What catwalk fashion smells like is, you might feel, an irrelevant question: surely it's what it looks like that matters. The French fashion and fragrance house Givenchy, however, has other ideas. Most perfumers usually cite references such as flowers or evocative places as the inspiration behind their creations but Givenchy has taken to producing fragrances inspired by the season's runway designs. So not what the catwalk actually smells like, but the scent that the look and mood of the design evokes.
This summer's offering is Immortelle Tribal, which "celebrates the diversity of graphic prints from far-off lands". Immortelle is a flower that survives on Mediterranean sand dunes without wilting; it smells rich, sweet and spicy (one of its common names is curry plant) and here it is amped up with honey, fig, tobacco and sandalwood into a delicious blend that to the untutored nose smells not unlike sticky toffee pudding.
The fashion-in-the-form-of-fragrance concept might sound far-fetched but Givenchy is not alone in using distinctive visual reference for olfactory creation. Jo Malone's next perfume, Mimosa and Cardamom, represents a take on the opulent memories and exotic silks gathered on a Victorian Grand Tour. It's a great notion, though the cologne itself smells too light to substantiate such a big idea.
All the fashion houses produce fragrance. It's an easy way for aspirational buyers to be part of the brand and a vital revenue stream. Some have used the idea of an iconic garment as the inspiration, such as Guerlain's La Petite Robe Noire, but that smells like a mass-market confection, all super-sweet cherries and berries, roses and tonka-bean.
It may seem an odd link to outsiders, but for fragrance aficionados such as Josephine Fairley, co-founder of The Perfume Society, the close association between fabric and fragrance is real and obvious. Fairley says her mission is to de-mystify fragrance and has run a series of hugely popular workshops called "How to Improve your Sense of Smell".
"We ask attendees, 'If this fragrance was a fabric, what would it be?'" she says. "What's amazing is the consensus of responses we get: they'll all say 'velvet', or 'satin', yet there's been no talking while they write their notes ... Clearly, to me, this really works."
Fairley points out that perfumers often seek to create particular "fabric" effects with scents. "The mood-boards many work from, agreed with a fashion house, might feature swatches or photos, and it is the true genius of a perfumer to be able to interpret that brief through something that's essentially invisible and intangible. They might use aldehydes to conjure up linen drying on a line, birch tar for leather, or vanilla for soft fabrics like angora or cashmere."
For Azzi Glasser, an internationally renowned perfume designer, the link between the scented and the sartorial is even more direct. She has conjured up fragrances for fashion houses including Bella Freud and Reiss and, when she is working on bespoke fragrances for celebrities and Hollywood actors, the way they dress is an integral part of the composition.
"It is important to make sure the fragrance will totally capture the character they portray to the outside world and their individual style," she says. "If their clothes are bohemian, feminine and sexy then I'll use ingredients like saffron (exotic), rose, tuberose and iris (feminine) with an incense and musk base (bohemian) with an animalistic note to add a sensual appeal. The result is a fragrance that smells floral but dark, intense and quirky and surprisingly sexy." That sounds very Helena Bonham Carter – but it would also suit a certain kind of catwalk, wouldn't it?
Eau de Zidane...
Two of the most unusual fragrances Azzi Glasser has been asked to compose are the smell that would greet footballer Zinedine Zidane when he ran on to the pitch (wet grass, clean leather, mud, stadium seats; it's surprisingly nice), and "Rain on Earth", produced for the GREAT Festival of Creativity in Istanbul last year. How did she think of that one? "David Cameron asked, 'Can you do the smell of Britain?' and this was what I came up with, because whenever I speak to anyone abroad, the first thing they ask me is, 'Is it raining?'"