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Foto: ‘Perfume A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent’ by Julia, Courtesy Somerset House

The exhibition, A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, was held at Somerset House in London (21st June – 7th September), and was an olfactory journey that explored ‘perfumer provocateurs’ who have worked on their palette of ingredients to formulate original and daring scents which assault your senses.

As you wandered through a series of rooms designed to reflect the inspirations of the ten featured fragrances, each installation had visual, auditory, and tactile references to the identity and influences of its maker, to give the visitor a totally immersive experience. The spaces were meant to transport audiences to another place, such as a lover’s boudoir or a Catholic confessional.

Rather than showcasing fragrances we’ve all known and loved over the years, the rooms championed the scents that break boundaries, the rebels of the industry that are doing things differently.

The show began with an overview of ‘ten trailblazing scents of the time – one for each decade of the 20th century’, from L’Origan by Coty (1905), through Chanel No5 (1921), YSL’s Opium (1977) and Calvin Klein’s ck one (1994).

After the overview of the ten scents of the 20th century, visitors were handed a notebook to record what they experienced – the scents they detected, the way it made them feel, a memory it brought flooding back – as they wandered through the ten contemporary spaces. Only after the experience was the full story of each fragrance revealed; the hope was that visitors could “bring together their personal interpretation with the intention of the perfumer.”  Visitors were also encouraged to leave their note cards at the end, to help the industry find a ‘new wealth of vocabulary’ to explain and define scent.

The last space in the exhibit (and my personal favourite) was dedicated to a perfume laboratory run by co-sponsors Givaudan (other sponsors were Coty, Peroni Ambra, and Liberty London). Stocked with over 200 ingredients, the lab was where visitors could not only see various fragrances being made, but also create and name their own signature scent.

“We’re in the process of opening up Pandora’s box on perfume composition,” elaborated Lizzie Ostrom, co-curator.  “Perfumers used to be a bit like song writers, but over the last 17 years things have changed, they’ve come out of the ‘cupboard’ and are talking to us – about their stories, the ingredients they love, why they love perfume. It’s initiated a new thirst for knowledge, a want to know about the story behind the scent.”

Pinpointing a shift in attitudes, spearheaded at the turn of the century, the exhibition aimed to stimulate and awaken the senses in a less than ordinary way.  “In the 21st century perfume is changing,” said Senior Curator Claire Catterall. “We want to smell different. Different from everyone else and different from before. We want to be taken on a journey, to a space in time or a space emotionally.”

Quotes were from the Exhibition catalogue.


Retail Insight Manager

Alison Barham


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Fragrance exhibition