The Fragrance Lab at Selfridges


Katie Puckrik’s been experimenting with fragrance

One of my favorite pastimes is to meander down department store fragrance aisles, eyes glazed, dreamily picking up every bottle for a sniff and a squirt. By the time I’ve come to, I’m covered in 79 clashing spritzes and three hours of my life are gone forever, along with my workaday cares.


The clever people behind The Fragrance Lab, the interactive perfume experience at Selfridges’ ongoing Beauty Project, have tapped into my favored self-mesmerization approach to scent appreciation with an imaginative installation.
The Fragrance Lab’s concept is to match participants with their ideal signature scent, a “fragrance prescription” revealed through an immersive “retail journey”. Said journey will set one back £65 (which includes a bottle of custom-matched perfume), though it’s free to scroll through a quick Q&A to generate a fragrance suggestion.


Collaborators The Future Laboratory (a trend forecasting outfit) and Givaudan (a major flavors and fragrance firm responsible for many blockbuster perfumes) have cooked up a cross between a carny funhouse and Clockwork Orange’s fetishistic futurism, and stuffed it into the front corner of Selfridges department store.


The futurism part comes first, courtesy of sciencey-looking reception filled with gleaming white perspex and glass beakers, staffed by lab-coated assistants. I’m directed to sit on a spindly stool and answer a multiple choice questionnaire on a floor-mounted tablet.


Cryptic images flash by on the screen: a hand dipped in goo, a pile of rocks, a woman’s face masked by a pool of purple latex. And questions – about my shopping behaviour, about the way perfume makes me feel. I click quickly, instinctively.
Then comes the carny funhouse. I’m given sleek white headphones plugged into an audio guide. A man’s creamy caramel voice fills my ears, instructing me to ascend the white staircase in the corner of the room. After a beat, Creamy Caramel Voice urges me through a series of secret rooms, through which I move completely alone.


The environment is Alice-in-Wonderland-strange, each room a different shape and size, some dark, some light, some filled with objects, others empty. I must have the self-determination of a shy blancmange, because in no time I’ve submitted to Creamy Caramel Voice’s whimsical demands: stop, go, close my eyes, open my eyes, open secret drawers, smell doohickeys, summon memories, conjure associations.


I emerge into the final room, which I’m startled to discover is in the front windows of Selfridges. My brain takes a few cranks of the cogs to process the people and buses rushing past just on the other side of the glass. A man in a white lab coat awaits through the haze of a smoke machine. I reluctantly remove my headphones, forever severing my relationship with Creamy Caramel Voice.


The man in the white lab coat turns out to be a gentle fellow named Aiden, who whisks me into a shiny curtained cubicle to give me a customized perfume consultation. This is the “fragrance prescription” part of the experience.


What follows is a something akin to a psychic reading: comforting and flattering comments about one’s personality based on visual clues (clothes, body language), padded out with insights derived from the multiple choice questionnaire.


Aiden clocks my Op Art stripey muu-muu and low-heeled Tracey Neuls shoes and declares that I am “interested in style, but like to be comfortable.” No duh. Then he reads the results generated by the quiz: “You are a strong-willed and confident person who conceals a deeply romantic side…people can’t help but find you charismatic…you enjoy objects with a sense of heritage.”


Both my confident and deeply romantic sides are enjoying all the attention. I’m feeling like the Fragrance Lab computer really gets me, y’know? I’m on the verge of asking Aiden for career guidance and pointers on my love life, when he whips out my fragrance prescription.


It’s a bottle labelled Two Hundred and Forty Seven, and I cautiously sniff the spritz on my arm. I’m surprised that it’s so…me. It’s a spicy/woody patchouli number, which is right in my perfume wheelhouse. I’m not crazy about the strong nuance of sweet vanilla, but overall, Two Hundred and Forty Seven is a pleasant evocation of smoke and whiskey and leather, which is my kind of thing.


The Fragrance Lab’s theatricality is a bit corny, but charming. And I love the psychological framing of the installation, which feels authentic to how we truly respond to smells. It’s a tribute to The Future Laboratory’s skill that they’ve created a wardrobe-into-Narnia environment in the middle of a shop floor that stimulates such wonder and imagination.


The Fragrance Lab is open at Selfridges until 27th June. For more details see here.

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