Even before we meet, I know what perfume experts and very funny writers Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez think of me: a woman with “Lucite-heeled shoes and a ditzy high-pitched laugh that goes on so long it makes your companions gesture to the bartender to cut you off”. I’ve been called worse.
Admittedly, this was their opinion of me as a 15-year-old and we all agree I’ve improved since then. Somewhat, anyway. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry,” says Luca jovially in his American-accented English, despite his international upbringing. “It wasn’t meant personally.”
To be fair, it wasn’t specifically me they were referring to, but the perfumes I have worn at various points in my life (respectively, Champs Elysees by Guerlain, Chanel No 5, Dior Homme and Marc Jacobs), which they describe and rate in their unexpectedly addictive guide to every perfume in the world, called, rather predictably, Perfumes: the Guide.
But if the title lacks poetic fun, the book most certainly does not.
Although the language occasionally dips into the kind of hyperbolic floweriness one perhaps must expect from enthusiastic connoisseurs, on the whole it is written with pleasing plainness and a sense of humour. Guerlain’s Mouchoir de Monsieur is lauded with an adulatory four-star review and readers are advised that “if you can wear it without thinking of Rupert Everett playing Beau Brummell, do so by all means”, while something called Montana Mood Sexy is dismissed with one star and a curt “not tonight”.
Perhaps most impressively of all, the descriptions really do evoke the perfumes’ scents and smell must be the hardest of the five senses to communicate. Paris Hilton’s eponymous fragrance, for example, is described simply as a “competent but depressing woody-fruity-floral aimed at ditzes”, which is a fair enough description of both the perfume and its namesake.
Luca and Tania, who recently married, meet me in the perfume section of Harvey Nichols department store in London. Despite the absence of author photos in their book, they look so much like how they write that they are easy to spot: he is a towering vision of irrepressible European poeticism, while she is a small bundle of American enthusiasm and no-nonsense.
Neither can keep still when they stand next to a perfume counter, instead their hands eagerly hunt around the bottles like woodland creatures hunting out truffles.
“You’ve got to try this,” says Luca, brandishing a bottle of Chinatown by Bond No 9, while Tania stands behind him, sniffing the freshly spritzed air like an eager puppy.
I obediently spray it all over my wrists and neck, unfortunately just before hearing Luca’s description: “It’s like Fracas, but sweet. It’s trashy. Basically, it smells like a slut.”
Luca (54) and Tania (31) have both always loved, in particular, talking about perfume. Like wine, perfume has its very own vocabulary: “For example, oaky means vanilla …” Luca’s voice trails off, silenced when he catches sight of a brand that apparently defies all of perfume’s language: the label, to Tania’s eye-rolling amusement, shows a drawing of a spurting phallus and the name, in the finest of perfume’s overly sexualised tradition, is Secretions Magnifiques. It smells metallic with a tangy twist. Luca’s knees buckle together in excitement: “It’s insane! No one can wear it – yet it’s perfect!” Tania looks a little less enthusiastic: “It’s J’Adore mixed with dirty knickers,” she decrees.
“Exactly!” cries Luca, still inhaling deeply. As we reluctantly walk away from the counter of sperm-based scents, he turns to me excitedly: “They have a very good department here! I am very impressed!”
Personally, I’m still struggling with making the distinction between an unusual fragrance and a bad fragrance.
Perfume, although still the cash cow that keeps many fashion companies afloat, often feels like an anachronism. I know many women who put on a slick of makeup every day, but none under the age of 65 who have a daily reliance on perfume. Luca and Tania agree that this comes partly from a fear of the stuff, thanks to the misguided over-enthusiasm of others: “Women who flounce into the cinema wearing Poison have inspired generations of people to believe they hate perfume,” Tania writes in the book.
But if on the one hand perfume has accrued rather elderly associations, it has also simultaneously become seen as something for the star-obsessed pre-teen, thanks to the proliferation of cheap celebrity scents.
Luca and Tania are sanguine about the dumbing down of their beloved speciality subject. “Formulas are definitely getting cheaper but there have always been celebrity fragrances. Catherine Deneuve’s was wonderful,” cries Luca.
At this point, I bring out of my handbag offerings from David Beckham and Kate Moss to see how they rate. Tania wrinkles her nose. Luca aptly describes them with a shrug as “kinda not very much”.
Then there are perfume adverts, with their weird over-sexualisation, which reached its nadir recently with the one for P Diddy’s hilariously named perfume, Unforgivable, with him lying in an unmade bed with several young women from various ethnic groups, as though he was in a parody of a Benetton advert. Luca brushes such nonsense aside with the very wise advice: “just don’t look at the adverts”.
Another factor working against perfume is, perhaps, a fear of commitment: how to decide which one of the thousands of perfumes in a department’s cosmetics hall best sums up you? Tania’s answer is simple — don’t. “You don’t only listen to one kind of music, so why would you wear only one perfume?” The trick to choosing a perfume, they say, is to check you actually like all of the perfume, not just the top notes, which is what you initially smell. So spritz a little on, then go out for lunch and smell your wrist again in a few hours and again at the end of the day. Also don’t feel that you should buy a perfume that suits your personality.
“It’s great when a really feminine woman wears something more masculine, like a chypre [a family of perfumes with a top note of citrus and woody base notes]. It makes it more interesting,” says Tania.
Similarly, their counsel to men is to be more bold. Particular ire is reserved for anodyne sports fragrances, which Luca evocatively describes as “apologetic, bloodless, grey, whippet-like shivering little things … [whose] name involves the words ‘energy’, ‘blue’, ‘turbo’, ‘fresh’ or ‘glacier’ in any order.”
One of the most harped-upon themes in the book is that perfume is not there to attract potential partners – it is there for the wearer’s own pleasure. “The question that women casually shopping for perfume ask more than any other is this ‘What scent drives men wild?’ After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer. It is bacon,” Tania writes breezily in the book’s introduction.
This seems an opportune moment to mention that it was perfume, of course, that brought them together — and not just perfume, but Perfumes: the Guide. They first came across each other in 2005 when Tania found Luca’s blog on perfumes and the two began emailing and she eventually helped to edit his previous book, The Secret of Scent.
After all of their email banter, the two met to write the new book together and “headed off to city hall as soon as we handed in the manuscript,” says Tania. They have lived in London for the past few months and are about to move to Boston so Luca can work at MIT for his “day job” as a biophysicist.
Although part of what caught Luca’s attention initially was that Tania’s emails made him laugh, what really intrigued him was the way she wrote about perfumes. “She writes in a way that I understand,” he says.
Writes and speaks. Hanging around with any couple can become cloying after a while — all those coochy-coo in-jokes and so on — but a morning with Luca and Tania is a delight. There is something lovely about seeing two people who are so clearly each other’s other halves.
“When we’re stuck in airports we always go round the duty-free together and have pop quizzes. Luca will suddenly spray something under my nose and say, ‘What’s this?’ I’ll go, ‘It’s Envy!’ and he’ll say, ‘Damn!'” smiles Tania.
Despite their unashamed obsession with perfume they wriggle when pressed to name the best one of all time. After much, much prodding, they finally concede that their favourite scent in the world is Mitsouko by Guerlain: “It’s like someone with fantastic bone structure married someone with fat in all the right places and they had a perfect child,” sighs Tania, inhaling the fragrance.
I give it a go. It is just too overpowering for my superficial nose, I fear, but they are ecstatic. “Oh, isn’t it just wonderful?” cries Luca, and the two of them huddle excitedly over their perfect child. —