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De Fragrante Delectatio

A Day of Perfume Shopping in Montreal

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I’m sitting here at my computer with 12 Guerlain smelling strips on the desk between me and the keyboard, wafting up and creating a delicious Guerlain soup. They are the fruits of a day-long sampling trip to Montreal, which I’m considering a great success, and which I’m just itching to talk about!

I came in on the train at 9:30, equipped with 25 empty 1ml vials, paper envelopes, and a pen for labelling. First stop: the Bay. The main large store has a gigantic cosmetics & fragrances section, and for the most part it was uninteresting mainstream stuff. I did pick up a nifty brochure and a couple of samples at their Serge Lutens/Shiseido counter. The main surprise at the Bay was discovering that they carry the “Miroir, Miroir” series from Thierry Mugler. Apparently this store and the one in downtown Toronto are the only two stores in Canada to carry them. I had wanted to try Miroir des Envies (“the heart note is an intense hazelnuts accord, a kind of Nutella absolute”) and Miroir des Vanités (“Campari soda…served with a slice of lemon”) since reading about them in Perfumes: the Guide, and had pretty much given up hope on ever getting my hands on them outside of New York. Vanités turned out to be a disappointment, coming off like cooked plastic somehow, but Envies was tasty. The SA was kind enough to decant samples of those two for me, as well as A Travers Le Miroir, which I smelled briefly and wanted to try later.

On my way to Ogilvy, I have to tell you that I stopped in at the SAQ Signature—a giant, beautiful liquor store, as only the French could do, and only one of two of its kind in the province—and was able to taste Rémy Martin XO Cognac for free. A very obliging SA poured it for me, who listened to my English and answered in French, which worked out surprisingly well (although, in fairness to me, I did take French all through high school). This was just a lovely little gustatory aside in an otherwise very nasal-centric day.

The next stop was Ogilvy, which is a large luxury department store and for reference is the host of Montreal’s Louis Vuitton boutique. The staff there were not especially impressive, though I did get a number of Serge Lutens samples, and the SL counter attendant did allow me to spray-decant Un Lys and Datura Noir. (No such luck with Piguet’s Visa, described in P:tG as a leathery floral similar to Daim Blond, which is one of my favourites—I ended up just spraying it on an already overcrowded arm.) The Guerlain SA was no more or less helpful than your typical fragrance counter attendant.

However, Ogilvy also hosts Canada’s only L’Artisan Parfumeur boutique, and that was a different story. The SA was a pleasant young woman, seemingly about university-age, but she was knowledgeable and extremely helpful, and I spent about 20-30 minutes smelling my way through 90% of the L’Artisan line that I hadn’t yet smelled. The best part, natch, was the copious free samples—ten, to be exact, including custom 1ml decants of the limited edition Iris Pallida and Fleur de Narcisse, as well as one of the Mood Swings coffret (D’Humeur Massacrante, or “In a Killing Mood,” which could easily be my holy grail Sweeney Todd costume fragrance). And, as if that weren’t enough, I also got to smell Fleur de Liane, which was just launched in Paris this week and isn’t due for release until October. You can read more about it here.

After having lunch in the Ogilvy basement cafeteria, I headed over to Holt Renfrew, my largest perfume-shopping destination. By this point my nose was suffering from overload, and I really shouldn’t have wasted time on things like Creed when there were Chanel Exclusifs to be tried. I snagged some Creed, Armani Privé, and By Kilian samples on my trip through the main cosmetics & fragrance area, skipping Jo Malone completely in the interest of preserving olfactory capacity. At the in-store Hermès boutique, I smelled (and left with samples of) all the Hermessences (though I had tried most of them already, except for Rose Ikebana, Poivre Samarcand, and Paprika Brasil).

And then there was Chanel. Chanel probably doesn’t merit its own paragraph, but I think it’s worth pointing out how this experience typifies the worst in luxury perfume shopping. I walked in and found the Exclusifs display, and the SA helpfully came over and told me to go ahead and try them all on the provided, labelled paper cards. Fine, no problem. I smelled my way through them all, with Coromandel emerging as the favourite, but there were a number of runners-up. I asked her if she had any samples, and she said no. (This is either ignorance or a blatant lie, since I got a 4ml miniature of Bois des Îles at the Toronto boutique in February.) I asked her if I could make some of my own samples using my own glass vials, and she said no. She was very apologetic about it, and gave me some BS explanation which basically boiled down to Chanel wanting to maintain the exclusivity of the perfumes. Yes, that’s a great idea. You limit your customer’s trial to one or two sprays on skin, and then you expect them to drop ~$200 on a gigantic 200ml bottle of perfume? Who the hell can commit to that kind of long-term relationship after only one short date? Fine, maybe it works for people who fall in love with something immediately, but for the rest of us who want to think about it before we buy a bottle, it’s completely useless.

Now, Chanel, sit down and listen carefully, because I’m going to tell you about Guerlain. The Guerlain boutique is about a 15-20 minute walk away from Holt Renfrew, in the tony Westmount neighbourhood of Montreal. (As a point of interest, roughly 9 out of 10 cars parked on the street were luxury makes; I passed a fellow getting into a Ferrari as I was walking up the street.) The first thing you see when you walk in the door of the boutique is a display case with a large number of vintage Guerlain perfume bottles. Perhaps I displayed an appropriate degree of awe at this exhibit, because the associate and I hit it off immediately. She took me over to the L’Art et la Matière line, and we sat down on opposite sides of a glass-topped table, where she brought over all the perfumes, and then showed them to me one by one, with instructive commentary on their creation, history and notes. We went on to the Parisiennes line (Liù, Plus que Jamais, L’Âme d’un Héros, Philtre d’Amour, Attrape-Coeur), and also Vega and Sous le Vent, again with insightful commentary. After that we took a break, I went to the washroom, she offered me a glass of water, and I sat down in an armchair to read a coffee-table book about the history of Guerlain. When I had rested, we went over to the more mainstream line, where I discovered that there were very few I hadn’t smelled elsewhere. (Not necessarily a huge loss, as by then my nose was so dead that I really couldn't have properly appreciated any of them.) I was slightly disappointed when I found the only extrait testers they had were Nahéma and Cherry Blossom—I’d been hoping to try L’Heure Bleue in extrait—but since I’d never realized that Cherry Blossom was available outside travel retail or Asia, I was happy to try that one.


I asked her about making samples. And she had absolutely no problem with it. Not only did she have no problem with it, but she basically gave me free rein to do it all myself. And not only did she give me free rein, but when the crappy bulb atomizers on L’Art et la Matière failed to work, and I realized that I hadn’t brought any plastic pipettes with me—which would have also precluded me from taking samples of Vega and Sous le Vent, which were in stoppered splash bottles—she suggested that I go down to the café next door and get some plastic straws to use as pipettes. So, equipped with the straws, my vials, and envelopes, I sat down at the table and made myself samples from the boutique’s tester bottles.

Best. Shopping. Experience. EVER.

And I told her so. I said it was miles away from anything else I’d experienced in that whole day of shopping for perfume. And she quite logically pointed out that it was because Guerlain is not a department store, but a perfume house. I corrected her—it was the perfume house—and continued to thank her profusely. I got her card, and asked her about having perfume shipped, and of course they ship it, at no extra charge. With further thanks, I left, after one full, wonderful hour. (Oh, and for anyone who’s still looking for a bottle of Spiritueuse Double Vanille, yes, they have it in stock.)

Last stop: La Musée des Beaux Arts, to see the Yves Saint Laurent 40-year retrospective exhibition. It was amazing. 125 pieces of haute couture, posed and lit for close-up inspection? Oh yeah. That took me about an hour and fifteen minutes. I highly recommend it for anyone even remotely interested in fashion.

Final tally: 17 vials used (11 Guerlain, 3 Thierry Mugler, 2 Serge Lutens, 1 Armani Privé).

Updated 21st July 2008 at 11:45 AM by kopah



  1. echerub's Avatar
    That sounds like a fantastic day! Thus far my best fragrance retail experiences has been at Guerlain counters in department stores. I've always thought about dropping by the Guerlain store itself in Toronto but have yet to do so.

    I had been planning on visiting Noor to sample some Eau D'Italie fragrances, and the Guerlain store is just a few blocks away. After reading about your experience, I just may have to do a Noor-then-Guerlain excursion soon

    Thank you for sharing - and I'm sure Guerlain and Chanel (and others) could learn from this.
  2. kopah's Avatar
    I've been to both Noor and Guerlain in Toronto, and had great experiences at both. Noor definitely knows what they're doing when it comes to selling fragrances. Bloor West has all the best perfume stores: Hermès, Chanel, Prada, Sephora, Holt Renfrew, and the Bay. But I think your plan to only visit two is very wise. If you live in or near the city, that's definitely the way to go. Otherwise your nose will be all but destroyed by the time you reach the last one. My advice, though, would be to go to Guerlain first, since I think it deserves the freshest nose you can give it. But, if Eau d'Italie are known for being particularly light, it might still be a good idea to go there first. I think pretty much the last thing I sampled at Guerlain was the Cherry Blossom parfum, and it was such a light scent that, even though it was parfum, I could barely detect it after everything else I'd smelled.
  3. echerub's Avatar
    I'll keep your advice in mind! I might just make a full Saturday of it. Visit Guerlain to start things off, hit some other interesting places, and then visit Noor later on in the afternoon.
  4. RyanNY's Avatar
    What an adventure! I live near Montreal and I don't think I even know it that well. Guerlain sounds wonderful, but I'm a novice. Do you think the Bay would be a good place for a beginner to do some exploring?
  5. kopah's Avatar
    RyanNY - I think the Bay would be a great place to start. It's a lot less snooty than Ogilvy, and they have a HUGE selection. In addition to your standard department-store fare, and the Thierry Muglers which I mentioned, they also have most of the Annick Goutal line, a good number of Serge Lutens, and a fairly well-stocked Guerlain counter, with most of the old heavy hitters, the Aqua Allegoria line, and Nahéma parfum (notable because you very rarely see testers of the parfum concentration).
    Updated 14th July 2008 at 05:37 PM by kopah
  6. Lorenzzo88's Avatar
    I would like to know how to be taken for serious when shopping or just wanting to try new perfumes when you look like just any young man who buy acqua di gio or that kinna crap without trying anything before.
    I tend to get snobbed by SA most of the time (especialy at ogilvy)
    I know i'm young but some sales assistants talk to me like I was a complete retard
    -you like, you buy (otherwise, stop waisting my time)
    -here, try this girls love it (blac xs, l'eau d'issey, le mâle)
    -but you know that this is a perfume for woman!!?
    ....and so on
    oh please!
    the only place I realy enjoyed shopping for fragrance was paradoxaly at the L'artisan counter insinde the ogilvy... the young and very nice kinda hispanic SA who made me try almost every one I did not know, gave me samples and a prescious decant of their fleur d'oranger.
    the fact is I'm 19 and I don't look like having lots of money.
    do you have any tips or advice for me?
    ps: do the guerlain store have the whole line of l'art et la matière?
    thank you very much
  7. kopah's Avatar
    Yes! That was the SA who helped me at L'Artisan as well! She's great, isn't she?

    It's kind of a challenge to be taken seriously, especially as a young guy, I have to say. In order to avoid having the latest mass-market swill foisted on me by major brand SA's, I usually just stay away from their counters. Otherwise, you can often deflect interfering SA's with a polite but firm "oh, I'm just browsing to see what you have, but I'll let you know if I need any help." Sometimes you get trapped into an aggressive sales presentation, and there's not much you can do without being pretty forceful yourself.

    When shopping for more niche fragrances, I find it helps if you express some knowledge about the products, or interest in specifically trying a particular fragrance or a particular line; for example, when I went into Ogilvy looking for Serge Lutens, I told the SA that I had already tried some of the line, but I had never smelled X and Y and was really interested in trying them. You have to be careful, though, because I've heard some SA's can get hostile if you come across as too knowledgeable, like you're a spy or something. Usually saying you've read about something on the internet works.

    I would maybe avoid Ogilvy if you can help it. They have the ENTIRE Serge Lutens export line (best selection in the city), and the L'Artisan boutique, but otherwise I don't think there's much there that you couldn't find somewhere else.

    To side-step the "this is a women's perfume" problem, I usually just tell them I'm interested in smelling everything, and if I like something for women then my fiancee will wear it!

    If you're interested in getting samples, I find sometimes it helps to play a bit dumb, smell your way through a bunch of different fragrances, and then ask (almost offhand) if they have any samples of the ones you've smelled. If they don't, you might say that you're just interested in trying the whole line, and you'd be happy to take anything they happen to have on hand.

    Guerlain had testers of Rose Barbare, Angelique Noire, Iris Ganache, and Bois d'Armenie (and Spiritueuse Double Vanille). I don't know whether they have the newer ones (Cruel Gardenia) for sale, but those were the only testers they had.

    P.S.: I have to admit that I did try to dress like I had lots of money, albeit casually. I wore a Lacoste polo shirt, off-white Mason's khakis, and DKNY trainers. You won't be out of place at any high-end boutique wearing a Lacoste or Ralph Lauren Polo shirt on the weekend.
  8. Lorenzzo88's Avatar
    Tank you so much for this very helpful information
    I'll try to go downtown this weekend and go to Guerlain's to try especialy b. d'arménie and Holt renfrew for hermes' and chanel (If I got you right they should have cuir de russie and bois des iles) .
    No ogilvy, and this time i'll try to dress a little more clean / classy.

    It is funny how some people who sale perfume totaly don't give a shit about the product and want to sell it anyway they could, and on the other hand those who are truly passionate or genuinly interested by what they sell, most of the time it realy shows and it is so much more pleasent.
    anyways thank you very much for taking time to answer me like that
  9. thefiancee's Avatar
    Told you I'd get here eventually.

    As regards your experience at Chanel: I might point out that you were quite willing to commit to a long-term relationship after only one short date when it came to actual dating! But I take your point about dropping so much money on a fragrance after only smelling it once, especially if circumstances (like your poor overworked nose) might cause your impression of it to be incorrect. Screw exclusivity. I cannot stand any store that thinks itself so high and mighty, they don't have to worry about keeping customers happy. Chanel may be trying to preserve its snob appeal, but would-be clients won't be too happy if they're the ones being snubbed.

    As regards the Yves St. Laurent exhibit: I'm sorry I missed it. I looked at the link you provided, and it looks really, really interesting. I suppose couture is more like art than fashion anyway. Let's catch the next one, k? Perhaps I'm not actually able to be bored at a museum.

    As regards Lorenzzo88's observation about perfume-sellers: I've noticed the same thing working in retail. You can spot commission a mile away. People who are on commission tend to care more about making a sale than about anything else; it even started working on me after about a month in a high-pressure commission environment. People who actually just care about pairing a person up with what best meets their needs are SO much more pleasant. Anyway, I don't know if perfume-sellers are ever on commission, but I can't think of any other reason to care so much about the sale and so little about what you're selling.

    As regards your response to the "this is a women's perfume" problem: that's a very clever response, but your faithful readers should know I'm very much a one-scent sort of girl and I don't wear every fragrance you tell me to!
  10. clarestella's Avatar
    This was a great article. It drives me crazy that perfume salespeople are not always helpful. I swear...sometimes you'd think it was their own personal stock. I always try to remember that the salesperson is just a clerk and probably makes far less than I do. They have no reason to be snobby or to horde their samples. I wonder how many people will go to the Guerlain store and tell the salespeople that they read about the store and how wonderful it is on Basenotes.
  11. JaimeB's Avatar

    My experience at the Guerlain boutique at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco is equally satisfying. They are by far the most welcoming and professional of all the perfume retailers. What's more, you can see that they are passionate about perfume, and even beyond that, that they have made some of the greatest scents of all time!
  12. Grunts67's Avatar
    I just come back from Ogilvy and Vasco cigar. It was my first excursion into the world of perfume.

    First, let's talk about Ogilvy. the majority of the SA are snobby. The fact that I am young (25) and that I was dress rally casaul (polo, short and skate shoes) didn't help my cause.
    The SA of Gucci was a old lady. She was ok with me but didn't provide me with a good service. As soon as a another customer arrived, she just ignored me. She toldme she didn't have any sample.

    The SA of Chanel, Hermès and Bvlgari, was snobby. She didn't had any sample. When I found out that tester of Bvlgari aqua was empty, I asked they had another tester and she reply to me that she will not open up another bottle for me. Guest out, I am never gonna spend my money in your shop.

    The Sa of Channel was correct. She let me sniff some of the male fragrance. Again, no sample. She told me she didn't have any since father day and she will have a restock in the beginning of september which seem like BS.

    The SA of Guerlain was the best experience of the day. She was a lady in the forty. At first she was a little hesistant but as soon as I sniffed some of her perfume and commented it, she begin to be more interessed in me. She was pretty surprise with my comments on her fragrances (seem I hit a lot of notes on what she let me sniff) and show me there whole selection for men. She let me read after a card with all the perfumes, how they are made and there notes. She even complimented me for my abilitie to distinguish the different note. She was even more surprise when I told her, that I was new at this. Finally, she gave me a sample of Guerlain pour Homme because that was the only one she had left and gave me the adress of the Guerlain Institute and told me to go there for sample and to try rare Guerlain selection. I really pleasant experience.

    Vaso cigar was a correct service but they have no sample. You really need to know the fragrance before buying it there.


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