Purveyor of olfactory adventures, Odette Toilette is the perfume fanatic behind London’s Scratch+Sniff events. Obsessed with scent ever since a Tinkerbell strawberry cologne was given to her on the occasion of her third birthday, and swiftly confiscated, since 2010 Odette has curated regular evenings at The Book Club in Shoreditch, from wine vs. perfume tastings to nights on music and fragrance, which offer alternative ways for people to discover the world of smell.
As well as running private events and one-off speaking engagements at festivals around the UK, Odette is co-producer of the project Penning Perfumes which brings together perfumers and poets, and co-host of the Life in Scents podcast. She is currently working on how fragrance can be used to support people living with dementia. We found out a little about the olfactory adventurer and what makes her sniff… You can follow the perfume pioneer herself on Twitter @OdetteToilette.
Have you always wanted to be a perfume expert?
No not at all. Perfume was always a backstage hobby while I got on with other things. I didn’t even know all the jobs that there are in the fragrance industry and certainly never went to the careers service asking: ‘how do I get into this?’ To this day, I’m not an expert in the perfumer sense.
How did you set up Scratch+Sniff events?
Well in relation to the above, I’d been fascinated by fragrance for quite a while and had been amassing quite a collection. It had got to the point where I was choosing which perfume to wear to sleep, and, erm, then realised this was more than a passing interest. I started wondering why there weren’t more events about fragrance, and having an overactive imagination, started dreaming up these ideas that I thought were too bonkers to realise. Like – could you do Jackanory-style storytelling nights through perfume? What if you could experience scent while listening to different types of music? Wouldn’t it be fantastic to learn about how the history of fragrance links to the history of art?
One day a friend told me a new venue, The Book Club was opening in London, and looking for unusual events, so I threw my hat in the ring… I almost called to cancel the event a few weeks before, but stopped myself from doing so, had a whale of a time on the first night, and then kept on going.
What do the events involve?
Loads of sniffing, talks from interesting speakers, drinking wine, chatting, games, challenges and discussion. The last thing I want to do is to tell people what to think about a perfume and straight- jacket them, it’s more about having a whale of a time and coming away thinking a bit differently about the sense of smell, and with everyone having formed their own interpretation on the fragrances – not somebody else’s.
What sort of audience do the events attract?
A very wide mix. I’d say about one third men and two thirds women – some who are really into perfume but most have a little interest and are more curious than anything else. Age range is very broad also, from mid-20s to 50s+. What’s really nice is we get couple on dates, groups of friends who take over a big table, people coming with their best friend, and on their own to meet new people.
How do you get people thinking and talking about perfume differently?
By avoiding wherever possible talk of top notes, heart notes and basenotes. Knowing what’s in a perfume is useful, but it’s not everything. In fact, often at the events the perfumes are tried blind so that you can get away from the official story, concept and ad campaign behind them. And experiencing scent with other topics, whether that’s wine, films or poetry, helps to refresh the nostrils and bring a different take.
Favourite modern fragrances?
Gucci Envy. That’s not so new these days – I must be getting old. I also really like Kokoriko, the men’ scent from Yves Saint Laurent and Saharienne, one of their new ones. All the Frederic Malle perfumes of course which everyone in perfume says, but I don’t care because they’re fab.
Favourite old-fashioned fragrance?
Eau Sauvage and Diorella by Dior. Ma Griffe by Carven. Calandre which is technically 1969 and quite space age, so perhaps doesn’t fit the requirements. Plus all of the Guerlains but especially Nahema (I bought the perfume online a few years ago and buried my mind from acknowledging the price!). And Penhaligon’s Cornubia– though ‘vintage’ in feel it came out in 1991.
Favourite high street fragrances?
The Body Shop’s White Musk oil and Dewberry (though Dewberry is sadly resting in peace, unless you get the body products). I’m also a sucker for Verveine and Verbena sprays from L’Occitane in high summer, when I swear to myself that I can’t bear any perfume except the most refreshing.
Any cult perfumers we should know about?
Are there any celebrity perfumes worth smelling?
I once ran a perfume swap-shop at one of the events and somebody brought Kerry Katona’s perfume. It’s in a bottle shaped like a grenade. Miraculously, it found a home at the end of the night. I’d say that it’s worth trying all sorts of fragrances, including celebrity scents. Sure, some of them will be a bit dodge, or a lot dodge, but others you may well find yourself liking. And you can always go to the avant garde end of the spectrum – Tilda Swinton came out with one a couple of years ago and worked with her perfumer to include smells of her home in Scotland, from greenhouses to baking gingerbread.
Would you ever consider making your own line of perfume?
I have no intention of becoming a perfumer; I don’t think I have the right sort of mind for it, and would prefer not to know everything about fragrance. That might ruin the magic. There are also so many wonderful perfumes that I’m not sure I’d want to add more to the mix. What I am working on are scented products, not candles but something a bit more unusual. More on that soon…
How should someone who doesn’t know much about perfume approach buying a fragrance to suit them?
I would do it visually. Rather than pulling together notes you think you like in a fragrance, get on Pinterest or start collecting photos or images of how you’d like to find expression through a scent. Maybe that’s through old Hollywood starlets, or photos of places you can imagine, or even snippets of fabrics. Then take all this into a perfume shop and set aside at least a good hour to explore, plus time a couple of weeks later to revisit. I know you might be worrying you’ll be getting funny looks and it’s a bit dweeby. But this way of doing it is really fun, and much more likely to communicate what you’re after. It’s really hard using language on it’s own; whenever I tried to buy perfumes I’d say “I want it heady but not too sweet, but a bit green and quite grown up, not too loud’, which must have driven the sales team to distraction!
How did you get to where you are today and would you do anything differently?
By following gut feelings and by holding onto a little idea and not letting it get trampled on. And also by being open about my limitations, while fiercely valuing those things I do offer, even if that’s thinking differently about an established world. I would have been less scared about investing in my business earlier on if I could do this again. A little recklessness, if kept in check, can be a good thing.
Who helped you along the way?
James Craven. He is the resident perfume expert at London perfume shop Les Senteurs and was the guest speaker at the very first Scratch+Sniff at The Book Club – and for many others. James is the most wonderful raconteur, thinks about perfume differently, but most importantly is a kind person. The whole team at Les Senteurs also provided the perfumes when I was starting out, and I still work with them on events; they took a punt on what I was doing. I also owe lots to my friends and boyfriend who find themselves summoned as helpers on the night, and they even put up with my calling them the Scratch+Sniff elves.
Who inspires you?
I was recently inspired by the students of the Bauhaus movement having visited the exhibition at the Barbican – their camaraderie, sense of experimentation, the beauty in their aesthetic, and their delight in concocting absolutely bonkers themed parties. I’m also inspired by the novelist Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) who wrote incredibly and intensively but who had a casual, almost blase attitude towards writing; the art of hard work without the bluster. Oh yes, and Leonard Bernstein. Finally (and perhaps linked to the Bauhaus), I am inspired by people who make things and possess the patience and commitment to perfect a craft, whether it’s the perfect chair, or a lamp that works just so.
What do you think is the biggest problem in British society today and what is the most positive thing?
The total dominance of London and imbalance in wealth, opportunity and vocation compared to many other cities. I am cross that it would be difficult for me to base my work elsewhere, and feel personally culpable, partly, in perpetuating this imbalance albeit in a small way. Positively it would be tolerance of difference, with the admittance that this is far from embedded, but probably better than many more countries.
Do you feel British or European?
In relation to the above, probably more a Londoner than anything else.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
Agnes Obel who has a bewitching voice. And I will be going to see Elizabeth Fraser at the Meltdown festival in August – very excited about that.
What couldn’t you live without?
A food-centric answer: nice meals, wine, a kitchen for cooking. But also Lapsang Souchong tea, and lots of frocks.
Aside from discovering an attic full of forgotten perfume bottles? An old-fasioned gypsy caravan for the garden (how twee of me) and I’d like to own a small stone castle somewhere warm, for holidays.
The Big Sleep. Any Hitchcock film especially Vertigo and North by North West. I also have a love of critically-mediocre comedies from the 80s and early 90s, especially Overboard (Goldie Hawn as a bitch with amnesia. Perfect), Baby Boom and of course Big. Any appearance from John Candy is an added bonus.
Favourite European city and why?
Granada, which is just beautiful. Because of the Alhambra perched craggily on the rocks, but also as you walk up the town in to the hills, you get into the system of caves in which gypsies once lived, and all these gorgeous little lanes. I’ve only been once and am almost scared to go back in case it disappoints.
How do you stay motivated?
I don’t all the time. There are days where I feel so lazy and spend too much time on Twitter and can’t be bothered, which is hard when there’s no-one to tell you what to do. And then the next day I have to work like a maniac to keep up. What keeps me motivated is chatting to people who come to my events and who are having a good time, because I then want to do even better.
Desert island book?
I obsessively read cookbooks at any chance I get, and while this might cause torment, given that many ingredients would be unavailable on this island, I think How to Eat by Nigella Lawson might clinch it. But I have no desire to stay on a desert island for more than a week, so I wouldn’t feel too grim about only having one book.
Bar Pepito for sherry and Nightjar for cocktails. I also love all the wine bars down Fleet Street. Also while not technically a bar, I highly recommend going to a tour or masterclass at Drinks Factory in the Britannia Row studios.
Favourite London places?
The Barbican (I don’t know why but being there makes me feel calm and contented). Having an enormous south Indian buffet lunch at Diwani on Euston’s Drummond Street. Walking among the giant rhododendrons and deer-spotting in Richmond Park and its Isabella Plantation. Pottering down Lamb’s Conduit Street. Buying books in Foyles. And Juno Says Hello for fab dresses.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
What I really want is a little studio, filled to the rafters with perfumes and other such trifles, chaise lonuges, a couple of house-trained rabbits, cabinets of curiosities, an endless supply of champagne, and me welcoming in clients in to plot various scent events and assignations. Too much to ask?
What’s next for Odette Toilette and Scratch and Sniff events?
Well, I want to put myself around a bit (not like that) – more events in different cities and locations. And get a bit more ambitious in terms of the experience. It’s time for some parties!
Can you run in heels?
I’m useless. Four inches is my limit.