Be it Chanel No. 5 or the perfume you wore on your wedding day, there's nothing like a classic fragrance to conjure up a memory or two. But if you're looking for a signature scent that everyone and their mamas aren't wearing, then sign-up for Olfactif, the rad new perfume sampling program from Chicago gal Tara Swords.
Her talented nose sniffs out the globe's scents to bring you the most unique fragrances she can get her pulse points on. And because perfume can match your ensemble as well as your mood, Swords showed us four looks that depict her fresh style. Ahead, the sweet smell — and sight — of sartorial success.
Photographed by Jennifer Avello
When did you start Olfactif, and what was the inspiration behind it?
"Olfactif launched in April 2013, but I started working on it a full year before that. I’ve always been powerfully moved by my sense of smell, so perfume was a natural love for me. But I was really bored by the things that I smelled in department stores; every scent seemed to be chasing the same trend. So, when I moved to Africa in 2009, I didn’t take a single bottle of perfume with me — just tossed out most everything I owned. When I returned to the States, I thought, 'Let’s see if anything interesting has come out while I was away.' And that’s when I stumbled into this world of niche perfume."
"In niche, perfume is treated like an art form, just like it used to be in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It isn’t about trends or mass marketing — it’s about the power of scent to move you, challenge you, and surprise you. I was hooked, and I realized there were probably a lot of other people out there who love perfume, are bored by mainstream stuff, and don’t even know the niche world exists. Olfactif is a way to let them experience it."
Bailey 44 blazer, Vanessa & Virginia top, Mango pants, Tory Burch wedges, Anthropologie necklace and bag.
So, what’s your background since your biz was somewhat an epiphany?
"I’m a writer. I used to cover women’s issues and business before moving into technology. I’ve written for a lot of high-tech companies, which is one way I indulge my technophile tendencies."
How do you go about sourcing the “niche fragrances” you feature each month?
"I do a lot of research and a lot of smelling. I spray friends and relatives and ask them to describe their experiences of different scents (some of them love this, and others are probably rolling their eyes behind my back)."
"I try to understand the context of a scent. Who made it? How was it made? Are there any unusual notes or accords, or any common notes that are contrasted in an interesting way? Is there a great backstory that lends to the message the artist is communicating? Will people have fun wearing it? Will it challenge some perceptions?"
Tell us a little bit about what the behind-the-scenes process is like.
"Our subscribers receive their collections around the first of every month, so there’s an enormous amount of work that goes into prepping hundreds of collections for shipment. Behind the scenes, I’m interviewing our perfumers and working with a talented group of collaborators to create content about the artists and scents we feature. I’m always working on future collections, mixing and matching different scents, and seeing what themes develop around them organically."
"Then there’s the administrative part of the business: managing the website, shipping full bottle orders all month, making decisions about packaging, and tracking down new scents to sample. To be honest, one of my favorite times is toward the middle of the month when I can sit down, turn on some music, and just decant."
"Decanting is the process of transferring bulk perfume into smaller containers, and it’s the most cathartic activity to transfer these wonderful liquids to the little vials that I’ll be sending out into the world. After decanting for a few hours, I feel completely calm and refocused. I’ve spent all of my career writing, so the opportunity to produce something tangible is really interesting to me."
Collective Concepts top; Anthropologie scarf, belt, and cuff; Paige Denim jeans, Tory Burch shoes, Francesca’s Collections clutch.
Describe your style.
"I gravitate toward things that are fun but not fussy. I have a 3-year-old daughter, so if something’s not easy or gets in the way of playing with her, I usually won’t bother. I like clothes that are classic but have some sort of visual interest — a great pattern, a bold color, or an interesting texture. And I suppose I’m a bit girly in the end."
Do you have a favorite summer trend that you’re rocking right now?
"I love the chevron pattern that we’re seeing everywhere. I love the warm, orangey-pink coral — especially when it’s paired with white. Also, lace. It’s not something I’d wear just anytime, but I really love the delicacy of a lace dress."
Should we match our fragrance to our mood or the ensemble we’re wearing?
"You can choose your scent by almost anything: the season, the clothing, the event, the time of day, the way you feel — even the way you want to feel. For example, if I want a boost of confidence, I might wear a bold white floral. If I want to feel calm, I might wear something musky with a prominent sandalwood or vetiver note."
"With the exception of airplanes and close work quarters, I say wear what you want when you want to. If it makes you feel the way you want to feel — without overwhelming the people around you — then it’s the right choice."
What’s your go-to work ensemble?
"In the summer, you’ll usually find me in comfortable flats and a casual dress. But I work in my own office by myself, so I often don’t think twice about what I’m wearing while I work. On the other hand, that means I jump at an opportunity to pay a little attention to what I’m wearing. Give me an excuse to put on a great dress and heels, and I’m there — as long as I don’t have to walk far in those heels!"
MM Couture dress, Moda Spana pumps, Anthropologie necklace and earrings.
Who are some of your go-to designers?
"My closet is a complete mish-mash of things I’ve picked up over the years in different cities and countries. I don’t pay a ton of attention to the labels, to be honest. Perfumers, on the other hand — I could talk your ear off about my go-to perfumers."
Fair enough! So, what is your go-to fragrance right now?
"This summer, I’m spending a lot of time wearing Bombay Bling by Neela Vermeire Créations
. It is the single most vibrant, cinematic perfume I can remember smelling, ever. It is an homage to modern-day India, and it’s incredible for the way it captures so much complexity and change over time — and for the way it takes the fruity floral trend and absolutely schools every mainstream fragrance out there on what a fruity floral can and should be. It’s joyful but sophisticated and inventive without being contrived. I will always, always have a vial of this with me."
And what's one fragrance you could not live without.
"An impossible choice! But since I must choose, I will say Rubj by Vero Profumo. It’s packed with white flowers and passion fruit and mandarin, but the base is held up by a really strong cumin note. Cumin is animalic, which — in the perfume world — is what we often say to describe body odor. This isn’t the locker-room kind of body odor, though — it’s just the natural smell of skin. It’s that lived-in smell that your skin might have when you wake up in the morning, and it’s a very sensual scent."
"Remember how Napoleon wrote to his love, 'I’ll be arriving in Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash'? He would have loved Rubj. It has cumin to an almost indecent degree, and it’s unlike anything I’ve smelled before or since. Bright, red, ripe, and a little bit dirty."
Alice + Olivia dress, Moda Spana pumps, Atelier AZZA collar, Nordstrom ring.
Subscribers have the option to purchase a full bottle of any of the fragrances you sample. What’s been the best seller so far?
"This spring, people went crazy for Cinabre by Maria Candida Gentile
, a remarkably talented Italian perfumer. It’s a spicy, seductive rose scent, and its composition is full of little surprises as it unfolds on the skin. By the way, I don’t mean that this scent will enable the wearer to seduce other people, although it might; I mean the perfume itself seduces the wearer."
"People also went crazy for Eau Nomade
, a citrus-and-cardamom unisex eau de cologne from Thirdman. Perfect Coconut Milk by Sarah Horowitz is a favorite among our subscribers this month because it’s the quintessential summer beach scent. One spray, and you’re at the beach."
What is fragrance to you?
"To me, fragrance is a portal to another place or time that evokes feeling. Sometimes it’s a place or time from your own past. For example, the smells of sawdust and sweet pipe tobacco take me back to my childhood. Other times, it’s a portal to a place or time from your imagination."
"I have never ridden a boat along the canals of Southeast Asia, but Eau de Tommi Sooni II
— with its rhubarb, ylang-ylang, amber, and sandalwood — takes me there. Fragrance, perfume or otherwise, adds a layer of richness to the experience of being alive. It can affect me as strongly as beautiful writing or music can."
What are you looking forward to wearing this fall?
"I love autumn! It’s all about jackets for me, but boots are a close second. But hey, summer just got here, so I’m not in a hurry…"