Do women really want to smell melony? In Harrods this week the Oscar de la Renta assistant, spraying their new perfume Volupte over anyone who came near her, boasted that 'the top notes are tangerine and watermelon.' Watermelon? Apparently this is a reaction to what the perfume industry calls 'the shoulder-pad fragrances of the Eighties, like Giorgio or Picasso.' Issey Miyake's new fragrance smells like Aqua Libra. And New West's ads have a girl sitting in front of a lemon, sweet melon, and watermelon. 'The smell of the moment is softer, less aggressive, more feminine,' says Peter Norman, of Parfums Givenchy. 'Manufacturers of essential oils respond to a brief from companies like ours for fragrances which go with the make-up and clothes of the moment.'
Their decisions affect us all. The British market for women's fine fragrances is worth pounds 350m at retail, and for men's fragrances, half of that again and growing. (Women buy most of their perfume for themselves, although men will dutifully replace them). Perhaps the most curious aspect of this week's Consumer Association report on perfume prices at Boots, which revealed that customers paid up to 30 per cent more when there was no Superdrug store competing in the area, was that a perfume market exists at all at the budget-price Superdrug stores. Even at their prices, pounds 24.55 for a bottle of St Laurent's Opium is a fair old whack for a few mls of ethyl alcohol and water smelling of fragrance oils. It has been estimated that the contents of an average bottle of perfume cost dollars 4 ( pounds 2.60) to manufacture: a heroin-type markup. But the truth is that Superdrug's customers, as much as Harrods', want to be able to splash strong smells all over themselves in the morning. Claudia Rankin, an artist/teacher who earns less than pounds 10,000 a year, wears Clarins' Eau Dynamisante ( pounds 22 for 200ml) 'even when I'm wearing overalls: if I can write a non-bouncing cheque at the Clarins counter, I will.'
In this era of regular baths and recession, perfume ought to be the most disposable of luxuries. Yet the vast majority of women are still sploshing the stuff on: these days it doesn't feel like a luxury at all. 'I went out the other night without my Safari by Ralph Lauren' says Flo Fraser, a personal assistant: 'I felt as if I wasn't wearing knickers.'
Ironically, if Superdrug's undercutting price policy prevails (the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is currently investigating), the products it sells will almost certainly lose some of their allure. 'Part of the attraction of fragrance is that it is expensive,' admits Peter Norman. 'If consumers buy luxury products in Superdrug, they will soon no longer be luxuries, and there will no longer be a demand for them.'
Perfume has been around since the ancient Egyptians at least. Walk into Harrods' perfume department now, though, and you realise that perfume is about much more than covering up that hint of B O. The decor is black, pink and chrome, with piano music and fresh flowers; curvy counters are littered with glass bottles to touch, suggesting the pre-war world of ocean liners and F Scott Fitzgerald.
'Fragrance is aspirational,' says Daniela Rinaldi: 'If you can't afford the Dolce & Gabbana jacket, you can at least wear the fragrance. You're buying a dream, a lifestyle. Success depends not just on smell, but media support, packaging, and the designer name.'
Dr George Dodd, director of Warwick University's Institute of Olfactory Research, hates this fashionable aspect of perfumery - 'a tragedy' - and would like to see the industry mimicking the wine business and not changing its products every year. 'Good perfume speaks very poignantly to our unconscious minds,' he says poetically. 'At the heart of all the old perfumes are musk molecules, secreted by deer, which are reminiscent of our own body odours.' 'Stale odours and excretory odours are perceived as being repulsive,' explains psychologist David Booth. 'Others, such as the gentle odours of sexual activity, are perceived as being more positive. Musky perfumes will smell like the secretions from the sexual parts of the body and will be worn to remind people of that'.
But perfume isn't just about raw sex; it has highly complex associations with mood and memory. (Say 'Avon's Pretty Peach creme perfume' to a whole generation of women who grew up in the Sixties, and they will smile with secret teenage memories). 'Estee Lauder's Private Collection is my signature,' says Cindy Gallop, a 33- year-old advertising executive, who buys it in bulk in America. 'But if I want to feel like a different person, I'll wear Donna Karan. One ex rang me after about eight years and said he could literally smell the perfume I used to wear. It's incredibly important in attraction. You know when you don't like someone's smell, even though it may be quite subliminal.' Subliminal is how many men prefer it. Marketing director Peter Griffin says: 'Nothing is more attractive than a gentle whiff of a nice scent . . . A powerful aura of perfume can have the opposite effect.'
If you are easily offended by smells of melon and musk on the morning commute (one woman said vehemently that Dior's Poison ought to be banned: 'You can smell it in the next carriage'), then you are in for a miserable future. Increasingly, companies are looking at pumping 'corporate smells' into the atmosphere. 'It is known that smelling lavender makes you more alert, and citrus smells will cut down typing errors,' says David Fellowes, commercial director of Marketing Aromatics, who will design you a corporate smell and supply the machinery to discharge it. 'In Japan, the air conditioning in whole buildings now replaces different smells at different times of the day, so people don't go to sleep in the afternoon for example. Companies can impregnate their letterheads or perfume a retail environment. The Japanese estimate this market in hundreds of millions.'
We have come a long way from the days when it was thought vulgar to wear scent before lunchtime (though Dame Barbara Cartland says the rule was always to wear it whenever your young man was coming round and you were going to be kissed). Now the big designer names could barely survive without their mass market scents (half Dior's profits come from perfume); they depend on exciting interest in new fragrances every season in the hope of one day producing a classic. Chanel No 5 is still market leader, though new scents like Dune and Eternity are also in the top five. Anyone who finds the smell of melons a bit annoying, should, meanwhile, probably reflect that fashion is currently dominated by grunge. It could have been worse.
Research: Catriona Luke