Tomoé Hill

Scent Markings

May 22, 2019

I concentrate on the bottles within the mosaic-tiled confines of the tray before me—distantly aware of the drops of still-warm water running down my freshly showered skin and hair, wet and heavy against the curve of my back. This is part of a ritual: to choose a scent—the scent—that announces my presence. For those hours that I wear it, it will be inextricably bound to who I am until it fades like a dream during what the Spanish and the Portuguese call madrugada—that hazy time between midnight and morning.

Sometimes I know what it is I feel like saying—becoming—and my hand reaches immediately for a certain bottle. At other times, I hover over one, then another; as if deciding how to move in a game of chess. I rely on perfume when there are moments I cannot articulate, knowing the message of flesh and scent will speak for me. Today, I reject a myriad of options: I do not want the bold, dark musk of Nasomatto Black Afgano, the almost monastic wood of Escentric Molecules Molecule 01, nor the bright, candied lavender of Vero Profumo Kiki EDP, named for Kiki de Montparnasse. I want elements of each, and find myself looking harder at the remaining bottles, as if I could tap into the essence of the liquids in them. 

From left to right: Black Afgano (Nasomatto, 2009); Molecule 01 (Escentric Molecules, 2006); Kiki Eau de Parfum (Vero Profumo, 2010). 

My skin is cooling; shivering slightly, I wrap the towel around my body tighter. This is what I want: the simple yet decadent comfort of a warm material against skin. Le Labo Benjoin 19? No, not quite—it is an animal lying by a birch fire. I feel less wild than that today, and want the luxury of rich cloth instead: velvet, silk, cashmere. My fingers close around the gold cap of Ormonde Jayne’s Tsarina (Intensivo), a floral-woody oriental with jasmine, iris, coriander, vanilla bean, suede, sandalwood, and musk. I spray delicately on my neck, décolletage, and arms, letting the towel drop. Wrists still damp, I run them along my stomach and the insides of my thighs. I sigh with pleasure, satisfied at the completion such a small gesture brings, and stretch out on the bed, stealing a moment dressed only in scent.

The scent marking that precedes this is not a standalone experience—it is something I repeat every day, often, twice. Nor am I alone in this: there are lovers and collectors of perfume who change their scent several times a day. What happens each time we go through the process of choosing, of examining each bottle so carefully, adamant that there is such a thing as a right or wrong choice? In “Unpacking My Library”, Walter Benjamin’s essay on books and their collectors, the word “fate” comes up again and again. The collector’s fate is tied to the object(s), and the key to this fatum is pleasure. Pleasure is what dictates the thrill of its history and acquisition, of its future with its owner. For many perfume lovers, this pleasure often begins early, with memories of a loved one smelling of a certain scent, the observation of them applying it, or even through a relative detachment—a display of bottles at a shop, perhaps, or the assistant expertly spraying the wrist of a potential customer. Whether attached to a personal or commercial ritual, the act of application is emblematic of a mysterious, mature world we are merely observers of when young.

Left: Benjoin 19 (Le Labo, 2013). Right: Tsarina Intensivo (Ormonde Jayne, 2012). 

In The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard comments that collecting is more active in the pre- and post-pubescent as a a stand-in for sexuality. This seems extreme to me, at least in the pre- stage. I would offer the alternative theory that the act of collecting is better expressed in the pre-pubescent stage as an unconscious way of building core memories around artificial totems—in this case, the perfume—representing those closest to us. In these cases, the simple image of the perfume can be as important as the physical object. A toddler is unlikely to be playing with their mother’s perfume bottle, but may start to associate her with what she does with it, and so ‘perfume’ represents ‘mother’ and subsequent memories find them inseparable. In the post-pubescent stage, perfume acts as a memory palace, the bottles—images of them or real ones—which are now markers in a recollective method.

It can of course be argued that collecting is still, in a way, tied to the sexual experience and fetishism—perhaps unconsciously during the peak teenage or young adult stages—and that a parallel exists between collecting, memory, and sexual development that remains unbroken in life, so long as the three continue to thrive. The archetypal teenage experiences of celebrity and peer-as-partner idolisation represent a sexual ideal: the transference of celebrity status onto the peer and the transference of ‘real’ onto the celebrity. The idea that we treat our first crushes as stars or felt that we were perfect for a celebrity when young isn’t new, as anyone who had the fantasy of getting together with not the lead singer of a band, but the drummer or the bassist, because it was more ‘realistic’ can attest (not me, obviously).

The beginnings of serious sexual experimentation often require symbols/objects for both parties to record that particular time as important—a boyfriend’s sweater, a girlfriend’s necklace or, if you’re as ancient as me, a mixtape—songs being markers of memory and identity in much the same way the perfume is. Collection at this stage may be just as important as the actual memories, which later manifest themselves in a more physical and emotional form: positive memories strengthen the likelihood of wanting to return to, if not that specific scenario, then an act that reinforces that same positive feeling. Simply put, if you have an especially fond memory of buying perfume for a boyfriend/girlfriend, you’re more likely to repeat it in your future relationships in the hope that you’ll receive the same emotional reward. Memories are, after all, not static—they don’t stop at certain points in life because the specific experience isn’t relevant anymore. Hence, collecting is not so much the stop-start process described by Baudrillard, but an ongoing one that adapts, and hopefully evolves, according to the various stages of physical and emotional development.

Teenage memories are furthermore not always sexual, although they can be just as representative of idolisation. Take our relationship with our friends, especially our best ones. Picture a scene from the late eighties: my best friend and I are sitting in her kitchen after school, leafing through Vogue. She stops at a perfume ad, points and says, I’m asking for this for Christmas. We examine the image closely: a woman, face half-hidden by a mask, body obscured by a chess table. In the background, a Venetian masquerade ball. Ysatis by Givenchy, what was then a huge white floral: tuberose, jasmine, narcissus. E was the only person I knew who could walk the corridors of our high school in such glamorous scents without seeming out of place. I could smell her down a crowded hallway before catching a glimpse, her olfactory elegance in sharp contrast to the cheaper perfumes that overwhelmed our teenage years: Coty’s Exclamation, The Body Shop’s White Musk, and Colors de Benetton. Her scent was a path I navigated through a sea of lesser scent distractions, hoping it would lead me to the same degree of worldliness. I idolised E for her sophistication and, for years, even though Ysatis never smelled the same on me, I kept a small bottle of it to recall my memories of the girl whose impeccable perfume tastes I aspired to.

Ysatis (Givenchy, 1984). 

It could be argued that when mass-accessible technology—specifically, the internet and social media—started to become an integral part of the cultural experience rather than simply an aid to it; the likelihood for a collector not to adapt and advance developmentally decreased, as a ‘permanent record’ of memories ensured one could ‘replay’ the same stages over and over, instead of naturally having some memories lapse in lieu of new ones more fitting to whatever stage of life one was in. Call it Darwinian memory selection or maturity, but it can surely be agreed that emotional advancement is key to functional and practical development. Perhaps this sort of regressive behaviour is more relevant in teenage years, when we are more impressionable. But the optional anonymity of the internet also means adults can now pretend to be more youthful, if not entirely infantilised alter-egos, who are unwilling to create memories in a real world they perceive as unsatisfactory and difficult to control and so choose to retreat into nostalgia.

Susan Sontag remarks in On Photography that “photographs are incitements to reverie”, being both “a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.” In that way, perfume—and its memory, which is an image, after all—functions similarly, but with more intensity. While the photograph, as Sontag says, “is a neat slice of time”, the reverie induced by scent is more cinematic, comprising not random images but a more complete, cohesive, narrative—something taken up in perfume advertising on television. Take the example of the boy band One Direction—in their original line-up, an example of seemingly unstoppable celebrity in the new-media age—and their foray into branded perfume. At last count, their offerings stood at five scents: Our Moment, You & I, That Moment, For You, and Between Us, all variations on sweet fruit-floral or gourmand types, long since deemed the appropriate—that is, best-selling—genres for a younger (female, as signified by consistently pink packaging) demographic.

Far from the days of collectible interaction between celebrity and fan being such mute items as t-shirts or posters, the perfume represents something much more personal: a two-way message solidifying adoration. This will be explored in detail later but, for now, consider the question: will that perfumed cinematic memory-loop act become a hindrance to the natural growth of a would-be collector? Does taste become static when emotional attachment is that intense?

Space seems to be required for the nurturing of the collector’s passion: whether physical or mental, space allows for the development of development-itself. As life goes on, certain scents are forgotten, others remembered. Even for a collector at their peak, certain bottles move back in a collection while others enjoy temporary favour. Collecting parallels memory and development while making use of the knowledge we have collected on our lives. In the most astute collectors, all of this information comes together to not just grow the collection, but ourselves.

While it may be a humorous stereotype that teenagers and young adults are wildly hormonal and prone to constantly thinking of sex, the high emotional states experienced at that stage would influence giving more weight to sensory symbols or objects they see as linked to someone of importance. It would be too easy to decry this as superficial—something is only ever emotionally superficial to whomever is not involved in, or cannot remember, the grip of experience.

As a teenager/young adult, I went through a phase of buying and wearing male scents that had nearly obsessive sexual memory attachments. P wore Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir, and I remember those humid summer nights—sticky skin and Drakkar, making me want him beyond all reason; the look in his blue eyes serious, but just as aroused. T wore Ralph Lauren Polo Sport, something I only knew because he told me: I wouldn’t meet him for some months; our relationship surreptitious, made up of long phone calls at night that were sex barely (but sometimes not even) disguised as conversations. When I finally met him, my body trembled, the smell equated so thoroughly in my mind with those nights lying in the dark, every nerve electrified simply by his voice. Possessing the bottle was a way of possessing the person and recalling the experience more intensely; wearing it was to communicate directly with my own flourishing sexuality. I would become physically excited. Smelling those scents on myself was enough to make my skin shiver, and the now-familiar—but never tiring—thrill of arousal would run through my body. Smell was the start of an unstoppable reaction to lust, with memories colliding in my head one after the other, phantom scents as strong as if their wearers had been physically beside me.

Left: Drakkar (Guy Laroche, 1972). Right; Polo Sport (Ralph Lauren, 1994)

In the following years, the idea of wearing men’s scents evolved from that and my childhood experience of sampling my father’s colognes. I would purchase men’s scents that had no extant memory attachments for myself. Lest there be a Freudian outcry, I should clarify the two experiences of male scents were very different to me: my father  occupied the place of the traditional female perfume model, while also representing a kind of androgyny. He saw scent as ideologically fluid—something that had olfactory appeal and that physically complemented one’s skin was all the justification needed to wear it. Due to those foundational experiences, the result for me in later taking something marketed as inherently male and shaping it to myself was it no longer needed a man: it was just the scent and I. Whatever maleness existed in, or was projected onto, it was subsumed in femininity—its outward representation in the collection now inverted. If we see our experiences and memories as formative in the development of who we are, then it follows that the act of collecting, no matter how superficial it appears at the time—or even in retrospect—is part of the narrative of becoming.  

1995. Going about my uninteresting workday, one of the women in business accounts comes up to me. She sniffs audibly, pulls off her headset and asks: are you wearing cologne? I smile. It’s Halston Catalyst for Men, I say. She laughs. It’s very you, she replies. I know you wear a lot of different things, but I like that one. I nod. We’re adrift in a sea of mainly scentless cubicles, and a running joke is that if the others smell perfume, I must be making my way through the office. I had bought Catalyst the previous evening after work, amused by the lab glass-style bottles—flasks and test tubes. But when I picked up a tester, I hadn’t expected to be so drawn to it. Spraying it on, it blended with my own scent perfectly, leaving my skin smelling of warm spices—nutmeg, cinnamon, or is it clove?—and wood. I find it hard to explain to myself: it doesn’t smell like I’m just ‘wearing’ a man’s scent, because it doesn’t just sit there, overpowering me. It feels like my chemistry understood something in it and said, this, we make our own. It’s not for men anymore, it’s all for you.

Catalyst for Men (Halston, 1994)

Each bottle in a collection is similar yet distinct. Similar, because each one is recognisable as having been a part of who we were at some point in our lives, in which sense we come to identify with them in an somewhat tribal manner. Even when they’re gone—no longer worn, or unavailable—to smell or see them elsewhere is to remark upon them with familiarity and warmth. They are distinct, because what were once more neatly defined divisions in perfume genre (Oriental, Chypre, Gourmand) have become blurred due to a vast number of new ingredients—specifically created molecules and accords—and on account of marketing’s augmented role in convincing the consumer that a fragrance is not just a fragrance, but part of a story—your own.

Top: Angel (Thierry Mugler, 1992). From left to right: Allure Sensuelle (Chanel, 2005); Black Orchid (Tom Ford, 2006); Badgley Mischka (Badgley Mischka, 2006); Pleasures Delight (Estée Lauder, 2007).  

How each scent can now be categorised might be better explained by taking Baudrillard’s theory of models and series and explaining it in terms of perfume. One could say that Thierry Mugler’s Angel in the blue star bottle is the model for the seemingly innumerable series of fruit-patchouli perfumes that have followed it: Badgley Mischka’s discontinued eponymous scent, Estee Lauder’s short-lived Pleasures Delight, Chanel’s Allure Sensuelle, Tom Ford’s Black Orchid. Another example is to say Chanel’s Coco is the model for the ‘flanker’ scents within the brand, such as Coco Mademoiselle and Coco Noir; that is to say, another form of series that retains enough of the original aspects of the model to be recognisable as such. We might, of course, enjoy a ‘series’ perfume while not liking the original ‘model’ or vice versa, in the same way Benjamin’s collector might not like all books, but focuses on those that best reflect their particular literary tastes. Something in the individual perfume-object elicits like, indifference, or dislike, and in turn, we ascribe those to our emotional states; not unlike a couple who declare a song as ‘theirs’, or a person who hates it because it reminds them of a bad breakup. A song might be an abstract ‘object’ in that it’s not tangible, but we still consider it personal—it possesses us, and we possess it as part of memory.

Chanel, left to right: Coco EDP (1984); Coco Mademoiselle (2001); Coco Noir (2012).  

Perfume functions in a similar way. It is of course a physical object, although one with abstract—that is to say, intangible, qualities—and some people may have only a memory of the scent, with never a bottle attached to it. But it is not simply the bottle—sometimes irrelevant in our choice—which inspires the ideas of non-material possession, acquisition, even fate. What is inside, a liquid which looks much like its neighbours in the collection, inhabits the visible and the invisible worlds of sense and memory, with each scent being representative of a variation of model and series—both of which exist in perfumes. If we see part of ourselves in perfume, it is because as a ‘model’ they represent us: the physical self as the bottle and the memories, emotions, and experiences we attach to them as ‘series’. It is no wonder that perfume collectors consider their choices—both in acquisition and in terms of choosing what to wear—so seriously, whilst taking the utmost pleasure in doing so. It is what Benjamin refers to when speaking of the balancing act between the chaotic and the ordered the collector experiences. He writes of the only facts of book collecting being dates and formats vis-à-vis the chaos of memories associated with books.

So it is with perfume. What is factual about the rows of bottles I see before me? That they are held in containers, and that while mine have names, dates, and other such information, this is not as important as the more chaotic memories and emotions I’ve attached or will ascribe to them. It could be said that the person who places importance on order rather than disorder is merely someone who catalogues; not a true collector, who possesses and whom is possessed.

What about the collector’s division of new versus old, or vintage, perfume? Benjamin says the old is “closer to the wellsprings of collecting”, and that when one collects the new, it is because of a wish to “renew the old world”. Both phrases more than hint at the suggestion that the old world—which we could read as nostalgia—is somehow more authentic than the new. Familiar laments of the perfume lover are “they don’t make them like they used to/that doesn’t smell like it once did”. According to their site, the Osmothèque perfume archive in Versailles “represents more than 3,200 perfumes, including 400 that are no longer available”. The rest of us scour estate sales, second-hand shops, auction sites; sometimes we inherit partial or unopened bottles from a deceased friend or relation. These scents are markedly different compared to their newer companions in the collection, which includes some bearing the same name, reformulations whose formulas have been radically or slightly changed—for the latter, perhaps not even noticeably—over the years, to reflect the banning or the scarcity of certain ingredients or cost-saving measures on the company’s behalf. Like the rare, old book to the fresh, new paperback, there is an undeniable history in the vintage scent whose pedigree acts as a kind of blueprint to understand what comes next. The vintage perfume is the ultimate ‘model’.

It is important to note that, just as in any other type of vintage collecting, there can be a degree of perceived snobbery in its owners and the act itself. That is not to say the owner is a snob, although of course they might be; it would be more accurate to say that the emphasis on the knowledge of the ‘ultimate model’ makes one more observant, more critical of what comes after for wanting to compare and learn from the past and how it’s affecting the present. Assuming the collector is not already a scholar or historian, they become the self-appointed seekers of the truth and meaning of a perfume.

This is not to say that this is somehow a preferable state of being as a collector. Indeed, it also breeds constant dissatisfaction and a perpetual restlessness to obtain an ideal that no longer exists and that’s increasingly less relevant to the perfumed reality on shelves and ads. But to those who own vintage, it is to declare freedom from the scented establishment, to be subversive in refusing to allow one’s head—or nose— to be turned with every new release. As a result, the idea of authenticity becomes yet more divisive: what kind do we seek? One that refers to the very origins of a perfume, or one that reflects the present? There is no right answer to this, and maybe that is for the best, because it emphasises the importance of the individual in consumer society. Regardless of whether you identify as a collector, a non-collecting perfume lover or a casual consumer, all of us are capable of recognising multiple and nuanced authenticities. The worth of a bottle will always be dependent on the value we ascribe to it, and sometimes that emotional value appreciates when, later on, we realise exactly which memories became attached to it.

Colors de Benetton (Benetton, 1987)

All the popular girls in junior high wore Benetton: branded sweatshirts, t-shirts, bags. But there were also a few who wore the perfume, the first one, Colors de Benetton in the clear angular bottle with the black cap, rich with orange blossom and garden-fresh basil. I wanted that perfume more than anything, and of course it was the one item that couldn’t be bought on sale, unlike my pink sweatshirt and green schoolbag. My longing was so fierce that it remained unreasonably in my memory until I became obsessed with Chanel’s Coco in high school. Forgotten for years, I recalled it again with disinterest when I noticed the packaging had changed to an all-green bottle, the scent itself weak and not much like I remembered. But one day in my early thirties, the original scent dislodged itself from somewhere in my memory—as fresh in my nose as if I were sitting in class next to L, decked from head to toe in the latest season Benetton, wafting that herbal-floral smell. I hunted for it on Ebay until the day I came across a few new, original bottles. Usually hesitant about buying vintage, that familiar longing was too strong and one was purchased. When it arrived, I twisted off the black cap and was transported back to 8th grade. The sweet orange blossom and tangy basil burst forth, but with them another bittersweet, sudden remembrance of begging my father for a bottle at the store and being denied; and the slightly sad look of a parent who would love to fulfil such a small wish, but can’t.

Let’s go back to the question of the fake, whether in the form of a legitimate—legal—knockoff of a scent, or a black-market version. A child of the American late eighties will be familiar with Parfums de Coeur’s Designer Imposters series (“If you like ___, you’ll love ___”, ran the tagline) based on the blockbuster sellers of the time. Among the many were Giorgio by Giorgio Beverly Hills, represented as Primo; Calvin Klein’s Obsession as Confess; and the one I wore, Dior’s Poison, as Turmoil. Originally sold in slim, striped spray cans, there was also a classier glass bottle option for those of us who wanted to pretend we weren’t actually spending much less than half of our allowance to smell like the mysterious silk and lace-wrapped Serge Lutens-styled model in a Poison ad. The world might have been able to smell the fake, but wearing something similar made me feel as if I were wearing the real thing. I felt mysterious, and alluring and adult, as authentic as if I had dabbed from the actual dark purple bottle every morning and not sprayed from the imposter with the green, metallic cap.

Print ad for Christian Dior’s Poison. Styling by Serge Lutens; model Isabelle Adjani (1985).

No matter how divisive the opinions on the matter, a clear distinction exists between the legal fake and the original scent. The person who purchases the former knows what it is they are acquiring, a simulacrum that’s sufficient to fulfil their scent belief, at least in terms of an initial purchase. With the Designer Imposters series, the key was to appeal to the fragrance lover’s care for authenticity through the practicality of budget. The ad copy never shied away from the taboo concept of fake or replica—the shame in not being able to afford the original—by brazenly showing something unimaginable today: the original and the imposter side by side, and defending theirs was not only just as good in formula, but better than the original because of its price point. To wear these fakes was proclaimed as shame-free, something to be proud of. Cleverly, the shift in focus of the meaning of scent authenticity meant that, by changing the mindset of the consumer/collector, the fake gained the same validation as an original. But what of the person who acquires a replica which is not realised as such? The steps that lead to it are neither farfetched nor naïve. 


14 of the 17 scents from Chanel’s Les Exclusifs. From left to right: N° 22; Gardenia; Bois des Isles; Cuir de Russie; Eau de Cologne; 31 Rue Cambon; N° 18; Coromandel; Bel Respiro; 28 La Pausa; Sycomore; Beige; Jersey and 1922

It helps to start with idea of perfume, especially those created under the branding of high-end fashion labels (Chanel, Gucci, Tom Ford), as a de facto luxury item; since they seem to be the target of illegal copies (or adulterated/diluted formulas for vintage). Chanel, at least, has certain packaging markers that those in the know look for when purchasing outside of authorised retailers. For instance, their higher-end Les Exclusifs range labels are double-sided: on the front of one of my bottles reads Chanel Bois des Iles. Look through the back of the bottle, and you’ll see ‘Eau de Toilette’ printed on the reverse. The cap itself is magnetic and not a standard snap-on. This is all information most consumers are probably unaware of and that, for the most part, they shouldn’t need to consider. But the pricing of many perfumes means that often, people look for bargains. This may mean waiting for a sale, searching for a discount code to apply to online retailers or purchasing off of an auction site. Like with fake Louis Vuitton or Hermès bags, there is a trade in fake perfumes. What the eye or nose thinks is correct is believed to be so. A quick sample spray of Chanel No. 5 or Prada Candy at a counter and we think we definitely know what a scent smells like and how it is packaged. Fakes alter both packaging and scent just enough to pass the believability test, and it is only those who are deliberately looking for false information or trying to verify the true who can spot otherwise. The font may be ever so slightly dissimilar or skewed on the label, there may be no batch number on the bottom or the scent may be a whiff fainter than you remember—but these signs may go unnoticed or perceived as a factory glitch. After a brief glance at a Candy bottle, do you really remember the exact placement of the name, if there is a detachable cap or just a large, domed spray mechanism, or the exact shade of hot pink? Belief in the object’s signifiers is the first and strongest part of what makes it authentic to the owner. ‘Close enough’ factual information that we accept along with our desire for the perfume sustains the belief that it is genuine, even when there is a degree of scepticism: just think of all the stories of art, book, and antique collectors being elaborately hoaxed. False signifiers can equal a true meaning, albeit one that is illusory. The one thing that is not fake in all instances is the purchaser’s belief in that meaning or authenticity.

Left to right: N° 5 (Chanel, 1921); Candy (Prada, 2011).

In Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”, a young woman borrows a paste necklace from her wealthy friend, thinking they’re actual diamonds. Mathilde bestows upon them a belief so unwavering that she not only attributes her success at a ball but her subsequent downfall to them. When she loses the necklace, spending the next ten years as a cleaner in order to pay back the thirty-six thousand franc debt incurred to replace it—with the real thing—she does so in the firm conviction she has acted honourably. This chain of events stems from Mathilde’s perception of wealth and its accoutrements: it never occurs to her that Mme. Forestier’s “superb diamond necklace” in its black satin box could be worth just five hundred francs. What she sees is transformed into positive belief—an understandable, if flawed, logic, but one that is very much present outside of books. Update the story to that of a schoolgirl who borrows what she thinks is her well-to-do friend’s expensive perfume and proceeds to—let’s say, accidentally—break the bottle, forcing her to save a half year’s worth of allowance to replace it, only to discover that it was an Ebay fake. The signifiers of an ‘authentic’ perfume would be the bottle, label, reputation of that scent (popular, costly), a close enough approximation of what she thinks the real thing smells like. Combined with desire, a fake perfume fools those who want to be fooled in the way any other fake object would.  

What we believe in is transformative in various ways—it has been shown that attention causes the altered perception of facial features, rendering them more attractive. Proof that smell influences belief in an object and its subsequent value may be more phenomenologically elusive, as it has no direct relationship as that of sight to what is seen. But think of the old estate agent trick of placing a cheap pie in the oven of a house being shown for sale: it is supposed to influence potential buyers by making them relate the scent with what they’re being encouraged to imagine as their future home—the influence of, if not false olfactory memories, then certainly pre-memories. This is hardly as exciting as the Philip K. Dick concept of precrime, but it does have a hint of materialistic sleight-of-hand (or nose) by unconsciously getting the potential consumer to visualise the emotional future. Here’s a scent memory for your collection! You just haven’t experienced it yet. Scientifically or philosophically proven it may not be, but the olfactory influence on belief is in full sway—and maybe it’s more accurate to say that what is experienced is a kind of olfactory faith. In terms of vintage perfumes, that faith can become a kind of stubbornness or denial. A person might hold onto the idea that the scent they have so much emotional investment in can never be bettered, even equalled. In the case of the fake, they may continue to see what is false as true—to the point that it ceases to become a subjective opinion to them and becomes unalterable, sometimes obsessive, fact. For something we know logically to be a subjective experience, there is no doubt that we often treat perfume as objective—but as any music or sports fan is likely to agree, when we are that strongly attached to anything, emotion becomes logic.

Complications arise when considering reformulated perfumes whose formulas have been intentionally altered. The emotional importance some place on a scent smelling exactly as they remember it can produce a near-visceral reaction on finding it has changed—and in their minds, no longer the same. Technically, of course, they are correct. It isn’t the same if it’s been changed, whether an amount of a certain ingredient has been slightly lessened, or another completely removed. If you aren’t a perfumer trained to spot infinitesimal changes, or someone with several differing versions throughout the years, how do you trust what you smell to be a physical change and not a lessening of memory intensity—more importantly, is it definitively the same, or a different scent? The answer to this olfactory version of the philosophical question of the ship of Theseus—can a thing be the same if its original parts have been replaced—would, as stated above, be a resounding no. Or would it? Technical changes of formula aside, it is just as conceivably yes, at least to people whose memories override all else, or whose belief in the scent remain unchanged despite change. The perfume, like the ship, is paradoxically both original and fake—although in some cases it undeniably helps to not see the ship’s parts being replaced, that is, not to ever have information of a perfume’s changes.

To perfume lovers, it is common knowledge that a classic—one that has been in production for years—is not the same formulation as it was when it was first produced. In fact, it most likely has undergone numerous changes over the years, common reasons being due to the varying quality of harvests, to ingredients limited by being endangered (Indian sandalwood); to new, artificial versions of ingredients that prove more cost-effective—or in the case of musk, more humane—than their natural counterparts. Naturally, it is in the interest of a brand or house to remain as faithful to the original so as to maintain their customers, although the exact concept of ‘faithful’ will vary. With some, it means the reformulations should stay as true as possible to the beloved scent in spite of changes. With others, however, it is the idea of the scent that’s more important. For example, if a classic perfume is classified as an Oriental—to simplify, quite rich and amber-heavy in the base—but one of the standout notes used to be an orris (iris) note that, for whatever reason, is now not cost-effective, the brand may choose to reformulate, emphasising the Oriental qualities over the predominant floral note of previous formulations by using a cheaper-quality orris. Of course, subjectivity rears its head again at this point—how successful choosing to interpret idea over formulation will be determined by sales figures for the brand, but success for the aficionado will be a mostly accurate representation of the scent they’ve come to love.

Reformulation of Mitsouko (Guerlain, 2008; original 1919)

In the 2009 update of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Turin praises Guerlain’s reformulation of the much-loved classic, Mitsouko (the change forced by the European Union’s “chemical phobia”). Within the same pages, he damns Dior’s also-recent reformulations of Diorama and Dioressence, stating of the former that “[t]he present-day Diorama bears no relation whatsoever to the stupendous 1949 original …”. Dioressence doesn’t fare any better: “Insofar as this latest version is (a) not Dioressence and (b) no longer smells good, I see no reason why anyone should shell out for it.” They might be packaged under the same name, but it seems that, to Turin, they aren’t even up to the level of a good fake. This seems like the perfume version of cognitive dissonance for Dior, with conflicting ideas of what the scent is, resulting in something completely inconsistent. Now it could be that, to a large percentage of customers presented with these reformulated scents as new—which might be the ultimate point for the brand, bringing new consumers who might want a less ‘classic’ smelling classic on board—they smell wonderful. But how does someone familiar with the original identify with something they no longer recognise when they are being told it is the same? Are lovers of vintage scents the proverbial tree falling in the forest to some brands, their protests audible to no one but themselves?

What does this all mean in terms of identity—does liking an unknown-to-you fake, or a very-different-in-smell reformulation, make you less authentic? And what of the collection? Examining behaviour in relation to the perfume would show that your experiences were identical to the ones you have with legitimate productions. In the case of the fake, allowing for slightly wounded pride—and the possibility you may never want to see the perfume, fake or real, again—was overwhelmed by belief during the period the object existed as authentic-in-your-mind. Liking what is an unrecognisable (to the original) reformulation simply means you enjoy that particular scent, and can see—or smell—beyond a label and someone else’s olfactory/cognitive dissonance. It isn’t far off—if at all—from how we behave with friends or lovers. We can all agree that the ideal behaviour in people is to love or appreciate others for who they are, not what they superficially present. But even if a relationship sours, which often equates to someone not being who you thought they were (true vs. false), the emotions experienced during it remain authentic. In this way, perfume represents a very human relationship between object and owner; one that transcends the former’s inanimate status—hence the idea of a person’s connection to a scent being almost tribal, or mythical in the Classical sense. I do not speak of family for the reason that, while familial-style relationships exist outside of the unit, the importance of the perfume-object suggests its relevance more as a kind of totem, or temple deity, whom the person projects onto and interacts with. But there is also the connection between people—and here, family is especially relevant—which perfumes stand in relation to.


From left to right: Diorissimo (Dior, 1956); Eau Sauvage (Dior, 1966); Violetta (Penhaligon, 1976);  Ajaccio Violets (Geo. F. Trumper, 1995) and Eucris (Geo F. Trumper, 2017). 

There are few of us who lack an early memory of scent in relation to a loved one, and while it often follows a similar gender division—the mother or grandmother’s scent or collection influencing the daughter, for example—there are deviations from the strict heteronormative pattern of female-female or male-male in terms of memories and personal taste as far as ownership is concerned. Someone’s mother might have worn traditionally men’s marketed scents, such as the citrus-chypre Dior Eau Sauvage. A father may have worn the floral-leather Chanel Cuir de Russie, which, while not marked as pour femme, was once recognised primarily as a feminine scent. An openness in terms of disregarding gender, instead allowing oneself to be literally guided by the nose, creates not only innumerable options, but also shows the possibilities of living without certain boundaries. If the Geo. F. Trumper brand sells Eucris, which contains jasmine and muguet (lily of the valley), and Ajaccio Violets, what stops a male consumer from then going on to try Penhaligon’s Violetta, or Dior’s classic muguet, Diorissimo? Nothing, except that they have been marketed and packaged for women. A smell only has male or female connotations because we have been told over the years that they do.

While the Chanel Les Exclusifs range does not mark male/female on packaging, or on their site, the mainstream creations do: Coco Mademoiselle and Bleu de Chanel are clearly marked in terms of gender by the division into Women’s and Men’s categories. This is especially interesting in that scents like Misia from Les Exclusifs emphasise what might have been considered feminine. Without deliberate gender labelling, reading copy such as “…the May rose and violet scent of lipstick” and “…the makeup powder on dancers’ bodies”—what would be previously assumed to be a strictly feminine scent—becomes fascinating to envisage not only on male skin, but on people who identify as genderqueer. Whether these have something to do with such a higher-priced line wanting to attract as many sales as possible and therefore removing gender distinction (the case of Les Exclusifs), or if there are studies showing consumers being more decisive in their purchasing when a scent is gendered in regards to the mainstream Chanel line, is unknown.

But as other brands with similar pricing, such as Frederic Malle, continue the genderless option trend, it is suggestive that they would hope that such neutrality equals a like-mindedness in regards to the consumer and collection. There is no doubt there persists a need to divide perfume by sex, although with brands such as Serge Lutens, Escentric Molecules, and the rise of niche perfumery in recent years, it is being acknowledged that masculine-feminine are simply aspects of whatever personality one wishes to assume at any given time. Sometimes, in the case of the latter brand, gendered sexuality is devoid in any marketing. The perfume as a kind of olfactory blank slate, to be defined and completed by the wearer and not the brand, or indeed, by one’s birth sexual identification, gives it a refreshing new accessibility and endless possibilities for the collection. Like the use of masks in the artist’s Claude Cahun’s autobiographical portraits, they are not just part of a costume—they represent the multiple identities within the self.

From left to right, by Calvin Klein: CK One (1994); CK Be (1996) and CK All (2017). 

It is hard to think of many—if any—mainstream brands that have put forward the message in marketing a scent that who you are is more important than being defined by gender since Calvin Klein’s CK One and CK Be. It can be seen as risk to remove that known and trusted identifier: in terms of potential profits, but also in the so-far recognised security of gendered perfume, especially for the person who wishes to find a scent but does not know how to start looking—the natural first step, up to now, was to go to the women’s or men’s counter. Thanks to our sociological norms, backed up by media messages, women should identify with wanting to smell sexy, feminine, alluring, and men with smelling bold, assertive, sportif—the list of adjectives stretches into the horizon. There have been brief deviations at times in advertising, but they have tended towards casting the woman as the new man, ‘having it all’, or at least being one of the boys—notably, Revlon’s Charlie advertisements. An old story most perfume lovers who enjoy men’s scents have is that at some point they’ve encountered a horrified salesperson who cannot fathom a woman buying a men’s scent for herself. Part of this, no doubt, is brand training, but how we’ve been trained over generations to divide and identify by gender is ultimately at its heart. Who are you, if you’re a woman wearing a man’s scent, or vice versa? There has been so much importance placed on gender identifications in products and objects, that deliberately—or even unconsciously—disregarding them causes discomfort for others. Thankfully, at least in terms of perfume, we’ve moved on a lot in some ways—you’re much less likely to come under confused scrutiny in your purchases, and more freer to indulge your personality in scent, regardless of gender branding.

Hoping to follow on from the success of One and Be, Calvin Klein have recently released another scent in the unisex CK series—CK All. From the marketing copy:

“This new fragrance is a blank canvas that represents a modern fluidity, where lines blur beyond any identifying markers and labels are cast aside. The individual is embraced as they stand and inclusivity is above all, there is ck all.”

What will be interesting in time is to see if All ends up being an old idea with no new life, too reminiscent of their parent’s One and Be to appeal to the target demographic, or show that every generation has their own ‘blank canvas’ perfume in their collections—proving the canvas is, ironically, not so blank after all.

To date, there doesn’t seem to be the hype that One, at least, experienced. This is due in large part to the enormous output of new scents by the industry in recent years, which hinders the chances of a culturally monumental perfume. But having been the right age when One came out, I do remember smelling it everywhere within a short time of its release. Its neutrality—that sunny, musky scent that smelled neither female not male, but simply good on all skin—packaging, and cooler-than-cool nineties imagery featuring Kate Moss front and centre but, much more interestingly to me, androgynous models such as Stella Tennant and Jenny Shimizu said, at least for women, we didn’t have to be conventionally pretty, or even pretty at all. For someone who identified as mixed-race and wondered why she didn’t look like the other girls growing up, it was a relief to see an ad that had models looking like the people I hung around and outside art school with—the skaters, punks, and skinheads rather than the wholesome, predominantly Caucasian, Midwestern ideal.

One was the first scent that spoke to the idea of owning your individuality through scent (even the Charlie woman was homogenous in her modernity), and when Be came out, I found that even better. Its herbal muskiness felt completely at home on my skin, and it became a prominent scent in my collection into the early naughties. It was also the start of my understanding the sexual attraction of my scent to others (although I understood the effect of another’s on mine), amplified by an artificial one. On one of my first dates in London, I wore Be, my arms and shoulders bare in a sleeveless top. We sat in a movie theatre on Haymarket and, to this day, I can’t remember what we saw—only that at one point shortly after it started, he leaned in, inhaled at my neck deeply, and said in a low voice, your skin smells incredible. I went home with him to find a kindred spirit—the top of a chest of drawers full of bottles of his own. To paraphrase John Waters’ quote about people without books, it would be harsh to say don’t fuck them if they don’t own scents, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone on the same sensuo-olfactory wavelength.

Print ad for Thierry Mugler’s Cologne (2001)

Thierry Mugler’s simply named Cologne, following One by several years, was another unisex scent, but it also could be argued that the fantastical nature of the advertising—a sexless yet beautiful alien twin-form holding a bottle—might have been too (pun unintended) alienating for anyone to see it realistically. It helps to note the importance of the genre of cologne—those light citrus/floral/herbal variations that trace their lineage back to Hungary Water, and later, to Farina’s first commercial blend, which gave birth to the name eau de Cologne, after the German city—and what they represent in perfumery.

Colognes were for everyone, and though it may seem that they became the domain of masculinity for a time (Fabergé Brut as the über-example), they have always had a parallel—even if seen as charmingly classical, or old-fashioned—existence in long-sold scents such as the Guerlain Les Eaux range: Eau de Cologne du Coq, Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat, Eau de Guerlain, and Eau de Cologne Impériale, the last created for Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie in 1853.

Guerlain’s Les Eaux . From left to right: Eau de Cologne du Coq; Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat; Eau de Guerlain and Eau de Cologne Impériale

As an adult, when I was starting to be able to afford my love of perfume, I would share my newfound knowledge with my father on the telephone. When he told me about a scent that his mother had bought him, I resolved to find out what it was and buy it. All I knew was that it was a cologne, and the bottle ‘had bees on it’. It didn’t take very long, thanks to the internet, to discover that it was most likely Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Impériale—the bees he referred to were raised into the glass bottle, and signified Napoleon. I sent him a bottle for Christmas. When he phoned that day, he was overjoyed—he hadn’t smelled it for years and naturally thought it was long gone. It was the start of my delight in being able to surprise him with more scents from his past, and introducing him to new ones, besides. When he died as a result of a short illness just after his cancer was in remission, part of my sadness was that I wouldn’t be able to share with him more new finds, gifting him treasures as a thank you for instilling such a love of perfume in me. Although my mother eventually had a lot of things like his clothing cleared out, she has never gotten rid of the bathroom cabinet filled with the scents I bought, because smelling them reminds her of him—and among the little things my mother requested to be placed in his coffin, one was that beloved bottle of Impériale.

Though citrus dominance may seem to be a gender-neutral kind of note specific to colognes, the modern Jo Malone range of scents are packaged as such, but contain among them what we’ve come to see—through marketing—as ‘feminine’ note heavy: orange blossom, rose, peony. Even so, the descriptions utilise lush language without assigning gender, with sub-categorisations being done simply by denoting “light floral”, “spicy”, “woody”, “fruity”, etc. Beyond that, the brand has always encouraged “scent combining”, a further recognition of the need to break down learned gendered olfactory constraints. The use of the term cologne is more an acknowledgement of a formula’s lightness than the original citrus-dominant blend, but it has been noted over the years that the actual perfume-to-alcohol ratio of the standard Jo Malone range wears like an eau de toilette or an eau de parfum strength. Labelling them as colognes is another indicator of the brand’s desire to have the scents perceived as gender-free, easily imagined in anyone’s collection, shared between family, friends, and partners.

Print ad for Yves Saint Laurent’s Eau Libre (1977)

In 1975, Yves Saint Laurent released Eau Libre, a green-citrus unisex scent perhaps even more notable now for the advertising images—specifically his use of models of colour, still lagging today. Although Saint Laurent did use such models regularly for his fashion shows and print ads, he was a rarity, and models of colour tended only to be used for similar demographic magazines, as Tom Reichart notes in The Erotic History of Advertising when discussing a vintage Jovan Musk Oil ad in Jet. The tagline of Eau Libre was “tout ce qui est à toi est à moi”—all that is yours is mine—and as libre translates as free, this was a shared scent, signifying freedom from gender constraint—and subversively, constraint from skin colour in advertising.

But not just freedom from, it was also freedom to—that is, to be sexually free. It was the mingled embrace of hers and his, as the ad images showed: the pre-AIDS sexual euphoria of the seventies in a bottle. Unfortunately, the scent has been long discontinued,  being perhaps too progressive an idea on several levels to have been profitable at the time, and it would be correct to call it a deliberate attempt at progression. After all, Saint Laurent is the man who, on introducing Le Smoking, did not just redesign that very male piece of clothing—the tuxedo, with all its formal, male-etiquette connotations—but showcased the fluid sexual power of women through clothes. Helmut Newton’s legendary Paris Vogue photograph of Vibeke Knudsen in a dark Paris street, cigarette in hand, wearing Le Smoking, came out the same year as Eau Libre. One can only imagine the history of perfume and the shape of the personal collection had it captured the public’s imagination in the same iconic way. Instead, Saint Laurent’s 1977 creation Opium would be the perfume with the greater impact which, though representative of sexual freedom and excess, can also be negatively tied to Orientalism.

Le Smoking, by Yves Saint Laurent (Helmut Newton/Vibeke Knudsen, 1975).

In 2015, the brand released Tuxedo as part of the Le Vestaires des Parfums collection, a shared wood-patchouli scent. While perfectly appropriate for Yves Saint Laurent, to me it doesn’t match the impact of the iconic Helmut Newton image. Going through my own scents one day, I wondered if any might be a better fit. After consideration, Lalique Encre Noire (‘black ink’) and Encre Noire à l’Extrême—both dark, woody-vetiver men’s scents—seemed perfect, as did Nasomatto Black Afgano, a deep and musky shared scent. I sprayed on some of the latter, then put on my Saint Laurent tuxedo trousers and a pair of black leather stilettos from the same brand. Looking at myself in the mirror, I felt that familiar shiver of transformation—when senses, images, and emotions come together, and we recreate ourselves into our fantasies.

Lalique, left to right: Encre Noire (2006) and Encre Noire à L’Extrême (2015). 

It seemed strange that I should only have realised it at that moment, but the scents that make up my collection are divided between two types of women, the one in the Helmut Newton photograph—a powerful, omnisexual creature who fulfils both masculine and feminine qualities—and the purely feminine hedonist represented by such perfumes as Guerlain’s Shalimar, Ormonde Jayne’s Orris Noir, and of course, Vero Profumo’s Rubj. One aspect of me ravishes, the other wants to be ravished, but both are hungry. I am ravenous for pleasure, knowledge, and experience. I use scent in the way that music accompanies film. Even as I type, Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” plays on my headphones, and these words will be permanently associated with it, just as the smell of Ormonde Jayne’s Orris Noir drifts up to my nose. It reminds me of a cold and rainy fall night—standing in a doorway in an alley, kissing and being kissed, hands under cashmere and cotton, the early hours of London—a scene that must have been repeating in other doorways and alleys. Although the couples would be different, perhaps one half of one of those pairings was also wearing that woody, musky iris scent, just as intoxicated as I was at the smell of perfume and city, the taste and feel of skin.


From left to right: Shalimar (Guerlain, 1925); Rubj (Vero Profumo, 2007) and Orris Noir (Ormonde Jayne, 2006).

Perfumes do not conform to the standard idea of what Baudrillard describes as satisfying a primary need; they are, after all luxury objects—functionally inessential—but while luxurious, they are not superfluous. Human need goes beyond the foundational requirements of living into the intangible. Intangibility is what appeals to the emotions and gives validation to a life lived with an eye on mortality. To the collector, perfume is a need because—beyond the physical act of application—it functions as a non-verbal, non-gestural method of articulation that synthesises the soul.

On a larger scale, it is not just confined to the personal, but articulating the sociological reflections of any given period in a culture’s history. We can note the growing social independence of women through Caron’s Tabac Blond (released in 1919, and the olfactory precursor to Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking), their copy noting the “… troubling sensuality of a woman in a dinner jacket. A touch of masculine nonchalance.” Later, in the sixities and seventies, ultra-masculinity is almost comical with Fabergé Brut and Jovan Musk for Men, which makes way for the sexual and material excess of the eighties with Calvin Klein’s Obsession and Giorgio by Giorgio Beverly Hills, the latter named after an exclusive Rodeo Drive fashion boutique “known for its club-like atmosphere” and representative of another kind of collection—the wealthy.

From left to right: Tabac Blond (Caron, 1919); Brut (Fabergé, 1968); Musk for Men (Jovan, 1973); Giorgio (Giorgio Beverly Hills, 1981) and Obsession (Calvin Klein, 1985).

The collection, when defined as the products within a brand, provide insight as to what their product-specific and overall message is, if any. The perfumes produced under the creative directorship of Tom Ford while he was at Gucci are an example: like the clothes he designed, the message was a streamlined sexuality—elegant, but carnal—the clothes a response to the body and vice versa. Scents in the Ford era—Envy, a haute couture dominatrix in icy hyacinth and lily of the valley; Gucci Eau De Parfum, a delightfully obscene skin-scent with orange blossom and thyme, to me, unmatched until the creation of Rubj; and Rush, the delirious aftermath of orgasm captured in freesia, rose, and vanilla—showcased the personalities of women’s sexuality, while being true to his style. The fashion might have struck some as almost unreal in their representation, but the perfumes were pure carnality, whether deliberately restrained or completely uninhibited, and never without an awe of the power of the feminine. Envy and Gucci Eau de Parfum are discontinued, which I still find an irreplaceable loss to my collection. I crave that sexual edge in Envy, and although I have since found a kind of replacement in Mugler Supra Floral—a deliciously sharp hyacinth—I also find myself layering it with another scent, such as Le Labo Santal 33, or even a drop of Nasomatto Black Afgano to try and achieve that longed-for effect. Tom Ford’s later creations for Yves Saint Laurent retained his signature style but with a more noticeable deference to the history of the house—Cinema in particular, a lush almond and amber Oriental, feels like it could have been released while Saint Laurent himself was still designing. However, just as interesting as Ford’s creations was his reworking of the advertising for the brand’s pillar perfumes.


From left to right: Envy (Gucci, 1997); Eau de Parfum (Gucci, 2002); Rush (Gucci, 1999); Supra Floral (Mugler, 2014); Santal 33 (Le Labo, 2011). 

The success of a brand’s collection as it undergoes direction by different people ultimately comes down to maintaining a conscious cohesiveness to its history while introducing the ‘chaos’ of calculated deviation in the form of a new personality who maintains a balance of the two. It can be thought of as a kind of reverse matryoshka with the smallest doll as the essence of the brand. Each doll can be decorated differently, so long as all preceding ones fit within it. In the case of a pillar perfume, very little may be done to deviate from the styling of the advertisements and packaging over the years, to say nothing of the formulation—or at least for the latter, the utmost care would be taken to preserve recognisability. Opium has a flanker, Black Opium, that most likely had some advertising styling input from recently departed house designer for Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane—known for his neo-grunge runway looks—and the use of model Edie Campbell as the perfume junkie looking for her fix was in line with this. But while there was also a new iteration of the original perfume packaging and advertising just prior to Slimane’s start, it stayed true to its roots, with actress Emily Blunt in the familiar reclining pose—overall, more minimally styled than ads of the past, but still recognisably Opium. This dichotomy attempts to maintain the position of the former as a pillar perfume in the personal collection as well, a sort of brand sensitivity in regards to history and continued profit generation, hedging their bets between the longtime collector and the new one.

Print ads for Yves Saint Laurent’s reformulated Opium (Patrick Demarchelier/Emily Blunt, 2011) and Black Opium (Daniel Wolfe/Edie Campbell, 2014).

Even in advertising, the idea of model and series persists in different ways. One is to appeal to the idea of generations by reinvention to a specific era. Your grandmother might have bought Chanel No. 5 after seeing Suzy Parker in a 1950s print ad, resplendent in an evening gown, laughingly flanked by two tuxedoed escorts, while your mother was influenced in the seventies and eighties by the advertisements featuring Catherine Deneuve, chic in her deliberately masculine styling, complete with slicked back hair, or Carole Bouquet, in a red boucle jacket, her gold-trinketed arm draped over what might have been a factice (for display only) bottle, or perhaps one that was really filled with a lifetime’s worth of pure extrait. Estella Warren as an updated Little Red Riding Hood taming the wolf and making off with a bottle of the famous perfume in a Luc Besson-directed television ad might have reignited your curiosity in the late nineties/early naughties for a perfume you had previously dismissed as ‘too old’.

From left to right, a roster of Chanel 5 spokesmodels: Suzy Parker, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet and Estella Warren. 

Another method is the generational spokesmodel, a deliberately more intimate targeting of the mother-daughter relationship with beauty. Take Lancome’s use of Isabella Rossellini and her daughter Elettra Wiedemann as spokesmodels for Trésor and Trésor in Love, the same being done in Thierry Mugler’s Angel advertisements with Jerry Hall and Georgia May Jagger, and in Guerlain’s double ad for Shalimar and Shalimar Light featuring Patti Hansen with her daughters Theodora and Alexandra Richards, which simultaneously makes use of both the generational model and perfume. What this sort of reinvention and spokesmodels shows is the targeting of memory and the creation of new ones. Your memories are assumed to be part of a collection, that of the family—divided into matriarchal or patriarchal depending on sex, although it must be noted that advertising for male scents rarely, if at all, utilises the father-son trope. The female collection is imagined as historical in a way the male’s is not, and so perfume advertising plays with the idea of a parallel unification for model and/or series. We are invited to place ourselves at a certain point in the timeline, but also allowed—indeed, encouraged—to move back and forth along it: identification with/preference of the classic version of a scent is just as valid as with the newer iterations, much as one could say they feel that they have traits of their mother or grandmother, while still being very much their own person.

Left to right, for Lancôme: Trésor (Peter Lindbergh/Isabella Rosellini, 1996) and Trésor in Love (Mario Testino/Elettra Wiedemann, 2010). 

Left to right, for Thierry Mugler: Angel (NA/Jerry Hall, 1995) and its 19th anniversary re-edition (Sølve Sundsbø/Georgia May Jagger, 2014). 

For Guerlain: Shalimar and Shalimar Light (NA/Patti Hansen, Theodora and Alexandra Richards, 2004). 

Yet another model and series advertising trick is to take a familiar theme and adjust it slightly. From the time of its release in 1977, Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium has emphasised its spice-laden, exotic perfume with a matching campaign: the model in a state of Oriental indolence, usually lounging or reclining. In a gender/stereotype reversal, in the nineties YSL released a men’s version, Opium Pour Homme, which featured Rupert Everett posed on a signature red sofa, his suit jacket open, chest exposed. He is barefoot, with one arm behind his head, in an acknowledgement that the male, too, waits for—and serves—sexual pleasure.

Yves Saint Laurent’s print ad for Opium Pour Homme (Jean-Baptiste Mondino/Rupert Everett, 1996)

The Opium ads of the excessive seventies and eighties were especially marked by their use of luxurious draperies, clothing or the signature cinnabar red of the box and bottle (which has since undergone various iterations). In time the backdrops and costumes became more minimalistic, but retained the spirit of the original ‘model’ in the body language. Most famous—or infamous—is the early naughties version when Tom Ford was creative director of the label. His styling of neo-odalisque Sophie Dahl, six feet tall and classically voluptuous, lying naked clad only in jewels and heels—the colour of her hair a wink to the perfume’s packaging—remained one of the most complained about advertisements in 2012.

While each—Opium, Shalimar, Trésor—are separate examples, what these advertising methods show is the importance of the historical and the intimate in regards to the perfume, the person, and the collection. We see Benjamin’s “old world” in the striving for authenticity which translates into a memory of scent as we recall it with specific history or people. An advertising campaign’s perspective of historical culture may seem invented, but its truths—even if, as we have seen with Opium, reflecting stereotypes—are nevertheless present. Opium is no more false than Ingres’ The Turkish Bath, and we begin to understand that the collection is a microcosm of both personal and cultural genealogy and emotion.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium (Steve Maisel/Sophie Dahl, 2012)

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard discusses the idea of territory and the unconscious in animals and people. Put briefly, our lack of territory is why we humans have an unconscious. Baudrillard suggests the opposite is true for animals—that, in having territory, they have no need for an unconscious, because the territory is present, immediate, and consciously communicative. It is representative of a kind of magical state—metamorphosis, something that’s supposedly beyond our reach due to the absence of territory and rituals attached to it. But when we consider the perfume collection as a kind of territory, it becomes clear that it is a means to the ultimate metamorphosis: a merging of the animal and human, the conscious and unconscious together. It is a fluid territory the boundaries of which constantly shift with people and experience, a territory marked by scents and memory. And it is made up of physical objects and conscious actions—the bottle, the gesture of spraying—and unconscious elements—those memories that affect and influence the choice and mood.

As a species, we will always need some manner of mythology in our cultural or personal histories. We seek to define ourselves as more than the sum of our finite parts. In doing so, we become something greater than a body and a brain (impressive though they are), which not only helps build a narrative but provides a justification for being. It is rare for a narrative not to include elements of self-mythologisation—whether it be the simple embellishment of a memory or the creation of a character in order to adapt to a situation. What those memories and characters are is not as important as why we have and make them, and how we use the imagination and objects in the world to fulfil our narratives. Those ordinary, static items have a secret duality; they have placement and mark territory, so that the bottle within a collection represents a hierarchy of memories and life-markers. They also hold a meaning for us that is conscious and unconscious at once, in that we have immediate memories but, in later life, different perspectives of them to be revealed by looking back, cinematically.

Together, they guide our metamorphoses, the constant changes we undergo within the mortal boundaries we call a life. For all our technological advancements, perfume is a reference to mythology, a time when basic science was considered magic—the power of nature, animals, or gods. Through the acts of acquisition and application, we are participating in a ritual that will turn us into another aspect of ourselves, the bottles in the collection our instruments of transformation.


Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Besides previously appearing in Lapsus Lima, her essays can be found in Empty MirrorBerfrois3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She lives in London. You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat


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