Paul Poiret on Selecting a Signature Perfume

Who was the first fashion designer to launch a perfume? It was most certainly not Coco Chanel and her No 5. The first couturier who linked fashion and perfumery was Paul Poiret. His rise in the world of fashion happened at the turn of the 20th century. Although his success was as meteoric as his fall was swift and tragic, he left an indelible imprint on fashion and created a modern sense of couture and dressing, the very road that Chanel and other fashion designers would follow.

Poiret’s autobiography, King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret (V&A, London 2009) reveals him as a complex character that he was. While in its pages he can come across as pretentious and self-congratulating, his passion for art and fashion is moving. So is his openness to taking risks or even bearing opprobrium. “Do not kick up a fuss for something that is not admissible today, because  tomorrow it will be,” he writes. He knew what he was talking about it, since one of his first designs, a kimono coat elicited a vehement rejection from a Russian countess. “What a horror! When there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that,” she said. This kimono-coat was to become one of Poiret’s hits.

As I’ve written in an article about Poiret’s perfumes, he approached fragrance with the same openness as fashion. In a 1922 interview of Theatre Magazine, he shared that he started creating perfumes simply because he was fascinated by scents. His fragrance collection launched under the label of Parfums de Rosine, named after his daughter, was as original as his garments.

My readers often ask what I think about a signature fragrance and whether we can even hold onto this idea when every year there are more than 1000 new launches, each promised to be the next great one. So, when reading the interview with Poiret, I came across his thoughts on selecting a perfume, I wanted to share it with you.

“Which reminds us to ask M. Poiret whether he believes in one perfume for a woman, that is always to be identified with her, that lies in the scent of her glove, her handkerchief, that lingers in a room after she has left it… But no, he agrees with us that we are more complex nowadays… A woman needs many scents… But she must choose only those that reveal herself…

“Some days she is good tempered”, twinkled M. Poiret, “and some days she is bad tempered,” modifying this momentary lack in French gallantry, with one of the two smiles he permitted himself during the half hour… “So that she must have scents for each mood… and she should have the same diversity for each costume…Just as you say, Madame… But these scents, whether they are six or twelve, all will be in the same tone the same key…They must harmonize with her personality.”

In other words, the most important is to find a fragrance that moves you and that makes your heart skips a beat. Since each one of us has many facets, approach scents with an open mind. It doesn’t matter whether the sales person, your friend or your partner like it. Does it feel right to you? Does it add something to you?

Finally, an advice on how to wear a perfume from Poiret. “We are urged to put some on the fur collar of our coat, where we are assured it will linger a long time. A French trick evidently, this mingling perfume and fur.” The last time I wore a fur coat, I was 10 and living someplace with a minus 20 degree winter, but the same tip works on any fabric, especially wool and tweed. Be careful, however, since some fragrances stain. A grandmother’s trick of applying perfume on a handkerchief and tucking it into your pocket also works well.

You can read the full interview here.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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40 Comments

  • Jennifer: I’m going to read his biography over the Thanksgiving break. It looks very interesting. November 5, 2018 at 8:48am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s definitely amusing and also a good reflection on his era. November 5, 2018 at 12:07pm Reply

  • Matty: I sometimes spray a little perfume on the collar of my coat. November 5, 2018 at 9:11am Reply

    • Victoria: I do too. Certain perfumes linger so well. My favorites ones to use on fabric are woody or incense perfumes, but iris also lingers well and smells even better the next day. November 5, 2018 at 12:08pm Reply

  • Qwendy: I really love that you have become obsessed with my Idol Paul Poiret …. I never saw this interview on Cleopatra’s Boudoir, I love the whole piece! My i troduction to him was when I was an art stident in NY and saw a wild bedroom set that he had designed for sale in one of those insanely expensive upper east side antiques stores! The furniture and textiles designed by young women in the Rosine Workshops were quite visionary too – the wallpaper is in the photo of the showroom in the article you recommended.

    Gosh I sure would love to smell one of his Forest Floor perfumes! How many have you sniffed? Xxx November 5, 2018 at 12:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve tried quite a few at the Osmotheque, but I need to pull out my notes to check which ones, besides Nuit de Chine, Fruit Defendu, etc. He was a brilliant personality, and in many ways ahead of his time. We still owe so much to him, not least of all the idea that fashion is not just haute couture and pretty clothes, but also a way to express yourself. November 5, 2018 at 2:21pm Reply

      • Qwendy: Thanks I missed that! Maybe because as a child of the 60’s it has always been a given 🙂 November 7, 2018 at 6:57am Reply

  • John: I’d always wanted to imagine a wardrobe that would be fairly limited: seasonal, but maybe, as Dior suggested about fashion in his writing, including a ‘vacation’ sub-season in there as well… Some of this is related to notes and the lightness or heaviness of compositions, but some must surely be psychological as well. I mostly wear Habit Rouge in the summer, and feel kind of bittersweet leaving it behind when the weather gets foul. Meanwhile, Caron’s Third Man, which has a kind of smoky undertone, turned out to be a great winter scent. November 5, 2018 at 1:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like the idea of a simple, limited wardrobe in principle, mostly for its simplicity. But my interests change and evolve for it to work. If I become passionate about roses, then a wardrobe of iris perfumes won’t hit the spot.
      That being said, I like your choice of Habit Rouge and Third Man. Whether they are your signatures or perfumes in a larger wardrobe, they are outstanding. November 5, 2018 at 2:23pm Reply

      • John: Thanks! The heart-skip-a-beat factor was a big part of the equation…I’d say all my favourites have that feature in common. My mainstay in all weather has been Caron Pour un Homme for that reason… I often feel like it must be too simple (or its contrasts too unsubtle), but there at least three moments in its evolution which have the power to catch me off guard and arrest my train of thought on a regular basis; after a couple of years of steady wear, that is nothing to sneeze at. I do see your point about evolving tastes though… One thought I have (and maybe others can relate?) is that I am attracted to classics because they are sufficiently complex that you will notice different things in them as your tastes evolve. I recently came to realize after my first cold-weather wearing that I really crave Kouros at least once a week as the cold sets in and work piles on (I am a teacher). Getting to know that composition has really made me rethink the use of musks in Pour un Homme, and appreciate all the more the curious intersection of the fading green of the lavender and the onset of vanilla and musk (AKA evolutionary moment #2).

        Another way to think about a limited wardrobe besides seasons relates to social needs that can get quite particular. The critic who goes only by ‘JTD’ at a blog called ‘scenthurdle’ has some very interesting and funny ‘functional perfume genres’ (personal categories of scents to use on varied occasions). One is called “poise is in the recovery”, for instance, which suits my uses for Habit Rouge: a fragrance that helps you negotiate adversity gracefully. Pour Un Homme, for me, fulfills two other categories on his list: “slippers and a pipe”, and “sleep tight”, whose uses you can probably imagine for yourself.

        Thank you for this wonderful and interesting piece on Poiret. I am very curious to se what those who have purchased the licensing of his name will do with the house (and issue on the horizon for Caron as well…) November 5, 2018 at 6:16pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, it makes sense. I do like having the kind of perfumes that always make me feel good when I wear them. Lutens’s Bois de Violette is one of them, for instance, and Diptyque Tam Dao comes close.

          Do you wear any Chanels? November 6, 2018 at 5:27am Reply

          • John: Not quite as much as I’d like to… Work consumes a lot of my life (I teach at a boarding school 6 days a week), and it so happens that the two Chanels I really love (Egoïste and Antaeus) are both things that don’t seem as suitable for that setting, the latter feeling a bit dark and the former just too beautiful & distracting (it seems very romantic to me).

            I do only have an old vintage splash of Antaeus that I’m kind of nervous about using up as well… I might feel differently if I purchased a new bottle, which to my nose is a touch sweeter (the myrrh is more noticeable in the new stuff than in my old bottle which smells woodier); I do think the most recent version (black sprayer nozzle) is an excellent reformulation. November 6, 2018 at 11:44am Reply

            • Victoria: Yes, they’re also more demanding. I tried the newest version of Antaeus and I was impressed with how close it was to the original, reformulations and other changes considered. Chanel usually does a great job at keeping its heritage in good form. November 7, 2018 at 2:11am Reply

            • Klaas: Hello John, have you tried Chanel pour Monsieur? It is much more wearable then Egoiste or Antaeus (an old favorite, I left it as I didn’t like the reformulations, but I’ll try again as both you and Victoria seem so positive!) Pour Monsieur to me is class in a bottle; light and elegant, crisp, but without any citrussy sharpness that can sometimes be off-putting. It definitively fits the ‘poise is in the recovery’-category 😉 November 8, 2018 at 7:24am Reply

              • John: Hi Klaas,

                I have tried Pour Monsieur and think it is wonderful… I found a vintage bottle two summers ago and thought that the lemon verbena note really beautiful. I keep a pretty limited wardrobe and to a degree this ‘category’ of fragrance is already sort of spoken for me by Eau Sauvage, which I am quite sentimentally attached to as well, so I passed it on to my son, who recently reported to me how much he enjoys it. Speaking of reformulations, though, do you find the current PM to be too short-lived? I actually don’t have a problem with Eau Sauvage in this respect, despite all the negative press it receives (a little air getting into the bottle seems to help), and wondered if the criticism of PM were perhaps overstated… November 8, 2018 at 5:17pm Reply

                • Klaas: Hey John, I haven’t tried PM for a while, so not sure about its staying power. What I remember is that in the newer versions it became more flimsy and lost some of it’s depth (less oakmoss?). It was the first perfume I ever bought……

                  The second being Eau Sauvage (the third Anthaeus, and then I lost count!)

                  By the way, when you run out of Eau Sauvage, try to get your hands on a sample of Whip by Le Galion. It smells like Eau Sauvage’s older brother, Just slightly more frothy and sorbet-like. you might like it…. November 9, 2018 at 5:27am Reply

  • Victoria H: You can buy a pattern for his cocoon coat if you want to recreate his look! I have the pattern but haven’t found the right material yet. https://www.folkwear.com/products/503-poiret-cocoon-coat?variant=35729350414 November 5, 2018 at 3:06pm Reply

  • Nora Szekely: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,
    I believe we all have White Swan days and Black Swan days. Men included.
    On some days I feel naughtier and my beloved innocent florals (Apres L’Ondee, Diorissimo or La chasse aux papillons) won’t do. I rather grab Black Cashmere, Coco or Putain des palaces and dazzle like a queen.
    Waking up feeling like a tomboy? I reach for Bvlgari Black or Encre noire.
    But deep down I know that non-perfumistas (otherwise know as muggles 😛 ) need a much smaller wardrobe if they want to switch between scents at all, instead of having a true signature day and night.
    I have several locally painted silk scarves that I scent regularly. The fleeting L’eau d’Hiver and the lil bit more tenacious Bois des iles edt both find them so sublime, they do not leave for days. As the scarves are multi-coloured, I do not fear discoloring, however I never spray perfume on my favourite white cotton dress. November 6, 2018 at 10:31am Reply

    • Victoria: Absolutely! I also feel this way.

      L’Eau d’Hiver seems fleeting, but it actually lingers well and on fabric I also find that it stays for a while. November 6, 2018 at 11:12am Reply

  • Maria: Hi Nora and Victoria,
    It’s been a long time without coming to boisdejasmin and what a pleasure to find this article about Poiret. I have a very small full bottle perfume wardrobe, but I love to collect decants, they are less engaging. I’ve already have to change completely my perfume wardrobe after pregnancy and now I prefer to buy only some small bottles of the perfumes I really love. And Nora, the curious thing is that now I’m in love with Après l’ondée and Putain des palaces, for the same reasons you cite 😉. For a tomboy mood I love Eau de cologne du coq and Angéliques sous la pluie. And off course I always wear them on my clothes. November 6, 2018 at 7:33pm Reply

    • Victoria: It sounds sensible. If my work didn’t involve perfume, I wouldn’t keep full bottles on hand either, since decants are usually enough for the day-to-day enjoyment. Or small, 1 oz bottles. Plus, you know that your perfume is fresh. Unlike wine, most perfume, especially the ones made without animalic ingredients, don’t age well. November 7, 2018 at 2:14am Reply

    • Nora Szekely: Hi Maria,
      I love Angeliques, yet to try Coq. In my country, Hungary, we have 4 different seasons, so it makes sense anyway to switch between stronger and airier scents. My most worn perfumes are Portrait for a Lady by Frederic Malle and Coco by Chanel but on really warm days, I cannot tolerate them. November 8, 2018 at 6:54am Reply

  • Berengaria Liedmeier: I have a collection of ribbons, satin & otherwise, which I perfume either abundantly or modestly and then tie around my wrist. Great way of wearing scent during the day without ruining my clothes. November 7, 2018 at 4:25am Reply

    • Victoria: What a great idea! Thank you so much for sharing. I’ll have to try it. November 7, 2018 at 4:34am Reply

    • Qwendy: Definitely going to try this too, great idea! November 7, 2018 at 6:49am Reply

  • Berengaria Liedmeier: thank you ladies 🙂 Please let me know what your experiences are… November 7, 2018 at 8:09am Reply

    • Maria: I’ll try this for sure! Great idea! November 7, 2018 at 8:15am Reply

  • Lydia: Thank you for your fascinating articles about Poiret. I love his designs and will have to read his autobiography. How I wish I could go back in time and attend one of his parties, and smell the original Rosine perfumes.

    I recognize the good sense in abandoning the idea of signature fragrances, but I have to admit to a feeling of wistfulness about it. Having one fragrance that is a perfect expression of your style and even essential self is such a romantic idea, even if it’s impractical now.

    I love that the smell of Je Reviens brings back my grandmother for a few seconds, as though she is still alive and I am still 5 years old and holding her hand. Would it still if she’d worn many other perfumes as well? I don’t know.

    I do find myself moving slowly away from wanting to try hundreds of perfumes every year like a bee jumping from flower to flower. I find that when I settle on one perfume I love and really commit to wearing it every day it begins to “speak” – to unfold in my imagination and emotions in a different way.Then again, my curiosity may keep getting the better of me and sending me to the samples ordering sites. ☺ November 7, 2018 at 1:04pm Reply

    • Elise: Yes! In the haze of a big move cross-country and the depression that comes from flat racism nation-wide, I am in search of a way to try some new scents that will “fit right” in my new home. Unfortunately, it is too hot and dry for Infusion D’Iris, my very favorite scent. Thank you for reminding me about those sites!

      Regarding fur, it makes sense to use up fur coats in very cold places. And I understand that coyote fur allows researchers in Antarctica to do very very important work that benefits us all. As a young girl, I longed for a real-fur coat, but I know better now that animals deserve to be treated with respect. What I can’t stand are these southern US women flaunting multiple new fur coats in this warm climate. That seems so disrespectful to the animals who gave up their pelts for an unneeded coat.

      So thank you for thinking of other ways to wear scents on our clothing. I especially liked the ribbon idea, too. Ribbons are so romantic. November 7, 2018 at 4:02pm Reply

      • Lydia: Elise,
        Big moves are so courageous. I hope you find just the right perfume for your new chapter. I’d love to hear what you choose when you do! What perfume perceptions will your new climate open?

        It’s interesting that your old favorite doesn’t work in dry heat.
        When I moved back home to NYC from the South, I found my tastes veering away from woody spicy scents and toward very feminine, lush florals. I can’t tell if it’s due to the climate change changing my sense of smell, or because I miss the floral abundance of Southern spring and summer so much. Flowers in NYC are so restrained by comparison.

        I really want to try Infusion D’Iris now after reading your post.

        You’re right, the political climate is very troubling. Perfume is one of my favorite distractions from it. November 14, 2018 at 8:33pm Reply

    • katherine x: Lydia,
      I’m a perfume bumble bee too, but appreciate your second thoughts on that, for the same reasons as you! My grandmother wore Je Reviens as well – in great quantity and nearly every day. It never fails to strongly remind me of her when I wear it. If she had flitted about like I do – I wouldn’t be transported back to her like I am. November 7, 2018 at 9:12pm Reply

      • Lydia: Katherine x,
        I love that you share that grandmother – Je Reviens association.
        I keep hoping I’ll come across a vintage bottle of it, but even some of the thin reformulations have a tiny spark of remembered magic (at least the 90s bottle I have does). November 14, 2018 at 8:20pm Reply

  • Klaas: Hey guys, I’m falling into this train rather late, but how nice to read about all your perfume wardrobes. I’ve based my wardrobe on ingredients that I like. When one of them runs out I can replace it with another scent around the same ingredient. It allows me to change scents regularly while staying true to my tastes.

    My wardrobe now includes a lavender, a vetiver, a neroli, a cedar, a licorice and a basil based fragrance. And sometimes I find something ouside my box, like a white floral or a incence perfume.

    I always buy small size bottles (30 ml or less) and lots and lots of samples 😉 I just love to try different things, either up my alley or things I suspect I will never weer. Because you just never know….. November 7, 2018 at 6:08pm Reply

  • Ingrid: Thank you for the insightful Poiret quote!

    Serendipitously, just last week I saw his auto-bio quoted in a book on fragrance by Edwin Morris that I was reading. When I went to get it at my local library, I found that it was checked out! Now who, in my town is also reading this book right now? I wish the library was able to tell me so that I might make a friend… November 7, 2018 at 6:52pm Reply

  • Michael: Thanks for the interesting and informative post, Victoria! I came across the name of Paul Poiret for the first time in Jean Claude Ellena’s book, “Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent”. He mentioned that Poiret was the first fashion designer to establish licences on his products. He was also the first fashion creator to engage a perfumer, and he designed most of the bottles for his perfumes.

    As for having a signature scent, I used to subscribe to this school of thought, but as I get older and my knowledge of perfumery increases, I find that I am unable to stay loyal to one fragrance. So as a kind of compromise, I have 3 or 4 perfumes that I will reach for during each season, whilst trying out new ones and testing some of the classics. November 8, 2018 at 8:53am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you very much for continuing with Paul Poiret. Often these truly innovative individuals ‘crash and burn’, perhaps he lacked good business advice, while others savvier people use their ideas and make them more palatable to the public at large and so it goes on, Coco Chanel is a much less sympathetic character.

    I truly regret that Les Parfums de Rosine scents are no longer available. Like many, I find the idea of a signature scent attractive in theory but the basic fact that I wouldn’t be able to smell it myself after a while is a real deterrent. November 10, 2018 at 7:40am Reply

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