The Sense of Scent: OX meets Lizzie Ostrom
Lizzie Ostrom began hosting ‘olfactory adventures’ in 2010.
As her alter-ego Odette Toilette, Lizzie explores the world of scent in a unique and inventive way, and tries to open up our collective nose to the world of fragrance beyond the department store.
OX spoke to Lizzie to talk Marmite, Splash Mountain and ancient Egypt…
When did you first realise that you were interested in scent so much?
It didn’t come to me one day, all of a sudden. I’ve always been interested in smell, and a lot of people who work in perfume have had this interest since they were very young. I think I was just particularly aware of scents and enjoyed the sensation of smelling anything from a candle to a perfume to whatever I could get my hands on. It was never something that I thought I could one day turn into a job – it was just my hobby and I liked buying, wearing and reading about different scents. I was working in the events industry and someone I knew was opening a new bar and was looking for ‘weird and wonderful’ evening events. I had this idea to do one about scents, and then when she agreed I thought “what have I done?” From there, I did a scented cinema, nights which were about music and smell, and lots of experimental events.
So how does an event like ‘scented cinema’ actually work?
We’ll show clips from films and have a scent for each one that people smell as the clip progresses. When I started we used to do games where we’d play different pieces of music and each table of guests would try to match different smells to the music. It’s about freeing up perfume from being something that you have in department stores to something a little more creative.
How do you put together the different perfumes?
I don’t actually build the perfumes as such, as you might if you were a perfumer. I’m more like the equivalent of a sommelier or wine critic. What I often do at an event or an installation is work with perfumes that are already out there, but not explored in this way. Over the last 10 years there has been an explosion in artisanal and niche fragrances that are quite different from what you would traditionally find in a department store.
Could you give us an example?
I’ve got one here which I’m using for a project, which is from a fragrance house in Los Angeles, and it smells like a waterpark ride. It’s meant to smell like you’re at Universal Studios or taking a ride on Splash Mountain. It’s that mix of chlorine and mildew! But on the other hand, depending on the project, I might be working with a really beautiful fragrance. For example, there’s one I work with called Anubis which has pink lotus extract, frankincense and Amalfi lemons – aromatics which are associated with ancient Egypt. That’s a fantastically evocative fragrance, quite expensive and beautiful. There are so many interesting fragrances around. When I was working with Sofitel for the Sensory Storytelling project, I did a lot of research on old perfume recipes and formulae so that the perfume house we were working with could put together scents based on stories and accounts from the Regency period or the 19th century.
So in the same way as clothing or food, are there trends that come and go over the decades in terms of what scents are popular?
Absolutely – the trends are just a little slower than traditional fashion. If you look back to, say, the 1980s, there were loads of different styles – from Cool Water, which was supposed to smell like the ocean, through to ones like Dior Poison and Giorgio Beverley Hills, which were full of very big, diffusive white flowers. Very sweet and bubblegummy. It was very much about increasing the space your body is taking up and making a statement. Then, when you had a fragrance as immediately successful as CK One, you got a load of copycats trying to do the minimalist, colognestyle, unisex style. Over the last few years there’s been a huge trend for Oud fragrances, which are perfumes that smell like a wood that’s popular in Middle Eastern perfumeries. That style has almost become a whole new fragrance, and there have been hundreds of Oud perfumes flooding the market. What tends to happen is you get loads of perfumes around the same style, then everyone suddenly gets fed up with them and wants something else.
So where are you looking to take your work in the future?
I released a book last October which is coming out in the US now [Perfume: A Century of Scents]. The fragrance industry is often seen as quite elitist and mysterious, so what I’m interested in doing is breaking perfume out of that slightly ‘precious’ state and making it relevant to people’s lives. I’m doing quite a lot of work in exhibitions, anything from brands to museums and festivals, getting them to look at scent-focused content. I’m also continuing the Sensory Storytelling project – in three hotels in England, if you stay there you have the opportunity to really get your teeth into some fascinating stories around how fragrance has reflected social history. That’s what I want to do more and more of: taking fragrance into new settings and getting people familiar with it.
Do you have a particular non-perfume smell that you think is particularly good?
My favourite smell is Marmite. It’s one of the most distinctive smells there is, and I think it’s incredibly nostalgic and accompanies you through your life. I love that salty, treacly smell. I also love the smell of turpentine and the kind of chemicals you might find in an artist’s studio. Again, I think it’s about nostalgia and atmosphere. Also, I think chlorine is fantastic – it’s not even that it’s a nice smell, it’s just meaningful because of the memories you associate with it. It’s the slightly weird, everyday smells that are quite important to us.
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