Building a Capsule Perfume Wardrobe: If you had to build, or rebuild, your perfume wardrobe using only travel sizes and minis, could you do it? What would be on your list?
A couple of questions have been dogging me lately. First, how much perfume do I actually use in a year? And second, if my collection of full bottles was lost or stolen, would it be possible to build a small capsule wardrobe that covers all possible scenarios using only minis and travel sizes, and sticking to a putative budget of +/- $30 per bottle?
For the first, I think I can now answer that. A 10ml mini of DSH Parfums’ Cimabue lasted a full calendar year before I had to replace it, and according to my records, it took me 13 wears to empty it. That, for me, is heavy usage, since I own a lot of perfume. But it’s a good indication as to how many mls I am using per wear (nearly 1ml per use) and how long a 10ml of anything can last with a good number of other perfumes in rotation. In other words, there’s no practical reason why I would need more than 10mls of any one perfume per year.
As for building a capsule wardrobe of fragrances using only minis and travel sizes, it’s not only possible but desirable, especially if you don’t want to actually own a lot of perfume or if you are constricted in budget or space. If I could go back and rebuild my wardrobe all over again – always a delightful fantasy – I would stay away from full bottles of 100ml, or even 50ml, and stick instead to travel sizes and minis of between 5ml and 30ml.
Why? Firstly, because it feels good to use something to the last drop; the feeling that your perfume is being used, enjoyed, and finished is far more satisfying than keeping 100mls of it just to study it or wear it on occasion. I’ve definitely been guilty of that. But now, more and more, I am drawn to the idea of buying the smaller size, even if it’s more expensive per ml, precisely so my chances of emptying it are increased.
Having mentioned the expense, let’s address that issue: yes, smaller sizes are more expensive per ml. It’s tempting to go for the 100ml when the price differential between the 30ml and the 100ml is only $35-$50. But that’s a false economy, especially when you consider that liquid lying fallow in your wardrobe is actually costing you more because you’re not using it. In brief, minis and travel sizes cost more per ml, but (i) the initial outlay is less, and (ii) because it’s more likely you’ll use and finish 10ml of a perfume, the liquid you use is greater than the liquid you don’t, and then that per ml cost starts to work in your favor.
So let’s build a small but perfectly formed fragrance wardrobe, sticking to minis and travel sizes. Even an imaginary collection has to satisfy a set of parameters, so here are mine:
- Affordability: the average cost of the perfumes listed here works out at $28.27 per perfume, which is ok-ish, given that one might buy 6-7 perfumes from the list, but not all.
- Quantity: 15 perfumes in all, to ensure a healthy rotation of scents and variation, working under the assumption that together these 15 perfumes would last somebody a full calendar year.
- Amount of perfume: the average amount of perfume (oil, solid, liquid) per perfume listed here works out at 8.7mls (or grams) per product, or 130.6mls in total, which is a not unreasonable amount of perfume to get through in one year if you’re a perfumista.
- Variation: there needs to be adequate coverage of basic needs and categories of perfume, e.g. chypre, going out, office wear, freshie, etc. If we’re bored, then there’s no point.
- Gender: all choices are firmly UNISEX. Don’t make me write two of these things.
- Format: a variety of formats, including solid perfume, liquid, pure perfume, and oils – some spray, some dab-on.
- Accessibility: insofar as it’s possible, I’m sticking to scents you can track down at Sephora or the high street, but where scents have to be ordered online from Amazon or other retailers, I’ll spot you a few links*
- Quality: Sorry, but I refuse to go for cheapies just because they’re cheap. The only scents that go on this list are ones I’d be happy with owning and using myself.
*My blog is not commercialized, meaning I don’t do affiliate advertizing or anything like that. If you use a link I provide, in other words, I don’t receive financial compensation and am just providing the link to help point you in the right direction. But if you feel uncomfortable following links from my page, feel free to do your own Google search.
The Capsule Wardrobe: Minis & Travel Sizes
The Casual Woody: Elizabeth & James Nirvana Black ($28 for 10ml rollerball)
Nirvana Black features a brief pop of anisic, tarry violet over a buff crème of faux sandalwood aromachemicals. It smells creamy, sensuous and basic-bitch all at the same time. I love it with a passion that will not be denied. Nirvana Black is the perfect choice for when you want to smell like a sexy, clean plank of wood rather than perfume. In other words, think library, a first date, brunch with friends, yoga, etc. – all the times when you ideally smell subtly but incontrovertibly amazing. If you’re imaging the scenario when someone hugs you and says, “Wow, you smell great,” and you reply with a smug “It’s just the way my skin smells”, then you’re on the right track. Available at Sephora, here.
The Pro Vetiver: Bruno Fazzolari Lampblack (9ml Travel Size: $27 with sales promotion)
Bruno Fazzolari occasionally does 9ml travel sizes of his most popular perfumes, so keep an eagle eye on his site. When it comes on, the travel size of Lampblack costs $38, but with a pre-Christmas sales promotion, it goes down to $27. That’s an excellent price for what many consider to be not only Bruno Fazzolari’s masterpiece, but also the rare vetiver that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Sycomore EDT (Chanel) in terms of elegance. Bright with grapefruit up top and with a beautifully dry, smoky vetiver drydown that goes on forever, Lampblack is the perfect option for professionals who want to smell both crisp and mysterious in the boardroom. If you’re skim-reading this and you read “boardroom” for “bedroom”, then that works too. Full review here.
The Magic Pants Amber: Histoires de Parfums Ambre 114 (15ml Mini: €35/$38)
Even if you think you don’t like amber, you’ll need some Ambre 114 in your collection. Reason A: it is the rare amber that doesn’t cloy, side-stepping all the heavy stickiness of the genre and going instead for a light mélange of woods, herbs, and spices that smells like the world’s lightest crème brulée whipped into air. Reason B: everyone needs an amber in their collection, for when the world turns cold and you need a hug in scent form. Ambre 114 is a sheer, almost weightless amber that delivers the satisfaction afforded by a slice of cake but without any of the calories or self-abasing regret.
Up until recently, the mini was available at Sephora, but Histoires de Parfums is slowly being phased out there (check your local store to see if they have any still in stock). Alternatively, Essenza Nobile is in the process of adding the entire back catalog of Histoires de Parfums, including the minis, to their site. Neroli in Hungary has it, albeit for a slightly higher €37, here.
The Relaxed Chypre: Hiram Green Shangri La (10ml travel size: €39/$45)
Shangri La is a friendlier, warmer version of Mitsouko, but with enough oakmoss to provide that essential bitterness that makes chypres so wearable by either sex. For me, this all-natural perfume strikes the perfect balance between the sexy warmth of stone fruit and the sterner, spine-stiffening qualities of vetiver and oakmoss. Available from both Luckyscent (for $45, here) and First in Fragrance (for €39, here), Shangri La is admittedly pushing the top end of our budget, but since I’ve made up for it elsewhere on this list, I refuse to feel too bad about it. Full review here.
The Casual Hang-Out Patch: Reminiscence Patchouli (20ml travel size: €21/$25)
Patchouli is the one scent that can reliably cross any socio-economic or cultural boundary, so varied is the field of interest. On one end, you have the people who will only wear the posh niche or high-end stuff, like Coromandel (Chanel), Borneo 1834 (Serge Lutens), or Psychedelique (Jovoy), and on the other, you have the crustafarians who bathe in the oil neat. In between, you also have the purists, who insist that amber and vanilla do not belong anywhere near the scared leaf, leaving Patchouli (Santa Maria Novella) or Patchouly Indonesiano (SS. Annunziata) as the only viable options. But Reminiscence Patchouli is that rare thing: a patchouly with enough dirt to satisfy the purists, and with enough ambery sweetness to please those used to softer interpretations. It’s the Great Unifier of this, our Patch Head Community.
Suitable for both men and women, Reminiscence Patchouli is very, very French and therefore sexy af. It makes me want to grow armpit hair, and then lick it. It is a supremely casual fragrance, so only wear it when you know you’re going to be bumming around with friends, or lying around being casually sexy, on a couch, wearing only an old t-shirt that slips, ever so accidentally down a shoulder, revealing your lack of underwear. The 20ml travel size is available at Incenza Boutique for €21, here.
The Quirky Floral: Lush Kerbside Violet (€10/$14 for a 12gr solid)
Cool, wet, green violet leaf meets doughy cashmeran for a result that smells surprisingly urban and streamlined: violets shooting up through cracks in hot pavement. Kerbside Violet has a bit of a punk edge to it – it’s earthy and sharp rather than sweet, making it the rare violet-based floral that men can pull off without a second thought. Lush perfumes tend to be overwhelmingly strong and crude in liquid form, so the solid is my preferred choice here. This is a brilliant floral at any price point, but at this price point, it’s a no-brainer. If you want to double up on violet-ness, shower first with Lush’s Daddy-O Shampoo, an evilly sharp, rooty concoction with a mad Parma violet aftertaste that will briefly turn your skin purple. Available at any Lush store.
The Sinister but Sexy Incense: Solstice Scents Inquisitor ($15 for a 5ml perfume oil)
Every now and then, you want to smell like the Second Coming. A bit churchy, a bit gothic, a bit Mordor? Yeah, I hear you. Forget Avignon (Comme des Garcons), Casbah (Robert Piguet), and Full Incense (Montale) – Inquisitor by Solstice Scents gets you there for $15. Featuring a raw, chlorine-dipped leather over a pile of smoking resins, Inquisitor makes a lunge for your throat and doesn’t let go. It is weirdly sexy. The drydown, thick with vanillic resins like benzoin and labdanum, is slightly creamier, but the perfume never really strays too far from its dominatrix-meets-smoking-censer theme. More gothic than churchy, Inquisitor is perhaps the choice for apostates: if you’re a believer, I’d recommend instead the wonderful Basilica by the same brand, a quiet, simple Avignon-lite number that scratches the ecclesiastical itch to perfection. Inquisitor is available here.
The Summer Freshie: Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine ($26 for a 10ml travel spray)
Let’s take a minute to recognize Sephora for their genius move in making many of their brands’ perfumes available in the 10ml travel size format. Think that was the brands’ idea? Think again. Only a big retailer such as Sephora has the muscle to make that happen (Christ, I mean, even Tom Ford agreed).
In general, I feel about Atelier Cologne the way I feel about kohlrabi: I like it, but couldn’t eat a whole one. There’s no denying, though, that they’ve cornered the market on citrusy summer freshies that you can throw on mindlessly when you need to smell clean. My personal favorite is Philtre Ceylon, a smoky mint tea scent that cuts right through the humidity; unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available in travel spray format. Orange Sanguine is, however, and it’s pretty great too. It smells like freshly-squeezed orange juice poured over a spacey white musk. Hard to go wrong with it. Available at Sephora.
The Intellectual Gourmand: Ava Luxe Café Noir ($38 for 5ml extrait)
Café Noir is an adult gourmand made for adult tastes. Eschewing the milky, ambery sweetness of most coffee-based scents, Café Noir shoots for a purist’s vision of coffee, building its smoky, bitter resinousness on the back of spiky herbal accents such as lavender, allspice, and cardamom. Zero cream, zero sweetness. You have to be in the mood for it, but when you are, Café Noir hits the spot like only a good espresso can. Delicious, concentrated, and most emphatically not for pussies. Available here.
The Happy Green: Diptyque Philosykos (€36 / $40 for 3.6gr solid perfume)
You can’t consider yourself a well-rounded person unless you have some Philosykos in your life. Sweetly, sappily green, it smells like crushed fig leaves, milk, and the shade under a big ole tree. Full review here, but here’s the pertinent part: “Philosykos truly comes alive under the heat of a summer sun, because the heat of the sun, combined with the heat of your skin, bring out all the warm, coconutty, milky, figgy, sappy, green, salty, and woody aspects of this wonderful scent”.
Philosykos is definitely a casual scent, and perfect for warm weather. It is green, but not in a way that will purse any lips. It enjoys the kind of laid-back, feel-good vibe that jives well with a day out to the beach with family, or a cook-out with your closest friends. Affable, and in solid form, kind of affordable too.
The Take Anywhere Oud: Tauer Perfumes L’Oudh (approx. €35 for a 5ml mini EDP)
You knew there was going to be an oud, right? I mean, it would be shocking if there wasn’t. If you’re a little jaded with oud, I can’t blame you, but know that Tauer’s take on oud is a little different. It features a dollop of real Laotian oud oil, sustainably sourced from a plantation, framed among a lot of other really nice, smoky, quasi-animalic accents, such as castoreum, leather, and birch tar. There are supposedly some florals here too, but I can’t for the life of me smell them. If that’s a plus in your book, then read on gaily!
I really like this because Tauer seems to have extracted all the rubbery, phenolic bits of real oud and left all the sour, barnyardy stuff in, well, the barnyard. L’Oudh revolves around a phenomenally smoky gasoline note – really heavy, tarry stuff – that alternatively masks and reveals the woodiness of the oud. It’s dirty-sexy in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve rolled in something nasty. L’Oudh tends towards masculine, but if you’re a woman who loves smoky, unisex leather fragrances like Bandit (Piguet) and Patchouli 24 (Le Labo), then I can’t imagine you wouldn’t also enjoy this. Currently available only as a mini when you purchase the latest Tauer magazine, it’s available here.
The Alpha Musk: Kiehl’s Original Musk Oil (€28 for 7mls perfume oil)
I’ll be honest: I was going to stick The Body Shop’s White Musk Oil in here, because it’s very cheap (about €25 for 30mls), but then I realized I would be breaking one of my own rules for this article, which is only to pick perfumes that I’d be happy wearing on a regular basis. And, while White Musk Oil is decent, it’s really little more than a laundry musk dressed up with a bit of synthetic muguet. Kiehl’s Original Musk Oil, on the other hand, is the business.
The oil skips the florals of the EdT and goes straight for the good stuff – the musk. Is it dirty or is it clean? It’s a question that never gets answered. Kiehl’s Musk is the equivalent of a nun in full habit who turns around to reveal there’s no back and she’s wearing no knickers. My husband threatens me with sex when I wear it, so there’s that. Available at Kiehl’s stores, or here.
The Hippy Leather: DSH Perfumes Le Smoking ($18 for 3ml Voile de Parfum spray)
A recent obsession of mine (see full review here), Le Smoking is a clever re-working of the vintage leather chypre theme, mixing the butch, bitter leather of classic French perfumes such as Cabochard and Bandit with the sweetness of pot lifted directly out of the hippyish indie perfume scene. It’s an unusual take on leather, and one that I think every man, woman, and child should have at least a tiny squidge of in their possession. Memorable and unisex, Le Smoking is available in many sizes, but most approachable is the 3ml voile de parfum spray, which can be shipped internationally. Although $18 for 3ml sounds like a lot, Le Smoking is, at most, an occasional wear; one of those scents one squirrels away with the emergency Zanax for a boost on a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Available here.
The Mating Call: Al Rehab Al Sharquiah ($4 for a 6ml roll-on perfume oil)
This is for those nights when you want to leave a loud, sweet fug of rose and oud in the air as a calling card for the opposite sex. It’s about as subtle as a baboon’s arse, but there’s something about the sweet, sour, and rotting notes in Al Sharquiah that gets people to lean in and sniff you twice. It smells like the fumes from a bag of slowly rotting Medjool dates mingling with oud, wilted roses, cooked rose jam, a hint of metallic smoke, and a bit of funk in the base courtesy of spiced-up woods.
Although it’s admittedly a quick snapshot of all the major themes in Arabian perfumery rather than the full deck, Al Sharquiah is a reasonable substitute for far more expensive Western takes on the rose-oud theme, such as Rose Nacrée du Desert by Guerlain or Velvet Rose & Oud by Jo Malone. The whole orient for $4 a bottle? Hell yeah. I’m not above wanting to feel like Scheherazade on the cheap every now and then. Available on Amazon.
The Dry Vanilla: Dame Perfumery Black Flower Mexican Vanilla ($35 for 10ml rollerball)
I’m not terribly into vanilla, but when I need a hit, I reach for either the aromatic Eau Duelle (Diptyque), which smells like pine needles, frankincense, and black tea, or this, Black Flower Mexican Vanilla, which is spicy, smoky, and a little woody. Frankly, I would have recommended the Eau Duelle solid perfume had I been able to find it for sale anywhere, but I think this is also an excellent choice.
Men who are askeered of vanilla, know this: the vanilla featured in this isn’t the sugary, cupcake type of vanilla that makes you think of candyfloss and Barbie dolls, but instead the dry, woody scent of the vanilla bean itself. It is softly spicy, with accents of licorice and nutmeg, and the caramel is subtle – dry rather than syrupy. It’s an excellent all-rounder vanilla, and if I were really confined to a choice of travel sizes or minis, then I know I’d be perfectly happy with Black Flower Mexican Vanilla as my vanilla of choice. By the way, it’s $35 for a 10ml rollerball of concentrated perfume oil, a price that includes international shipping (gasp!). Available here. Full review here.