One Thousand Scents

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Obsessed: 1985, Part 1

In 1985, two groundbreaking, game-changing fragrances were launched (along with quite a few others), both women's scents that somehow seduced me into buying them, wearing them--all the time--and rethinking everything I thought I knew about fragrance.

In the summer of 1985, I had been living in Halifax for a year and was completely comfortable with life in a bigger city than I'd grown up in. City life had its downside: by this point I had been violently mugged on my way home from work one night. But on the whole it gave me more scope to figure out who I was, and it agreed with me. One day I was out shopping during a visit with my friend Jacqui and we saw in a shop window a massive display: ivory boxes, curving bottles containing dark amber liquid the colour of a late-summer sunset. We tried it: we got samples: we were both absolutely hooked on it. I had never smelled anything so wonderful in my life.

It isn't that Obsession was a radically new or different scent (although since I had stuck to men's scents up until then, it was new to me). It's a thick, lush ambery oriental with its roots in the orientals of the past; it owes its general shape to Shalimar, and it has more than a passing acquaintance with the smutty, crotchy Tabu and its descendants. (It's a lot less spicy than many orientals, preferring to concentrate on its floral heart and extraordinarily rich base.) I described it to a friend as an olfactory Necker cube, one of those wireframe cubes that seems to be facing towards you or away from you, one or the other, sometimes in rapid succession: Obsession seemed to me two things at once, depending on where you focused your attention--a dark pool of brazenly sexual warmth, or a radiant armload of indefinable flowers highlighted at the top with orange-blossom and based on roses.

There must have been something in the zeitgeist, something brewing that made heavy orientals possible and desirable at just that time, because there were others that came along at the same time: Anne Klein II was very similar. Obsession wasn't new or unique, but what did better than anyone else was advertising itself in two formats that could hardly have been more different. A quartet of cryptic television ads showed icy, vaguely mannish model Jose Borain in a minimalist and rather alarming house of stairs with four people--a boy, a young man, an older man, and a woman of indeterminate age--rhapsodizing about her, symbolized by a collection of tokens (a chess piece, a little book of secrets) suggesting that some sort of meaning might be extracted from the series. (They played over and over again at a local department store. I watched them for what in retrospect is an embarrassing amount of time.) The magazine ads, on the other hand, were grainy, blue-tinged images of one or more men enjoying the company of a woman--Borain again--in the throes of some passion she obviously could not control. The ads were inescapable (and much parodied), everyone was talking about them, and they worked, because you could smell Obsession everywhere you went.

It's still in production, of course, and it still smells more or less as it did in 1985. But it is not the same, not quite. The top is brighter, more citrus and orange-blossom; the whole composition is thinner, frankly cheaper and more synthetic; there is less emphasis on the middle and more on the bottom. All of this is entirely in keeping with modern tastes, and modern economic reality. (Similar changes have taken place with Tresor, among others; thinner, brighter, cheaper-smelling.)

Here is something else that is not the same: the quantity of subsidiary products. Back when the number of new product launches was at a manageable level, a fragrance would launch in two or three forms--usually perfume and either eau de parfum or eau de toilette, sometimes all three--and then about a year later would supplement the line with bath products: always bar soap and body lotion, often talcum powder, maybe shower gel or a jar of body cream, and perhaps some other slightly more exotic things such as bath oil.

Now that there are hundreds upon hundreds of new products every year and shelf space is at a premium, there simply isn't room for six or eight products from the same line: most new scents, if they're going to have a bath line at all, will make do with tubes of shower gel and body lotion. But Obsession took the idea to an astounding new level: a groaning hoard of pretty much every scented thing you could use in your toilette. The launch of the bath line was announced with a large, flat box of all the products (a box which I bought, because at that time I probably would have bought anything by Calvin Klein): tiny jars and bottles and canisters of shimmery bronze "body glistener", bath salts, talc, a little bottle of the perfume in its much loved river-pebble shape, soap, dry oil spray, body cream. Later they introduced shower gel, scented hair spray, lip gloss, and no doubt other products I don't remember: it was a juggernaut, an all-out assault on the senses and the carrying capacity of retail outlets.

Coming up: the second seismic fragrance launch of 1985, after a brief intermission.


  • I loved Obsession, and doused myself with it in the late 80's. To me it was sex in a bottle. I can't wear it anymore, it reminds me too much of the passions and heartbreaks of being 19, but it has a place in my heart.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 12:19 PM  

  • Just want to say I'm really enjoying this autobiographical series!

    By Blogger Nina Zolotow, at 7:45 PM  

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