I'm no stranger to fictional notions of romance. An avid watcher of rom-coms, sure, but I've also found myself wrapped up in a few Fabio-fronted paperbacks over the years. And why not? I'm not so high-minded that indulging in the trashier (sometimes smuttier) side of storytelling is beyond me. But, like unicorns or rent-stabilized NYC apartments, I was pretty sure that grand romantic gestures were solidly the stuff of fantasy—until I met Vilhelm Parfumerie founder Jan Ahlgren.
A former model-turned-handbag designer, Jan has a fragrance line that he developed after he decided scenting his leather bags would make for a whimsical-albeit-luxe addition to his brand. “I had read that glove makers in Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries used to scent their gloves, so that really inspired me,” Jan told me. He enlisted perfumer Jerome Epinette, who helped Byredo get off the ground and into the atmosphere of cult-loved perfumes, to help him develop his own. But really, why stop at just a signature? Jan proved so sufficient at the fragrance-making game that he took it up full time, and now Vilhelm's inaugural six scents (with two more on the way this fall) can be found at Barneys in New York. Dreams do come true, friends.
But back to the romance. “Each scent has a different story,” he said. The line is named after Jan’s grandfather, and Morning Chess is a tribute to the family patriarch. But the real kicker is Dear Polly, formulated as tribute to Jan's wife. The pair, who married last year, first met in an airport bar. Polly confessed to a fear of flying, so Jan offered to hold her hand and pretend to be her boyfriend. They’ve been inseparable ever since. As for the scent, “It had to be intelligent, like her, but also a bit dark and smoky because Polly has a mysterious side, in a beautiful way,” Jan said. “And it had to smell like the black tea she always drinks.” Cue collective swoon. What that actually smells like: fresh top notes (they’re bergamot and apple) and a complex, sultry finish (musk and black amber) that stays with you all day, in the best possible way. And if you weren't sufficiently in love yet, he told me, “We travel quite a lot, so if we’re apart, we both wear it, so that we can feel closer together.” <3
The bottles themselves have a retro vibe that's far more sophisticated than your average perfume-counter purchase. But even before you get to that, the boxed packaging is exquisite enough to elicit me writing the word exquisite. Seriously, I had a hard time throwing it away, but alas, I don't have the closet space for more than the bottle. The only bad part of the whole experience of unwrapping is that there's no romantic Swedish husband included. Maybe next time.
Photographed by Tom Newton. Read more about fragrances here.