If you want to find one of only 3,000 bottles of the scent bearing the name of the VIP Room, the St. Tropez nightclub where Paris Hilton likes to party, you will have to go to 9 Christopher Street and buzz. It is the only place in the United States where it is sold, as this is (appearances notwithstanding) the most exclusive perfume shop in New York.
Karl Bradl and Robert Gerstner are the tall, blond German couple who opened Aedes de Venustas ("temple of beauty" in Latin) in 1995. The store was a means for them to stay in Manhattan when the German freight company they had worked for shut down. They were perfume fanatics, Bradl says, "so we thought, Let's start looking for hard-to-find products." They found their first line - at the time an unknown house called l'Artisan Parfumeur - and a basement space, and invested their severance package.
They did O.K., sort of, for a year. Then Bradl thought that maybe he should promote the venture to an editor. He had no idea how. He packed a few scents in a nice box, put flowers on it and took a taxi up to Vogue. No appointment. "I said, 'Can I see a beauty editor?' They called up, and she let me into her office. She was very nice. A little tiny piece showed up in Vogue - which prompted Naomi Campbell to come in and give us part of her Christmas account: 'X gets this, Y gets that.' We were stunned. We started sending the fashion people and designers gifts, all with our fresh flowers, and they started giving us to the models, who gave us to the photographers. And that was it."
Today Aedes is a bit of a cult. Not even Colette in Paris invites the same sort of breathless, wild-eyed looks. It may stem partly from the décor; looking around, I once said, "Second Empire whorehouse?" to Gerstner, and he - tall and thin and intense as a Teutonic Valentino - said affably, "Sure." But mostly it's two men obsessed.
Aedes selects its products according to the simplest criteria. "Everything here - fragrance, room sprays, incense, skin and body care - we use ourselves," Gerstner says. Second criterion: They like being first. They were the first to import A-esop from Australia, Czech & Speake from England and Etro from Italy. Third: Every scent is unusual, like Jasmin de Nuit, which is to jasmine what Pirelli is to rubber, or Ulrich Lang's mesmerizing Anvers, a contemporary fragrance with warm yet introspective notes.
Talking to "the boys," as everyone calls them, is a little like having a conversation with a single person. One lays down a thought, the other develops it, all the while looking directly at you; evidently they don't need visual cues to do this. Nothing ever goes on sale at Aedes, and apparently nothing ever will. They don't do in-store promotions, and they don't do free shipping. But they are extremely generous with samples, which they believe in strongly. "You can become overwhelmed in the store," Gerstner explains.
"So we load our clients with samples," says Bradl, the smaller and more excitable of the two.
"And they all come back," Gerstner adds. Top customers also get gifts. "Things we think they'll like," Gerstner says.
For the very best clients, anything is possible. They do house calls: "Linda Evangelista called us at 5 p.m. on a Saturday," says one or the other, "and said, 'I'm going to Steven Meisel's birthday party in three hours, help!"' They do specials: "Dolce and Gabbana came in for a thank-you gift for Anna Wintour. She likes irises, so we loaded her basket with iris candles, iris soaps, iris room sprays, and decorated it with fresh irises." They do takeout: "When the Concorde was flying, Naomi was going back and forth at the speed of sound, and her office would call us Sunday afternoon and say, 'She's arriving in three hours, we need this and this and this."' They do scent tracks: Giorgio Armani is a fanatic for Agraria's Bitter Orange and last year had Aedes perfume his runway show with it.
Sometimes they don't take credit where credit is due. I recently discovered a lime-and-coconut sea-salt exfoliator, labeled simply ADV. Huge, dark-caramel-colored tubs that smell terrific. I said, "This is great, who does this?" They do, it turns out. J. Lo, Gwen Stefani, Marisa Tomei and John Galliano order it by the pot. "It doesn't need to be right in your face that this is an Aedes product," Bradl says to me of its subtle label. Besides, they don't ever want to compete with their other lines.
Because Aedes has a gift-conscious clientele from fashion houses, modeling agencies, photography studios, film companies and public-relations firms, the store's best sellers are candles.
It should be a legal - if not a theological - obligation to own three from the Mariage Frères collection. Thé Rouge is jaw-dropping, as is Sorbet de Thé and Thé Dansant. The boys also like Thé Blanc, but I've never smelled it because it's been sold out for months. And needless to say, I can't find it anywhere else.
About a year ago, Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, was looking at one of the collection's most famous paintings, "The Lute Player," by Caravaggio. He took in this 16th-century portrait of a boy - the luminous skin and thick hair, the tones in the wood of the musical instruments, the pears, the figs, the roses and the iris - and realized that it held a kind of perfume. So he contacted Laura Tonatto, an esteemed Italian perfumer whose collection was just unveiled at Barneys New York. Tonatto worked with Alessandra Marini, an art historian at the University of Perugia, who described to her the meaning behind each object in the painting. From there, Tonatto created the sumptuous aroma of a room in a 16th-century villa - what you'd smell if you were standing next to this boy: the scent of Italian plums, orange leaf and jasmine, as well as the wood of the lute, the sheet music and the rich smell of cloth. The Hermitage introduced the eau de parfum Caravaggio during a November exhibition of the painting, along with an olfactory installation. Can the smell of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" be far behind?