Travel to a new city and one of the first things you tend to notice is the way it smells. To me, for example, Milan will always smell like oranges and magnolias. These olfactive memories we collect when we travel are what cult New York perfumers Le Labo have sought to capture and bottle in their infamously hard-to-procure City Exclusives line.
Normally, the 13 Exclusives are available only in their respective cities (Poivre 23 in London, Vanille 44 in Paris etc) but during September, anyone seeking out their favourite destination in a bottle will be able to buy them in selected Mecca stores across Australia. And only instore - they won't be available online. This includes two brand new destinations, Bigarde 18 (Hong Kong) and Tabac 28 (Miami).
"Each of the City Exclusives is about an emotional connection," explains Le Labo brand trainer Murray Campbell.
"[When founders] Eddie Roschi and Fabrice Penot opened their first store in Daikanyama in Japan they just fell in love with the city and the culture, and they wanted to create something that was exclusive to Japan to express that connection. That was Guaiac 10 and the first of the City Exclusives."
New cities to the list
Their latest destinations, Hong Kong and Miami, recreate specific moods experienced by the founders in while visiting each city.
"Roschi has been reminiscing on his childhood recently, which ties into his upbringing in Hong Kong and that's how we arrived here with Bigarde 18.
"Hong Kong is a balance between classic and contemporary notes – we describe it as a tug of war between the classic citruses and florals versus the darker woody side of the perfume," Campbell explains.
"The mood for Eddie was walking through a hotel in hong kong and the courtyard was lined with citrus trees and the zest of these mingled with beautiful white florals – it's a really uplifting creation."
In comparison, Miami is a hedonistic, boozy-tobacco fragrance that gradually evolves into a more softer, skin-scent. Think of a night out on top shelf rum mingled with sweat from dancing and you'd be on the right track.
Smelt that scent before
If you're unfamiliar with the name Le Labo you've undoubtedly smelt their iconic Santal 33 on someone (or everyone if you live in Melbourne's Brunswick or Fitzroy, or Bondi in Sydney). The perfume's chameleon-like nature, shifting from sultry smoke notes to BDSM-level leathers before changing tune again to a fig-like aroma, made it an instant hit with folk wanting to break free from the blandness of commercial perfumery.
"Whenever the founders were creating a fragrance they set no limitations," Campbell says.
"Because so many other brands are using focus groups nowadays, potentially beautiful creations are being discarded because they're not the "normal" fragrance consumers are used to. The people in these groups are pushing for scents that are commonly used simply because that's what they're used to."
Le Labo's whole approach to perfumery seems counter to how we live our daily lives – and it's clearly a model that's working, tapping into an innate need to slow down the pace of our day to day lives.
A change of pace
You see it in the production methods: from hand-picking the petals from roses grown in Grasse to the personalisation of bottles that are mixed fresh instore in front of you, Le Labo's message is very much about being in the moment and slowing down the process.
By making the City Exclusives literally exclusive to their city (you can't even buy them online, you have to physically go to a Le Labo store in the city you want to experience), Campbell says this the brand's way of protesting against the increasing globalisation of luxury experiences. (Also, the price point sets the City line well apart from the rest of the brand and commercial perfumery at large. Priced at incredible $718 for 100ml, it's a huge investment for even the most die-hard noses.)
But one of their greatest triumphs has been the deliberate misdirection of their labelling: "The number [on the label] is so much more important than the name!" Campbell says.
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Introducing Bigarade 18, our new City Exclusive for Hong Kong. #onlyinHongKong #nophoneorders #noonlineorders #bookaflight
Smoke and mirrors
Each fragrance by Le Labo is a trompe l'oeil that leads the consumer down an olfactory rollercoaster. In their famous Santal 33 – made using Australian sandalwood – it's the 33 other notes that actually make it so hallucinogenic so it smells different and unique to each individual wearer.
Similarly, Campbell says the 31 other notes in Rose 31 – a flower normally said to be feminine in nature – that mark it as a very masculine fragrance.
"We really do encourage men to try our rose even if they see the word and think 'oh, that's for women' – those 31 other ingredients make it such a darker, dirty and really filthy rose that it's great on a guy."
"We really sparked a revolution in the industry," he adds.
"Because when it comes to [commercial] perfumery, other brands were so focused on the top notes to capture the client straight away. They smell the blotter and think yep that's it. But the reality is once they've got it on their skin, it's settled down and they've made it home they don't actually love the fragrance as much as they first did.
"We are strong believers in what we call slow perfumery. If you go to one of our stores, we encourage people to try it on, live with it and see how it evolves on them. That's why I call our perfumes an olfactory roller coaster, they just change so much throughout the day."
Le Labo's City Exclusives are available in selected Mecca stores across Australia until September 30.