Floris, the storied London perfumers, recently invited me to try their fragrance customisation service. And I have to say it was one of the most pleasurable bespoke experiences I’ve ever had, rivalled only by my first bespoke suit.
I’ve always been interested in scent, continuously sampling and accumulating over the years. And in the past 10 years of Permanent Style I’ve interviewed a fair few people in the industry – personal favourites being Lorenzo Villoresi and Frederic Malle.
As a result, I came to Floris with a very particular aim in mind. As any customer of bespoke can attest, this can be both a blessing and a curse. It meant that I narrowed down the base scent very quickly, but also found it relatively hard to finesse the final product.
The bespoke service at Floris has undergone a bit of a transformation since they hired Nicola Pozzani (below) to lead it in early 2015. (I also profiled Nicola for a Mr Porter feature on London craftsmen recently – here.)
The service is split into two types. The first one, which I tried, is usually called customisation, takes two hours and concludes with the customer walking away with a personal fragrance. It costs £450. The second is much more involved, with at least three consultations and several tests over six months, and costs £4,500.
The two-hour session starts with a whirlwind tour of the major scent families, presented chronologically in order – to also demonstrate how perfume developed of the past 500 years (I’ll do a separate post on that later).
The scents presented during that tour come from the Floris archive. Nicolas has four shelves of them ranged up the wall next to him, filled with around 30 large bottles. Each contains an old Floris scent typical of a particular type – cologne, wood, marine, fougere, floral etc.
Some are finished fragrances (eg Limes); some simple combinations (eg sandalwood and cedarwood – a particular favourite); and some close to essences (bergamot or lavender). With each one, you smell a test strip, give Nicolas your reflections, and decide whether it’s something that could form the base of your perfume.
I found the whole tour fantastically insightful and educational. For example, I learnt that old scents were originally used to splash on the hands after eating or visiting the toilet – hence the weakness of cologne. And that the same combinations were often drunk as pick-me-ups – perfumes and liqueurs are closely connected in that regard.
Given the clarity of my concept for the fragrance, I narrowed down the scents I was interested in pretty quickly. I wanted something masculine and dry – not sickly like the ouds that are so trendy at the moment, but definitively an evening fragrance, nothing too floral or citrusy.
The best areas for this are the woods and orientals. Woods tend to be quite ‘dry’ (there’s a whole issue with vocabulary that deserves another post) while orientals are usually spicy and occasionally sweet.
I picked out four from the whirlwind tour: that cedarwood/sandalwood mix (smells like shoe trees, pencils and mud); an oriental blend (nutmeg, cardamon, pepper); lavender; and a Floris vetiver blend. I was asked to narrow that down to two, and then try two on the skin.
As anyone interested in perfume will know, scents often smell quite different on the skin than on a testing strip. And they smell different on different people – the warmth and oiliness of the skin in particular affecting how the molecules are released. This is another way in which the process is bespoke – you can tweak the formula to suit how a scent reacts with your skin.
It was the oriental blend that won out, so that became the base of my perfume. We then assembled the other scents that had been discarded, plus some new ones (amber, iris), and considered how to mix them together.
At this stage, Nicola takes far more control. He knows that lavender must be added in three times the volume of amber to have the same effect. And he knows how to ‘round’ out a scent with elements that aren’t obviously noticeable (eg bergamot for a touch of freshness).
I smell. I say what I think. Nicola makes a tweak, then we do it again.
- The bottle contains 30 fluid drams.
- We started with 16 for the base (oriental)
- Plus some of the wood mix. amber and lavender, making a total of 24.
- The lavender wasn’t coming though, so we added 2 more of that and 1 each of the other two.
- That made made 28.
- Woods, it was decided, were needed to settle the amber and would work well with the lavender. So that made up the final 2 ounces.
- Then we’re done.
It was a emotional, immersive experience – and fantastic value. For anyone that takes an interest in bespoke, craft and process, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Rather like bespoke tailoring, I’m still not entirely sure what I think about the scent. It’s different, spiky and warm – I’ll go back in next week and show Nicola what it smells like after a few hours on the skin.
But more than anything, it feels intensely personal.
Photos: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man