On the scent of a city

The Etat Libre d'Orange, Paris.
The Etat Libre d'Orange, Paris.

Ute Junker is seduced on a whirlwind tour of the best Parisian parfumeries.

Even in Paris, there's nowhere like the Palais-Royal. Once the home of Cardinal Richelieu and the ducs d'Orleans, it became the most scandalous destination of pre-revolutionary Paris, offering an irresistible mix of theatre and shopping, coffee and gossip, revolutionaries and demi-mondaines.

These days, its elegant arcades are home to exclusive designers such as Stella McCartney and Rick Owens, names familiar from the pages of fashion magazines. So it's fitting that perhaps the Palais-Royal's most prestigious tenant once helped determine what appeared in the pages of Vogue. In past incarnations, Serge Lutens was one of fashion's key tastemakers, first as a photographer at Vogue Paris, then as artistic director of make-up at Christian Dior.

Lutens's talents didn't stop there. He has been a power player in the perfume field since the 1990s when, as artistic director at Shiseido, he rocked the fragrance world when he released Feminite du Bois, the first of his much-imitated scents, heavy on woody tones that, until then, had been considered to be masculine.

These days, Lutens is out on his own. Although he operates very much under the radar, he has developed a cult following among the cognoscenti for his pared-back perfumes. Unlike the big-name brands, who use literally hundreds of ingredients in their fragrances, Lutens strips his to two dozen or fewer. His scents are unpredictable, undefinable and gender-neutral.

Lutens has also pared back his retailing approach, with just one dedicated outlet: the pocket-size Parisian salon that is Les Salons du Palais-Royal. This is the only place where you can buy his entire collection of 53 perfumes, including the 29 scents in his signature line, Parfums Exclusifs, which are otherwise only available by mail order to limited countries.

Les Salons du Palais-Royal is unlike any other parfumerie in which you've set foot. The space is tiny, the four small counters overshadowed by a magnificent wrought iron staircase in the centre of the room which, I am told, is made from melted cannons. With the violet lighting and the rich yet subtle decorations that cover every surface - from the geometric designs in the wall panels to the intricate suns, moons and stars up above - it feels less like a shop, more like an antechamber in a sultan's palace.

My eye is caught by a collection of Parfums Exclusifs bottles, glittering like a tray of precious stones. Although each fragrance is housed in a plain glass bottle, with a plain grey label, each perfume has a different colour: grey or violet, amber or amethyst. A tray full of fragrances I've never smelt before - where do I begin?

With a conversation, it turns out. When you go to buy a Serge Lutens perfume, the first thing the sales assistant will do is engage you in conversation about the types of scent you prefer. I've heard they're highly skilled at asking the right questions: apparently, nine times out of 10, the perfume the customer chooses is the first one recommended by the assistant. I can't wait to put this to the test.

After we've had an in-depth discussion about what I like, my sales assistant, Laurence, offers me the first perfume to try. She doesn't spray it on - spraying is strictly forbidden in chez Lutens, in order to preserve a neutral atmosphere. Instead, a row of pre-scented perfume strips is laid out for customers to smell.

The first fragrance Laurence offers is called Fourreau Noir, and it's one of the strangest perfumes I've ever smelt. Laurence tells me the key notes are incense and tonka bean, but that doesn't make things much clearer. Something about the dark yet spicy scent defines categorisation. If it were a food, I wouldn't be able to tell if it were sweet or savoury. I like it - but I'm not sure I'd wear it.

I try a few more of Laurence's suggestions and come up with a shortlist of two - that perplexing Fourreau Noir and another leathery, spicy scent. Just for the hell of it, I browse through the other scents and choose another two. One is a combination of violets and wood. I like the way Lutens tempers sweet scents with deeper notes: he also teams mandarin with a smoky tone that is delicious. The second fragrance I choose is cinnamon, one of my favourite aromas.

We're now ready for the next step - applying the fragrance. Laurence dabs the four perfumes to my skin - two on my hands, two on my wrists - and then tells me to take a walk. "You have to wait and see how they develop on your skin," she says. If customers have errands to run, they're encouraged to do that before coming back to make their choice.

I don't think it will take me that long to decide. Two frontrunners quickly emerge: Fourreau Noir and the cinnamon. The odd thing about this is, as perfumes, they're complete opposites. The cinnamon is my favourite. It's everything I love in a perfume: warm and fiery and sensual and seductive. Fourreau Noir, however, still intrigues me with its ambiguity. It's both masculine and feminine, smoky and sweet - I still can't quite grasp it.

As I wander around, I can smell the fragrances change. After 20 minutes, the cinnamon is losing its fire. It smells ... ordinary. Fourreau Noir, however, continues to evolve. I keep lifting my wrist to my nose, wondering what it's going to do next. That's when I realise: I'm hooked. This is the one I'm taking home - the very first one Laurence suggested. She's a wonder.

Later that afternoon, I find myself in a different part of Paris, in a very different parfumerie. From the street, it's hard to tell Etat Libre d'Orange is a perfume store. I can see a wall of glossy art books, a deer's head wearing a mask mounted on another wall, a huge tribal figure in the corner. Amid all this, it's easy to miss the simple square perfume bottles. "People come in here all the time wondering what we actually do," the sales assistant tells me cheerfully.

Which is the way Etat Libre d'Orange's founder, Etienne de Swardt, likes it. The company is famous for the names it gives its unisex fragrances. Inevitably, they're cheeky; occasionally, they're downright crass. There's Putain des Palaces (Hotel Slut), a strong but girly scent, fruity, vanilla, with lipstick notes; and Fat Electrician combines vetiver, chestnut cream, olive leaves, vanilla and myrrh.

And then there's Libre Etat d'Orange's famous "concept" perfume, Magnificent Secretions, which is designed to smell of blood, saliva, sweat and sperm. The sales assistant sprays some on a strip and waves it under my nose. As I pull a face, the sales assistant grins. "I can't imagine wearing it, but the people who buy it tell me they do wear it."

To me, the biggest surprise about Libre Etate d'Orange is how seductive some of their perfumes are. I decide my favourite is Je Suis un Homme (I'm a Man), a very sexy updated eau de cologne with cognac and leather notes inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte. However, that's before I smell one of their celebrity perfumes, Eau de Protection, designed for Spanish actor Rossy de Palma.

I'm not a fan of floral fragrances, but this one packs a punch. With the heavy rose in front, and seductive notes of ginger and spicy black pepper, incense and cocoa in the background, it has an oriental heaviness. It's opulent and attention-seeking, rather than light and girly. It's definitely a date perfume - if you can't seduce someone while wearing this perfume, you're not really trying.

Naturally, I take a bottle home with me.

The writer travelled courtesy of Finnair.

Three more Paris parfumeries

1 Maison Francis Kurkdjian Francis Kurkdjian made his reputation with perfumes such as Le Male for Jean Paul Gaultier and Acqua di Parma's Iris Nobile. His narrow-fronted shop has a wide range of scented accessories as well as perfumes such as Pour le Matin ("For the Morning", a powdery combination of citrus and florals) and Pour le Soir ("For the Evening", laden with incense and honey). Kurkdjian will also create a custom perfume for you, if you have a spare €8000. 9 Rue du Mont Thabor, +33 1 4277 4033, franciskurkdjian.com.

2 Parfums de Nicolai Patricia de Nicolai, the granddaughter of fragrance legend Pierre Guerlain, has seven parfumeries around town stocking her range of fragrances for women, men and even children. She takes a creative yet classic approach to perfumes: Le Temps d'Une Fete is heavy with narcissus, while Rose Intense is just that. 69 Avenue Raymond Poincare, +33 1 4755 9044, pnicolai.com.

3 The Different Company You'd think that working as the "nose" for Hermes would be a dream job for any parfumier. Jean Claude Ellena, however, has a side project as well: this Marais outlet, which he opened with his daughter Celine. They use unusual ingredients such as Chinese osmanthus flower and caloupile leaf to create their scents, which are beautifully presented in carved bottles of thick glass. 10 Rue Ferdinand Duval, +33 1 4278 1934, thedifferentcompany.com.

Trip notes

Getting there

Finnair flies to Paris via Helsinki, from $1745. finnair.com/au.

Staying there

The Mandarin-Oriental Paris is an easy walk from the Palais-Royal, on Rue Saint-Honore. From €765 ($971) a night. mandarinoriental.com.

Shopping there

Salons du Palais-Royal Shiseido, 142 Galerie de Valois, Palais-Royal, sergelutens.com.

Etat Libre d'Orange, 69 Rue des Archives, etatlibredorange.com.

This story On the scent of a city first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.