compulsive shopping

I Can’t Stop Buying Perfume Sample Sets

Photo-Illustration: retailers

In the Before Times, my idea of a perfect day was popping into Sephora, sniffing as many scents as humanly possible, and walking out with a fistful of samples. Such laissez-faire pleasures are, alas, a thing of the past, but my habit of sample hoarding is not. In fact, since the pandemic started, my collection has grown exponentially, because I simply cannot stop buying perfume sample sets.

It’s difficult to shop for fragrance right now; the shuttering of brick-and-mortar stores means that most perfume shopping is taking place online, where all you have to go off of are elegiac descriptions and accord lists. Sample sets are an easy, low-stakes way to try out intriguing scents, test the compatibility with your skin chemistry, and expand your perfume wardrobe without having to commit to a full-size bottle. Sniffing so many different fragrances has helped me refine my taste and ascertain which notes I gravitate towards the most, and it’s helped me be more discerning in what scents I decide to invest in: only the ones I fell absolutely head over heels for were worthy of a full bottle. The ones I liked okay I used up but didn’t repurchase, and the ones I really didn’t care for were handed off to friends, family, or fellow perfume aficionados on the Fragrantica forums, who are always happy to coordinate a swap.

There’s also a functional aspect I like about sample sets. Because they’re so light and portable — a sample is usually one-to-three milliliters they’re perfect for sticking in your pocket or tossing into your purse. A dainty crystal vessel may look nice on your nightstand, but it’s hardly practical for a mid-afternoon touch-up spritz.

During quarantine I haven’t always put on pants, but I’ve always put on perfume. With its transportive abilities, wearing perfume is an act of escapism — spritz on a tropical coconut scent and voilà, you’re tanning on a beach in Bali. Receiving a new sample set in the mail is like taking a mini vacation to a faraway locale; a tiny dab whisks you to a different time and place — a blessing when you’ve been stuck inside the same four walls for months on end.

One word of warning, though: Once you start collecting, you won’t be able to stop. Here are some of my favorite sets that I’ve picked up, and a few that I’m eyeing for the future.

The perfume sample sets I’ve bought

The Margiela Replica line was my jumping-off point into the world of fragrance, and I highly recommend it as a starter set for any budding perfume enthusiast. I have the now mostly sold-out sample pack, but these two seasonal sets have all the scents I love. This collection nods at nearly every olfactory family, from salty marines (“Sailing Day”) to spicy woods (“By the Fireplace”), and fresh citrus (“Under the Lemon Trees”) to musky floral (“Sunday Morning”). The thematic concept of the Replica line is about invoking the memory of happier times, so even if you can’t physically be lounging in a smoky jazz club right now, at least you can smell like it.

I’ll admit that a couple years ago I walked past the D.S. & Durga storefront, contemplated going in, but ultimately chickened out. In my defense, there was no one else inside and the person behind the counter looked extremely cool and intimidating. To assuage my lingering regret, I ordered their Greatest Hits Discovery Set, and let me say, there’s a reason why these scents are their best sellers. I especially love “Rose Atlantic,” a sweet, soft marine floral, and “I Don’t Know What,” a layering scent that pairs beautifully with other fragrances.

When you’re trapped in your house for days on end, a brief jaunt into nature can serve as a relatively safe and sorely needed reprieve. But if you’re living in a big city — or in the middle of a suburban wasteland like me — the nearest state park is probably hours away. Not to worry: One whiff of Regime des Fleurs’ Sampling Flight, which draws from “the sublime drama of the botanical world,” and you’ll feel like you’ve just embarked on a bracing stroll through a flowering arboretum.

If you have no desire to smell like everyone else — you scoff at “Daisy,” shun “Santal 33,” and pooh-pooh “Light Blue” — then you might be interested in an Etat Libre d’Orange scent. ELdO is one of the more outré perfume houses, offering up fragrances with names like “Fat Electrician” (vetiver, vanilla, myrrh) and “Putain des Palaces” (smells exactly how you imagine a seedy hotel would smell like). The (Almost) Complete Collection includes 20 vials containing nearly every fragrance ELdO has produced, and is an excellent vehicle for dipping your toes into the more niche corners of the perfume world. I adore some of the scents in the collection and absolutely loathe others, but I’m glad to have experienced them all because I’ve never encountered anything quite like them.

I love indie perfumers for the way they bottle hyperspecific scents that I’d never be able to find from a mainstream perfume house. Case in point: Last summer, despondent over the cancellation of my local county fair that I attend every year, I set out on a search for a perfume that would evoke flashing lights and Ferris wheels and cotton candy, and stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for from indie perfumer Alkemia. I ordered their Delectable Delights set, which contained a “County Fair” scent along with other mouth-watering gourmand fragrances. This set in particular has helped me celebrate events that were otherwise dampened by the pandemic. On my birthday, I wore “Gâteaux d’Anniversaire,” a frothy confection of spiced cake and strawberries; on Halloween, I wore “Trick or Treat,” a blend of licorice, caramel, and mandarin peel.

The perfume sample sets I’m buying next

And now for a few I don’t own (yet). I received a tiny 2mL bottle of Creed’s Millesime Imperial in a swap and cherished it. It’s a fruity floral scent that’s right up my alley, and I drained the decant of every last drop. So I was quite surprised when I looked up the scent and saw that it was geared toward men. It’s 2021! There’s no such thing as “male” or “female” fragrances, there’s only fragrances that you either enjoy or you don’t. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Creed’s offerings; I’ve got my eye on their iconic Aventus next.

I’m a fan of fresh lemony fragrances, so I feel pretty confident that I would enjoy this sample set from Atelier Cologne, which made a name for itself peddling citrus scents. Though they’ve since branched out to include other categories like florals and spices, citrus remains their calling card. This set includes their signature scents “Orange Sanguine,” “Pomelo Paradis,” and “Pacific Lime,” as well as a couple others I’m curious to try, such as the tea-based “Oolang Infini” and the woody “Santal Carmin.”

Indie perfume house Zoologist is perhaps one of the most interesting brands I’ve encountered. All their fragrances are created by different perfumers around the world, who work with the founder Victor Wong to bottle an animal of their choosing. Some animals seem fairly straightforward — “Bee” has prominent notes of honey and beeswax, “Civet” utilizes a hefty dose of, duh, civet — but others are less obvious: What does a moth or a chameleon smell like? I can’t wait to find out.

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