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Puttin' on the Spritz

Leave It to Those Odd, Little-Known Fragrances to Gain a Cult Following

June 16, 1996|Hilary Sterne

"I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder--I believe she stole it from her mother's Spanish maid--a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingled with her own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim . . . ."

--Vladimir Nabokov, "Lolita"

Would Humbert Humbert have been so smitten if the object of his affections had smelled like a scent strip, doused with an over-hyped name-brand fragrance he'd sniffed on dozens of other women instead of "some kind of toilet powder"? Don't tell Pavlov, but probably not. When it comes to sex, one should never discount the sway of mystery, even when that mystery is a "lowly" scent. Smelling like every other Prada-toting type at the Ivy may be playing it safe, but smelling distinctive is sort of the point.

Which is why some brave buyers, resisting department store spritzers everywhere, search out odd, little-known fragrances. They may be dusted-off classics or new ones from tiny parfumers. Sometimes they're highly distinctive, such as L'Artisans' Premier Figuier, a blend of figs, fig leaves and coconut essences launched in 1995. Sometimes they're just unexpected, as when style queen Diana Vreeland made Paco Rabanne, a men's fragrance, her signature in the '70s. Either way, when the women who wear such a scent become a small-but-influential group, a cult fragrance is quietly born.

Quietly is key. Because as soon as it's announced in some star-stroking magazine that Sharon Stone practically bathes in Bulgari's Cologne au The Vert or that Michelle Pfeiffer has been known to wear Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Pamplemousse, the jig is up. The masses are in on the secret, and it's time for cultists to move on to something new and harder to find. Like, perhaps, Cadolle No. 9. A scent made since the '30s by a lingerie house in Paris, it's now rumored to be a favorite of Madonna's and is being sold to mere mortals at Henri Bendel in New York. (But you didn't read it here.) La Perla is another lingerie house with a fragrance popular among those in the know.

At Fred Segal Melrose, Child, a sweet tropical blend of natural oils, has its devotees desperate to keep it to themselves. "I've had customers tell me that they've torn the label off the bottle so that their friends won't know what it is," says Holly Pope, manager of the store's Apothia fragrance department. Another cult hit, she says, is a light, clean scent from Norwegian perfumer Geir Ness called Laila. At Barneys New York stores, staffers are hoping Floret by Antonia Bellanca, a sensual, floral fragrance that smells of sweet pea and lily of the valley, will win as many cognoscenti's hearts and noses as its creator's last underground hit, Antonia's Flowers. And Bendel's is betting that Cadolle No. 9 and the scent Mea Culpa, with its warm, green notes, will become the new word-of-mouth cult faves.

How that happens is almost as much of a mystery as the name of the toilet powder that haunted Humbert Humbert. Stylists and hairdressers who travel between Europe and the United States often introduce new scents to their well-heeled clients, and the phenomenon builds from there, usually taking between a few months and a year or so to peak. Sometimes a prestigious store will create its own cult hit. "We look under every rock [for new fragrances]," says Bendel's Edwin Burstell. It then discreetly pushes its finds by sending samples to top clients and spraying store saleswomen (but never unwitting customers) with it. Barneys New York's Route du The has remained en vogue for more than 10 years because, aside from its unusual green-apple kick, it's not sold at duty-free shops everywhere.

Classics can suddenly be rediscovered, too, as Fracas was by beauty editors a few years back. Acqua di Parma, a unisex eau de toilette from the '30s once worn by Ava Gardner, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, was relaunched by the Italian shoe manufacturer Diego della Valle in 1994. Sold only in the company's boutiques here and in Europe, the clean, citrusy fragrance shows signs of becoming the same sort of status scent.

Of course, if you prefer to be a cult of one, as Empress Josephine once was when she patronized Jean-Francois Houbigant, you can have your sweet smell of success with the help of a top Parisian parfumery. Annick Goutal, Patricia de Nicolai, Monique Schlienger and Nicolas Mamounas will all create custom fragrances. Prepare to wait months and spend a few thousand dollars. And--need we even say it?--don't expect a free travel bag with your purchase.

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