The scent of the fashion show

by bethancole

What does fashion, or more specifically, a fashion show smell of? You might imagine it would smell of the fervent expectation of the crowd. Or the blurry sillage of a hundred high end fragrances worn by the chic spectators – of exhaled breath vapour tinged with champagne and feint perspiration and hairspray and all the other odours you get when a group of groomed and coiffed women and men congregate to watch a spectacle.


Increasingly it’s not just the sight and sound of fashion that impacts the senses of the crowd, it’s the smell too. Once, this was just an afterthought. Now considerable energy and work is devoted by designers and perfumers into making sure the olfactive environment is not only pleasing but also transmits the particular philosophy of the show. Of course it also adds an invisible and silent aspect: an indefinable, intangible mystique to proceedings.


For Spring summer 14 and Autumn Winter 14, designers chose a kaleidoscope of immersive scents to augment their show experiences up a notch. “I have always loved Floris candles and this season the abundance of the Bluebell and Hyacinth candles at my Spring Summer 2014 show filled the space and evoked a feeling of a journey through an enchanted garden befitting the mood and aesthetic of the dresses.“ says Julien McDonald.”


Autumn Winter 14 saw, Henry Holland choose the warm, woozy and oaken caramel smell of Whisky to convey the deshabille decadence of his theatrical ‘Debauched Debutante catwalk. “My office usually smells of the morning after the night before,” says Holland “so I was ecstatic to find out this was a hot new trend in fragrance. I immediately bought the Whisky & Water reed diffuser and it was only natural to have Noble Isle scent my Debauched Debutante show”


Elsewhere for AW 14, JW Anderson fragranced his showroom with Jo Malone’s divinely evanescent hesperidic perfume Lime Basil and Mandarin and Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo also opted for Jo Malone to scent their presentations. Victoria Beckham chose Diptyque’s gorgeously dry and desiccated fruit fragrance Figuer –a kind of modern classic – to be the smell of her poised NYC catwalk show and ever romantic Erdem selected Diptyque’s more darkly evocative and resinous woods Cypres, Baies, Feu de Bois and Myrrhe to be the odour of his Paris showroom. And the smell of winter was also in evidence at Tom Ford, who complemented a predominantly black and covered up collection with the very saturnine and arid scent of Tom Ford London – his latest Private Blend.


Scenting fashion shows has in fact become a mini-industry: in New York, the twin Goldworm sisters (Samantha and Dawn) make their living from ‘Olfactive Branding’ which includes making bespoke scents for catwalk shows – as well as hotels, art galleries and launch events. They’ve been responsible for the scents of Jason Wu, Zac Posen, Thakoon and Rodarte shows amongst others. And with Meadham Kirchhoff, a long standing relationship with Penhaligons, (who they’ve used to scent their shows for years) led to the development of their very own Penhaligon’s perfume Tra La La, which launched this April. “Benjamin (Kirchhoff) has a very good understanding of scent and can identify different ingredients and notes, which I don’t have.” Says Edward Meadham. “I have to try and explain fragrance by gesture and descriptive words of colours and shapes. Penhaligon’s and Bertrand expertly interpreted our descriptions and desires to create the perfect scent.” The resulting fragrance scented their Autumn Winter 2014 runway and is entwines candy floss sweetness and almost sadistic calignosity to dramatic effect. Not surprisingly the notes of this curiously theatrical offering include carnation ylang ylang and tuberose, melded with leather, patchouli and myrrh.


Indeed it’s not just a one-way relationship: perfume influencing our perception of a catwalk show. Fashion and its tableaux, can in turn be the catalyst for perfume.

“Cecil Beaton beautifully captured the charm of the English ballroom in the mid 20th century,” says Celine Roux, Fragrance Director for Jo Malone London “It’s the romance and charm of that era that we brought into our fragrance Peony Blush and Suede.  “We used romantic blooms of peonies brought in from the great estates that were reminiscent of soft pink couture ball gowns. The inspiration of fabric and texture represented in the use of suede.” Like wise Francis Kurkdijan, who has also been responsible for fragrancing a raft of fashion shows from Rick Owens and Jena Paul Gaultier to Dior and Givenchy has also been motivated by fashion and textiles to create a fragrance.

“ Fashion and Couture are part of my education (with one grandfather being a tailor and the other one a wedding dress designer), he explains. My Oud Mood collection with velvet, silk and cashmere was a take on the feeling of wearing different materials. Sense of touch and sense of smell are not very popular and yet very similar to my mind. They are personal, intimate and invisible, and yet so important.”


So from a fashion show that smells exquisitely of fig to a perfume that is redolent of cashmere, the interface between fashion and fragrance continues apace. It’s not for nothing that wearing a fragrance is often described as wearing an invisible garment. Conflating these two arts is a fertile place to innovate.


(This piece was first published in the July 2014 issue of Japanese Vogue)