I’ve been obsessed with scent for as long as I can remember. Some people have a beach house. I have a perfume closet.
Though the origins of perfume can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, my very personal history with fragrance started extraordinarily young. I remember inhaling the smell of Joy on my grandmother’s fur stole and being awakened in my childhood suburban split-level not by an alarm clock but by my dad putting on too much Lagerfeld cologne down the hall. He would slap his face with it. It was the ’70s, and people bathed in cologne.
And if you too are a child of the ’70s and ’80s, chances are you very well remember your first fragrance. And for many of us, that was Jean Nate. Launched in 1935 by Revlon, this floral fragrance is a guilty pleasure. And though cheap and not particularly extravagant, the scent is downright iconic. Lemony. Spicy. Rosy. With a base of Musk, Virginia Cedar, Tonka Bean, and Sandalwood. Tell me you can’t close your eyes and picture your young self in a tennis skirt whenever you think of it.
Jean Nate is a scent I remember loving, but it was more for our mothers and grandmothers than for a girl. So I wore Love’s Baby Soft (powdery goodness) and the very sophisticated-sounding Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel. I can still picture that beautiful floral bottle, though straight florals were never my vibe.
As womanhood approached, so did a desire to go for something more sophisticated. Along with my starter Clinique makeup came a bottle of Poison perfume, and that purple bottle was full of spicy, amber-scented magical mystery.
I would also swipe sprays of my mom’s Opium with that fabulous lacquered bottle and her Obsession. This would start a lifelong love of spicy fragrances and what the categorists call “Oriental” to denote warm aromas with vanilla, musk, spices, and amber. It remains my favorite category today, along with the Gourmands, but more on that later.
I don’t remember what I wore in college (or much of college at all), but I’m guessing I smelled of beer. And cigarettes. And regret—lots of it.
When I reached my 20s, I wanted to smell like cake, so I started my love affair with all things vanilla. I became obsessed with finding the perfect vanilla scent, and for my young taste, I went all-in on the Body Shop’s vanilla fragrance. I was an absolute superfan, and it smelled of early-20s spirit. Or at least it did to me—that and a desire to be devoured.
As my 20s crescendoed, I continued to explore my fragrance portfolio and went full Eurotrash. Inspired by frequent trips to Amsterdam for my job as a trend forecaster, the duty-free shop at Schiphol was a hotbed for perfume curiosity. Kenzo Flower. Joop. And the epic scent for summer, Jil Sander Sun, which I still spritz to this day. An amber floral containing all my favs like vanilla, sandalwood, and Tonka Bean, nothing smells more like sultry weather than this perfume.
And if you were lucky enough to live in New York City in the ’90s, you’ll remember how cute it was. Everyone looked like central casting for a CK One ad. And though I loved that gene pool, I loathed the fragrance, even though its gender-neutral marketing was ahead of its time. I dated a guy who wore CK One, and in addition to him consistently calling me “fancy” when he got drunk, the way he smelled was cloying. On a whole other note, I also once dated a guy based solely on the fact that he wore Route du Thé from Barneys, cashmere scarves, and an expensive leather jacket. I was smitten. Until about an hour later, I wasn’t. I later started wearing Le Labo’s elegant Thé Noir. A tea for me. Cause whatever with him.
As mentioned in a previous post, I moved to Miami in my 30s. And because of the heat and sweat factor, I went more floral and discovered Calypso. Not only do I remember being delighted by their silk shantung sherbet-colored dresses but also their resort-friendly fragrances. And their signature Mimosa scent remains an all-time favorite. Deliciously effervescent and floral, this was my signature high-humidity scent.
But little did my nose know what was coming, for my true love was on the way. And his name was Frederic Malle.
Frederic Malle is a French perfumer, and his wares are not for the weak of wallet. But they are sooooo goooood.
Try to walk down the street or take an Uber wearing Portrait of a Lady without breaking a heart.
Because it’s drop-dead, and people will grab your arm and ask you what you are wearing (or at least they did before Covid). One Uber driver asked me if I would ride in his car all day so he could continue to inhale its splendor. Eventually, every woman in Manhattan caught on to this scent and, just like that, I had to bid it adieu. But Monsieur Malle had much more in store.
Carnal Flower, for example, is sublime in the summer but so cool and hothouse in the winter. It’s a scorcher of a tuberose, and my husband loves it. It’s pretty yet strong and powerful. Think red lipstick and heels with a Dickies boilersuit powerful. Yum.
As I get older and crave sophisticated scents, Chanel always fits the bill. Currently, I love Coromandel, which has hints of vanilla but is more whispery than “EAT ME.” And since I still love a vanilla shout-out, Diptyque’s Duelle is stunning, as is Aerin Lauder’s Tangier Vanille. And though I bought Tom Ford’s iconic Tobacco Vanille for my husband, I wear it all the time. It’s smoky and sweet and irresistible on every front. I love how I can smell it on my “house cardigan,” a black, ratty, oversized number from & Other Stories that has become a pandemic staple. As in, I wear it every day.
And though the young me would never, ever think of wearing anything rose because “hello, grandma,” modern rose is a revelation with nothing fuddy-duddy about it. Particularly Serge Lutens’ gorgeous Fille du Berlin, and Heretic’s Apricot Rose and Le Labo’s spicy Rose 31, a voluptuous fragrance that initially smells like BO (the cumin) but, trust me, it settles beautifully on the body.
Le Labo’s Santal 33 is spicy. Leathery. Smoky. What I wished CK One was but wasn’t. It’s a perfect unisex fragrance, and I constantly revisit it. Pro tip: Maison Louis Marie does a far cheaper version called Bois de Balincourt. You’re welcome.
And as for the menfolk, I like the classics. A little Creed, a little Tom Ford Noir and, dare I admit it, I love the smell of Old Spice. And Irish Spring soap. When it comes to men, I’m a woman of the people. Sue me.
And suppose you’re a scent-obsessed person like me. In that case, I highly recommend viewing “Nose,” a fascinating documentary on all things aromachology, particularly about the nose-in-chief over at the House of Dior, who makes two standouts j’adore. I love the rich European vibe of Bois d’Argent, and my discovery of the spicy and warm Fève Délicieuse when I was in Scotland reduced me to mush.
In the film, they talked about how fragrance makers are super curious humans and can catalog the canon of human experience through scent. How inspired.
Yours, in sweet sniffs are made of this. XO