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From ‘the best noses in the world’

Le Labo has completely remade the storefront at 2238 Fillmore.

“FRESH PERFUME IS THE BEST,” proclaims Meg Christensen, manager of Le Labo, the scent emporium that opened during the holidays at 2238 Fillmore Street. The spare shop has no perfume in stock, but will mix one of its 12 fragrances on the spot while the customer waits.

Costs range from $58 for a 15-ml. portion — best for newcomers who want to try a scent on for size — to $700 for a 500-ml. grand size.

The most popular offering so far is Santal 33. The 33 signifies the number of ingredients that go into the mix, with the end result said to be conjure up the “sensual universality” of the Marlboro man — or rather the Marlboro person, given that all Le Labo scents are deemed to be unisex.

“Great fragrances don’t have a gender,” says Christensen, noting that some of the scents are also produced in lotions and long-lasting silicone-based balms.

The shop also carries a limited home collection of room sprays and candles. And a couple of scents of eco-friendly detergents are also offered, mostly for use on delicate handwashables. All products are vegan and, while synthetics are sometimes used, they are also derived from nature.

The founders of Le Labo — Frenchmen Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi — named their company of hand-mixed scents Le Labo, or “the lab,” as a rebellion against traditional perfumeries. They are striving to reinvent everything from the mode of manufacturing through the packaging that contains the final product.

“They’re not big on signage, branding or advertising,” explains Christensen. “There are no photos of beautiful people posing to sell the perfume. They want it to speak for itself.”

Indeed, beyond a small sign proclaiming “Perfume yourself responsibly,” there are few clues to what lies within in the gutted and refurnished storefront. The shop’s entrance has been reconfigured to open directly onto the street, eliminating the stairway. Unlike the former occupant, the gift shop Aumakua, which was stocked chock-a-block with jewelry, wall hangings, table ornaments, buddhas, toys, cards, statues and more — the new shop is spare. A few bottles are set on a few sparse shelves, with several eyedroppers and glass stir sticks nearby. Sinks, metal carts and a gleaming refrigerator are contained with the space refurbished with natural wood floors and walls made of brick and pressed tin. The centerpiece is a box called an olfactionary that holds small bottles of scents, numbered from 1 to 40.

“Most people have been drawn in by the store’s design,” Christensen says. “They walk around unsure at first. Then they start smelling and they fall in love.” Browsers and buyers are encouraged to spray the bottled offerings on paper wands, then sniff. She says the new neighbors are naturals.

“In San Francisco, people are more careful. They take the time to think about things,” she says. “People come in and spray, then walk around and really feel the scents. That would be our suggestion, but people do it here anyway.”

Christensen says Le Labo’s products are best used right away, rather than stored and saved. “Fresh perfume is the opposite of wine, which becomes more dynamic and more complex as it ages,” she says. “In perfume, the top notes or the lightest molecules start to falter with time. The oils start oxidizing with the alcohol.”

Unlike some other manufacturers, Le Labo cautions against wearing more than one scent at a time. “Our fragrances were designed by the best noses in the world,” says Christensen. “Layering is not recommended.”
Fillmore Street is the fifth boutique for Le Labo, which opened its flagship store in New York in 2006, followed by shops in Los Angeles, Tokyo and London. The line is also available at Barney’s.

Each of the cities with a Le Labo boutique has a scent exclusively offered there. L.A.’s Musc 25, for example, is described as “white, angelic, very musky and aldehyic.” San Francisco’s signature scent is not yet available. “Great scents are not on a schedule,” says Christensen.