"The name is the most important thing," says a man named Paul Ferrari, who, I figure, should know. He is the manager of the Calvin Klein counter at Selfridges in London's Oxford Street. It takes up one, smallish corner of the wildly over-decorated perfumery department, but you'd be surprised how much cash can fit into this triangulated space. Mr Ferrari says it is a pounds 1m corner. In December alone it can take pounds 250,000. I start to feel heady at the thought. But then I realise that his assistant is spraying some Obsession nearby, and that I am having a fragrance flashback. There's nothing like a dose of Obsession to bring the Thatcher decade back with a vengeance. Through a shoulder-pad haze, I notice that the assistant is ringing up another sale.
So, I ask Mr Ferrari, would anyone want to buy this bottle of Obsession for pounds 3.50? He looks at me strangely. "No, of course not," he says. He says that no one ever asks the price of a perfume until the sale is almost finished. I trust him on this, but then I may just have been taken in. Mr Ferrari has been in perfume for 12 years, but he doesn't look like it. By that I mean that he does not look like a transvestite. I mention this. He tells me that I am out of date, but he knows what I mean. Well, I mean those women with muck-spreader-loads of make-up, hair-helmets, and fingernails that are under contract to the Ministry of Defence.
He corrects me. "No, it was mink coats and Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags," he remembers. "If you worked in perfumery, you had to have the right labels." Now the perfume is the label, of course, and the sales assistants are usually pretty tasteful. Mr Ferrari is looking very urban chic, in matt black. (The exceptions are those poor women working behind the Vivienne Westwood counter, who have to sell the ludicrously named Boudoir while wearing a pair of toile de Jouy curtains.)
But I doubt there will ever be a perfume called Tasteful, because few people go to bed dreaming of that. Glamour, seduction, riches, diamonds and lace, yes; tasteful and sensible, no.
Perfume is all about wish-fulfilment, but the wish has to be the kind that is almost impossible to achieve. "We call it selling the dream," says Mr Ferrari. The name is the most important thing in this, but packaging is second. This is why women who do not even like the smell of Chanel No 5 want that square glass bottle on their dressing-table. Never mind that they probably wouldn't have even liked Coco Chanel, hard-driven businesswoman and pearl-fanatic that she was.
This is a world that likes its reality painted as trompe-l'oeil. Coco Chanel was seen to be glamorous. She created a perfume and marketed it as containing a piece of her glamour. It didn't, of course, but only the likes of the Consumers Association might say so out loud. The world has gone along with this myth and it has cost us a lot. But then, you might think that glamour is cheap at pounds 50 a bottle. So what, I ask Mr Ferrari, is the third factor? "The smell," he says. His, by the way, is Eternity.
I ponder this in the taxi on the way to my next perfume counter. By now, I have sprayed my fair share of Boudoir and Contradiction and Chanel and I think people are beginning to notice. "I hope I don't smell," I say to the driver, whose name is Alan Raby. He says that it is not too bad, and tells me about some really smelly people he has had in the back of his cab. It turns out that Mr Raby likes a fresh-smelling cab. So, after every passenger who isn't so fresh, such as a smoker, he sprays a little air-freshener around. It's called Fresh Linen and it costs pounds 2 or so at Marks & Spencer. "You wouldn't believe the number of men
who will get in to the cab and say, "Hmmm, you've just had someone nice in here," says Mr Raby. "All you women, out there spending hundreds of pounds on perfume, while most men can't even tell the difference between perfume and pounds 2 air-freshener! It's got to the point where I don't have the heart to tell the men what they're smelling."
I arrive at Space NK in Covent Garden and hope desperately that I do not smell of air-freshener. After all, Space NK may be the coolest beauty shop in the world. I approach with caution: this is the kind of place where you can convince yourself that it is a good idea to forgo paying the mortgage this month and buy some really interesting foundation and eye-shadow instead. Its perfume is exclusive and, by definition, trendy.
Space NK is all about not doing what everyone else does. The shop, for instance, is not a shop at all. "I think you'll find it is an apothecary," someone says. Indeed it is called that. Nor does this apothecary need to advertise. In fact, it is defined by the fact that it does not advertise.
"We depend on word of mouth," says the 24-year-old store manager, Alan Nicholls. It's certainly worked in this case, as I am here only because the fashion people tell me that this is where I will find the scent of the moment. Everyone is wearing it, or wishes they were wearing it, they say. It is called Fig. Yes, you read that right.
"It's very green, it's very grassy, it's very trendy," says the man from Space NK. When I spray it on, I think it may also be very coconut- husky, but I keep this idea to myself.
The perfume itself is in fact called Philoskyos (Greek for figs, evidently), and a 100ml bottle costs pounds 35. Aha! I think; pounds 3.50 in reality. And, indeed, that may be the truth here. It is made by Diptyque of Paris, which is far too trendy a name to need to advertise, and far too hip to go in for elaborate packaging. Its entire packaging concept is a plain bottle, and a label that is pretty plain too, except for some rather mutated- looking figs that might, on a bad day, be mistaken for bulbs of garlic. Fig is anti-image, anti-packaging, anti-glamour. That makes it to-die- for. As the line says in the Space NK catalogue: "The new, cult fig-based fragrance." Even I can see that cult figs are a winner.
I travel to Knightsbridge by bus. By now I smell very strange. In addition to liberal amounts of Fig, I have lots of cotton pads sprayed with sweet- pea, which I have either fallen in love with or am using as a drug. It's hard to say, after a certain amount of time spent smelling perfume. Frankly, one needs something a little bit extra to cope with Harrods.
I have come to look at the most expensive perfume in the store. Earlier, I had asked Mr Ferrari if any sales assistant would even allow me to look at a bottle of the stuff. "Oh yes," he said. "You can never tell by what a customer looks like."
Harrods' perfumery is just left from the Room of Luxury. There are dead, white branches hanging from the ceiling, and they are twinkling with fairy lights. There is a white player-piano and it is playing "Winter Wonderland". Some of the sales assistants are in gold lame togas. I ask for the most expensive perfume.
"Now, let's see," says a sales assistant. "It used to be Joy, but now I think it's Amouage." She points me towards a tiny kiosk against the wall where it is sold.
Amouage comes in a bottle heavy enough to be used as a murder weapon. It costs pounds 280. I wonder whether the ingredients really cost pounds 28. I ponder how much one spray is worth on the open market. And while I do this, someone steals my wallet.
I am poorer - and only a little bit wiser - as I leave the world of image and dreams that is perfume, and go out into the world where others think I am just someone on the bus who smells funny.