New York City is such a buffet of urban offerings that it’s good to have a theme when you visit—especially after the umpteenth time. Two purposeful strangers could walk down the same streets and experience them completely differently, and that’s a beautiful reality.
On this extended weekend visit, I endeavored my first sniffing tour of a city. I curated my own destinations because rather than stopping at every store that might be worthwhile, I wanted to focus on those that provided an experience—of discovery, or customization. That seems to make sense for someone who is at the stage of going broader before narrowing down.
From my search, and recommendations from stores along the way, these are the ones I visited:
Le Labo: Friendly atmosphere in a retro, minimalist, industrial-chic setting. 17 perfumes plus 1 location-specific special, which in New York is Tubereuse. Your selection is compounded while you wait and you get to customize your label. Rarely have I liked almost every scent from a brand, but Le Labo fragrances are all mild and pleasant enough that I did. They offer 2 sizes of discovery kits and I bought the large one, which contains samples of all 17.
Catbird: Not a perfume store, but a boutique jewelry store in Brooklyn that sells some perfumes. An interesting range of bold scents by D.S. & Durga and others. The ones that left an impression on me were Catbird’s own Smoke & Violets (by Goest Perfumes) and Ghost Rose. Smoke & Violets reminded me very much of women returning into a building after a cigarette break outside on a cold day. Ghost Rose was a lot more subtle, with a hint of pale innocence.
If I’d had more time in Brooklyn, I would have liked to visit Joya Studio and Alchemologie Natural Perfume. Next time. The rest of this review describes stores in Manhattan.
Bond No. 9: Colorful space housing many bottles of identical shape and unique graphical designs. I smelled a couple of them and they seemed quite complex, but I started to feel uncharacteristically claustrophobic and left. (Not very helpful for a review.)
Annick Goutal: Elegant space with no shortage of furry pompoms to accompany classic bottles. The sales associate was very friendly and explained virtually every fragrance to me, going out of her way to look up details to answer my questions about ones in which I was particularly interested. Annick Goutal has a delectable range of florals with special attention to roses: Rose Absolue is a “pure” blend of 6 kinds of roses; Rose Pompon is more juicy, and Rose Splendide more sensual. Fun fact: many of her fragrances are for both women and men, but packaged in different bottles for each! They also have a perfume “for children,” the playful and fruity Chat Perché. I ended up buying a full-size bottle of Ninfeo Mio, a fig-forward fragrance.
Diptyque: Visually as well as olfactorily artistic, the tester papers have a thoughtful illustration for each scent and a list of the main notes on the back, in up to 5 languages! The sales associates I encountered were welcoming and obviously passionate about their fragrances. A great place to explore.
Perfumarie Discovery Studio: Did I mention experiential? This is an automatic favorite because they offer an unbiased sniffing where you choose what you like with no idea what it is (unless your sense of smell is expertly trained, maybe…) You stand in front of a lineup of up to 32 numbered tagines (when I went, they had 25) of increasing size and smell your way up. Inside each tagine is a lava rock that holds the scent, and you smell the inside of the lid. You make notes as you go, and select about 4 that you like best to try on your skin. Finally, you choose your most preferred and take home a 5-mL vial of it—still without knowing what it is, until they reveal the lineup at the end of each month. The fragrances change each month. For $20 plus tax, this is an amazing experience and I will definitely go back another month when I get the chance. They also sell several collections by renowned perfumers and the mysteriously labelled vials and other glass receptacles are a visual treat.
Olfactory: This boutique in Nolita is all about customization, though the word should be used with a pinch of salt. The atmosphere is relaxed for just looking around, and they have a couch for your non–perfume-obsessed companions. They have a limited selection of base mixtures, most of which are given a unisex name (eg, Jayden, Hunter, Taylor) and accompanied by marketing aimed at teenagers. You can buy them as is or add a variety of other notes. These add-ons are premixed, so they may be 2 or 3 notes to form an accord—you cannot simply choose 1 of those notes. However, you can add more than 1 accord. You then get to pick a color for your label, and have anything you want stamped on it (within a certain number of characters). I bought a Leo with a high-proportioned addition of fig and cedarwood accord. (For the perceptive, a theme might be emerging…)
Aedes: This store was recommended by 2 of the previous places I visited. They are a treasure trove of high-end brands, and they left me alone to sniff as much as I wanted without proactively showing me anything. It was a great opportunity to put names to scents. I would say it’s ideal for people who know exactly what they are looking for and are interested in exploring more, but not as optimal for the undecided. The only discovery kit they carried was by Ormonde Jayne.
Frédéric Malle: The door at the Greenwich Avenue boutique is quite a conversation piece, and you can take my word for it or look up photos, as I didn’t take any this time. The marketing on the website seemed to me somewhat inconsistent with the vibe of the store, which is worth seeing in person. The sales associate was patient with me and explained a lot about several of the fragrances, although he held back on showing me ones that I probably would not like based on answering a few questions about my scent preferences (and, indeed, he would have been right, based on my independent sniffing of the remaining ones at the end). The latest limited edition collection is an expression of the synesthesia of Frédéric Malle with smell, color, and form—select fragrances have colorful plastic resin in amorphous shapes around the bottles. Frankly, I was disappointed that the juices themselves were not infused with shape-shifting colors like lava lamps! I did, however, appreciate the curation and collaboration presented by this brand.
If I’d had more time, I would also have liked to visit Osswald Parfumerie and Penhaligon’s, and possibly others. However, I consider this sniffing tour a success, and the proliferation of vials suggests that the discovery has only just begun.