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The Talk

One Nosy Dame

Jennifer Livingston for The New York Times; hair by Frederic Boudet for Robert Kree Salon

Published: October 16, 2005

Sarah Jessica Parker and I are sitting on the steps of her West Village brownstone. She's telling me how she created Lovely, her first scent. "The idea that you like something," she says, "can lead you to the idea that you know something about it." She raises her eyebrows, looking very pretty and a bit alarmed. "Which is, of course, not necessarily the case."

Here's how it happened. "I've always, always, always thought about creating my own scent," she says. "After 20 years, I got brave enough to talk to my agent, Peter Hess, at C.A.A., about it. Peter said, 'Great, good to know.' And I thought, O.K. And then suddenly he called, and the instant I met Catherine" - Catherine Walsh, the senior vice president of Lancaster Group - "I mean, we'd barely exchanged pleasantries, and it felt so right with her."

Lancaster is one of the leading creative perfume houses that guide mostly designers and famous people through the complex, daunting, often scary process of building, bottling, introducing and retailing their scents. Walsh has an excellent reputation in the industry, and as we walk toward Bleecker Street - "Are you hungry? Gosh, I have got to get a slice of pizza" - Parker talks about her with awe. "When Catherine and I started, I gave her my idea."

So you already had a specific scent in mind, I say.

"Oh, yeah. Very specific - and this sounds strange perhaps - but I had already created a fragrance, something I wore for years. Three scents I mixed on my skin, and honestly, it was terrific. The grips would say, 'Wow, what are you wearing?"'

What were the scents?

She hesitates. "Do you think it's bad to say?"

No. Why?

She considers. "Well, first, I'd buy a drugstore musk, $6.99 a bottle at Thrifty." What was it called? "Uhhh." She touches my arm. "I think I better not say." I pretend to look hurt. She laughs. O.K., and the second? "An Egyptian oil from an African-American gentleman who used to sell them on lower Broadway. Third was a fairly costly male scent." Off the record, she tells me what it is. I'm surprised - it's edgy, with a dark, forbidding aesthetic. That's not, I say, a combination I'd see you creating. "Oh, it's me," she says instantly. "Love it. Really dirty. Really sexy."

We turn left down Bleecker.

Parker gave her really dirty, really sexy idea to Walsh, and Walsh chose Parker's perfumers, Clement Gavarry and Laurent le Guernec, two young Frenchmen based in New York at the giant scent maker International Flavors and Fragrances. Gavarry and le Guernec built the first draft of Lovely. "And guess what," Parker says grimly. "The oiliness bothered me. And also I'd wanted my scent to be genderless, but they noted that my first time out, a feminine is so much more classic. And my dirtiness instinct gave Catherine pause. She said: 'Listen, you need to think about whether you can sell this to women. The market very well might not follow you there. Yet.' And I thought, My God, so what do I do now?"

I take her into Ovando, the flower store at 337 Bleecker. "That smell," she says. "That green." She buries her nose in sumptuous tea roses. "God, roses that smell of rose. They're all deli roses now." She looks daintily severe. "Deli roses just don't cut it." She picks up thistles, inhales, shoves them over. "Chandler, you've gotta smell this!" The thistles smell beautifully of dust and hay. "We're around hay a lot in Ireland," Parker says. "We help them unload it, and my husband smells of it."

A few doors down, at Goodfellas, she orders us pepperoni slices. "Hey!" one of the pizza guys says to her, "you got a perfume now, right?"

"I do," she says. He narrows his eyes.

"Yeah? So whaddya put in that stuff?"

"It has a tiny, teeny little bit of orange blossom," she says, "and we cut in a little lavender and patchouli." Light, floral, polite scents. The guy looks impressed.

We walk up Greenwich Avenue. The sky has become menacing. "If we took truth pills," she says, "us Americans, with our antibacterial soap and deodorants - we love B.O.! We love the smell of us. Our bodies."

And that's what you wanted in your perfume? "That's what I wanted.

We worked on it and worked on it and worked on it and worked on it.

Toward the end, Catherine said our fine-tuning was like splitting atoms."

Celebrities and fashion designers often never lay eyes on the perfumers who build their scents (this is not necessarily caprice; between the ethyl maltol and the trans-2-hexanal, it is amazingly easy for nonprofessionals to lose their way). But during the final stages, Walsh, quite unusually, put Parker together with Gavarry and le Guernec. "You have the images in your head," Walsh said to her, "and the words you need to express them."

We talk about the smells of the Village: the chalky scent of hot brick; New York's perfume of warm asphalt; the hot, dry cement. Huge raindrops start a slow barrage, and we run, she in heels, laughing, for home. She pushes open the door. Her son, James, in pajamas, is surprised, and then delighted, to see her.

We take James up to the living room, large and clean and cool, and she sort of bites her lip and gives me a look. "Wait." Disappears. Comes back. She's holding three bottles.

Her scents. "O.K.," she says with a smile. "The first is Bonne Bell Skin Musk." American drugstore perfume, its cheap kitsch wonderful. (She looks over at James, realizing what he is softly singing. "In our yellow," she sings, filling in the next words. "Submarine," he sings back to her, completing the line.) Next, she hands me a vial of the Egyptian oil. I apply it on top of the Bonne Bell. The third is Comme des Garçons Incense Avignon: smoky, heavy, dark, perverse, slightly brutal. The three together are powerful and strange. She inhales the crepuscular musk mix on my arm. "Lovely is, precisely, what I hoped for," she says calmly. "If I get the opportunity, my next scent will be genderless. Fuller. Riskier."

Which is exactly what's interesting about the structure of Lovely: it is, in fact, a risk, successfully negotiated to a degree I suspect even Parker doesn't totally realize. Lovely is a piece of extremely interesting technical work. In its most immediate incarnation, it is an instantly legible, placeable perfume - "perfume," in the classic French tradition of Hermès's Calèche, about which you say, "That perfume she's wearing smells amazing," rather than, say, the modernist scents done so well by Fresh and Jo Malone, in which a material - a pear, a cup of sake, a peel of tree bark - is transformed into a fragrance, and you say, "She smells amazing," as if the thing emanated from her. One doesn't "smell of" Lovely. One wears it. One puts it on. Lovely is a light party dress of powder and sweet, the scent equivalent of a terrific wrap of soft, floating fabric that I saw enveloping the shoulders of a young woman strolling the streets

of the East Village last summer. One notices that lovely wrap.

This is why it takes a bit of time to notice that Parker has, in fact, gotten what she wanted, though in a very astute way. By the next time I meet her, I've been wearing Lovely for a week. If you pay attention, the scent reveals its structure, a sheath of light built around a core of dark, the scent of the skin of the shoulders of a clean, warm human body. And, I now realize, the core emanates from you.

I doubt that Parker knew the perfumery term "animalic" - I forgot to ask her about it - but she had the concept, and she found a way to express it. Taking Lancaster's (probably wise) marketing advice, she created a lilting perfume welded to an invisible platform, as masculine as it is feminine, animalic, hard-core, ever so sweaty. The woman we see and the woman we don't. At first.