Interview: Odette Toilette La Scentellectual Part Deux

[Above: the audience at Scratch+Sniff at The Book Club]

You can read Part Un of our Q&A with perfume-party hostess and scent-expert Odette Toilette here and Part Deux below:

You wear some incredible frocks at your Scratch+Sniff nights – is there a link between what you wear and your perfume choices when you’re putting your outfits together? By this slightly complicated question I mean do you match clothes and fragrances and does your passion for scent influence your style in any other ways?

Most definitely, and to that end I like to create tension between clothes and scent. As I write this I’m wearing a thick, wool, prairie-style skirt. I probably look a bit Amish or Laura Ingalls-Wilder. But rather than choose a prim perfume, todays’ perfume is Opium. Conversely if I were in a frock that is a bit outre, I’d probably choose something like Eau Sauvage or a vetiver fragrance which is really taut and restrained. Perhaps it’s the olfactory equivalent of avoiding the danger of matchy-matchy, or creating a sense of surprise. 

Do you have any advice to budding scent-ellectuals (sorry) who are interested in perhaps trying out some new perfumes or would like to wear something new but don’t know where to start smelling? (I ask because I once read that Madonna wears Fracas and was all set to just order some online ‘blind’ until I tried it in Selfridge’s and changed my mind. I’m a Madonna fan, but I don’t need to copy her perfume, there are other ways to get inspired and I am easily led).

That’s quite a pun. I would NEVER have connected Madonna with Fracas, that one surprised me. This reminds me of a time I read that Shirley Manson the singer loved a perfume called Nahema by Guerlain. I was expecting leather. It was OTT Rose. This is the thing, you can never hope to rationalise fragrance choices!

Choosing perfumes is really hard, not helped by the fact that counters at department stores are generally organised by brand or distributor and want to sell their latest release. Some ideas are:

Go to the website The Perfumed Court and order a few sample sets. Many of them are themed and curated which means you can get tiny vials of interesting perfumes to try in the comfort of your own home. At the moment they’ve got everything from a salty perfumes set to forest scents and fragrances from different decades.

If you have some spare cash and time, talk to industry-insider Virginie Daniau of Parfum Parfait. She offers a service to help people find a fragrance, and is impartial so works in your best interests.

If you’re in London go see Nick at fragrance shop Les Senteurs especially if you want to go off-mainstream.  You don’t want to feel intimidated or talked down-to when you’re shopping for scent. Nick is totally the opposite, fun and not preachy.

The perfume blogger Persolaise has just written a very portable, beautifully produced shopping guide to take out with you wherever you are, and with suggestions at all environments from Boots to Harvey Nichols. It’s called Le Snob but don’t let the name put you off, it’s friendly.

And if you want more help, readers should feel free to drop me an email and I might have a few ideas up my sleeve.

But really, like everything, it’s about the process not the end result. Generally I’d just sniff a couple of things every time you walk past a perfume counter, or try all the Estee Lauder perfumes or three of the Yves Saint Laurent’s. Don’t bother with flankers or special summer editions for now, just go for the main ones.

Your events aim to elevate and expand the audience’s understanding of perfume, interlinking it with history, mythology, memory and philosophy as well as a bit of chemistry and biology. Where does your particular approach to discussing perfumes come from? And does it evolve as you see how particular events work and how people respond to the format/interaction?

My approach probably comes from a curiosity about many different subjects and an easily diverted or distracted mind. But more practically, I don’t think perfume is easy to talk about on its own. Who wants to be stuck with pictures of pyramids of top notes and basenotes? So I started making these connections between disciplines to see if that might help. As the events have developed, I have found to my delight that the more bonkers the connection, the more fun and participatory the event. So far, the Scratch+Sniff attendees haven’t complained or written any letters in green-ink. At least not that they’ve sent.  Next year there’ll be a night on the smells of space as well as a tribute to Dame Barbara Cartland through perfume and food from her cookbook.

Ultimately though it’s probably circular. I would hope that people go on a journey of challenging their minds about fragrance, but then return to a point where they can enjoy perfume again as a simple pleasure in life – a lovely smell that pleases them, and that’s enough.

What was your first perfume (apart from the strawberry one you mention on your website!)?

Ok, so this technically isn’t a perfume, but I used to love The Body Shop’s kiwi lipbalm, which is going back a few years. Lipbalms in general were an excellent way in early-years to get a scent fix, and you could eat them, too. I also had this doll (with a creepy expression) who would release a strawberry smell when you squeezed her tummy. That kept on going for years!

Later, The Body Shop stayed with me via White Musk and Dewberry and Ananya. Those perfume oil stations were such a joy.

What’s your favourite smell?

An English spring at dusk. This is a very particular smell because it doesn’t reveal itself every evening. You have to catch it when the temperature is right. Being home at my mum and dad’s and sticking my head out of the landing, and alongside hearing the neighbours’ dogs barking, getting a mix of lawns, a fuzzy warm smell that is going a bit more chilly, pollen, sweetness, roses. That makes me very happy.

Odette Toilette’s next Scratch+Sniff nights are Penning Perfumes at Clerkenwell Tales on Wednesday 28 November and Scenta Claus’ Grotto at The Book Club on Tuesday 11 December. Follow Odette on Twitter.

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