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Eau de Me

Carla Hall has her aromatic portrait painted--for a price

April 23, 2006|Carla Hall | Carla Hall is a staff writer for The Times' California section.

To me, perfume is like cleavage--too sexy for work.

Rather, that's what I thought before Alexandra Balahoutis ushered me into the custom-blend carriage and widened my perfume horizons.

Alexandra, the 31-year-old proprietor of Strange Invisible Perfumes in Venice, was going to create a fragrance solely for me. Like a couturier of scent, she would take the measure of my primal likes and dislikes. Then she would use her skills in "mixology," as she calls it, to concoct a quarter ounce of the essence of myself.

It would be something like the "strange invisible perfume" wafting off Cleopatra and her maidens in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," the inspiration for the shop's name.

My signature scent wouldn't come cheap. Alexandra's labor, the perfume itself and the right to its exclusivity--it will never be sold to anyone else--cost $2,100, plus tax. The sum was paid upfront after a brief telephone interview with Alexandra's assistant, Vishal Hira, who quizzed me on my favorite music, sweets and beverages (Did I like wine or Champagne?) and reassured me. "It's just a wonderful opportunity to get to know yourself," Vishal said. No worries: I was looking forward to the spa experience of it all.

At the appointed hour, Alexandra and I settled in opposite each other, on upholstered benches in a cozy booth (the "carriage") with glass and curvy wood walls designed to look like a giant perfume bottle.

"What's your favorite fruit?" she asked.

Bosc pears--but they must be hard.

"I'm the same way," she said. "That's very helpful to me."

She wrote in a bound book.


I love cinnamon and ginger--they remind me of Christmas.

"So, Christmas. You like things that remind you of that?"

Yes, I answered. And I love the smell of Christmas trees.

"Oh, this is so cool," she said, scribbling.

An assistant arrived, carrying a daintily cut apple, then a glass of white wine. The strains of jazz wafted from the sound system. I basked in the decadence of drinking wine on a Friday afternoon with someone who hung on my every word like a psychotherapist. Smelling good later would just be a bonus.

We talked about places I would like to go (Paris; on safari in Africa) and how I would spend a perfect day (watching old Myrna Loy movies). My favorite flowers (roses and tuberoses) and my favorite L.A. experiences (the drive along San Vicente Boulevard to the beach; the hypnotic smell of night-blooming jasmine along Sunset).

"Do you like driving?" she asked. Did I prefer white wine or red? Did I drink coffee? How do I like it? For a moment, I feared my perfume would smell like French Vanilla Coffee-mate.

Along the way, I discovered stray facts about Alexandra. She's not the failed actress I suspected she was from her profile on the Internet Movie Database, which lists her as having had the tiniest of roles in about half a dozen movies. Her stepfather, Jerry Bruckheimer (who married her mother, Linda, more than a decade ago), made those films and asked her to do the parts. It was just for fun, not a career, she said. She has lived in Paris, and her French accent is impeccable. She has a boyfriend and she won't kiss him if he's chewed gum. (She and I both hate gum.)

Alexandra didn't want to know what perfume I wore after work. (Jil Sander #4.) It might have subconsciously influenced her.

"Now I want to get acquainted with your skin," she announced, directing me to a stainless-steel counter. She lightly swabbed the inside of my forearm with a blend of chamomile, lemon verbena and lavender essential oils in alcohol. I told her it smelled as if I had spilled tea on myself. She was unfazed. "Remember, these are not perfumes," she cautioned.

Then she sniffed my arm and addressed an assistant. "Everything on her skin is very balanced," she declared, as the assistant took notes.

Next, I sampled floral waters. Alexandra believes taste is a more acute sense than smell. The jasmine water tasted (predictably) like the smell of jasmine and (unexpectedly) like banana. The waters were amusing but not really inviting. She poured the final glass. "It's blue lotus from India," she said.

I sipped it, and a rush of images came at my tongue--camphor followed by Band-Aids followed by bacon grease. It was awful, yet it reminded me of something in my life I couldn't pinpoint. I asked for a second pour. I still couldn't place it.

When the consultation was over, it was dusk outside. For fun, I sampled Alexandra's ready-to-wear fragrances, which sell for $185 for a quarter ounce. I'm not a perfume junkie, but I could grow into one.

Still, why the $2,100 fee? In addition to the price of her time, Alexandra explained, many of the ingredients--she uses only natural botanicals--are staggeringly expensive to harvest and distill. (She does her own blending, but a chemist distills essences for her.) The agar wood she buys, for example, costs $60,000 a liter.

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