Lizzie Ostrom is one of today’s most exciting commentators on all things perfume. A lifelong fragrance fan, she began hosting events for people to discover the world of scent in 2010, as her alter ego Odette Toilette. From evenings on the aroma of outer space to scent tours of art galleries and trips through the past via the medium of perfume, she brings intelligence and wit to this most captivating of subjects. She is also the co-host of the popular podcast Life In Scents.
The obvious question is how did you get the name Odette Toilette?
Well I can’t really claim credit for the name as its a friend of mine who came up with it. When Odette Toilette was born I’d done one event for fun, and was planning more. And I wanted a stage name. So my friend took it upon himself to come up with one when he was over for dinner. After a few false starts he just said Odette Toilette and I knew it was the one. So I said ‘I’m stealing that’.
You clearly have a passion for fragrance where did this come from?
I did start young, but I should qualify. Some people think that when I was seven I had this massive perfume collection and was dancing around the playground in Dior! It really wasn’t like that, I wasn’t some terrible brat with 20 perfumes, but I did like my Avon catalogue and loved those gross sort of kiddy perfume type things that were around. And obviously my mum loves perfume and was always talking about it with me and so I’d always choose which one she was going to wear that morning, which I loved doing. As a child I was always into the imagination and the enchantment in what you couldn’t see, so I think perfumes are part of that way of experiencing the world.
Can you tell us what your first fragrant memory is?
First ever? That would be my Strawberry Shortcake doll, which I had when I was really young. I used to enjoy sniffing my toys and my teddy had a very particular smell, which used to make me sneeze as it was so dusty. I loved my Strawberry Shortcake, I think my grandparents gave her to me and I carried her around everywhere. I used to bash her tummy and make her smell and I just loved the idea that the smell of strawberry came from her……..
What lead you to set up Scratch + Sniff Events?
Hmmm they were really born out of creative frustration at a time when I was feeling a bit lost in my work. I had always had perfume as this side passion and that’s really where the impetus came from to do something. I had a gut feeling about doing perfume events, I wanted to try doing something to express the way I felt about perfume as there just wasn’t the outlet I was looking for. So it was definitely a case of create what you can’t find for yourself.
My first event was at The Book Club. It was in the basement of this bar in Shoreditch, which had a ping-pong table outside the room – so I was always running outside to tell drunk people playing to shut up when they got too noisy! There was a talk in the first half which was a whistle stop tour through the 20th century in smells and that’s when Les Senteurs first got involved as they provided samples and James Craven came as guest speaker. In the second half I decanted loads of stuff into little bottles and each table got this little dish of samples and there would be different ways they’d have to share and talk about them and then we’d reveal what they were at the end so it was a sort of blind sniffing exercise. After that when I brought back Scratch and Sniff as a series each one had a theme.
YOU Magazine have called you “The Heston Blumenthal of Perfumes” how do you feel about this?
It’s one of those quotes that is handy as people know who he is – and people feel the need to compare something new against what they know – but I can’t say I feel particularly Hestoney! I suppose there is the spirit of experimentation I identify with, but in my work it takes a completely different form especially as I am not at the coalface of being a perfumer or the chef equivalent.
On that note would you ever think of making a fragrance of your own?
What’s fun is that for various projects I’ve got to work with fragrance houses and we’ve made scents for installations, which is so enjoyable but there is only so far I can go. I know a lot of the materials now, but I’m not a trained perfumer nor would I wish to pretend to be.
You’ve just published your first book ‘Perfume A Century of Scents’ which tells the incredible stories of 100 perfumes for each decade of the twentieth century. What was the initial inspiration, what made you actually want to write a book?
Well in 2012 I was approached by a literary agent, Nicola Barr from Greene & Heaton. Nicola is brilliant, so the book was sort of in the works although it took a while to solidify in terms of the theme. Because I was doing my history events that eventually became the starting point after Sarah Rigby at Hutchinson picked up the writing. There are so many perfume books that I love and I’ve got all of them basically but I felt that there was an angle on the subject that hadn’t been done quite yet. So for example if you think about the Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez books and Barbara Herman’s Scents & Subversion, they are brilliant reference books for being able to use when you want to sniff something. I wanted to come at scent from its cultural role. I thought that what the book needed to be was a both a history OF perfume but also look at history THROUGH perfume so that you can use scent to illuminate other subjects as well. I thought that was the way actually to get perfume to a wider audience as sometimes if it’s too specialist it can be a little frightening…… whereas if I’m talking about the 1970s and Jaws the movie people will come further in with me. Perfume is a very big subject area but from the outside it can look very niche. It is actually huge and you can’t do everything in one title.
Was there a special story within the book you really enjoyed writing?
There are so many that I loved researching! There were certain moments that got me really excited like when I found the Travel Guide to Cairo from the 1920’s. There is a big bit in there about perfume shopping in Cairo and I’d been reading around Egyptomania and Egyptian themed perfumes for a while and I was really interested in it because it felt really modern as a story. We think that these days the number of perfume launches has gone wild, but then I kept finding all these gazillions of Egyptian perfumes in 1924 and they were just as wild as we are in terms of perfume ‘fever’.
We’ve heard that a special fragrance was created for your wedding can you tell us a little bit about this?
It was by Sarah McCartney. I wasn’t planning to have a perfume made but Sarah asked me and since she offered……. well YES. The brief was to create a winter version of my favourite perfume. Sarah sent me a few versions of this scent and it was really exciting especially as we did it quite quickly. The final version was wonderful, and then she showed it to some people and thought she would like to sell it. It’s now out as ‘Doe In The Snow’.
We’re sure you must have quite an extensive wardrobe of fragrance – which one are you wearing today?
Today I am wearing Worth’s Je Reviens ‘cos Stephan Matthews got me some parfum as a book launch present, and then I got another bottle at Kingston Antiques Market, and am rather enjoying it.
We are always inspired by your creativity what does the future hold for Odette Toilette?
I had the book on the go that was such a big milestone, but now it’s out I want to see what people respond to. I want to chill out a bit up to Christmas and then get planning, as life has been a bit full on!