A Guide to Bespoke Fragrances

What does "me" smell like? It’s a question Lynn Yaeger—an obsessive about most other matters of style—never pondered. Until now.

I am the sort of person who will go to the ends of the earth to have her portrait painted on her handbag. I fantasize about having the words Baby Lynnie embroidered on everything from my underpants to my umbrellas. But I have never considered having my very own scent, created for me alone. Maybe this is because of all the senses, smell is, in my case, the least developed. It isn’t that I don’t wear perfume—I do, every day; it’s just that for me scents fall into two categories: disgusting or “I like it.” I am perfectly content with the free bottle the nice people at Chanel give you when you attend their fashion shows. And even though it’s a different scent every season, they all seem fine to me.

Still, when DEPARTURES suggests that I head to the lower level of Bergdorf Goodman to meet with the three good-looking Europeans behind the fragrance company Ex Nihilo, a trio keen to formulate one of their trademark demi-bespoke scents just for me, I agree. It will come with an authentication certificate, have its own ID number, and be packaged in a madly chic foam box! How can I resist?

“The very first part is to smell together!” says Benoît Verdier, one of the three founders, which might sound faintly revolting but coming from his patrician lips is sort of enticing. Ex Nihilo, he tells me, launched almost four years ago: “Just three friends with a computer.” Today four of us—Verdier, Sylvie Loday, Olivier Royère, and I—sit around a consultation table in front of a plate of macarons, which no one touches. Loday busies herself with a cache of beakers.

Actually, there is a fifth entity in the room. Behind us, looking like a cross between the world’s biggest coffee-maker and R2D2, looms the Osmologue, the cornerstone of the Ex Nihilo experience. If, as the three wise strippers in Gypsy long ago informed us, “you gotta have a gimmick,” then this golden behemoth—a “high-precision dosing machine”—is the company’s trick pony. I must admit, you don’t see an R2D2 perfume robot every day, at least not in the basement of Bergdorf’s.

It’s sniffing time. There are nine basic scents—created in France by seven distinguished noses—and a passel of other notes that can be added during the personalization process. I think Verdier is going to ask me my favorite smells. The Atlantic off Cherry Grove! The wet wool of an Hermès cashmere muffler on a snowy afternoon! Instead he asks merely, “Do you like men’s fragrances too?” Sure, I say. After all, a hundred years ago, when I was a teenager, I used to sneak my dad’s Jade East, a fluid that was the exact shade of the poison apple in Sleeping Beauty. We sniff together through the nine contenders, and my two favorites are Bois d’Hiver and Cologne 352—the former was meant, Royère chimes in, to evoke a winter walk in the Swedish woods. (I don’t get closer to woods, winter or summer, than Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village, but never mind.) The other is named in honor of the address of the firm’s flagship, just down from Goyard on the Rue St.-Honoré.

We play with the top notes, and, sad to say, it turns out my preferred accent is that college dorm staple—sandalwood. The liquids are dribbled together in just the right proportions. At last, time to fire up R2D2! The machine works its mixing magic, which includes adding water and alcohol.

At this point I could use some water and alcohol myself. I break down and grab a macaron, and the rest of the team follows. The juice is removed from the clutches of the Osmologue and placed into a magnet blender, a machine that whirls Eau de Lynnie into a tiny tornado. The winning combo, Bois d’Hiver and sandalwood, seems to me to be oddly fruity—are there citrus trees in that forest?—and strangely sweet and, even to my ignorant nose, fairly delicious.

One more step—the crimper, to affix the spritzer button. And then my favorite part of the whole experience, selecting the bottle cap color! I feel like I could deliberate over this decision far longer than I did for my actual perfume. Lavender cap, an homage to BG? Royal blue? Or white or black mother-of-pearl? I choose the black, so stylish and snug atop my magic elixir, now nestled in its little foam coffin, safe and sound for a wintry walk through the mean streets of the East Village.