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July 1, 2007

"Clean" By Luca Turin

"Clean" By Luca Turin

A clever scientist in charge of improving the smell of clean clothes at a major soap manufacturer explained to me recently that his task was made difficult not just by cost, environmental regulation and the fact that soap powder is already near-perfect, but by a fundamental problem: cleaning fabric essentially means removing oily stuff, and fragrance is oily. Devising a perfume that hangs on to the fabric in the wash like a limpet in a gale is not easy. He summed it up thus: “We take smell out, and then put it back in”. This got me thinking about the fact that we do the same thing every time we take a shower. We wash off the smell and dirt (and, in my opinion, some of our soul, though it seems to grow back), then towel down and spray some smell back on.

But the soaps, shampoos and conditioners you use are not unscented. If they were, they’d smell faintly bad. So it’s really a three-stage process: wash off body smells and stale perfume, replace with a temporary, stand-in fragrance that says “clean”, then cover that with another smell. Note that proper fragrance, like makeup, is unclean. When you pick a shirt and find it stained with face powder or smelling of perfume, it means it’s dirty. At no time was this more true than in the ‘eighties, when fragrances of exceptional power and persistence like Opium, Poison and Giorgio ruled the earth. When the great Issey Miyake decided to make his own fragrance in 1990, he wanted it to smell of water, and by then everyone agreed. His Eau d’Issey was a huge success.

The young today still don’t want to smell dirty like Mom. How do you sell them fragrance? Classic soap fragrance was just scaled down perfume, so just scaling it back up clearly wouldn’t do. Maybe the perfect clean perfume, like those strangely beautiful “average” faces that come from mixing a hundred photographs by computer, might just be the sum total of everything you use when washing. What would that smell like ? Oddly enough, like a soapy fruit salad. Since the early ‘seventies and L’OrĂ©al’s first apple-scented shampoo, fruity notes have invaded the bathroom. The US firm of Bath & Body Works was among the first to see this. They brought out a line of cheap soapy-fruity-floral fragrances a few years back and made a fortune. Now eighty percent of new launches are loud fruity florals. Which means shampoo now smells dirty. Another wash cycle is about to start.