Basic Perfume Layering For The Decidedly Non-Basic

My approach is very much inspired by things I learned in the kitchen.

Remember when you were a kid and all you wanted was to be just like all of your friends? If one of you showed up to school with some sweet splatter paint bike shorts you could be damned sure the rest of your group would have them by the next week; and the week after that, you’d have solid plans to wear those bike shorts every Thursday, as a crew.

Then around age 11 or 12 all that changes and your individuality seems to be all you’ve got. I still remember getting yelled at by one of my best friends in eighth grade because I bought the same blue sweater from Delia’s that she already had.

My clothing has never been how I expressed my individuality. (I basically lived in jeans and a T-shirt from age 10 to 27, and have only been dressing like a human with a point of view for the past few years.) For me, it was always about fragrance. Smell evokes so many strong feelings for me (and everyone else) and I NEVER wanted to smell like anyone else.

When Gap scents were all the rage and everybody was either a Dream or Earth girl, I chose the slightly musky and spicy Om. When CK One was the only way to go, I preferred CK Be. And when Victoria’s Secret dropped their Dream Angels line (beloved by strippers across the land to this day), I gravitated toward the warmer Heavenly scent over the brighter (and more popular) Halo or Divine.

As time passed I graduated to more complex scents but I always found myself frustrated when I’d walk down the street and smell myself on someone else. Eventually I realized there was a pretty simple solution to this issue: layering! Why wear one perfume that anybody can buy when you can wear two and smell the like special snowflake you are?

My perfume library can be broken down into three sections. Florals; warm, spicy scents; and musks. These are what I seem to be most drawn to, and they play together really well. Here’s my roster:


La Chasse aux Papillons by L’Artisan Parfumeur: A lush but not too sweet floral featuring tuberose, orange blossom and jasmine.

Florabotanica by Balenciaga: A bright floral with strong rose notes balanced by verdant vetiver and cannabis.

Bronze Goddess by Esteé Lauder: A tropical floral Kara described in much better detail than I ever could.

Tiare Lei by TerraNova: A perfume oil a friend brought back from Hawaii for me made of Tahitian gardenias. Pure tropical gardenia here.

Warm, Spicy Scents

Black by Elizabeth & James: Slightly sweet and woody scent highlighted by smokey sandalwood and warm violets. (Another fragrance Kara has reviewed.)

Poivre Piquant by L’Artisan Parfumeur: Again, slightly sweet and woody but highlighted by sharp white pepper and I swear, white chocolate. (This perfume continues to confound me after almost 10 years of wearing it and if I had to pick only one scent to wear for the rest of time, it’d probably be this.)

Ambre 114 by Histoires de Parfums: A really classic (and assertive) amber scent. Smells like a grown ass woman in her West Village apartment in 1978 to me.


The Scent by Hakansson: A soft musk highlighted by fresh florals, bergamot and citrus.

Original Musk by Kiehl’s: THE classic musk highlighted by bergamot and earthy patchouli.

Some people (like Wendy) stumble upon scent layering by accident, but my approach is very much inspired by things I learned in the kitchen. I believe most fragrances are more interesting when balanced by a contrary yet complementary partner. Think about it: Salty and sweet are great friends. Chicken and waffles, kettle corn, barbecue, salt on a margarita… I could go on!

I never want my food to be one note--and neither should my musk!

So if I’m wearing my favorite spicy Poivre Piquant, why not layer it with the lush florals of Chasse aux Papillons? (Sidebar: when I first went to buy these two perfumes I told the L’Artisan Parfumeur rep at Bendel's that I planned to wear them together and she was horrified by the idea. After I put them on together and made her smell she apologized. Take THAT, The Establishment!)

The best way to counter the potentially cloying sweetness of Bronze Goddess or Tiare Lei? The razor sharp brightness of The Scent.

The earthiness of Original Musk pairs beautifully with the warm and spicy richness of Ambre 114. (Reader beware though, both of these scents pack a heady wallop and if you’re not careful in your application, you could easily end up overdoing it.)

The mellow and smoky sweetness of Nirvana Black adds a mysterious depth to the crisp florals of Florabotanica.

A word of caution though: The same principles of what NOT to do in cooking can also be applied to perfume mixing. There is something decidedly creamy about Ambre 114 and Poivre Piquant, so by that right, I’d never combine either of them with The Scent, which has some pretty aggressive citrus notes. (Ever mixed milk and lemon together? It’s not pretty….)

Once you figure out what you like and what pairs well with it, your options are almost unlimited. There are combinations I come back to again and again, but just today when I was writing this I discovered that Ambre 144 and Florabotanica are great together.

Lest you all accuse me of being some kind of scent wizard, let me tell you that I truly believe it almost impossible to fail when it comes to fragrance layering. If a thing smells good to you, it stands to reason that it’s still gonna smell great when you pair it with something else you like.

Do any of you already layer? If so what are your favorite combos? Clearly 10 options aren’t enough for my fragrance library so if you can think of anything I should consider adding in, let me know!