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Picking a scent, with only one sense

Picking a scent,  with only one sense


RACHEL SYME
NYT Syndicate
Close your eyes. Imagine a perfume. It smells like honeyed amber and smoky tonka beans, topped with a squeeze of bergamot oil. Perhaps you detect a hint of chalky violets and the dry prairie winds of vetiver grass. Inhale again: Now you get a slice of mandarin orange, a burst of cardamom pods and a fresh cake of Irish Spring. The scent is spicy and a little feral but still bright and clean. It's the sort of scent that makes you want to go out dancing.
Open your eyes. Were you picturing Pitbull for men?
Would it change your mind if you knew that I was describing a celebrity cologne from 2013? If I told you that it sells for $20 for 1.7 ounces at Walmart and that it comes in a black lacquered bottle in the shape of the Freedom Tower, in a box featuring the image of the rapper Pitbull wearing a tuxedo, does that make you want it more or less?
This is the sort of playful thought experiment that propelled Mindy Yang to open Perfumarie, a new"meta-discovery studio" and"multisensory experience" in SoHo. The store, which opened in November, specialises in blind perfume shopping, allowing customers to smell fragrances with all the branding removed.
Yang opened the new space after departing from Min New York, a downtown fragrance shop that she introduced in 2010 with her then-boyfriend, Chad Murawczyk. For her new venture, Yang said, she wanted to completely reinvent the fragrance shopping experience.
"I'm a bit of a futurist," she said, sitting at the rustic farm table that runs down the centre of the narrow storefront. She was wearing an asymmetrical Yigal Azrou'ebl leather jacket and smelled like sandalwood."I am no longer interested in traditional retail," she said."People need to learn how to be empowered to have a point of view and choose what they like for themselves."
In her quest to encourage consumers to trust their noses, Yang decided to put perfumes on tap, labelling them only by number. She installed 32 identical fragrance spouts along the minimalist back wall of the space, removing any hints of branding, packaging or price information. Underneath each tap is a small gray stone tagine containing a white paper swan soaked in the mystery perfume.
Customers are encouraged to sniff in numerical order, taking notes on a clipboard about the scents that set their synapses ablaze. The scents begin light, with airy and citrusy notes, and get progressively stronger. The day I visited, I started with a scent full of delicate roses, moved onto one that reminded me of expired lipstick, and finished my tour inhaling a funky cumin concoction that smelled like a ripe armpit.
After selecting two favourites from the lineup, each visitor is encouraged to try them on the skin. They then make a final choice, and leave with a 5-milliliter sample, decanted into a tiny brown dropper vial. Shoppers are not permitted to know the name of the perfume they've selected. Instead, the vials are labelled with numbers, looking a bit like prototypes stolen from a chemistry lab.
The suspense doesn't last long. At the end of every month, Yang hosts a cocktail party to unveil the tap selections. She also posts the full list online so that customers can discover the truth about the perfumes they took home. Sometimes the results are surprising.
In November, for example, Yang filled tap No 32 with Pitbull Man. Many of the scents on tap are high-end, including some that sell for as much as $5 per milliliter (liquid gold, in perfume terms). Still, Yang intends to add a few mass-market and celebrity scents to the mix in order to break preconceived notions about what constitutes a fine fragrance. After reading gushy online reviews of Pitbull Man, she bought a case of it to add, mostly as a cheeky provocation. She did not expect that it would become one of the most popular scents in the store.
"I have a friend who works in the industry, for an exquisite fragrance house," Yang said."She picked the Pitbull as her favourite out of all of them. She couldn't believe it when she found out. But then, that is what this place is all about."
The first"guided flight" through Perfumarie, accompanied by a clerk who acts as a kind of scent sommelier, is free. Afterward, sampling the taps costs $20. When customers pay for their first blind smelling, they have the option to become a Perfumarie Explorer's Club member. Their scent notes are scanned into a database and saved for future reference. Other perks of membership include the reveal parties, a quarterly sampler box of store-exclusive scents, and invitations to events held around the"gathering table," like a meet-and-greet with master perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, who also serves as an official adviser to the studio.
Yang hopes that by offering membership and stressing the community aspect of the store, customers will return month after month. She wants them to treat their past smelling notes like a library, learning how their taste evolves over time. As of now, she said, the studio has more than 600 members registered.
"What we are really trying to create here is a kind of salon where fragrance lovers can go," she said."There are so many little cultures of pleasure nowadays. Chocolate, coffee. But there is little of that in the perfume industry. This is a perfect activity to do with your friends after a brunch."

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