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Chance Encounters with Perfumes in Seoul

Seoul, under the winter sunset

There is always an unexpected encounter or two during one’s travels. For me, that has been perfume.

In December of 2018, I traveled to Seoul with my friends. One of them was a perfume fanatic whose knowledge was unparalleled. She claimed there was a new scent being sold in Seoul that was still unavailable in Japan, and we visited a shop in the backstreets of Sinsa-dong in Gangnam in search of it. The shop’s name was Maison de Parfum. (메종 드 파팡; it sounds closer to Maison de Papan.)

On the shelves were perfumes from a selection of different brands. The establishment had a particular affinity for L’Artisan Parfumeur scents. There were limited editions from a long ago that are probably no longer available. My other travel buddy had been pulled to the world of perfumes because of L’Artisan, and we were excitedly trying different scents. Then a man who appeared to be the manager asked us “What kind of scents do you like?” in English. They blended there too and so he brought samples of scents being concocted from the backroom. Listening to our responses such as “Oh, I like this.” and “Oh this smells great too!, he nailed it by guessing, “Do you like the smell of alcohol?” I admitted to him that I was wearing a L’Artisan scent that was inspired by absinthe, which had famously made Van Gogh spiral out of control. Apparently, from analyzing the other scents that I had tried, it was apparent that I responded to the scent of hard liquor like gin and rum. As someone who doesn’t give her liver enough rest days, it hit home pretty hard.

After inquiring, “Oh you live in Japan and you don’t know about this?,” he introduced us to Fueguia 1833. He told us he was friends with Julian the perfumer. As soon as we returned to Japan, we visited the Fueguia store in Grand Hyatt in Roppongi. We were immediately captivated, and to this day, my main scents are from Fueguia—I have even purchased my first ever Fueguia, Biblioteca de Babel, more than once.

After not being able to travel due to the pandemic, in December 2022, I found myself back in Seoul. It had been exactly four years since my last trip. And I returned to Maison de Parfum. All of us had fallen right into the Fueguia trap and we were sure that we were going to have another great encounter. 

On the first floor of the address we had looked up was a bakery. Baffled, we walked around it several times until we figured out that the shop was located upstairs. Four years ago, it was located on the ground floor but it had been relocated to a higher floor. Upon entering, a small but tightly designed, cohesive, and beautiful space appeared. A fashionable and cute sales staff guided us to many items. To our surprise, they had launched an original perfume line. The bottle and the labels were just as stoic as the shop itself. We also discovered that the sales staff from our previous visit was the owner (Mr. Kim). One can find similar perfume shops in Japan, but rarely does one get a look at the owner’s “face.” Curious, I inquired more about him. 

The shop first opened in 2010. The first location was in Garosu-gil, and it started as a shop specializing in L’Artisan Parfumeur. From there, they also started to handle scents from Fueguia to other brands selected from around the world by Mr. Kim. 2015 became a major turning point when many niche perfume lines were acquired by major corporations. Even I realized this change at that time. While the minor brands became more accessible to more people, it also felt like something about the scents changed and felt that something was off. It was then that Mr. Kim decided to rely not just on the existing imported scents, but to collaborate with perfumers and to create new scents. His first collaborator was Dora Baghriche, a perfumer who worked at L’ Artisan and Olfactive Studio. And that is how the first Maison de Parfum line came to be. 

Today, Mr. Kim produces perfume for brands other than Maison de Parfum. This past January, he released a new line with 27 87 in Spain. 

Hearing about all these projects, it felt like the shop had the potential to expand more—but rather it had become smaller than before. I like cozy, intimate spaces like this shop, and it’s such a luxury and so much fun to be able to peruse as I chat with shop staff who are well-informed about scents. Scents, above anything, are something that cannot be experienced if you are not there; they change completely depending on the person’s body temperature and odor. Many times in the past, I experienced liking a scent on a scent strip but finding that it didn’t work on my skin. And that is why, unexpected encounters in a shop are adrenaline-inducingly exciting. To sniff my wrist as the scent transforms with time, and to return to the shop… such discreet activity is the ultimate thrill of perfume selection.

Telling the shop staff about the memories from four years ago, I tested scents. She told me, “You can go outside from here,” and opened the door. Perfume responds to temperature too. Standing on the deck of the building, I could see the sunset. In the air that was chillier than Japan, I inhaled deeply through my nose. The depth of my cranium became enveloped with a sweet scent. I was overcome with the desire to purchase one of their original scents. I was torn between two, and I ended up selecting “Holy Oud 2014,” which was sweet, intense, and perfect for winter. As the name suggested, the base scent was woody and blended with sandalwood. After spending quality time at the shop, we roamed the streets of Seoul again, enveloped by scents. 
As a memory of the unexpected encounter from my travels, the sunset over Seoul from the even more intimate space of Maison de Parfum will be ingrained in my mind, along with the scent, for some time. 

For the time being, their original scents are only available at the store. Such a modest approach conveys their thorough aesthetic. 

Written & Photographed by Satoko Shibahara / Editor, Writer