Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

In her monthly column for Document, the formerly stinky Maya Kotomori examines the world of luxury fragrance

In Japan, smelling bad is sociogenic. At least according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Within the category taijin kyofusho, or “Other Specified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” [300.3 (F42)], lives jikoshu-kiyofu, or the fear of emitting offensive body odors. I don’t know how old I was when my father told me this, but it was definitely before I entered middle school. Ah, I thought. I’m so afraid of smelling bad because I’m Japanese.

My mom was pissed, not only because my dad was giving a name to a pathology I was already in the early stages of developing, but because fragrances were kind of our thing. Specifically, luxury fragrances. As an early-bloomer (I started growing boobs when I was seven), I also started smelling bad before my classmates. Teen Spirit Lady Speed Stick in Pink Crush was my first official fragrance in the third grade, and though I was only eight, I felt ugly and mannish having to smear the chemically stuff on my brand new armpit hair. I knew my mom wanted me to feel pretty, so she started giving me the free perfume samples from Macy’s mall counters to add to the mix. I own something fancy that no one else has, I remember thinking, when she gave me the tiny vial of eau de toilette and scented hand lotion that came with the Miss Cherie Dior gift set she got for Christmas. I didn’t know who or what a Miss Cherie Dior was, but I really loved smelling like her.

Fragrances are scientific, yet highly subjective: how can you name a smell, when what separates a good or bad one is in the nose of its beholder? How can you brand a scent as “luxury” when no one knows who’s producing its ingredients? What makes a fragrance a fragrance, what makes a Pink Crush smell like the neon shade of its packaging, and Mon Cherie Dior smell like darling? Smelling expensive—does it really exist, or do we all have a really bad case of jikoshu-kiyofu?

Luxury fragrances are a part of what we in the fashion industry call entrypoint products. For designers that sell $5,000 dollar handbags, a friendly $200 dollar 3.4 fl oz perfume is a way for consumers to interact with a brand. Other entrypoint products are sunglasses and an ever-evolving carousel of small leather goods (perhaps I will expound upon that in later months). More than sunglasses or a teensy bag that can—rather chicly—only fit a lip balm, a luxury perfume is a vibe, for many practical reasons. You can leave your Gucci aviators or your Louis Vuitton monogram pochette keychain on a restaurant table, a bar, the subway—you’re much less likely to misplace the skin you sprayed your Chanel Chance Fraiche on. Literally, these perfumes melt a brand’s ethos into air.

“The luxury fragrance world and the luxury world are two very different things: perfumes are inherently abstract because what smells good or bad on someone’s skin is highly subjective.”

Since fragrances go on, and, through your pores, inside your body, packaging must not only be unique, but also engender the feeling of safe use. Lee Eisenberg uses Voss’s “ultrasleek” water bottle as an example in Shoptimism: “It’s plate-glass thick, with a blingy platinum cap, a bottle fit for superpremium vodka or designer fragrance—no accident given that the Voss bottle was designed by the former creative director at Calvin Klein.” The creative director in question is Neil Kraft, who stepped down from Calvin Klein in 1994. Kraft is perhaps most known for the original risque underwear ads featuring a 17-year-old Kate Moss straddling the hunky Marky Mark, both only in CK jeans and branded underwear. But Kraft is also responsible for CK One, the first fragrance marketed as unisex. He also designed the bottle, a silver-capped frosted-glass flask that, if not filled with a clean-smelling non-gender-specific perfume, looks as though it would contain some gazillion-proof hooch. Where Kraft used Voss’s stylish decanter to upsell water—that wet stuff we need to drink to survive—he used CK One’s unassuming container to emulate the egalitarian aim of the fragrance: a clear elixir to make a man or a woman smell good. Packaging perfumes the purchase.

Because scents are so hard to pin down with just words, visual advertisements become all the more important for luxury fragrances. As a suburban middle-class child of the late ’90s, I grew up with perfume commercials as my first brushes with designer labels. Nicole Kidman for Chanel No. 5, and later Kiera Knightley for Coco Mademoiselle; literally all of the Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue ads with sexy models in white bathing suits ASMR-splashing in clear water, their eyes the same shade of pale azure as the waves that surround them, and as the perfume bottle. CK One’s original 1994 commercial featured a co-ed cast of hotties dancing, making out, and applying the fragrance, ending on a product shot with Kate Moss’s voice dubbed over saying “CK One, for a man or a woman.” You can’t visually articulate a scent without smell-o-vision, or John Waters’s limited odorama cards handed out at screenings for Polyester (1981) (hence, perfume samples in magazines). Video campaigns are instead important from a world-building perspective: an audience might not know what J’Adore by Dior smells like, but they can assume a golden, musky, freesia-forward scent from seeing Charlize Theron in matching Ndebele-esque neck rings that make her look like the perfume bottle she’s advertising.

Today, there’s a new crop of perfumers I like to call “indie luxury” rising in popularity. These brands approach luxury from the perspective of the bespoke, rather than the heritage of a fashion house. Take Le Labo, for example, whose mysteriously numbered signature scents come in eau de parfums, concentrated oils, and bodycare products like lotion and shampoo. They also offer a custom perfume service where customers can develop their own unique scents. Similarly, Byredo extends its hero smells into candles, home sprays, and even cosmetics; D.S. and Durga literally makes car fresheners. Each of these brands boasts significantly steeper price tags than a fragrance from a traditional high-end label. A 3.4 oz bottle of Chanel No. 5 eau de parfum retails for $172 on their website, while the same size of any D.S. and Durga fragrance costs $300; Byredo, $320; Le Labo, $322. This disparity isn’t evidence of an arbitrary price gouge, but rather a hallmark of a new kind of fragrance-elite joining the bunch. These brands don’t need TV commercials because they have found a way to get consumers to buy into the mystery of scent: by directly catering to the “oh, it’s custom” luxury shopper who actively seeks the least flashy branding because they feel it represents craft over flash. This specific consumer group opts for a higher price perfume for quality. These scents are special not because of the logo associated, but because of the one-of-one feeling they engender.

There is, though, a specific species of Perfume Guy among this genus of shopper who will always find time to remind you, “I’m not buying the fragrance for the label, I’m buying it for the quality.” The tricky part is defining what makes a high-quality fragrance. When buying a perfume, what drives the price is the proportion of parfum concentrate to water: in an eau de toilette, there is around five to 15 percent concentrate; eau de parfum, 15 to 20 percent, and parfum, 20 to 30 percent. Returning to the Chanel No. 5 example, your average mall shopper can find an eau de toilette or eau de parfum at a Nordstrom counter, but not a parfum—those more concentrated fragrances only exist at Chanel flagships, and might have to be specially ordered. What we take to be natural and therefore premium ingredients are not so clearly defined: A lot of the most common ingredients (ylang ylang, jasmine, patchouli, rose) for your favorite designer perfumes are often synthetically derived. Perfume brands also don’t have to be transparent about who supplies the ingredients that go into their products so long as they list the chemicals on the box, so there’s really no way for the Value Buyer (one of Eisenberg’s shopper types in Shoptimism) to objectively evaluate fair costs. This isn’t to say that natural essences are necessarily better, in the same way that clothing made with 100 percent cotton, linen, and wool isn’t necessarily superior to synthetic poly-blends or viscose garments, it all depends on how it’s made: In the case of perfume, how concentrated the fragrance is, and which manufacturer supplies the ingredients that go into making the scent. What, then, makes a Le Labo eau de parfum nearly double the price of a bottle of Chanel No. 5 of the same size?

“Perfumes are both metaphors and vehicles for memory, both a representation of the impossibility of truly rematerializing a reminiscence or a dream, and a scent-based tool to recall fond bygones.”

This is where brand positioning becomes crucial. The luxury fragrance world and the luxury world are two very different things: perfumes are inherently abstract because what smells good or bad on someone’s skin is highly subjective. Brands like Le Labo and Byredo understand this and create a market for people who want to feel like their fragrance is an extension of their personality, rather than a high-fashion label. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, and because indie luxury perfume best-sellers like Le Labo’s Santal 33 or Byredo’s Mojave Ghost have become so popular, it’s not like opting for one of these fragrances is any more unique than a Chanel No. 5. Much like personal style, it’s all about how you wear it, layer it, and accessorize it.

In high school, my signature perfume combination was Jo Malone’s Woodsage and Seasalt layered over top Jazz Club from Margiela’s Replica collection, and I felt like the shit. My very first college seminar smelled just like me. It was a major blow to my self-esteem, not only because I was forced to confront how aesthetically sheltered I had to be to think two fragrances sold at Sephora somehow belonged to me, but because it felt like everyone around me seemed unaware of the transformative power of a personal scent. Maybe they just didn’t care.

Scents are powerful to me, not just because of whatever innately Japanese fear of smelling bad my genes may harbor. I hugged my mom during my first winter break back from college and noticed she smelled like me too—her usual caramelly YSL Opium replaced with something more telling of a smoky room. “I missed you,” was all she said. I snuck a peek at her perfume tray, the same one I grew up coveting, and saw a fresh bottle of Jazz Club at the front. Perfumes are both metaphors and vehicles for memory, both a representation of the impossibility of truly rematerializing a reminiscence or a dream, and a scent-based tool to recall fond bygones. If luxury garments mark status, luxury fragrances market nostalgia. The hardest and most freeing thing within this world, whether your signature scent is Axe body spray and Dial soap (a wonderful combination post-water polo practice, I must say) or a secret vial of perfume oil cooked up by a fancy French guy mixed with Gucci Guilty, is trying to cultivate your persona with a smell. Like Eisenberg’s take on the glam of Voss water, what makes perfumes special is that they are “possessed of an attitude that may or may nor prompt us to buy it, but an attitude that certainly prompts us to take notice,”—and yet, we have few words that can actually describe their fragrance. Unless you have synesthesia, or something. Wordless, we trudge through the perfume mists of Avalon in search of the perfect scent.

10 of my favorite fragrances over the years:

1. Hanae Mori by Hanae Mori (my earliest olfactory memory)

2. L’Instant de Guerlain (my grandma wears this)

3. Flower Bomb by Viktor & Rolf (my best friend wears this)

4. Black Opium by Yves Saint Laurent (purchased because of the sparkly bottle)

5. Mon Paris by Yves Saint Laurent (my mom wears this)

6. Neroli 36 by Le Labo (smells like Document Journal)

7. Radio Bombay by D.S. and Durga (from my Totokaelo days)

8. Bowmakers by D.S. and Durga (I played violin as a child)

9. Freudian Wood by WienerBlut (I want my future boyfriend to smell like this)

10. Y by Yves Saint Laurent (my dad wears this)


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