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The Fashion Issue 2003

Perfume Pirates

One South London high street at a time.
December 1, 2003, 12:00am

Photo by Sissel Tolaas. This is her “smell archive.”

When you splash on your expensive designer fragrance before you hit the town, does it make you feel irresistible? Invincible? A tiny bit better? You probably like to think that one squirt of scent transforms you into a supermodel with perfect feet and tiny pores. Wrong! It just makes you smell like a Japanese whore! Like the world needs another one of them. This is why I thank Christ every day for Sissel Tolaas. She’s a Norwegian-born, Berlin-based artist of international repute who’s worked with smells since 1990. She is single-handedly debunking the con job that makes idiots like you buy bottles of burned whale vomit that’s been strained through the cocks of dying cats. (Yes, that’s how most modern fashion-house scents are made.) Steeled with an inborn hatred of bullshit, Sissel has developed a groundbreaking language for smells, called NASALO, which leading scientists and respected institutions are already using to make scents that can change the world forever. So far, Sissel’s amassed an archive of 10,000 different smells—everything from shit to strawberries. For a recent project, “Dirty 1,” she synthesized a perfume from the assorted stenches of Deptford High Street, South London, using essences extracted from car wrecks, garbage, dog shit, and chicken bones. Sissel also gets commissioned by massive firms like Daimler Chrysler, which asked her to predict what cars might smell like twenty years from now and how these potential smells could attract buyers. Instead, Sissel proposed to them a perfume that would smell like a car crash. This wouldn’t just consist of the aromas of burning wreckage and bodies (which she already has in her library), but also would include the essence of human emotions such as fear and grief (which she’s still working on). “You’d have to have the analysis going on when a crash occurs. Daimler Chrysler is maybe sponsoring me, but it’s still in process. One day it will happen. I’ve got too much hate in me to ever give up trying.”