Two weeks ago I started an internship in a building conveniently located near Holt Renfrew (a higher-end department store with nauseous, condescending staff, but a pleasing curation of perfumes). This bodes well for the blog and bad for my wallet. Having heard much about her, I swept down on the Jo Malone display like a ghoul upon the living, but quickly discovered that her nose and mine have little in common — the plight to packaging fetishism is that disappointment is rampant. Of the 20 (rounding down, probably – one must credit proficiency where it’s due) the sales associate begrudgingly sprayed for me, only a couple really stood out. Blue Agava Cacao (smells like a feisty angel), for one, and Orange Blossom (reviews to come).
After smothering all of my pulse points with Jo Malone, I turned the corner and screamed. This isn’t dramatization for the sake of blogging. There, in all its polished glass and black, laquered glory, stood a Byredo display. To put it in perspective, in case the screaming wasn’t enough: Byredo is the kind of perfume line that dreams are made of. I had previously thought that it was only available in Sweden / New York, but as luck would have it, this massive pit of money-sucking smelly water is right around the corner.
I rarely reference perfumers, but Byredo’s Ben Gorham has a fascinating story. He’s interested in fragrances for many of the reasons I am: their ability to convey (and transport one back to) a moment in time, and the power of their simplicity. He says, of his beginnings in the industry:
I put together this creative project that was more about translating specific memories into scents…I was trying to kind of see how literal I could be with the translations. [My mentor] showed me some stuff and it was very provocative, especially connected to memory. Like, I could get you to smell something and you would be like, ‘Wow…Troy…ninth grade.’ It could take you places—almost like music—in a very instant way.
Crafting scent for memory: check. Comparing perfume and music: check. I have no choice but to love him. The sales associate at the Byredo counter explained to me that each perfume channels a specific moment in time (fictional or otherwise). Take Seven Veils:
Seven Veils is a spicy oriental composition built around the warmth of vanilla flower and Indian sandalwood.
It is based on the biblical tale of Salome’s dance of the Seven Veils, a story of many layers. Tainted and bejeweled, Salome turns to the art of shameless seduction. Barefooted, sanguine and black eyed, she demands a man’s head on a plate in exchange for one single dance…
The specificity is refreshing; the perfume strings a narrative that either pleases you or repulses you. There is no ambiguity to it. Gorham is known for his (ever Swedish) minimalism – whereas other perfumers like to layer materials and notes (often to confusing and overwhelming ends), he only plays around with 5-10 at a time. The result is clear, vivid fragrances that smell like nothing you have ever smelled before.
The bottles are themselves objects of reverence. I coveted this thing on the Internet for months, not knowing how it felt in my hands or whether the quality compares to that of my idealization. Turns out it does. The glass is heavy and beautiful, and the cap houses a magnet. There is nothing about these perfumes that haven’t been thought through.
Gorham: “I played with the weight, the magnets and the caps, the quality of glass, transparency and so forth, all within this simple framework. Then for the boxes I do a typography, I designed our own typography with a friend of mine that’s quite simple but had a kind of 1920’s feel which I feel is the archetypal era for commercial perfumes.” Someone, contain me.
The one that caught my (seasonal attention) was Pulp, (which, according to basenotes, “is designed to capture the scent of flesh from the fruit of an exotic fruit bowl – notes include bergamot, blackcurrant, cardamom, fig, red apple, tiare, cedarwood, praline, peach flower.”) To be honest, I didn’t sample as many as I wanted, because the Jo Malone guy was turning the corner and giving me the stink eye. But Pulp was great, and the notes that stood out to me are: blackcurrant, fig, apple, peach. Don’t let these fresh words fool you, though: this perfume is not fruity. It is heavy, pungent. It is a fruit basket left in a heatwave, a still life that’s been still for too long.
There is something insidiously sexual about it, like falling in love with your kidnapper, or being with a boyfriend for all the wrong reasons. It projects, almost perfectly, the primal essence of the hottest days of summer: restless, languid flesh – a sweetness that lingers and is trapped in the walls, stuck in the carpet to decompose. Reviewers are torn – those who love it think it’s ripe; those who hate it think it’s rotten. To me, it’s both, and there’s something so great about that.
It also reminds me of something else that has bothered/fascinated me since I was young:
Let’s be real – papayas are fucking nasty. Who knows what’s growing in there? But in spite of its unsightly nature – or maybe because of it – I still want to pluck those black seeds one by one and bite into its soft flesh. Most of the papaya I’ve had has been prefaced by a putrid note, but sometimes I am surprised by the succulence.
Disappointment, already an unpleasant emotion, is always intensified by the coloring of one’s expectations. To really, really look forward to something, to build it up in one’s imagination until it exceeds all of its realistic dimensions — this is an unfortunate reality most of us are familiar with. Previously, we’ve exercised these hopes for schoolyard crushes, Christmas gifts. Then, university applications, first dates, second chances.
Not to be overdramatic, but this is how I felt about Comme des Garçons’ 2 Man. (Whereas certain people have the emotional range of a teaspoon, I hyperextend.) I came upon it in a menswear shop in Montreal, at the beginning of the year. A close friend had tried it on, and it peeled itself layer by layer on his wrist, magnificently. We sniffed at it repeatedly on the way back to his apartment.
Perplexed as to its constituents, an investigation was launched immediately: white smoke, incense, saffron, mahogany, vetiver, leather. If my perfect match existed on paper, this was it. A true soulmate-level compatibility. Certain interests are piqued by appearances, and others by rumoured defining traits — I had liked what these notes were saying about the cologne. Like the infatuation forged when a cute date shares your taste in literature, my interest became an obsession. (As I said, hyperextension.)
I had left the shop without trying it on, not believing at the time that a cologne of 2 Man‘s nature could be successfully worn by a woman. I don’t know what kind of self-limiting witchcraft I was exposed to, but there it is. I didn’t think I could live up to it. (In my defence, the tagline was: “a worker, a man who loves his work.” I don’t aspire to such standards.) But when a friend introduced me to The Perfumed Court and its overwhelming decanting possibilities, I ordered it immediately. Surely, it would reward my fondness with a good projection, a rich and enduring complexity.
And of course, it didn’t. It stank. I smelled like an elderly hoarder with a proclivity for medicine and ink. Gutted, I wore it repeatedly, offering up my wrist to any willing nose — many noses were unwilling, but obliged by friendship and/or proximity. In the feedback I gathered, descriptives were rich and plentiful: they ranged from ‘attractive but slightly dusty librarian’ to ‘refined cougar’, to ‘what you might be in 40 years if you didn’t age well.’ Sum all, not positive. My disappointment welled.
And honestly, I should have known better. It was, for all intents and purposes, an anosmic* date. (*Research was needed for this. Whereas words denoting most sensual deprivations –blind, mute, deaf, numb — are integrated into the English vernacular, the sense of smell has been revealingly left out. Anosmic: relating to an impairment or loss of the sense of smell.)
Have you ever felt like a person of the night?
At its most complex, it means feeling an optimal energy, productivity, sociability and wit past the hour of 11 p.m.; at its simplest, it implies insomnia. Both extremes encourage behaviour that swells – amplified emotions, gestures, cadence, sexuality. Being awake in the period from twilight to dawn – especially in summer, and especially a city – is living a saturated existence. We are quicker to err, more impulsive, more forgiving. Everything has a trim of surrealism.
The cultural distinction is clear, idiomatic, polarizing. What is one cannot belong in the other, lest you risk being inappropriate for both. Night people are not morning people, although there are always the ones who fall in the overlap, managing to sleep four hours and preserve their pep.
I’ve always been interested in this pairing, especially in the taxonomic division that it represents for perfumes. Night scents are, generally, recommended for fall/winter; day perfumes are light, airy, for sundresses and spring strolls. When the seasons change for the warmer, many ascribe an excess ‘heaviness’ to their fragrance, sensing the need to replace it with something more fitting. It feels intuitive, but it’s intriguing; after all, the weight of scent can only exist linguistically.
As such, a perfume’s chronological categorization is rather specific. Woody, animalistic, amber and oriental scents are almost always nocturnal – consider Tom Ford’s Black Orchid or Robert Piguet’s Bandit. Fruity, citrusy, and floral scents are primarily considered day perfumes – try Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue, or Dior Addict 2. Their bottles are often coloured respectively – light and clean for day, dark and opaque for night. It reminds me of film noirs, and the way that these dichotomies were coded: when a female character appeared onscreen and what she was wearing tells you everything. Femme fatales and antagonists – always brunettes – rarely wore light clothing and appeared mostly in shadowy scenes; innocent heroines and/or victims wore white or neutrals, had golden hair, and saw sunlight frequently.
Now, consider Armani Code for Women – one of my favorites. I wear it day and night, summer and fall, without much of an objection from anyone who detects it. It was launched as a sexy fragrance – one of the most frequently-used words in reviews on Code. Most people consider it a night and winter scent. But take a look at the notes! Oranges, jasmine, honey, vanilla. Does that suggest seductiveness?
I enjoy thinking about Code because I think it’s one of those fragrances that fall in the middle of the night/day dissociation. It has nocturnal elements – mainly, I think, in a blend between the jasmine and the ‘Precious Wood Complex’ that only Sephora seems to identify in its description – but it’s also lively. In certain mindsets, sexuality and excessive femininity (sexuality:night :: femininity:day) are still at odds, and I think this is still true in perfume vocabulary and marketing. On the bottle, a Sephora writer notes:
The clean, sleek silhouette of the glass bottle is decorated with an oriental-inspired motif and transparently embroidered with a shadowing effect. The color and lace represent the feminine spirit of Mr. Armani’s couture designs. Together, glamour and mystery combine to create this mesmerizing composition.
Together. Even the act of describing a union reveals one’s belief in the heterogenous parts. Strength and femininity are still not synonymous, finding themselves united when the conditions are right. It’s an oddly regressive thought, for an industry that is heavily driven and supported by women. I wonder what others find in Code. I often wonder why I like it myself.
My best friend in high school was the person who first introduced me to the fragrance industry. She came from Tampico, Mexico, where social clubs were abundant and crowded, belts had to match with handbags, and certain items of clothing could not leave the house twice. Everyone in her social circle was a miniature celebrity, each with a set of defining characteristics that they could not overstep. Couples who were together stayed together (very Luke and Marissa season 1 – although Newport Beach is nothing like The O.C., Tampico is.) When you were known for something, you made sure it stayed that way.
This is how she felt about Burberry Brit. Ironic, I know, given that it is probably one of the highest-selling perfumes out there – everyone I know has smelled it at one point or another. But at the time, it was new to me: my sole conception of scented bodies came from Calgon’s Take Me Away commercials (my preferred mist, shown here, was Hawaiian Ginger). Other girls grew up with their lotions from Bath & Body Works. Individuality was very much not at stake – everyone smelled like Warm Vanilla Sugar, and that was fine.
Not by her. When I manifested interest in her perfume collection, my best friend very cautiously handed me her bottle. “This is my favorite, but you can’t get it,” she said firmly. “It’s mine. We can’t smell the same.” Neither of us knew at the time, but this was the moment I inculcated the notion of signature things: scents, styles, vocabulary – all of which were to be grasped at in the decade that followed. The elusive sense of refined and defining taste. I would be lying if I said I’d found it.
After I purchased Ralph by Ralph Lauren at a duty-free shop, I forgot about perfumes for a few years, mostly impaired by an adolescent budget. Then, the year I moved to Montreal, the obsession struck. I was possessed by the idea of owning something that would come to associate itself with my image; it, that existential sense of self, was something I was still crafting with difficulty. I had just dropped out from architecture school, and my mind was reeling with guesses as to what that meant about my character. It’s bittersweet, the ways in which we try to substitute our own lack.
I ardently researched online and spent hours in department stores, trying this and that. I learned to sniff coffee beans to dispel olfactory ghosts. Chanel #5, I was disappointed to learn, was not for me (I don’t think it’ll ever be). Finally, Brit was presented to me on a perfume strip, and something about it was comforting, yet attractive, both characteristics I didn’t mind embracing. My friend came to mind, but my selfish desire for that sense of identity pushed the thought aside: she was hours away, and our friendship was fading. Perfect.
Burberry Brit is a oriental, fruity, slightly nutty scent. Its main notes, to my nose at least, are lime, vanilla, peony, tonka bean, almonds. Many reviewers mention the presence of icy pear, but I won’t even pretend to have ever met an icy pear. According to Sephora, it is “Impulsive. Sexy. Unique.” But as we all know, projected expectations are rarely reality. This much-lauded perfume is, in fact, none of these things. Not to me, anyway, and I’ve been wearing it (occasionally, but consistently!) for a long time.
It is, at its core, very un-English. The austerity, the wry wit, the cold rain – it doesn’t reflect any of that. The astringency of the lime fades almost immediately upon spraying, and what we’re left with is a very sweet, inviting, and warm scent, like that of an intimate (but platonic) embrace. If Brit were a television character, it’d be Gilmore Girls‘ Sookie: pretty, loyal, always making delicious things.
And to that point, I’ll add (though I hate acknowledging it) that boyfriends have described it as dessert-like. This is not an idea I want to associate with perfume or me, by proxy. Dessert-like! It did not align itself with the aloof, mysterious persona that I coveted at the time, and it’s still a few steps removed from my personality today. Yet I wear it, at least several times a month, for those exact reasons – to be comforted by this genial energy surrounding me, this added presence: the reminder of Warm Vanilla Sugar and firm, maternal hugs.
It seems fitting to inaugurate a perfume blog by discussing my earliest love, the perfume that spawned my (expensive and probably indulgent) interest in fragrances. It is by no means a unique first-perfume (I had painfully dull taste at the time), but to its credit, it has significantly marked the collective adolescent memories of thousands of women, which is no small feat for a fragrance housed in a truncated water bottle.
Ralph, by Ralph Lauren. (If you stare at the letters for too long, the oddity of its consonants becomes troubling.) Its central accords* are fruity (apple, mandarin) and floral (freesia, magnolia, iris)**. As a movie, it would open on a beach with a breeze. The sun would immediately impart a headache.
As a teenage scent, it’s undeniably youthful, fresh. However, and almost immediately, Ralph turns saccharine, borderline sickening — the way that innocence and naïveté can fast become a source of irritation. Fortunately, the target audience is young. The Internet seems to bracket them at 15-25, but I would say 12-18. When you’ve seen body hair and you’re old enough to vote, the idyllic promise of Ralph should start to fade.
Launched in 2000, this perfume’s arrival was timed perfectly with the reign of …Baby One More Time era Britney Spears: fresh-faced and sweet, with an undercurrent of emergent sexuality. Not a girl, not yet a woman: this would have been a perfect tagline for the perfume. The early 2000s seemed to be a period in which postadolescent girls rushed to discover, or uncover, their own bodily depths. Expectedly, as the initial target matured, the line expanded to fit their profiles. Ralph Cool, Hot, Rocks and Wild appeared in the decade that followed – perfumes as mentors.
Another perfume that falls within this profile is DKNY’s Be Delicious, which was launched in 2009, although I could have sworn it was much earlier than that. To a twenty-something, it seems dated, like Ralph — yet its legacy is far less extensive. Playing with the cultural familiarity of Ralph‘s sweet accords (Be Delicious is also floral – magnolia, lily of the valley – and fruity, like its bottle suggests), the perfume spoke to the newer generation of women at the cusp of their sexuality. It makes sense: an apple, after all, is where innocence was first lost.
* Per Wikipedia, “Perfume is described in a musical metaphor as having three sets of notes, making the harmonious scent accord. The notes unfold over time, with the immediate impression of the top note leading to the deeper middle notes, and the base notes gradually appearing as the final stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.”
** For full descriptions of a perfume’s note pyramid, check out Basenotes.