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L.A. custom perfumers: Memoire Liquide, Strange Invisible, Smell Bent

If the usual fragrance options don't pass the smell test, try a custom-blended perfume.

November 29, 2009|By Melissa Magsaysay

If sniffing the countless designer fragrances displayed on department store counters leaves you befuddled, or if constantly rubbing your wrist on the flaps of perfumed paper in fashion magazines has pushed your olfactory glands into revolt, you may want to consider a custom concoction.

Blending a bespoke scent offers the experience of creating something tailored to your favorite notes and a chance to focus on the intimate details of who you are as a person. "People want to be taken somewhere else, yet they also want to locate something of their own familiar essence as well," said Alexandra Balahoutis, owner of Strange Invisible, a high-end perfume shop in Venice.

Custom perfumes: A Nov. 29 article about retailers who sell custom-blended perfumes incorrectly identified the custom fragrance boutique Strange Invisible Perfumes as simply Strange Invisible. —

The actual blending of a bespoke scent is an integral part of the process, and once you've had the experience, you'll undoubtedly understand why perfume is so expensive. What follows is a survey of three L.A.-based perfumers who do custom creations.

Memoire Liquide

Sisters Robin Coe-Hutshing and Jennifer Coe-Bakewell started custom blending scents in 1984 at their small fragrance counter in Fred Segal Santa Monica. Today, they own Studio Beauty Mix, the apothecary-style, multi-line beauty product store at Fred Segal, which also houses the Memoire Liquide counter where scents are blended into perfumes, lotions and body washes.

Coe-Hutshing has filled the fragrance bar with more than 150 perfume bases, which are, in turn, composed of multi-note scents that she has named to invoke a memory or capture the notion of the scent. "Sensuel" is one of those multi-note scents and includes red tea, sandalwood and musk, a mix that reminds her of a stay at hotel in Kyoto, Japan, with sandalwood floors and the faint smell of incense in the air. "That was a really good vacation," said Coe-Hutshing, who also developed all the Stila fragrances and has consulted with various beauty companies including Estée Lauder and Bath & Body Works.

Like "Sensuel," every multi-note scent can be worn alone or layered with others. Coe-Hutshing said that customers tend to choose three or four blends, but there is no correct number. "There's no answer to how many scents is too many."

At Studio Beauty Mix, black and gold chandeliers hang over the ivory counter, which is crammed with glass bottle droppers. Bottles are also perched on tiered shelves nearby, divided into categories to help customers focus in on exactly what they like, rather than exhaust their noses going at the scents willy-nilly.

Scent is a very personal experience, but Coe-Hutshing said many customers want to create a custom fragrance for a loved one or friend. If that task proves too daunting (scents cannot be returned or tinkered with after they are blended and bottled), Memoire Liquide offers gift certificates. You can name your blend, and formulas are kept on file for reorders.

Memoire Liquide custom scents are $45 for a quarter-ounce, $65 for a half-ounce and $95 for 1 ounce.

Studio Beauty Mix at Fred Segal 500 Broadway, Santa Monica, 866 studio1, (800) 499-8105,

Strange Invisible

Balahoutis is highly regarded as someone who understands the strange and elusive elements of perfume.

"Customized fragrance is wildly appealing to people because it presents an opportunity to collaborate creatively with a perfumer," Balahoutis said. But here, the custom experience costs $6,000, which is arguably more than most people will spend on perfume in their lifetime. For those who can afford the high-end blend, Strange Invisible will tap into less obvious notes, digging deep to create something unique. Balahoutis even keeps a transparent pink room within a room where clients are interviewed and their "essence" is revealed. "The more odd information I have about a person, the better," she said. "Their views, opinions, experiences and tastes all inform the design process beautifully. I like my client to be completely narcissistic and philosophical and just tell me about their world. As I hear them tell me about themselves, the silhouette of the formula starts to reveal itself."

At Strange Invisible, you won't smell anything that resembles the offerings at department or drugstores. But you can sample "ready to wear" scents that are also for sale at prices ranging from $135 to $210.

A custom blending session and the result -- a quarter fluid ounce -- are $6,000. Reorders for a quarter fluid ounce bottle are $300.

Strange Invisible 1138 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 314-1505,

Smell Bent

On the Smell Bent website, small vials of oil with names such as "Lemon Cowboy" and "Hungry Hungry Hippies" are illustrated with whimsical stick figure drawings. One of the scent offerings is called "Pere Noel Coward," and the descriptions include a lot of puns and exclamation points.

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