THE FERRETTI EFFECT; She's Famous for Her Dreamy Chiffon Creations, but Alberta Ferretti Is Made of More Robust Stuff Herself, Running a Manufacturing Empire and Renovating Medieval Towns When She's Not Designing Her A-List-Covetable Collections. but, She Tells Liz Jones, There's No Reason Why a Woman Can't Look Delicate and Act Tough, a Philosophy That Has Been Bottled in Her New Fragrance

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Byline: Liz Jones

Nothing tells the history of fashion, women's rights, sexual liberation, new technology and the economy better than the story of perfume. In 1921, with No 5, Coco Chanel created the first ever wraparound fashion brand. In 1925, in tune with the fact that women had cut their hair and discarded their corsets, Jacques Guerlain created the scandalous Shalimar. The name means garden of love; it evokes the exotic smell of India and, according to Guerlain himself, 'the scent of my mistresses'. In 1929, Jean Patou launched Joy, the costliest perfume in the world, just in time for the Wall Street crash. Instead of shelving the scent, he had it delivered to the homes of New York's wealthiest, sure to be in need of a little luxury as their fortunes faltered. In 1936 came Elizabeth Arden's Blue Grass, the first fresh, outdoorsy perfume, inspired by her love of horses; it would dominate the market for 25 years.

L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci arrived in 1948: spicy and floral, the bottle depicted two doves of peace in an embrace. It summed up the postwar zeitgeist and was the first scent that a woman, used to standing on her own two feet during the war, would buy for herself. Estee Lauder dreamed up Youth Dew in 1952. One of the first oil-based perfumes (French perfumes were all alcohol-based), the colour was so dark it was thought that no one would buy it. Lauder's genius was to come up with the idea of scent as bath oil, which kept the price low, democratising luxury for the first time.

And then came the signature scents of the 70s: No 19 from Chanel was launched in 1970. It was made from the root of the iris after it had been soaked for two years, and the result was young and funky. There was Charlie, the first lifestyle fragrance, launched in 1973 by Revlon founder Charles Revson. Its advertisement depicted a confident working woman in a trouser suit striding past Big Ben. She could have everything she wanted, and this fragrance - aniseed, florals and woody smells such as sandalwood and musk - shouted that she was not to be messed with. And then of course there was Opium from Yves Saint Laurent, unveiled in 1977: it was exotic, spicy and decadent, positively reeking of orange, cinnamon, patchouli and vanilla.

There have been more recent triumphs. Giorgio Beverly Hills in 1981 was another huge success: sickly sweet and anything but subtle, it was the designer label writ large. In 1998 Vivienne Westwood's Boudoir's tag line announced, 'This perfume smells of sex', and in the 21st century perfume has continued to break taboos: Stella McCartney's Stella fragrance smells of roses past their sell-by-date: a sort of ballsy, post-millennial feminism. Clinique's Simply smells of breast milk: how unashamed and bold is that?

And now, at the tail end of the most turbulent economic period since Joy was first unstoppered - when the word 'luxury' has been endlessly mined and devalued but we've all had enough of the cheap and the disposable - comes another landmark: Alberta Ferretti, the fragrance.

So, on a hot summer's day, I travel to Milan to meet the designer and try out her new baby. Much as you never know whether a dress will fit unless you slip it on, with a perfume you need to wear it, go dancing in it, get home late at night and then breathe it in. Only then will you know if you love it.

Alberta Ferretti is in my top three of designers whose work I wear and lust after (Tomas Maier of Bottega Veneta and Miuccia Prada are the other two). Ferretti doesn't rely on hype or clever advertising campaigns, neither does she court celebrities. She has never sold her name or designed a cut-price range for a department store. She merely makes simple, flattering, woman-friendly dresses with the most exquisite, intricate beading; often in jewel colours, mostly but not exclusively in chiffon. She doesn't change tack each season; rather her clothes all work with each other for years. …