I live in a city that is high on football and low on perfume shopping. Gator fans would likely not want things the other way around. You cannot live in Gainesville, Florida and not participate, one way or another, in the football ubiquity. As I discovered, however, with a bit of creativity you can live in Gainesville or other small towns and participate in the enjoyment of hard-to-find perfume.
I’m a small town perfumista. This means that there are no boutiques or high-end stores at which to sample fragrance. There’s no Barney’s or Luckyscent or even a top-shelf Sephora. We didn’t have a Sephora until 2009, and when it arrived it proved to be one of the closely edited Sephora stores. We have small versions of big department stores.
If you wear Tresor or Happy or Pleasures, you’re in luck. There isn’t a mall in America without a Lancome, Clinique, and Estee Lauder counter. These are the Big Three, and enough people waft their instantly recognizable sillage that I doubt Gainesville will be expanding into niche perfume lines anytime soon. In fact, the whole of Florida seems not to have caught onto indie/niche. Bond No. 9 and L’Artisan are about as exotic as we get, and for those one must travel hundreds of miles.
I will admit to racking up hundreds of miles on my car in pursuit of premium shopping in Florida. Jacksonville, Tampa, and Orlando are destinations for me and I visit each several times per year. Orlando has world-class shopping, if not availability of the esoteric. However, Saks has carried Tom Ford and has the Bond No. 9 line; Bloomingdale’s offers an excellent and wide array of high-end “department store” scents; Neiman Marcus can be counted on for Creed, Atelier Cologne, and Acqua di Parma. There’s a Chanel boutique in the Mall at Millennia where one can try Les Exclusifs. Short of finding Andy Tauer or Vero Kern, Orlando has a good mainstream selection of luxury fragrances.
So what happens if you walk into your local mall and are confronted with a life-sized cutout of Justin Bieber plugging his debut fragrance? What if that’s all there is? What if you want to try one of Andy’s or Vero’s fragrances? What if even Diorissimo is an impossible find? The blogs make fragrances sound amazing and you have to get your hands on a sample pronto. Here’s how I look beyond the small town to the wider world of perfumes and how I got started—or got creative—in sampling them.
Aedes de Venustas and Luckyscent both have superb sampling programs. On the e-tailer side, there’s The Posh Peasant, Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court. The e-tailers will have fragrances the retail stores do not, including vintage and ultra-rare items. You’re going to pay for those, especially with pure parfum. Worth it? Absolutely. In many cases there is simply no other way to try.
Relationships with Stores
Some stores are simply excellent at customer relations. For me that means Saks Fifth Avenue. Being a regular shopper and taking the time to develop a friendship with a sales associate means that you can spritz at your leisure and come away with samples of your choosing, rather than merely what’s on the spiff. Spending time in your favorite store is also a way to glean industry information or to try something at a trunk show preview, like the Tom Ford line. Make sure your fave SA has your contact info for event invitations.
Also, don’t hesitate to request samples when making a remote purchase. Sometimes instead of ordering online, I pick up the phone. I return to the same sale associate and ask her to let me know about promotions or new releases. I just got a small envelope with a set of samples from an SA at Barney’s in Manhattan, because she recalled an earlier purchase I’d made and thought I might want to try something new. Sales associates want to sell, and you want to smell. The two go together very nicely indeed.
Most of us know about swapping on MUA, or of bottle splits on Scent Splits. I’ve had great luck with both and have even had some very generous surprises. Living in a small town, though, has made me get a bit creative in my swapping. I might not have the Amouage scent someone wants in exchange for the Roja Dove, but I have a MAC counter that doesn’t sell out. If you trust your swapping pal, a custom purchase offer might be the way to go, and not one that is limited to perfume.
In addition, I look for swappers who live locally, making for an easy and quick swap and a greater discussion than might normally occur.
What about Lancome, Lauder and Clinique?
Like many young American women, I grew up with fragrances from these iconic brands, and then quickly dropped them when I found L’Artisan. However, there are some great fragrances sitting on the small-town counter. There’s a perfume cult centered around Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and even among those with the widest sample libraries you will find devotees of Estee Lauder Private Collection.
Small town doesn’t mean small time. It’s fun to talk fragrance and to add to the discussion on your favorite blogs. With a little bit of effort, you’ll be talking aldehydes and ionones with the rest of them. Go forth fragrantly into the adventure!
If you are a small town perfumista as well, please share your tips and suggestions.
Image: stained glass windows by Marc Chagall at the Art Institute of Chicago, photography by Bois de Jasmin