The Best Perfumes, According to People Who Smell a Lot of Them – New York Magazine
September 25, 2020 - Body Fragrance
Finding a signature scent can be like putting on your most beloved pair of jeans: It just feels right. Whether you’re looking for a new one to add to your collection or to someone else’s (fragrances, with their pretty boxes and bottles, can make for quite delightful gifts), anyone who’s shopped for perfume knows that just because it looks good doesn’t mean it smells good. The fact that it’s challenging to sniff stuff in person right now makes finding a fragrance even more complicated.
To find the best (and best-smelling) perfumes, we asked eight cool people who, even now, smell a lot of them — including beauty editors, podcasters, jewelry designers, and our own writers — for their favorites, then scoured our archives for any standouts (like a few that celebrities told us they can’t live without). Read on for 28 options from affordable spritzes, to scents from blue-chip perfume houses, to one “non-fragrance” fragrance that Kelly Ripa swears by. To help you shop, we’ve organized the recommendations by type of scent.
Best floral perfumes
If you want a rose perfume (that isn’t grandmotherly), fashion editor and stylist Michelle Li says this “not cheesy rose makes you rethink everything you originally thought about rose” thanks to the notes of dune grass, linden, salt water, and white moss in its formula. She told us it’s her favorite scent, noting that it “gets better as the day goes on.” Li adds that “two big pluses are that the bottle and packaging are beautiful and special.”
“Every time I wear this, I think of Charlize Theron,” says Strategist junior writer Chloe Anello, who has more than 30 bottles of perfume in her (ever-growing) collection. If you, too, were entranced by the J’adore commercials starring Theron, Anello says the perfume itself is just as alluring. “It’s super feminine, but also a little bit mysterious.” She says she’d typically put it on for date nights (“back when we could go places”), suggesting this one may be better for special occasions.
“A punchy floral that always turns heads” is how beauty editor Khalea Underwood describes this perfume. She adds that, “with notes of almond milk and musk, Rolling in Love is just gorgeous.” And she’s not the only fan of the brand’s fragrances. “I used to wear Killian’s Love, Don’t Be Shy almost every day, because Rihanna wears it,” says Underwood. “But because Rihanna wears it, everyone wears it.” Which is why she suggests Rolling in Love for anyone who wants to smell like Rihanna, but maybe not exactly like Rihanna.
Sable Yong, a writer and co-host of the Smell Ya Later podcast, describes New York Nights as “an aromatic watercolor painting of delicate carnation and gardenia petals,” adding, “It’s what you wear when you’re invited to the Met Gala.” Its floral top notes are combined with middle notes of patchouli and sandalwood, and finished off with base notes of coffee and caramel. “You will definitely smell wealthy wearing this,” promises Yong, who notes that “it’s pretty expensive — so you probably are wealthy if you’re wearing it.”
For another atypical rose scent, Gabriella Khalil, the founder of boutique hotel Palm Heights, suggests Byredo’s Rose Nori, which “fuses the florals with spices and fruit scents” like cardamom, grapefruit, and red berries. “I’m always drawn to fragrances that have a distinct character,” she adds, noting this one checks that box.
When Anello first smelled this, she remembers calling it “the best thing I’ve ever smelled.” She describes it as a “subtle, super-light floral” that manages to last for a long time without being overbearing. (She likes it so much, she bought the matching body cream.) “I’d bathe in it if I could,” Anello declares.
Another option for those who prefer funkier florals, Underwood says Gucci Guilty has “a heart of lilac and violet,” but that “the patchouli and amber really shine in this blend.” She adds: “Whenever I have a date that I’m excited about, best believe that this gets spritzed. Gucci knows how to do unapologetically sexy.”
If you’re looking for a power scent, Yong says this peppery floral fragrance might be the one for you. “It packs a punch with nutmeg and pink pepper,” but those two notes are tempered by a “dewy sweetness from peony and lily of the valley, so it’s not so bombastic,” she explains. Created by perfumer Jordi Fernández, “the whole thing has a heat to it, simmering with vanilla, sandalwood, and amber — the overall effect of which is seductive and languid at the same time.” Summing it up, Yong says “this makes me feel rich, powerful, and indisputable.”
Fashion designer Alex Eagle has worn this scent from iconic perfumer Frédéric Malle for more than five years and says “there’s something kind of mysterious about it — you can’t totally pin it to a specific thing; it’s like its own thing.” Perhaps that’s because the perfume — which has notes of Turkish rose (and blackcurrant, raspberry, patchouli, cinnamon, clove, and sandalwood) — smells more like “a fresh, clean sheet mixed with something sexy, but without being too earthy,” according to Eagle.
Best fresh perfumes
Those who prefer fresh, clean scents should consider this perfume that beauty editor and writer Thatiana Diaz compares to “a fresh load of laundry or walking outside after it rains.” She adds that “if I could package this fragrance into a body wash and bathe with it for the rest of my life, I probably would.” The perfume has another fan in restaurateur Missy Robbins, who told us it was the scent that got her to start wearing perfume after a lifetime of sticking with “neutral-smelling moisturizers and soaps.”
While it sounds floral-y, our own Rio Viera-Newton says her new favorite scent from Arianna Grande is about as fresh as you can get. “When you first apply the scent, you get a burst of lavender, pear, and bergamot, but as it settles into your skin, it smells like a warm, cozy orchid musk,” she explains. “You don’t smell like you’re wearing perfume — you just sort of smell like a cleaner version of yourself, like you’ve just stepped out of a really nice shower.”
We’ve heard about Escentric Molecules a couple of times (the brand also appears further down on this list), one of which was while talking to Kelly Ripa, who told us about this “non-fragrance” she started to wear after being tipped off to it by one of the Mara sisters. Molecule 01 contains a very high concentration of the compound Iso E Super, a synthetic molecule used in perfume making. “When I put it on, people will say, ‘You smell so good, like you just got out of the shower.’ That’s the whole point,” Ripa explains.
Kai Eau de Parfum has been Denise Richards’s signature scent ever since she sprayed a tester of it at a beauty counter 15 years ago. “It gives a fresh, clean, smell that reminds me of the very first time I went to Hawaii,” she told us, adding that she loves the scent so much she also uses the deodorant and body oil. “I never get tired of it.”
Best woody perfumes
Yong says Byredo’s Gypsy Water is “for those who prefer to wear their boyfriends’ jeans, T-shirts, and sweaters (not hoodies), and are always nursing the desire for a tiny, delicate tattoo somewhere.” The scent, she continues, is “woody and musky, with smoky flower petals,” describing it as “like a vintage leather jacket that goes with everything and molds to your body — super elegant but not uptight.” Jesse Lazowski, the founder of fine jewelry line Marlo Laz, is also a fan: “It smells like the feeling of dancing barefoot in the sand under the moonlight.”
“Affordable and effective, this Glossier perfume is one of the best perfumes on the market for that ‘enhancing your natural scent’ vibe,” promises Rio, who notes Glossier’s fragrance mostly contains “warm, woody, and clean” notes. While it’s not as cheap as a tube of Boy Brow, “there is a lot of product, and the bottle is glass, not plastic,” she adds.
If you’re worried that a perfume called Cannabis will make you smell like a college dorm, Li says that’s not the case with this scent. “The fragrance balances rich smokiness with fresh floral scents,” she explains. “It’s great for when you are just sitting around your apartment and want it to feel a little bit more special (or if you’re just bored and want to stimulate your nose).”
Novelist Jami Attenberg told us about this perfume from Hi Wildflower, a beauty and fragrance company founded by writer Tanwi Nandini Islam. She calls it “kind of earthy” and says it makes her feel heavenly and sexy. “This scent is one that always makes people lean in and sniff my neck and linger — one time I was standing at a party and there were three women sniffing my neck at once,” says Attenberg.
“I’d say you’re walking through a forest — that’s kind of the experience I have when I put it on,” Maria Sharapova says of this perfume oil from Maison Louis Marie, the maker of some of our favorite candles. “It’s on the woodier side, I think it’s a little cedar,” she adds.
Best musky perfumes
Liberty London design director Holly Marler first got this perfume from one of the British department store’s cult-y holiday advent calendars. “Everybody complimented me on it, so when it ran out, I went out and bought a proper bottle of the stuff,” she explains, adding that the fragrance “smells very strong, almost heady.” A collaboration between Le Labo and AnOther magazine editor-in-chief Jefferson Hack, the perfume’s main note is ambroxan, a synthetic animal musk, which is balanced out with moss, jasmine, and ambrette seeds. Because Le Labo’s (and, really, all) scents are unisex, “it sometimes feels quite masculine and sometimes quite feminine,” Marler adds.
According to Yong, this fragrance’s notes of honey, caramelized amber, patchouli, oud, and vetiver work together to create a scent that is “warm, cozy, sweet, smoky, and deep — the way I imagine the coat check smells at a speakeasy jazz club.”
Diptyque Creative Director Myriam Badault describes herself as “a musk-fragrance addict” who has worn everything from the Body Shop’s white musk to Kiehl’s musk. So it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that Fleur de Peau, which Badault says has “a hint of musky baby powder,” is her favorite of all of Diptyque’s dozens of fragrances.
Best gourmand perfumes
Gourmand perfumes are a category of scents that are comprised primarily of notes of edibles like vanilla or honey. In other words, they smell good enough to eat. This fragrance from D.S. & Durga comes recommended by Yong; according to the brand, it has notes of ripe fig, iris, coconut milk, tonka, moss, bergamot, and dry-blond woods. Yong describes it as “a juicy fig scent with an overall kind-of-sweet dewiness, but a green crispness that suggests not everything that seems sweet is without edges.”
“I’m a devoted fan of the vanilla scent, but I prefer when it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, where I smell like a cupcake,” says Diaz. While Huda Beauty is better known for its eyeshadow palettes, Diaz says that the brand’s take on a classic vanilla perfume is the “perfect middle ground between sweet and warm,” because the notes of vanilla get “delightfully balanced out with woodsy, more musky touches.”
Underwood calls Tom Ford Vanille Fatale her “all-time favorite” and a guaranteed compliment-getter. She told us she tends to “prefer sweeter gourmand notes that don’t feel too saccharine,” adding that, “in true Tom Ford fashion, this one gives me sweet and sexy all rolled into one.” The simple formula has notes of vanilla, tobacco, and frangipani, “so I can layer it with other scents when I’m feeling fancy,” she adds.
Best fruity fragrances
Anello told us she reaches for this classic from Coach, which opens with a very strong note of raspberry leaves, when she’s in the mood for a fruitier smell. While she notes it can be a little bit overbearing if sprayed liberally, she has a tip for the perfect application: “I only spritz a very little bit on my wrists then distribute it lightly elsewhere when I wear it.”
Actress Kelly McCreary told us she “collects scents” and that this perfume with notes of citrus-infused soju, black pepper, and jasmine liqueur simply smells “yummy.” As for how the self-proclaimed scent collector found it, McCreary says, “There’s an Orris shop on Melrose in L.A., and when you walk by, it almost smells like they’re perfuming the entire street. It’s a store that I would never have noticed had I not walked by and smelled it.” To us, that’s another way of saying the brand’s stuff smells really nice.
Another standout perfume from Escentric Molucules is Molecule 04, which Strategist contributor Natalie Toren turned us onto. “With notes that include a burst of bittersweet citrus and a vibrant, earthy aroma, it smells to me like fresh grapefruit still on the branch with bark, leaves, and all,” she writes. Toren, who prefers more subtle skin scents to in-your-face fragrances, promises that this “is lighter and lasts a long time, often playing hide-and-seek: Just when you think it’s gone, the aroma will surprise you with another hit.”
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