With perfume salespeople often more interested in pushing what's new than in finding what's right for their customers, an encounter at the counter can be a dizzying experience. But Fito Pena, a salesman at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, has been helping his customers make scents of their fragrance options since 1969.
According to Pena, it is not as easy as finding one signature scent.
"Signature scents are not really in vogue anymore," he says. Gone are the days when women had one fragrance everyone knew her by, like Joy, Youth Dew or Shalimar.
"You pick a fragrance to make you feel sporty, elegant, sexy or devious," he says. "Just like you have different personalities, I feel you should have different fragrances. I have women who come in who have been wearing Joy for so long that they are not even aware that they have it on. And to me, fragrance should make you feel good first of all."
Developing a "fragrance wardrobe," as Pena calls it, can be even more difficult than shopping for clothes. One of the first questions he asks: "When are you going to wear the fragrance?"
"In the summer and during the day, you want a lighter fragrance because of the external heat," he says. "At night, you want a heavier fragrance because everyone's nose is bombarded with smells during the day to the point that their ability to detect fragrance is diminished."
The second issue is strength: Fragrances come in several. From strongest to weakest are perfume, eau de parfum, eau de toilette and then an understated body cream or lotion. Stores do not give samples of perfume because doing so would be too costly.
Pena suggests sampling a scent on a blotter card first. (That way if it's something you hate, you aren't stuck with it for the rest of the day.) If it smells good on paper, try it on the skin. Perfume is best worn on pulse points, but eau de toilettes or parfums can be sprayed on the torso or even the back of the legs.
You may need to leave the perfume counter and come back, because it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the fragrance to go through its notes and come to life.
"Fragrances are like musical notes in different octaves. The lighter notes are florals, middle notes spicy and Oriental, and lower notes are woodsy tones that lock the scent to the skin. They intermingle one with the other to create a unique scent."
Testing more than three fragrances in one trip is a no-no.
"Three or four fragrances down the road and I could put an onion under your nose and you'd go, 'Ooh! that's nice!' " Pena says.
Finding the perfect scent is about trial and error.
"It could take a month if you don't come too often. Just start and eliminate," he advises. "Maybe you want more rose, or more floral or more jasmine. It's not like trying on a bunch of sweaters and then finding one that fits. Fragrances have got subtle changes. You may like one when it is at its top notes, but not at the end."
Men should be just as choosy about their fragrances.
"It used to be that a wife or a mother or a girlfriend would come in and say, 'This is what I want him to wear.' Now men are more sophisticated. They have more than just an eau de toilette or a cologne to choose from. You could buy an after-shave to match a cologne if your skin is oily, an after-shave cream if your face is more dry or sensitive. They are also now making atomizers for men. Atomizers are great for men and women, since fragrances really should be refreshed two to three times a day."
There are also a lot of men's fragrances that women like to wear. That's what started the citrus trend in women's fragrance, Pena explains.
"Citruses have always been something fresh for men to wear, but now we have citruses that are unisex fragrances, like Imperial of Guerlain, which was originally designed for Napoleon's wife, Eugenie. Then it became a men's fragrance and now it's unisex."
As important as the care you take when choosing a new fragrance is how you take care of it when you get it home. Dabbing with your finger just won't do. Since the oils of the skin add to the demise of the fragrance, Pena recommends using a perfume stopper and wiping it clean before you replace it in the bottle. If you do this, and keep the bottle in a cool place out of direct sunlight, it may last two to three years. (A fragrance has gone bad when it becomes thick or discolored.)
And if, heaven forbid, you've gone through all this trouble only to hear that your scent is being discontinued, Pena advises buying several bottles and storing them in their boxes in a cool, dark place, like a closet. Under good conditions they will last five to six years. But don't ever keep perfume in the refrigerator.
Also, although a fragrance may no longer be distributed in the United States, it may still be available in Europe or Mexico, or, locally at a place such as the Fragrance Shop in Orange, Cypress, Anaheim Hills and Huntington Beach, a chain that stocks hard-to-find perfumes.
So what does the man with the nose that knows wear?