At 13, I may not have known much about how to handle my nascent panic disorder, but I did know that inhaling something cucumber-y somehow alleviated my stress, the snap of scent making me feel crisper, cooler, calmer. And so I’d carry a cucumber-based toner from The Body Shop in my Kookai handbag, breathing it in whenever I felt life was clambering on top of me and squeezing the air out my lungs.
My bag may now be Wang and the vial of essential oils by Tata Harper, but in essence, nothing has changed; I still use scent to help to draw me in or out of a mood, and I still can’t conceive of stepping on a flight without an aromatherapy aid to help me remain calm in case of turbulence, nor of a cosy night in without a flickering candle wafting fig or rose or oud into the air.
As well as using it to affect my mood, I use scent to direct my memory, as a tool to reminisce, to recall longing or lust or long, lazy summer days spent sunbathing on the banks of a lake. That is where bottles of the stuff really comes in handy, because I have lost people along the way who, ever so often, I’d like to conjure up but can’t without a sniff of something to tell my brain to go to the little file with their name on it that contains all those snapshots.
If I’m in a particularly well-stocked airport shop, I can stop at each counter and make my way through my youth, from my aunt Sonja who loved a power scent to my first day at school (I’d stolen some of mum’s Shalimar to bolster my spirits, knowing even at four that cosmetics have an innate magic), to the time I stuffed my pockets with cotton buds steeped in my aunt Ingrid’s Chanel No 5 (she didn’t wallop me when she discovered my perfidy, which I can only account to familial love).
Here are some bottles – and a single aerosol – that cannot help but unlock my memories and, in some cases, closed off, sealed parts of my heart…
Jean Paul Gautier Classique Eau De Toilette / I have written about this scent for InStyle – here’s a link – because it’s so seminal to my transition from girlhood to womanhood. My sister wore it. She’d get it out before big nights out, mostly to the theatre to do some fancying Craig McLachlan in Grease and before trying to woe him with her huge, glittering smile and unbridled enthusiasm for him (in my view, misplaced – but each to their own, Mick). It’s overt womanhood, unfettered. It is a bit rose and a lot vanilla, like all the best scents from youth.
L’Artisan Perfumeur Premier Figeur / This may seem rather dear for a young woman to wear, but I had no idea it was so spendy until I came to buy my second bottle. I just happened to pick this up when in New York, mentioned that I loved it, and because it was my birthday, mum bought it for me. Between the ages of 21-24, when the picture at the top was taken, I basically wore this alongside two other scents and thought it was just the best thing ever because it spoke of foreign lands and endless summers and the promise of the sweet puddings that I loved so as a young woman.
Stella McCartney Eau de Perfum / The year is 2000. It is August. I am in Portugal with friends, and the Moulin Rouge soundtrack is playing in the background. I am desperately trying to squeeze into a perilously low-cut and tight pair of rhinestone-studded jeans with lace patches. I want to look like Gwen Stefani or Britney Spears but, invariably, think my efforts have made me look a lot more like Stifler’s mum. My friend is wearing this perfume. It seems unspeakably decadent for a teen. It has also just launched, so her making this ‘her scent’ was really quite a bold move.
Lynx Africa / I never promised these would be sophisticated, did I? This is of course a boy one, and I suspect MANY of my – and your – past boyfriends have used this, but one in particular stands out. He’d wear rubbish t-shirts saying things like ‘relax’ with threadbare tracksuit bottoms and a liberal spray of this while smoking roll ups and eating pizza. He was as unsophisticated as his choice of aftershave – but my God was he sexy. A little spritz of this takes me back to those heady days, and I wear it whenever I need to feel a little less uptight or to reconnect with my body.
Serge Lutens Veilleur De Nuit / I first tried this scent when writing a feature for Stylist. Their Beauty Editor, Sam Silver, had asked me to look into wintery, evening scents, and given me a handful of perfumes that might fit the bill. This was amongst them, and the boozy, chocolatey smell unfailingly takes me back to that special time of feeling like my journalism career was finally taking off. Unfortunately, it’s perilously expensive, but I have a vial that comes out on very, very special occasions.