort of quiet steadfastness – exactly what you’d want if you were going to stay up all night working. “It’s the loyal, comforting friend,” she says. “I love wearing it before I go to bed, or if I’m going on an aeroplane – when I’m going into a cocoon and have time to think.” Interestingly, it’s a perfume that her younger fans are also drawn to: according to Glasser, Kaia Gerber and Iris Law both “really love it”.

Above, from left: Guerlain Rose Chérie, £280 for 100ml EDP. Maison Francis Kurkdjian Gentle Fluidity, €160 for 70ml EDP. Byredo Mumbai Noise, £122 for 50ml EDP. The Perfumer’s Story by Azzi Old Books, £95 for 30ml EDP. The Nue Co Mind Energy, £85 for 50ml EDP
Above, from left: Guerlain Rose Chérie, £280 for 100ml EDP. Maison Francis Kurkdjian Gentle Fluidity, €160 for 70ml EDP. Byredo Mumbai Noise, £122 for 50ml EDP. The Perfumer’s Story by Azzi Old Books, £95 for 30ml EDP. The Nue Co Mind Energy, £85 for 50ml EDP © Adam Goodison

But beyond just a feeling – or an atmosphere of creativity – is there a sure-fire way to induce inspiration? Futuristic wellness company The Nue Co thinks there might be. It sees “fragrance supplements” as the next frontier of self-care, and its newest addition, Mind Energy, was created to enhance focus and creativity “at a primal level”. “Customers talked about a creative block,” says Flo Glendenning, vice-president of product at The Nue Co. “When people are feeling low or burnt-out, it’s not a conducive environment for creativity. We developed Mind Energy to increase focus, and allow people to access their creative potential.” 

The scent contains a patented accord designed to help invigorate and boost mental energy by prompting a shift in your mood state – measured using brain scanning. And crucially, as a scent it’s also good: unlike the brand’s previous two scents, which have been quite singular, Mind Energy feels like the most well rounded perfume: it’s zesty and peppery, but also has a real warmth to it. “It’s a beautiful perfume, where the coolest thing about it is the technology,” says Glendenning. “Wellness formulas don’t need to be a traditional capsule.” 

And if future-gazing doesn’t inspire you, maybe looking back to the golden age of perfumes-as-art-form will get you in the zone. Thierry Wasser lists Guerlain’s early-20th-century blockbusters – “L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Shalimar” – as inspirational purely because of their total commitment and mastery of the form. “I don’t see why L’Heure Bleue can’t be relevant for an 18-year-old girl now,” he says. “The only thing you must do with perfume – any perfume – is to make it yours. Fragrance is not something slight or insignificant. It’s not a product – and if that’s how you think of it, you’ve missed the point. Because if you wear it well, and understand the power of it, it will take you somewhere else.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
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