Finding a signature scent is a lot like finding a signature dish. Are you zesty? Rich? Complex? Baked in a buttery, flaky crust? “Along with vision, taste, hearing, and balance,” Candace Wooten, MD, says, “olfaction is abstract,” which explains why we can’t always describe what captivates our senses—but we can feel it almost instinctively. As perfume expert Tracy Wan tells VICE, “My favorite part of the whole perfume experience is watching someone's face light up when they like a scent but they don't yet know why. That microsecond—in which I get a glimpse of joy, pleasure, surprise, delight, nostalgia—is everything.”
Wan’s life has always been led by her nose, starting with the college years in which she collected and studied department store perfume samples to her time spent at perfumery school. Today, she’s one half of the blog Invisible Stories, “a space dedicated to scents [and] olfactory memories,” and has gone viral on TikTok for sharing her unique “scenting” process—a.k.a. the journey of finding her clients the perfect perfume:
“I think people buy into the marketing of perfume and think it's factual,” Wan says about the biggest consumer misconceptions about perfume. “For example, when brands publish note lists, people confuse notes (what you perceive, [which is] super subjective) with ingredients (what is actually used in the composition). The reality is a lot of perfume is fantasy.” In other words, if you see “notes of fig” on a bottle, that note comes from the aroma chemical interpretation of a fig that’s been created by a perfumer.
Lucky for us, Wan was game to guide VICE through the fantasy world of scent that she knows so well, and give us tips on everything from understanding fragrance options to picking out a perfume, whether you’re on the hunt for an enticing summer scent, a new signature, musky cologne, or the kind of perfume that says “I can ride a horse bareback, and I have a great credit score.”
Understand your fragrance options
“Everyone has a different framework for categorizing scent in perfumery,” says Wan. “I defer to an established taxonomy like Fragrances of the World's fragrance wheel.” The wheel was founded by Michael Edwards—known as “the perfume expert’s expert”—in 1983, and is the largest guide to perfume classification that has ever existed. Edward’s book, Perfume Legends II, is a veritable scent bible and a juicy investment for the scent-obsessed, but the wheel is available online for free as a point of reference, so that you can approach your local perfumist with the right lingo, such as “I think I would like something in the ‘Mossy Woods’ category, but I’m also ‘Dry Woods’-curious.”
Wan, for example, says she has taken to wearing a lot of fruity perfumes to get in the mood for summer, such as Byredo Pulp, and a lot of green fragrances such as Chanel No. 19.
The best budget scents
Perfume ain’t cheap, but you can find some incredible scents for under $100. “With the caveat that I don't believe in gendering perfumes,” says Wan. “My favorite [perfumes] marketed to women lately is L'Imperatrice by D&G, [which is a] fun and flirty watermelon kiwi juice fragrance.” For men, she loves YSL L'Homme, which is a warm, spicy blend of cardamom and cedarwood.
$71.85 at Amazon
The best splurge scent
“I bought a 250-milliliter bottle of Dior Vetiver (from their Collection Privée) that cost way too much in Paris last fall,” Wan says. “Worth every penny.” The White Whale perfume is no longer in production, but you can score a bottle of its complex, aromatic and woodsy scent on eBay.
The best perfumes to wear in hot weather
If you’re looking for a green scent that is, as Wan says on TikTok, “[filled with] breezy jasmine that’s beautiful and easy to wear,” reach for Frassai’s Verano Porteño this summer. She also cites Saturday by Arielle Shoshana as the perfect encapsulation of “ripe, juicy passionfruit that blooms in the humidity.” The cult-fave perfume gets restocked next month, but it’s currently available as part of a scent trio. And, if you’d like to smell like a gorgeous, sun-dappled lemon tree, we suggest reaching for Maison Margiela’s Replica Eau de Toilette in Under the Lemon Trees. The fragrance is marketed as unisex, and has a crisp, citrusy scent with just a touch of vanilla.
$189 at Indie House
$76 at Nordstrom
Perfumes that will make you seem “un-fuck-with-able”
“What are some perfumes that make you seem un-fuck-with-able?” Wan asks on TikTok. “I don’t think of perfume as a beauty product. I think of it as a tool. In this case, a confidence tool, or a power move.” She says the first perfume to come to mind is Carnal Flower, which has tuberose and mentholated eucalyptus. “[It’s] definitely a power move,” she says. “Careful, ‘cause you might choke yourself out.” She also cites the perfume Sex & Jasmine, which she wore for a presentation. “It’s this unapologetically jasmine-on-a-bed-of-sandalwood and amber grease [smell].”
$78 at Nordstrom
$96 at Garmentory
The best ‘manly man’ scent
While we’re not down for the rigid gender binary, much of the perfume world still uses those labels to categorize its scents. If you're trying to find a traditionally “manly” scent, Wan has an enticing suggestion. “Another [power scent] for me is Monsillage’s Aviation Club,” she says. “This one smells like a mahogany bar and last night’s cigars.” If you want a ~handsome~ manly man scent that feels like it has a bleeding heart (it is Cancer season, after all) we suggest trying Diptyque’s Tempo cologne, which is an homage to the psychedelic 1960s with three different kinds of patchouli, and a touch of violet leaf.
This infamous perfume “smells like sex”
“I once wrote a piece about perfumes that smell like sex, and one of the ones I sampled for research was Secretions Magnifiques from État Libre d'Orange,” says Wan. “It's infamous in niche perfumery—at the heart of it are four accords designed to replicate bodily secretions: blood, sweat, sperm, saliva.” Definitely one to keep on-hand in our sex dungeon.
You’re into vegetal scents
Do you love heirloom tomato candles? Or the smell of a vegetable garden after the rain? In her TikTok breakdown of perfumes with unusual notes, Wan cites Spite by the painfully cool perfumists at Chronotype, who have mastered a scent with an alluring note of artichoke. “Spite takes place in an imagined garden, a hyperreal timespace where a group of spiteful spirits have gathered for the day,” explains the team at Chronotype about the complex scent, which has sandalwood, nasturtium, thyme, peony, and of course, “artichoke [as the] soft and nourishing heart.”
We’re also partial to Bistro Waters by D.S. & Durga, which makes our inner chef sing with notes of bell pepper, lime blossom, and as the brand’s team says, “a Peartini zhuzhed with nutmeg in a pea green coupe!”
The best scent for the VICE reader
You didn’t think we’d let Wan walk away without scenting the stereotypical VICE reader, did you? We know we’re all different, Rainbow Connection, and so on—but we described the cliché VICE reader as a former punk kid who just started buying fancy candles, loves to skate, vacations in Iceland, and whose favorite season is fall. “I think the VICE reader would love Lampblack by Fzotic,” she says. “It's a grapefruit and vetiver [scent] washed in smoke and this remarkable ink note that reminds me of tattoos and dive bars.” We couldn’t agree more.
Smell ya later.
The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story. Want more reviews, recommendations, and red-hot deals? Sign up for our newsletter.