Women in France don’t just love fragrance; they can’t imagine living without it. Here, they share their scent secrets.
RULE NO. 1: In France, the scent you dab defines who you are.
“The French woman who is extremely tailored with a lovely scarf and carries a beautiful purse—she will wear old vintage perfumes,” says perfumer Céline Ellena. There are also plenty of daring Parisians whose fragrances breathe more tantalizing messages: “If you wear Angel by Thierry Mugler, you are basically saying, ‘I love modern things, but I am seductive as well. In fact, I’m seducing you right now!'” perfumer Frédéric Malle says. For those in France who are not yet at the pinnacle of chic, scent can also exert an aspirational effect. “In every case, the perfume builds up the other self. The one I am and the one I wish I was,” says perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, who is the father of Céline Ellena.
RULE NO. 2: A girl who picks a fragrance at 12 doesn’t have to remain true to the scent for life. (As you can probably imagine, everyone in France understands that love and fidelity are two different things.)
Even the most conservative, tailored, and sedate of the French seem to have private flings on the side. “There’s always the woman who wears a classical perfume, and this fragrance has become very important in her life,” says Ellena. “And then, sometimes she is like a butterfly landing on a few flowers. She has various passions, but after that little experiment, when the mood passes, she will come back to the original perfume,” she says. “In other words, like a woman who has both a husband and a lover.”
RULE NO. 3: There are times when you simply have to divorce your perfume.
After years of adoring Opium by Yves Saint Laurent, a fragrance she associated with a certain man in her life, designer Catherine Malandrino had to call it quits. “I had created an entire imaginary world around that smell,” she says. “The sublime oriental scent, especially wonderful during the cold winter months, the freedom with this man, which in my eyes was represented by the deep, glowing red of the bottle.” Then man trouble started, and the perfume became a lot less alluring. And after that: the breakup, at which point a lot more than love died. “When the relationship ended, I couldn’t bear the fragrance or any of its associations,” she concludes. “One day I loved it. The next, I simply couldn’t abide the smell.”
RULE NO. 4: Try not to wear the same perfume as your mother. “The classic perfumes of France in the 1980s were so strong, and my mother at the time wore a popular one, which you smelled two blocks away,” says fashion blogger and illustrator Garance Doré. Even when her maman broke off her first love affair and moved on to Chanel No. 5, things remained complicated. Mainly because, Doré points out, “my sister then decided to choose Chanel No. 5 as well. Well, that really messes up my head. In the first place, although she’s my younger sister, she has always acted like my older sister: She’s the one who got married, has children. And in the second, when I smell her, who exactly am I smelling? My mother? Or my sister? Which is weird, frankly.” A third reason not to wear maman‘s perfume: Everyone will think you’re older than you are. Need we say more?
RULE NO. 5: Never leave home without it.
Everyone wears perfume in France, even, as Céline Ellena points out, small children. “For me, to go without perfume is like being stark naked,” says Malandrino. She’s not alone: “It’s like Coco Chanel once said, and I love this: ‘A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future,'” says perfume Patricia de Nicolai. “You don’t perfume yourself just for you. The scent is for others, too. You put it on the wrist, behind your ears, even on your clothing.” In fact, say the French, the only place where you can legitimately skip scent is the beach. “Never wear perfume in strong sunlight—the perfume and the sun are enemies,” warns de Nicolai. “You must remember: Strong sun can wreck the fresh notes of any perfume; the molecules evaporate right away.”
RULE NO. 6: Never ask a French woman what perfume she’s wearing. “When you say, ‘Oh, my God, I love your perfume,’ a French woman will simply answer, ‘Yes, I love it, too,'” warns makeup artist Laura Mercier. “This is because she just doesn’t want to give you the details. She doesn’t want you to purchase the same fragrance.” Well, that’s plain cruel! “No, I understand it,” she says. “If you have a signature fragrance, you want to be unique. That’s a big difference between us: The American woman will share with great pleasure the name of her perfume.” Mercier pauses to give the proper weight to this New World gaffe, the meaning behind it. “It’s because she doesn’t want to stand out,” she says finally and with deep sorrow. “This is certainly not the culture of the French.”
For more expert advice:
• How to Make Your Scent Last
• How to Layer Scents the Right Way
• How to Wear Men’s Cologne Without Smelling Like a Guy