An IM chat with Lizzie Ostrom (aka Odette Toilette) on her book 'Perfume - A Century of Scents'


24th November, 2015

I first met Lizzie Ostrom just over five years ago. I had received an email from her about some perfume event she was hosting, and she had asked if I would like to come. I was unable to make it, so we arranged to meet up for lunch. It would be the first of many lunches.

In the time I've known her, Lizzie (or Odette Toilette as she is also known) has hosted (seemingly) hundreds of perfume events, combined poetry and perfume, launched a pot pourri, judged the Jasmine Awards, project managed the fragrances for an exhibition at the Tateco-hosted a scented podcast, and helped develop ODE, a device which uses odour to help people with dementia remember mealtimes.

Oh, and she's also found the time to write a book.

Perfume – A Century of Scent tells the story of 100 different fragrances, ten from each decade from the 1900's to the 1990's. I caught up with Lizzie, via IM, to find out more...


Basenotes has connected.


Basenotes
HELLO!!!!!!


Basenotes
HELLO HELLO

Lizzie Ostrom has connected.


Basenotes
Good Morning!


Basenotes
This may be sporadic as I'm also attempting to do the house work (!)…

Okay, first question... Who is the book for?



Lizzie O
Hi GRANT


Lizzie O
I'm here now!


Basenotes
HELLO!


Lizzie O
What housework are you doing?


Basenotes
A whole weekend’s worth of washing up. Because I’m nearly 40 and haven’t learnt basic life skills.


Lizzie O
Is that going in the interview?


Lizzie O
Hope so.


Basenotes
Yeah


Lizzie O
When is your Birthday?


Basenotes
Boxing Day. (I’ll be 39, but I’ve started rounding up)


Lizzie O
Just say 50


Basenotes
I look darn good for 50.


Lizzie O
Yes not bad Grant! 

OK anyway. Who is the book for? So I had two types of reader in mind and throughout the writing process was constantly testing myself against both (in my head)

The first are obviously the perfume communities who call the likes of Basenotes their spiritual home (and who I know well as I am among them, even though I never post).

And the second are people who have a casual interest in scent, maybe they like their bottle at Christmas, and who read the book because they spot a favourite in there or go: 'OMG I used to wear Blue Grass' and then they're off. As this is a gift book I imagined someone buying it for her sis 'because she quite likes perfume' and this is cheaper than a bottle of scent!

So these two types of readers meant I was considering what kind of a ride I was going to take people on, and what sort of knowledge to impart.



Basenotes
It’s also a darn-good toilet book. Did you want to write a toilet book?


Lizzie O
It's basically Viz


Lizzie O
So yes I was thinking about it in that way at times. I definitely wanted toilet book over coffee table book. Hence the dipping in and out.


Lizzie O
God that sounds like some kind of euphemism.


Basenotes
We’re English, euphemism is in our shared culture. So, going back in time. How did you get into doing perfume events?


Lizzie O
You know this story!


Basenotes
Yeah but not everyone does. Be brief if you like :)


Lizzie O
Ok I'll tell it one more time!


Lizzie O
Perfume was my hobby and I also liked wine and books and going to see plays. So I thought wouldn't it be nice if you could get to learn about scent in a similar way.

When I started I got in touch with Basenotes as I knew Grant Osborne was in the UK and might be interested in it. We met at Leon and the rest is history.



Basenotes
I’ve heard of him.


Basenotes
You go by the name ‘Odette Toilette’ for much of your fragrance work — how long ago did you invent this name. I’d like to think you invented the name first of all, and then had to think of a purpose for it.


Lizzie O
Sorry to disappoint but it was the other way round

I think I'd done the first event, and then when I decided to run more as a series, my friend Rohan said I needed a stage name (now my 'nom de perfume', gross)

And he came up with Odette Toilette.



Lizzie O
I do struggle to remember which one I am sometimes


Basenotes
Do Lizzie and Odette have different personalities? Have I even met Lizzie?


Lizzie O
No you wouldn't want to. She's terrifying.

So the only difference is that Odette is a bit cheekier and camper.



Basenotes
You’ve been running decade-themed fragrance events at Les Senteurs for several years now, on a kind of perpetual loop. Is this what the book it based upon?


Lizzie O
Yes perpetual! It's a bit scary when I realise it's been years.

Absolutely, the book is based on the events only with quite a bit more detail and context.



Basenotes
Was you approached to write the book on that theme?


Lizzie O
So what happened is: I was approached a while ago by a literary agent, and developed a treatment for a book on a different theme. We had nice feedback on the writing but the format wasn't quite working, until a while later an editor picked it up again, on the basis of me basing it on the events. It's quite funny because the content was right under my nose, and I had completely overlooked it as a theme.


Basenotes


Basenotes
In the book you write about ten fragrances for each of the ten decades of the 20th Century. I’m guessing some of the decades were scanter than others in terms of choosing which fragrances to write about?


Lizzie O
Ah yes.


Lizzie O
So it was less about whether there were enough fragrances, more about having a good variety of stories that aren't just bullshit.

The mid-century was most difficult.

When I was writing about 1900-1940 I'm of course covering a period just out of most peoples' remembered history, so there was quite a lot of elucidating the times, and some absolute gems which conveyed the role of fragrance in the times.

And then in the later part of the century we have lots of scents still with us, and lots of choice. Whereas 1950s was hard.

I seem to remember the 1970s was chocka and I had to cut a couple of fragrances



Basenotes
Which scents were left on the shelf (from the seventies, or any decade) that you were sad to leave out? And are there any which, since you sent the final draft, you thought — ‘Damn! I forgot….’


Lizzie O
So the obvious ones I left out (but not for forgetting) were L'Heure Bleue and Shalimar.


Lizzie O
Plus I didn't include any Worth in the end, though Dans La Nuit was in the drafts

And I wanted to include the original Paco Rabanne

It was tricky stuff. The 100 I included aren't at all representative, or the best of the best, but I had to go with those that not only had an interesting story, but also one I could tell.

Some perfumes are SO written about, and with great style, and I didn't just want to do a retread of other peoples' content. It was important that there were untold stories here.

So for example when I started looked at Narcisse Noir, I was thinking I might as well give up.

But then I found all these court documents that gave me a different window in on the fragrance, and made me feel I could offer something of interest (especially to that first type of reader).



Basenotes
I found the whole Narcisse Noire thing interesting, as if you go much earlier than that most of the companies were using the same old names like Jockey Club or Bouquet of Flowers etc. So for you, an interesting story > ‘landmark’ fragrances?


Lizzie O
Yes landmark was one way in.


Lizzie O
But also there are quite a lot of unexceptional scents in there. Eg. Sears, but which I thought showed how widespread perfume was among the everyday populace. And again, which got forgotten about precisely because they weren't that great.

And some of them are landmark because the perfume was original or saying something new (eg. Calandre). While others because of something else entirely.

Maybe that was how they got picked up, as with LT Piver's Pompeia and how it, along with many others like Jockey Club, became part of Hoodoo tradition

Or because it became so tightly associated with an archetype, either at the time or in retrospect (eg. Drakkar Noir)



Basenotes
I love the fact you’ve included high-end stuff, as well as Lynx Africa and Impulse O2. I’m always a bit suspicious of any so-called history of fragrances that ignores extremely mass-market stuff. Was that important too, to be inclusive.


Lizzie O
YES. That was THE MOST IMPORTANT THING


Lizzie O
CAPS FOR EMPHASIS


Lizzie O
I don't want to diss any fragrance books, because I love 'em.

But I thought that many of them come at fragrance from the luxury or 'art' perspective

And because this was about how people have worn and loved fragrance, you need to acknowledge the ones that have meant something to us

And that includes the cheap ones!

Also I wanted to encompass different types of fragrance wearer through time.

Hence you've got high society of the Jazz Age mixed in with teenage boys and their Lynx



Lizzie O
To generalise, as the century goes on, I went more and more populist.


Basenotes
Also, ‘Genuine Gucci’ is may I say, a genius addition.


Lizzie O
Thank you.


Lizzie O
Well I just remember being obsessed with those guys on Oxford Street. I'd study them.

I mean, that man who sometimes sets up a Sex and the City perfume shop near Tottenham Court Road: I admire his pluck!



Lizzie O
And love watching him sell.


Lizzie O
Perfume is such a curious product, and it taps into so many types of desire

And different forms of aspiration, so I wanted to capture the whole mad carnival, really



Basenotes
You use humour to great effect in the book. Do you think the perfume industry takes itself too seriously sometimes?


Lizzie O
Hmmm, let me think about that......


Lizzie O
......YES


Lizzie O
I don't blame it. It's often an expensive product and it's all about mystery and allure.

To use humour is to risk that humour backfiring and therefore to make your scents look silly, and by implication cheap.

But my god, there's so much po-faced crap at times, and the thing is: fragrance should be allowed to relate to humour. Any subject should.



Lizzie O
And often when you speak to people about their fragrance memories, often they are very funny, or relate to some embarrassing anecdode.


Basenotes
How did you go about researching this all? Where did you start? Was this why you arranged that trip to the osmotheque?


Lizzie O
Haha


Lizzie O
So not really, I'd already been to the osmotheque a few months earlier with my friend Rebecca

Though it was good to re-smell stuff again to check i'd remembered it right

So research was generally carried out in the British Library

And some other archives, too.
I had this list written down and gave it a stupid name. Lemme check.



Lizzie O
it was called RACEHORSE - RUNNING TOTAL TALLY!


Lizzie O
Because for some reason I thought that an absurd title would make me open the document


Lizzie O
On there I kept a shortlist per decade, and then each time I wrote an entry it got moved

And I was completely haphazard.

One afternoon I'd write a 1920s perfume, and then I'd jump to the 1990s

I'd go to the library each day with the aim of understanding a subject.



Lizzie O
So that might be Egyptomania, or 1950s hypnosis fads.


Lizzie O
Each one was the jumping off point for the fragrance I had in mind

I followed the glamour, so there was a lot of trawling through magazine archives

And newspaper archives

I got good at keywords

I also used google books/scholar loads



Lizzie O
So I might do a search to show me stuff relating to Peau d'Espagne 1900-1915 to see what came up, and then follow up interesting leads

Basically perfume is such a diffused subject (Pun ALERT!) that without digital search I'd have been in trouble.

The other thing I do is when I'm reading novels - and I read a lot of 20th century fiction - I mark any time I come across a particular interesting ref. to scent. This came in v. handy.

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Basenotes
Sorry, I had to take phone call so bear with me while I read all that…


Lizzie O
And of course BASENOTES


Lizzie O
I also used perfume intelligence especially to get a feeling for naming trends

Perfume Intelligence was super useful - it reminded me always that the argument that there weren't many launches 100 years ago is completely false.


Basenotes
I find when I’m researching, I’ll eventually end up at Wikipedia, and somehow spend hours reading about Hong Kong Phooey or something.

Does that happen in the British Library as well?



Lizzie O
YES


Lizzie O
There were all these wormholes


Lizzie O
Especially the 1920s magazines.

I was a very strange experience in that I'd get sucked into reading about the movers and shakers of the day, and spot their faces across different issues, posing at some party.

And then get quite melancholic.

There was all this newness and nowness and of course, it's all ashes now



Lizzie O
And what's more so much perfume journalism was covering exactly the same topics as now, almost word for word.

But yes basically I'd end up reading about some random subject and get sucked in



Lizzie O
Men's adventure magazines I got completely addicted to.

and then had to remind myself: Lizzie you're not actually writing a book about this. Step away.



Basenotes
Going back to: 

” it reminded me always that the argument that there weren't many launches 100 years ago is completely false” — did you come across lots of conflicting information / falsehoods?



Lizzie O
Yes


Lizzie O
firstly, dates.

My God, trying to work out when things were first released was tricky.



Lizzie O
And also perfume houses of course create their own mythology and so I was trying to reconcile, in particular, Coty's 'official' narrative with what I was finding.


Lizzie O
In particular, the notion that they were for sale exclusively at glittering department stores, when I could see drugstores in America promoting them.

And I don't know, really, if Coty had a ropey distribution strategy

Or if these were slightly dodgy crooks importing stuff and selling it on

But spotting Coty had a Chypre for sale years before 1917 was interesting, yet it was hard to know if it was the same version, or an earlier prototype, or what!



Lizzie O
Also perfume houses are forever talking about myserious vats of precious oil that get discovered and become the latest big smash

It's like some superhero origins story at times



Basenotes
Which was the most fun decade to research? Sounds like you enjoyed the 1920’s?


Lizzie O
So 1920s for being so amped up


Lizzie O
But 1970s I think was most fun

Because of all those bombastic launches, the self-obsession, the cheesiness etc

The 1990s was the most self-indulgent as it's basically a bit of a memoir in disguise



Lizzie O
And then the 1940s was quite fun because of all the weirdos getting into this whole perfume sctick


Basenotes
You touch on post 2000 at the end of the book, which 15 fragrances would you pick for 2000-2015. (Not putting you on the spot much…)


Lizzie O
Bloody hell grant!


Basenotes
Or 3-4…!


Lizzie O
**lizzie quickly races over to basenotes to check what's come out**

So it would probably look like this, in no particular order



Lizzie O
Alien


Lizzie O
One Million


Lizzie O
Terre d'Hermes or something Ellenarey


Basenotes
I like Ellenarey as an adjective.


Lizzie O
The Scentee

Or a similar smart phone piece of stuff



Lizzie O
One of the Malles - let's say Carnal Flower or Portrait of a Lady


Lizzie O
Comme des Garcons - one of the incense range or the weird ones like dry cleaning that got phased out


Lizzie O
Narciso Rodriguez


Lizzie O
Justin Bieber


Lizzie O
Molecule 01


Lizzie O
I think I'd have to deconstruct what Aventus is all about.


Basenotes
I think we could all do with that...


Lizzie O
And of course one of the Etat Libre d'Oranges but props not Secretions because again it's been talked about in enough detail


Lizzie O
Oh yes, and a PET PERFUME


Lizzie O
Plus I'd have to choose something with Oud or that's particularly expensive

Because I find the question of value and status in fragrance fascinating.

Or rather how you infer value when basically, there's only so much you can put in the bottle to amp up the price.

Therefore the mania around absolues and all that jazz is worth looking at



Lizzie O
And swarovski crystals


Lizzie O
I'd also cover maybe a D.S & Durga

and look at what's happening in the US indie scene

And one of the natural perfumes



Lizzie O
That's probably more than 10 isn't it


Basenotes
Yeah that’ll do! So, being the lazy journalist now. Is there anything else about the book that you feel should be told.


Lizzie O
The only thing I want to add is..... that the cover is quite gold and coral

Because the main market is women

But I was very careful to add in lots about men

And so I hope some of the guys will take a look at this, definitely relevant stuff in there for you



Lizzie O
otherwise it’s available at all good bookshops!

And watch this space for wider availability next year….



Lizzie O
Oh and finally I would like to draw attention to the amazing illustrations by Cynthia Kittler

which I hope will amuse and delight the perfume-lover



Basenotes
I enjoyed them very much!


Lizzie O
And finally, thank you Grant at Basenotes as you’ve given a lot of time to my events and work in the last five years, and for that I am ever so grateful.


Basenotes
Awe, well if I hadn’t done so, someone else would have!


Lizzie O
NO THEY WOULDN’T

It’s been so much fun - the great thing about this community is that I can talk with you here in detail about stuff which is such a treat.



Basenotes
My pleasure then. Lastly. What’s happening next for Odette Toilette?


Lizzie O
So I am planning something very fun for 2016 which is about using unusual smells in performance.

But I can’t tell you what it is not because it’s a secret, but because I’m still organising it

otherwise I need to relax. It’s been a bit of a heavy going year. And I think I need to just see what happens next.



Lizzie O
What’s next for basenotes?


Basenotes
in the short term, tinkering around trying to make this look like an IM chat on the website, which should be fun


Lizzie O
hehe


Basenotes
Thank you very much for your time! Where can people find out more about what you’re up to?



Lizzie O
Or the usual social media channels


Lizzie O


Basenotes
Cheers Lizzie / Odette / whoever I’m speaking to…


Lizzie O
thanks Grant

 

Lizzie Ostrom has disconnected.

Basenotes has disconnected.

 

Perfume – A Century of Scent is out now. [Amazon UK / Amazon US]

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About the author: Grant Osborne

Grant Osborne is the founder and editor of Basenotes. Grant has two children, and a dependence on tea, haribo and bacon.

Website: http://www.grantosborne.com

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    Comments

      • odioustoilet | 24th November 2015 10:42

        Interesting, another one that I have to request at my local library.

        Sears?

      • MrsDalloway | 24th November 2015 12:20

        Heh, brilliant. It's a good book (I have it on Kindle).

      • Kaern | 24th November 2015 12:30

        It's a nice book and an interesting read -- shame it ended in 2000.

        Deconstruct Aventus? Good luck with that!

      • hednic | 24th November 2015 14:50

        Very interesting. Need to check it out.

      • Le vagabond | 25th November 2015 18:14

        I really enjoy Life in Scents and I will be buying this book too :) Thanks!

      • Kiliwia | 25th November 2015 18:41

        Great interview!! I hope it's available on Kindle in the US soon.

      • Persolaise | 26th November 2015 13:17

        Has this interview method been patented yet?

        No?

        Well, it's mine now. © Persolaise™ All rights reserved.

        A fun read :-) Thank you. And I'll add my voice to those recommending Lizzie's book.

      • C Rose | 5th December 2015 16:40

        At this time, not available in the U.S. on Amazon .... Sigh, was hoping to buy a copy as a Christmas present -- and one for me, too! (great interview, though! Thanks!)

      • teardrop | 30th December 2015 20:29

        Just received a copy of the book for Christmas & looking forward to reading it. Thanks, Lizzie & Grant!

      • teardrop | 30th January 2016 09:07

        Just finished reading the book & thoroughly enjoyed it. l highly recommend it to both beginners & seasoned perfumistas alike; it's crammed with all kinds of interesting tidbits. And it manages to combine analysis of perfume trends & how each historical period influenced them, with a generous helping of humour. Bravo Lizzie!