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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Turning Back: 1984

If you knew me now you would never believe it, because I am really a very private person who doesn't drink and hardly ever goes out, but I had a lot of friends in university. I hung out with three completely separate and non-overlapping circles: my academically-minded friends from high school and other brainiac types, a batch of club kids, and, starting in my second year, the student-newspaper clique. Eventually I started going to student-journalism conferences, and somehow started a fourth circle of friends: other newspaper types elsewhere in the Atlantic provinces. Three of them remain my closest friends to this day, and a couple more of them changed my life, though they can't have known it at the time.


A clutch of important, or at least important to me, scents were launched in 1984, but as usual they all passed me by at the time: they had to wait another year. Chanel's groundbreaking oriental Coco (now bastardized almost beyond recognition), Givenchy's majestic Ysatis, Phileas by Nina Ricci, Aramis Tuscany Per Uomo, Paloma Picasso's Mon Parfum, Ted Lapidus Creation, Parfum d'Hermes (you will be hearing a lot about that one soon), and Giorgio for Men all debuted in 1984, and I knew nothing about them.

I did, however, manage to stumble across Krizia Uomo, a scent that taught me a very important lesson: it is possible to love something wholeheartedly without being altogether sure that you even like it.

I have a bunch of vials of Krizia Uomo from about ten years ago, and it hadn't changed at all from 1984 to 2000: if you were to buy a bottle today--I haven't seen it in years, but it's still in production--there's no telling what it might smell like, but for at least sixteen years, it smelled (and this will not surprise you, since it is a quintessentially 1980s men's scent) big and loud and strong, a rackety concoction of patchouli and leather and oakmoss with a big fat opening of green herbs and crushed pine needles that was shocking in its bitterness. It was intoxicatingly and uncompromisingly cruel. I had never smelled anything remotely like it: it remained the bitterest scent I could imagine until Hermes came out with Bel Ami in 1986, and that was so extreme it took me ten years to appreciate it.

Just underneath the bitter-herb opening of Krizia Uomo is a dribble of soapy lavender, but it doesn't last long, because the scent is not interested in middle notes: after that wham-bang opening, it wants to get down to business, and that business is an aggressive leather chypre. There is a lot of patchouli in it, and it isn't the nice tidy patchouli that you find in everything nowadays: it is big and growly, and the only thing that can tame it is an even bigger dose of leather, brutish and sharp. (Unlike so many chypres, the oakmoss is a minor player: this scent is a leather chypre.)

Krizia Uomo isn't especially beautiful when you get right down to it. There are no smoothed edges, no sweetness, no wide appeal. And yet because it is so single-mindedly vicious, it is wildly attractive, like a mass murderer who gets marriage proposals in jail. I am astonished it's still in production: who can be buying it? And yet at the time I loved it and wore it constantly, and was sorry when it was gone: but by that time, I had a lot of other fragrances to distract me.

Krizia Uomo is one of very few bottles I've ever managed to empty; even at the beginning, when I had only a few bottles, I rotated them, and got a lot of samples, and within a few years my collection got so big that there was really no chance I would ever use up an entire bottle. I used up every drop of the Krizia and also Dieci because they were one-ounce bottles, and I also drained the bottle of Andron. Everything else over the years I either traded away, eventually threw out because it had turned, or still have.


A much more important thing than any one scent happened in 1984: I moved to Halifax. On the last day of a late-season newspaper conference, I was having lunch with a couple of the journalist types--literally a couple--and they said, "You know, you're obviously a lot happier here than in St. John's, and our other roommate is moving out at the beginning of May, so how about you just move here? Seriously. Don't think about it. Just do it."

I was not the sort of person to make a decision of this magnitude lightly, or indeed any decision of any magnitude: I am one of those people who lands in a groove, or maybe a rut, and decides it's kind of nice there. But somehow this idea seemed important--vital, even--so I sold nearly everything I owned, bought a plane ticket, and landed in Halifax in May of 1984 with a few boxes of books and clothing (and a few scents), $30 in my pocket, and no job.

Two weeks later I was working at a newspaper, not spending very much money, reading a lot, hanging out with my friends, forming other circles of friends--god, I was gregarious back then!--and, unbeknownst to me, gearing up for a torrent of new scents in the years to come.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Lull: 1982-1983

A clutch of interesting scents were launched in 1982 and 1983, but I didn't know anything about any of them until at least a year or two later: at this point my obsession didn't have an outlet. How different it is nowadays, when anyone with Internet access and a credit card has access to, for all intents and purposes, every commercially available scent. (And how different the number and rate of new releases: there may have been a thousand marketed scents at the time available to the average consumer, though even that seems high to me, but now there are not less than a thousand new scents every year.)

In 1981, Jovan launched a men's scent called Andron, which supposedly contained pheromones and which by rights ought to have been junk, but it was not: it was a spectacular men's animalic oriental, a bright green citrus at the top rapidly segueing into a huge pool of sexualized base notes--all the animal scents, castoreum, civet, musk, and ambergris (all surely synthetic at the usual Jovan price point), with a little patchouli and sandalwood to keep it from rankness. (As it was, my grandmother thought it smelled like body odour.) The bottle was dismayingly cheap--a flimsy cap, a rickety gold-tone plastic sprayer--although the shape was clever, a standard angular prism but jutting forward as if it were so intent on getting somewhere that it might actually topple over, and who really cared about the bottle anyway when the contents were that good? I discovered Andron in 1982 with my friend Debbie, who bought the women's version (the same bottle but rendered in curves, much less successfully); she thought it would help seduce her boyfriend, and it did. I wasn't interested in seducing anybody at the time with my bottle; I just thought it smelled terrific.

Drakkar Noir hit the market in 1982: it seems certain that it was available to me, but I didn't notice it at the time, and though it had a seismic effect on men's fragrance in the ensuing years and decades, to this day I don't even quite remember what it smells like. It seemed like one of those boyfriend scents, the kind of thing a young woman gets her guy to wear because she likes it, or that the guy wears because it's impeccably masculine. Two other 1982 launches, KL by Karl Lagerfeld and Eau Sauvage Extreme, had a much bigger effect on me, along with 1983's Salvador Dali, Paris, and Diva: but since I did not know about any of these at the time, either because I couldn't get them in poky little St. John's or because they were women's scents that did not appear on my radar at the time, it makes more sense to write about them in the order that I ran across them them and made them a part of my life, so I'm going to save them for later, with the exception of Diva, which you can read about here.

To the best of my recollection, I made do with Andron, Dieci, Lagerfeld, Grey Flannel, Vetyver, Oscar de la Renta, and Jacomo de Jacomo throughout '82 and '83. (There may have been a bottle of 1981's Stetson in there somewhere as well.) That ought to be enough for anyone, a normal person would be thinking at this point, but I instinctively wanted experiences I couldn't have: I wanted more, I wanted all of it. As I said, my obsession didn't yet have an outlet. I had no idea what was coming a couple of years down the road.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Big World: 1981

Here is the difference between someone who loves--is consumed by--scent and someone who is not: upon smelling a fragrance, the obsessive thinks about it, analyzes it, fractionates it, compares it to others, fits it into an analytical scheme. The ordinary person simply thinks, "That smells nice," or, if they are just a little more advanced, "Oh, roses."

At some point in 1981 I bought Oscar de la Renta Pour Lui, the first scent I ever bought when it was still new. I was still not a proper obsessive at this point, and so all I knew was that it was tremendously interesting and attractive, and that I wanted to wear it, so I did. I wore too much of it, overwore it, wore out its welcome, and since it is so eighties big, it's a miracle my friends and family could put up with me.

I have a bottle of a somewhat more recent vintage, and although it has most assuredly been reformulated over the years, it bears at least a resemblance to what I used to wear. (If you bought a bottle today--it's still in production--I have no idea what it would smell like.) And since I am now a proper fragrance compulsive, here is what I smell:

Something that seems to be three completely different scents poured into the same bottle. They don't clash, exactly, although they seem to be arguing with one another from time to time. You get the sense that any of them could stand on its own as a scent, and nowadays they probably would, but Pour Lui was born in the eighties, when perfumery just kept adding more more more and upping the ante, and really, why would you put twenty elements in a scent when you could put eighty, or two hundred?

The top alludes to a spicy oriental: it has, in addition to a burst of aldehydes and citrus, the bite of cinnamon and cloves, maybe a handful of carnations, and it feels as if it will become denser and warmer. It doesn't, because it's not an oriental: it's actually a fougere. The oriental notes subside and the fougere becomes stronger as the scent matures on the skin: it takes on a very soapy barbershop quality with lots of lavender, and a small but a definite slug of oakmoss that suggests it is going to become a chypre at some point.

It does, too. The oakmoss thickens and deepens, with leather joining the fray, and it is a real honest-to-god leather chypre. There are still elements of the oriental and fougere families: the base is unexpectedly bright. But if you are a chypre lover, here ya go.


In late 1981 I went on a tour of Europe, courtesy of my father, who, whatever his flaws, knew how to motivate me. The deal was that if I went to university for a solid year, three consecutive semesters including the summer session, and got all 'A's, he would foot the bill for a trip to Europe. A tour, mind you, which started and ended with me alone in London, but otherwise completely structured and shall we say chaperoned: he knew me too well to just set me loose on the continent on my own. Not that I would have gotten into trouble: I would have gotten lost.

I did, in fact, get lost on the way from Heathrow to the hotel.

Not lost-lost. I got off at the wrong subway stop, wandered around for a bit with my luggage, finally asked someone what to, and got back on the subway (for one stop, as I recall it).

My obsession with scent probably began its full flowering in Europe (although it took a few years to blossom completely). We went on a tour of a perfumery, Fragonard, in Grasse, pretty much the world hub of the perfume biz--it has its own museum--and I bought a strange and arresting scent, Vetyver, which had a distinct celery note that I didn't exactly love but couldn't dismiss. (I smelled Vetyver a few years ago, maybe ten, and it had changed completely. Or I had; one never really knows.)

In Paris, as I have said before, I fell in love with Jacomo de Jacomo: some little voice inside told me that I had to own it or else, and so I spent money I couldn't really afford--I might have gone without a meal or two--just so I could have it.

If I had known even a fraction then of what I know now, and if I had been armed with a credit card, I can hardly imagine what sort of turn my life would have taken. I would have figured out a way to not come back, that much is sure. But of course I had to return to Canada, to the little city in which I grew up, and my exposure to the wider world of fragrances was necessarily limited for a while, which means the next couple of years are not going to be that interesting, scent-wise. I'm just letting you know in advance.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Learning Curve: 1980

A few days into September of 1980, I started university. i was barely seventeen and pretty definitely wasn't ready for higher education yet, but there I was anyway.

I was, on the other hand, more than ready to become an adult, so in that first year of university I made a pile of friends, tried smoking and other vices for the first time (pot, nothing too out-there), and started dressing like a grown-up, which for me meant creased trousers instead of jeans, the occasional necktie (not always tied but sometimes just looped around my neck: it was the eighties), my grandfather's battered olive-green suit jacket, which started off a bit threadbare and was a lot more so by the time I was done with it, and cologne. For reasons that are lost to the chasms of memory, I ended up buying two scents which could hardly be more different, their only connection being that they were huge and loud: Lagerfeld and Grey Flannel.

Lagerfeld, launched in 1978, is a sweet powdery oriental, mostly opoponax and amber, a real room-filler: it doesn't bolt off the skin but drifts off in heavy carpeted waves for hours and hours. It hadn't changed a bit the last time I smelled it, and I smiled fondly but put it back on the shelf--if I were smelling it for the first time I might consider it, but it has too much of a backstory. I love sweet orientals, but Lagerfeld might be too much even for me, or at least the me I am now. My adoration of Lagerfeld suggests that I have always loved oriental scents, but what was the attraction of something so strong, with such a big presence? Was I trying to become more assertive--or more interesting--without saying anything?

Grey Flannel (1976), Lagerfeld's polar opposite, is an explosive green floral, the rocket jet of late-seventies men's scents. The second it hits your skin it blasts off in a massive effusion of violets, stems, petals and leaves all together, with a fairly obvious synthetic accelerant and a snap of citrus peel. It stays very brisk and very strong for most of its life, eventually quieting down into a woody base. (The miniature that I have is at least ten years old and probably more: it smells as I remember it from the eighties. It might have been reformulated in the interim; I increasingly suspect that everything has.)

I still don't know why I bought my bottle of Grey Flannel*. I can only guess that it's because my choices were limited: it isn't anything like the sorts of scents I love nowadays and I'm pretty sure it isn't anything like what I would ordinarily have worn back then, either. I think it just smelled really adult to me, the most sophisticated of the men's scents I had available to me, and I also suspect I was seduced by that little flannel drawstring bag it was sold in, and the included sprayer (a rarity then--most every men's scents came in a pour bottle); even to this day, clever packaging can get under my skin, though not usually enough to compel me to buy. Not usually.

* Nor do I know how I came to have the miniature a couple of decades later. Did I buy it in a fit of nostalgia? Was it because it was cheap? Did someone send it to me in a swap package? Grey Flannel has the most peculiar effect on my memory.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Prologue: 1963-1979

Looking back, I can easily see that I was obsessed with scents from an early age. It is only surprising that it took so long for the obsession to come to the surface.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I was surrounded by fragrances: I just wasn't allowed to have them. It is hard to imagine nowadays what it was like back then, now that there are perfumes for children, for pets, body sprays and scented deodorants for teenage boys, but in those days, girls got to wear light fresh things; grown-up women could wear any of a huge array of perfumes; and men could wear after shave and cologne, of which there was no shortage. But boys and teenagers were expected to smell of soap and good clean sweat and nothing more. Once you started to shave, you might be able to get away with after shave, but a teenaged boy smelling like anything as affected as fragrance was probably going to be made fun of: best not to risk it.

Like so many women in the 1960s, my mother sold Avon (and Tupperware, though that is neither here nor there), and I vividly remember her packing up little bags of purchases for her customers. The makeup didn't interest me, but the scents did. I can barely remember what most of them smelled like, although I have a vivid memory of the powdered-sugar floral of Sweet Honesty, but their names stand out in my mind: Charisma, Wild Country, Moonwind, Come Summer. All my sisters had Sweet Honesty in a tiny teddy-bear-shaped bottle covered in fawn flocking; my father, of course, had on his dresser a clutch of bottles that were more important than the contents--masculine shapes like a pipe, a car, a chess knight with a brass ring through its nose, which was what it took to remove the curse from a perfume for a man.

Up until the day she died, my grandmother had a container of Avon Topaze dusting powder on her vanity. Uncharacteristically, I never opened it: it seemed mystical, totemic. Was it a gift to her from my mother, an attempt to make some sort of peace in the family? (If it was, it didn't work.) Did she ever use it? Or was it sitting there untouched because she liked the way it looked, that golden-yellow plastic box with the little fake topaz perched on top as a handle?

She was a practical woman, and not much given to perfuming herself. She had bath-oil beads (every woman did), but I doubt she used them much. Her only scents, which surely must have been given to her as gifts, were Chantilly, which she occasionally wore, and Youth-Dew, which she probably did not, or perhaps I have only told myself she didn't: I could never reconcile the name of a perfume called Youth-Dew with a woman who seemed ancient to me.

My cousin Vera, my father's age, wore Ma Griffe by Carven, or at least she owned it; I remember the iconic striped box in white and green, but I don't remember how it smelled. Vera, from my grandmother's side of the family, looked up to her and, I think, modelled herself after her; scent would have been a frivolous thing, and Vera was not frivolous.

In addition to the usual Avon bottles shaped like a mantelpiece clock or a Christmas stocking, my mother had a tiny blue bottle bottle of Evening in Paris--again, didn't pretty much every woman?--tucked away in her dresser. She usually wore a few drops of scent when she was going out: I wish I could say she had a signature scent, wafting into my bedroom in a cloud of Shalimar or Miss Dior to kiss me goodnight before heading out for dinner, but she was no more addicted to perfume than any other woman in my family.

My three sisters, of course, were surrounded by scent as they grew into teenagers, smelling like Kissing Potion and Bonne Bell Lipsmackers, Sea Breeze and Noxema at bedtime,"Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific!" shampoo in the mornings, and the three inescapable mainstays of every girl's vanity: citrusy Jean Nate splash, Avon Sweet Honesty, and Love's Baby Soft, eventually supplemented by such novelties as ceramic pomanders, perfumed wax statuettes shaped like Chinese ladies, and the Coty Sweet Earth solid-perfume compacts, perfect for tucking into a purse for a pre-flirtation touchup. As the Seventies wore on and the girls grew up there were bottles of the liberated-woman Charlie and the slightly more regressive Babe. Eventually my older sister graduated to Halston, which I gave her for Christmas one year; another wore Bill Blass for a while, also a gift from me. I might not have been able to wear nice scents, but at least I could attempt to have those around me wear them.

Perhaps it's because wearing after shave was part of being a man, and I very much wanted to be an adult, but I remember my father's collection more vividly than my mother's. In addition to the usual Avon bottles that were certain to be under the Christmas tree every year, he wore Brut, Pierre Cardin in its unquestionably phallic bottle, the now hilarious Hai Karate, that everyman standby Old Spice, and Aqua Velva--just typing the name calls to mind the inescapable television jingle, "There's something about an Aqua Velva man," crooned by a presumably sexy woman who presumably knew just what that something was. It wasn't what I aspired to.

Eventually as I made my way into teenagerhood and started shaving (at the age of 13), I had the excuse I needed. I couldn't wear the really interesting things that were out there: growing up in a small city with limited media outlets (two TV channels!), I probably wouldn't have known they were out there, anyway. And I couldn't wear what my father wore: that was obvious. So drugstore scents were what I graced myself with: English Leather, which I haven't smelled in years but probably still smells great, if a bit dated; Wind Drift, from the same manufacturer, about which I remember little, something that is probably for the best; and Tabac Original, which I think smelled more of citrus than of tobacco, though that didn't stop me from liking it.

My first introduction into the bigger world of perfumery came at the age of 16, when a small boutique opened just up the street from my piano teacher. Since one or more of my sisters and I would usually have our lessons in succession on the same evening, it was often the case that as I waited I whiled away the time wandering around the strip mall that contained among other things a deli, a drugstore, a really interesting stationer's, and this boutique, ridiculously generous with its samples, particularly so to a 16-year-old boy, and not even little vials but miniature bottles: in addition to makeup and mirrors and other womanly things that held no interest for me, it sold such perfumed European exotica as Jacques Bogart and Etienne Aigner, as well as the first scent that I ever became absolutely devoted to, Dieci by Pierre Lorain. In retrospect I know this must have been a women's scent: it was packaged in an oval bottle of frosted glass with a gold-plated cap, the whole thing just soft curves, though it was not specifically feminine, nor was the scent. Whatever it was, it smelled wonderful on my skin, and I over the next few years I used it down to the last drop and then mourned its passing. From the beginning it spoke to me in a way that nothing ever had before; it was complex and fascinating, probably an oriental chypre, now that I think about it, and light-years away from the drugstore fragrances I had known.

That was how it all began.