The Grit and Glamour - Why City Dwellers Love Scent So Much

04th December, 2017

Writer Viola Levy looks at how the city inspired her perfume obsession


Credit: Adobe / okalinichenko

I started my website Scents and the City, to write about perfume and places to shop for it in London. But it soon became clear that there was a definite link between scent and my hometown. Not just because perfume distracts from the less-than-pleasant city stench (anyone who’s been stuck in a sweaty tube carriage will know what I mean). To me, fragrance just as much an essential part of city life, as is a thick skin, Google Maps and a scuff-proof pair of ankle boots. Growing up in Harringey, our bathroom – with its scents of Elnett, Clinique Aromatics and Matey bubble bath - was a little glamorous universe amid all the concrete, car stereos and commotion outside.

As wonderful and diverting as it is, living in big cities – London most of all – goes hand-in-hand with occasionally wanting to escape, and scent is great for that. During my career as a beauty writer I’ve been lucky enough to be introduced to numerous enveloping and transporting concoctions: sparkling bergamots, Turkish rose, Tuscan vanilla, Indonesian patchouli and jasmine from Grasse. Not to mention the dazzling parade of oudhs in every size, shape and concentration, as department stores still clamour to win the custom of the indefatigable Middle East.

The phrase "grit and the glamour" was something I heard from Nick Steward at an event for his perfume line Gallivant (inspired by his favourite cities: Brooklyn, Istanbul, London and Tel Aviv) to describe his obsession with everything urban - of which scent is at the heart. And to me, it really resonated. People talk about "city smells": the pollution, the street food, the waft of a Harrods shopper as they pass you by and their exotic perfume knocks you for six. There's something about this kaleidoscope of smell that many of us find fascinating - that you can step off a grubby, crowded street and enter a shiny perfumery where mirrored surfaces reflect back at you and a haze of orange blossom fills the air. Kind of like an olfactory Narnia - without the New Testament subtext.

Speaking to Steward later on, he noted that “Maybe because we’re bombarded - with noise, light, smells, other people -and so wearing a perfume, smelling your own ‘scent' can feel like a personal moment. It can feel like a protective layer.”

The idea of perfume going hand-in-hand with city living is echoed by James Craven, perfume archivist and expert for Les Senteurs. “Ah! Perfume - being an artificial creation and an art form - is, I think, essentially urban. This is not to say you can't wear nor enjoy perfume in the countryside. But the gloss, the sheen, the artifice, the power of scent is an urban phenomenon.” This is something he believes makes sense when you look at it from a historical perspective. “Perfume, after all, originally developed millennia ago as an adjunct and a refinement of civilisation; as a religious object; as a sacred accessory of the temple, the king, the court. Perfume has always been at the centre of things - at the heart of high society, a luxury of those in power; ergo, the town and city dwellers.”

As well as a marker of sophistication, for me, there’s also just something about fragrance that embodies the city so well, which I think Steward sums up perfectly. “A perfume is light and dark, highs and lows - and that’s city life too. It’s not one shade, one note or one sound. It’s about nuance and contrast; it’s a continuous swirl.”

My Favourite City-Type Scents

Gallivant – Brooklyn I’m not too familiar with this iconic New York borough that inspired this one. But with its cool crisp citrus notes and undercurrent of soft musks, it reminds me a little of London’s Alexandra Palace ice rink: the mustiness of the old building contrasted by the sharp, fresh ice that occasionally gives you mild brain freeze.

Bella Freud - Psychoanalysis This orange blossom and tobacco-infused concoction is the latest offering from the tomboy designer in homage to her famous great-grandfather. For me it captures the neuroses of city-dwellers, think Woody Allen’s New York in the 1970s.

Beaufort London – Fathom V This salty seadog of a scent echoes London’s rich history as a trading port. With enveloping cumin, moss and vetiver it connotes seafaring merchants bringing exotic wares from distant lands.

Vilhelm Parfumerie - Purple Fig Its zesty bouquet, underscored with a warm spike of cedarwood perfectly captures autumn in Regent’s Park. Crisp but not cloying, it’s perfect for daytime - plus you’re unlikely to give anyone a coughing fit if you wear it on the tube.

Black Tulip – Atelier Bloem The Atelier Bloem range is inspired by Amsterdam’s famous floating flower market and Black Tulip is a nod to the most famous Dutch bloom of them all. A fresh, sunny scent (but thankfully not overly feminine) with pretty notes of freesia, violet and musk, it reminds me of waking up stupidly early on a Sunday to visit Colombia Road flower market.

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About the author: Viola Levy

Freelance beauty editor Viola Levy has loved perfume since purchasing a treasured bottle of Impulse O2 aged 10 and later wearing Anaïs Anaïs to a friend's 13th birthday party. Formerly contributing beauty editor of Glass Magazine, her blog Scents and the City highlights her favourite fragrances and beloved London haunts.



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