"My affair with perfume began as a slow, secret flirtation, carried on late at night by the glow of my computer screen."
When I read Alyssa Harad's memoir, it was a revelation. For the first time, someone was describing to me the feelings that I had about perfume and the incredible power that my sense of smell held over my memories and emotions. She captured the confusion, the minor battle to assimilate this passion for perfume with the sense of self. We are not beauty product junkies, I thought, we are writers and readers and overthinking academics. And yet I, like Alyssa, had found myself entranced by molecules for sale in pretty bottles on the Internet.
Alyssa's book, full of lush language and vivid description, tells an unlikely love story—not just love of perfume, but love of discovery. Love of abandoning a too-rigid self-perception and giving in to the beautiful things in life. It's a joyful story by a talented writer, the kind whose words make you stop to grab a pencil to underline passage after passage. Perfume may be the main character, but Alyssa's story is about how the most surprising discoveries we make in life can be about ourselves.
This month, we're honored to have Alyssa Harad's guest curation for the February 2014 collection, "Coming to Our Senses." It features two scents that appear in Alyssa's story, including the perfume that sent her tumbling down the rabbit hole into the world of scent, and a third scent that she has grown to love and understand since that time. All three are little love stories in themselves.
This month, we'll be featuring giveaways and conversations about Alyssa's story and your stories, too. And best of all, we're making Alyssa's book available to you. Get your copy, read along as you experience the perfumes that she loves, and get ready to be inspired—by her words, her selections, and her passion.
Botrytis by Ginestet
"There it was, the raw sweetness of wine and wild honey, with the tang of muscat grapes and falling leaves running through it, giving it life and movement—a scent of October light and blue autumn skies. It had melted into my skin instantly, and now it was radiating out from it, surrounding me in a glowing golden haze.”
That’s how I describe Botrytis in Coming to My Senses, and that’s the way it smelled to me the first time I put it on. It not only tipped me down the perfume rabbit hole, it made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about sweetness. Up until the moment I put it on, I wanted a perfume with a tough noir kind of glamour. After I fell for it, I worried about my perfume cool. Surely Botrytis was too easy. Too warm and opulent. Too beautiful. There was no mystery—it held nothing back.
Or maybe—I thought, sniffing again—holding back was overrated.
Botrytis also happens to be one of the first perfumes my husband truly noticed and loved on me. I still think of it as a kind of Valentine.
(Sidenote: Botrytis is a fungus, the “noble rot,” that shrivels semillon grapes and concentrates their sugars so they can be made into sauternes. Ginestet, the house that makes Botrytis, is a venerable French wine company obviously run by people who could care less if Americans have no idea what Botrytis is.)
Mimosa Pour Moi by L'Artisan Parfumeur
"I took the strip from her politely, but I was not enthusiastic. I had sampled it before and found it to be one of those pale, pretty perfumes that speak in a register I can’t quite hear. But when I brought the strip to my nose, my eyes widened in surprise… Maybe it was the walk I’d just taken under those barely blossoming trees. Maybe it was me. But now I could smell the tiny, golden, powdery-almond mimosa blooms—very light, but warm as skin—that were supposed to be there. I sniffed, and sniffed again. “
There are many kinds of mimosa perfumes. Depending on how they’re treated, the blooms of the acacia farnesisana tree can be rich and heady, or downright sexy, with a serious animal funk. But only Mimosa Pour Moi smells like the scent of the trees growing near the creek by my house carried down the block on a breeze, the powdery bitter almond fading to a fresh cucumber-peel violet. Just as Botrytis taught me to overcome my suspicion of sweetness, Mimosa Pour Moi taught me I could love pastels. I fell for it on a cold April day in New York after a year of big changes (the passage above comes near the end of Coming to My Senses) and it will always smell like spring in the city and tender new beginnings to me.
Mythique by Parfums DelRae
By the time I fell for Mythique in 2009, I was several years into my perfume life and a good year into writing Coming to My Senses. If I had smelled it any earlier I might not have understood that its restrained elegance was also an easy graciousness—Mrs. Dalloway running out to buy her own flowers. The heart of Mythique is iris, that most reserved and (to me) puzzling of perfume notes, halfway between root and flower. Sometimes iris is powdery, other times dry and woody—often it’s downright chilly. But Mythique’s iris has a delicious airiness. It’s cheered up by sunny citrus top notes and given a hint of sexiness by soft leather and a little growl of vetiver down in the base. The result is a perfume that can be worn anywhere, anytime—not because it is bland and inoffensive, but because it projects the kind of confident happiness that has no need to impress.
In 2012, Mythique was one of the perfumes Chef Dana Tommasino and I featured in the scent dinner we hosted at Dana’s San Francisco restaurant, Woodward’s Garden. DelRae Roth, the founder of Parfums DelRae, attended the dinner wearing perfectly fitted ivory trousers, a simple crewneck ivory cashmere sweater, red lipstick, and a devastatingly glamorous necklace with baroque silver sunbursts of different sizes that turned out (another perfumer asked and then told me) to be “an old Balenciaga piece. Just costume jewelry, you know.” Each of the perfumes was translated into a dish, and Mythique was represented by a meringue edged in white chocolate and curls of candied orange peel. The perfect sweet nothing—but not too sweet—at the very end of the meal.
So when I wear Mythique I think of all that, too—red lipstick, the rasp and crumble of a meringue melting on the tongue, an extraordinary necklace worn like it was no big deal.
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Find Alyssa's memoir here. Stay tuned this month for giveaways and conversations with Alyssa.