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How to Pick the Perfect Fragrance, According to a ‘Scenting’ Expert

How to Pick the Perfect Fragrance, According to a ‘Scenting’ Expert

Finding a signature scent is a lot like finding a signature dish. Are you zesty? Rich? Complex? Baked in a buttery, flaky crust? “Along with vision, taste, hearing, and balance,” Candace Wooten, MD, says, “olfaction is abstract,” which explains why we can’t always describe what captivates our senses–but we can feel it almost instinctively. As perfume expert Tracy Wan tells VICE, “My favorite part of the whole perfume experience is watching someone’s face light up when they like a scent but they don’t yet know why. That microsecond–in which I get a glimpse of joy, pleasure, surprise, delight, nostalgia–is everything.”

Wan’s life has always been led by her nose, starting with the college years in which she collected and studied department store perfume samples to her time spent at perfumery school. Today, she’s one half of the blog Invisible Stories, “a space dedicated to scents [and] olfactory memories,” and has gone viral on TikTok for sharing her unique “scenting” process–a.k.a. the journey of finding her clients the perfect perfume:

“I think people buy into the marketing of perfume and think it’s factual,” Wan says about the biggest consumer misconceptions about perfume. “For example, when brands publish note lists, people confuse notes (what you perceive, [which is] super subjective) with ingredients (what is actually used in the composition). The reality is a lot of perfume is fantasy.” In other words, if you see “notes of fig” on a bottle, that note comes from the aroma chemical interpretation of a fig that’s been created by a perfumer.

Lucky for us, Wan was game to guide VICE through the fantasy world of scent that she knows so well, and give us tips on everything from understanding fragrance options to picking out a perfume, whether you’re on the hunt for an enticing summer scent, a new signature, musky cologne, or the kind of perfume that says “I can ride a horse bareback, and I have a great credit score.”

Understand your fragrance options

“Everyone has a different framework for categorizing scent in perfumery,” says Wan. “I defer to an established taxonomy like Fragrances of the World’s fragrance wheel.” The wheel was founded by Michael Edwards–known as “the perfume expert’s expert“–in 1983, and is the largest guide to perfume classification that has ever existed. Edward’s book, Perfume Legends II, is a veritable scent bible and a juicy investment for the scent-obsessed, but the wheel is available online for free as a point of reference, so that you can approach your local perfumist with the right lingo, such as “I think I would like something in the ‘Mossy Woods’ category, but I’m also ‘Dry Woods’-curious.”

Michael Edwards

Perfume Legends II

$145 at Amazon

Wan, for example, says she has taken to wearing a lot of fruity perfumes to get in the mood for summer, such as Byredo Pulp, and a lot of green fragrances such as Chanel No. 19.

$196 at Nordstrom

$220 at Amazon

The best budget scents

Perfume ain’t cheap, but you can find some incredible scents for under $100. Wan says, “With the caveat of not believing in gendering perfumes.” Wan says, “With the caveat that I don’t believe in gendering perfumes,”

Dolce & Gabbana


Yves Saint Laurent


$71. 85 at Amazon

The best splurge scent

“I bought a 250-milliliter bottle of Dior Vetiver (from their Collection Privee) that cost way too much in Paris last fall,” Wan says. It is now out of production but can still be purchased on Amazon.

$799. 99 at EBay

The best perfumes to wear in hot weather

If you’re looking for a green scent that is, as Wan says on TikTok, “[filled with] breezy jasmine that’s beautiful and easy to wear,” reach for Frassai’s Verano Porteno this summer. She also cites Saturday by Arielle Shoshana as the perfect encapsulation of “ripe, juicy passionfruit that blooms in the humidity.” The cult-fave perfume gets restocked next month, but it’s currently available as part of a scent trio. If you want to feel like a beautiful, sun-dappled lemon trees, Maison Margiela’s Replica Eau de Toilette is the right choice. It is unisex and has a citrusy, clean scent that contains a hint of vanilla.

$189 at Indie House

Maison Margiela

Replica Under the Lemon Trees Eau de Toilette Fragrance

$76 at Nordstrom

Perfumes that will make you seem “un-fuck-with-able”

“What are some perfumes that make you seem un-fuck-with-able?” Wan asks on TikTok.

. ]7094712716245388549It is a tool. “In this instance, it’s a confidence tool or a power move.” Carnal Flower is her first choice, with tuberose and mentholated Eucalyptus. “[It’s] is definitely a powerful move,” she said. “ 99″It’s this unapologetically jasmine-on-a-bed-of-sandalwood and amber grease [smell].”

Frederique Malle

Carnal Flower Parfum Spray

$78 at Nordstrom

Libertine Libertine

Sex & Jasmine Eau de Parfum

$96 at Garmentory

The best ‘manly man’ scent

While we’re not down for the rigid gender binary, much of the perfume world still uses those labels to categorize its scents. Wan offers a suggestion for a traditional “manly” fragrance. “Another [power scent] for me is Monsillage’s Aviation Club,” she says. “This one smells like a mahogany bar and last night’s cigars.” If you want a ~handsome~ manly man scent that feels like it has a bleeding heart (it is Cancer season, after all) we suggest trying Diptyque‘s Tempo cologne, which is an homage to the psychedelic 1960s with three different kinds of patchouli, and a touch of violet leaf.

$105 at Monsillage

$190 at Nordstrom

This infamous perfume “smells like sex”

“I once wrote a piece about perfumes that smell like sex, and one of the ones I sampled for research was Secretions Magnifiques from Etat Libre d’Orange,” says Wan. “It’s infamous in niche perfumery–at the heart of it are four accords designed to replicate bodily secretions: blood, sweat, sperm, saliva.” Definitely one to keep on-hand in our sex dungeon.

Etat Libre d’Orange

Secretions Magnifiques

$95 at Amazon

You’re into vegetal scents

Do you love heirloom tomato candles? You love the scent of the vegetable garden after rain. In her TikTok breakdown of perfumes with unusual notes, Wan cites Spite by the painfully cool perfumists at Chronotype, who have mastered a scent with an alluring note of artichoke. “Spite takes place in an imagined garden, a hyperreal timespace where a group of spiteful spirits have gathered for the day,” explains the team at Chronotype about the complex scent, which has sandalwood, nasturtium, thyme, peony, and of course, “artichoke [as the] soft and nourishing heart.”


Spite Eau de Parfum

$140$130 at Chronotope

We’re also partial to Bistro Waters by D.S. & Durga, which makes our inner chef sing with notes of bell pepper, lime blossom, and as the brand’s team says, “a Peartini zhuzhed with nutmeg in a pea green coupe!”


Bistro Waters

$175 at D.S. & DURGA

The best scent for the VICE reader

You didn’t think we’d let Wan walk away without scenting the stereotypical VICE reader, did you? We know we’re all different, Rainbow Connection, and so on–but we described the cliche VICE reader as a former punk kid who just started buying fancy candles, loves to skate, vacations in Iceland, and whose favorite season is fall. She says Lampblack from Fzotic would be a great choice for the VICE reader. She said, “It is a grapefruit-vetiver [scent] that has been washed with smoke and this remarkable inknote that reminds of tattoos or dive bars.

$125 at Smallflower

Smell ya later.

The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story. You want more information, suggestions, and hot deals? Sign up for our newsletter.


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