I was really hoping that writing, and creative projects in general, would come easily as my self-imposed hermiting became mandated. As it turns out, you can’t force anything under conditions like this, but I’ve been privileged enough to use this time as an opportunity to reframe how I think about productivity. Over the course of my high school and college years, I’ve become the reigning king of the last minute essay, the late assignment, the barely pinching things together through a frenetic stream of unconscionably disorganized, strung-out bursts and looseleaf papers. The crux of it all hinged on feelings of self-blame that perpetuated themselves, resulting in seemingly endless self-handicapping and self-fulfilling prophecies. I would take time for myself, but it was rarely, if ever, directed toward something that I actually wanted to get out of that time. It would take the shape of mindlessly consuming content, playing a game with myself about how I could start what I needed to be doing in 5 minutes, OK 15 minutes, OK maybe I’ll try to go to sleep and do it early in the morning. 10 a.m. comes and goes. For me, creative work rarely leaves the idea stage, but I feel like I’ve been given a rare opportunity to break that pattern. One of the silver linings of watching the world fall apart in isolation is that the notion of guilt that comes along with the rigor of a structured schedule just evaporates. By being a little bit more deliberate about how I use my time and doing my best to fall backwards into the ever present pit of self-judgment, those same ideas are swimming about and they’re ready to cross over to dry land.
The last time I felt anything akin to this, I was living at home and commuting to Washtenaw Community College. I had decided that my initial choice of 4-year institution, Columbia College Chicago, wasn’t the right fit for what I wanted out of my higher education. I moved back into my parents’ house in Northville, Mich., began working at the salon I went to in high school, and did my best to reconnect with old friends that were going to Wayne State at the time, but this year-and-a-half long period felt a lot like limbo. This isn’t a treatise on the pain of loneliness or feelings of general decay, in fact I feel grateful for figuring out how to be on my own. What struck me as curious about this little situational parallel that I’ve drawn is that both times I’ve found myself deep in a wonderland fantasy spiral of complete fragrance obsession.
There’s a deeply personal element of smell that lends itself to escapism. It’s inherently attached to memory and to visual ideas that can only really be accessed through the mind. All sensory experiences are personal, but scent seems to tie everything together in a way that nothing else can. I embarked on my descent into the crevasse not entirely by choice; a google ad for D&G Dolce and Gabbana #3 (L’imperatrice) popped up during one of my aimless internet romps, and it reminded me of when I had a bottle of it in middle school. My parents took my sister and I to Las Vegas for spring break when I was 13 and, unbeknownst to me then, it was one of the first times I let myself explore something that wasn’t expressly intended for men. It smelled like kiwi and watermelon, which for the fragrance world is a weird combo. It would be classified somewhere in the unisex, fruity Gourmand category, which denotes fragrances that smell like things you can eat. Generally not something I would look for in a fluid that’s meant to be sprayed on my body — the idea of smelling like a kiwi does not exactly spark a sense of allure. But I loved it, and every time I used it, it made me smile. I remember putting on my neon yellow and blue plaid Abercrombie & Fitch shirt and my Versace wraparound sunglasses (YIKES), spraying on my D&G #3 and feeling like I was on top of the world.
That’s the magic of fragrance, for me. I love that a particular smell, or the mere visual reminder of one, can immediately take you back to a different place in time, or even unlock parts of your imagination that aren’t necessarily tied to any one part of your personal history. They’re sentimental and imaginative, and while sensuality and sexuality are well-ingrained in the experience of smell, they’re so much more than that. A great scent is no less than any other work of art, often incorporating hundreds of natural and synthetic materials, pairing them in carefully calculated concentrations with one another according to their molecular weight and vibration, in order to create a deeply intimate, conceptual experience from the top note to the drydown. I’ve decided to devote a lot of my time during these next few weeks (potentially months) to sharing my experiences and ideas about fragrance publicly, through writing, styling and creating a Youtube channel (also a potential yikes) to share the joy that I’ve found with others.
Without further ado, below are descriptions of a few scents I’ve worn over the years and some of the experiences I’ve had with them. If you’re new to the world of fragrance and want to give it a try, I highly recommend reading reviews and descriptions online, as well as looking into different types of scents and the effects that they’re supposed to have. Biologist and perfume critic Luca Turin has also published some highly informative and surprisingly funny books on the subject. It’s in everyone’s best interest to try samples before buying a full bottle of anything, which can sometimes be found by requesting them at stores, but can also easily (and during this time, necessarily) be found for purchase at Lucky Scent and The Perfumed Court, spray at your own risk.
1. D&G Dolce & Gabbana, “#3 (L’imperatrice)”
Aside from the slightly ridiculous personal anecdote, it really is such an interesting smell. This isn’t just one of the first times I realized I could personally engage with a form of expression that wasn’t gendered, it was also something that showed me how unexpected and impactful fragrance could be. I don’t love promoting a company headed by people whose politics I disagree with so strongly, so bear that in mind, but I do feel like it’s fine to talk about my personal history with something. This was part of a collection of unisex fragrances that were based on tarot cards, and it was modeled by Naomi Campbell. L’imperatrice is French for The Empress, which is a trump card in the Major Arcana suit. When it’s drawn in its positive interpretation, it’s meant to symbolize a maternal influence and the birth of new life or new ventures. It’s sort of like a spawning of newness accompanied by maternal guidance, in whatever sense that may mean to the individual. With top notes of pink pepper, kiwi and rhubarb, middle notes of jasmine, cyclamen and watermelon, and base notes of musk, sandalwood and lemon tree, its scent profile is very much a reflection of that. It smells like spring. Not in the sense that this is what you smell when spring comes, but these are the kinds of smells that are marketed at its onset, recontextualized into something that’s sophisticated and light-hearted at the same time. It feels like it’s almost poking fun at the syrupy sweet, deliriously synthetic confections that you can find at, say, a certain underwear behemoth that’s known for inflated prices and a very narrow vision of what the femme fantasy should look like, all while simultaneously participating in the culture that created them. It feels like a recapitulation of all that comes with the artifice of consumption, taking a dip into its illustrious pool with a non-judgmental self awareness. I truly love it and think about it all the time. It’s been discontinued and I wish I still had a bottle.
2. Armani Privé, “Oud Royal”
I bought a bottle of this as a present to myself after I got my first straight-A report card in college. I could not afford it, and when I look back on the decision to pull the trigger, I think I was completely out of my mind. The woman at the Neiman’s counter kept spraying me these little tester papers and telling me why each one would make me smell sexy, and while her advice bordered on overwhelming, this one (along with Bois d’Encens, which is an incense that Giorgio Armani wears himself) stuck out to me. I was drawn to the Privé line because it was known for using a lot of natural extracts for some of their star notes. This can be expensive. Compounds like neroli, ambergris, oud, narcissus, civet and sandalwood are more easily replicated than naturally obtained. In some cases, like with ambergris (a digestive compound found in sperm whales) and civet (a musk-like oil produced in the perineal glands of civet cats), this is not a cruelty free process either. Oud (or Oudh) is the extract of an Agar tree that’s been infected with a fungus. If this review illuminates anything, it’s that a lot of the things that smell most pleasant to us have some seriously unsightly origins. Anyway, this was my first experience with real oud oil and it was absolutely tantalizing. It’s supposed to have a woody character with inflections of incense, leather and rose. Here, the natural ingredient is showcased with an irregular structure: instead of a typical pyramid, with top, middle and base notes, oud informs the entire scent profile with notes of saffron, rose, sandalwood, incense and amber. Instead of acting like a base note, the way it normally would, Oud Royal acts a little bit more like a long-lasting essential oil. I honestly went with it because it smelled like a car crash. It smelled like burnt rubber in the best possible way. This smell hit me at peak limbo period, and after figuring out how to successfully balance school and a part-time job in spite of my chaotic hellfire of a work ethic, it signified to me that this was a way to outwardly express that I could persevere. It was very polarizing, people either loved it and found it intoxicatingly sweet, brash and leathery at the same time, or they hated it for the same reason. It’s pretty mild and woody on the drydown, and I think its detractors were being a little dramatic, but that rubbery opener lasts for a good half an hour and, at the time, it was the most intense thing I had ever worn. I can’t say I would recommend buying this bottle, for the same reason I couldn’t bring myself to recommend somebody buying an ostrich-skin birkin bag, but it was truly beautiful and it’s what sparked my interest in fragrance in the first place.
3. April Aromatics, “Calling All Angels”
April Aromatics is a smaller, Berlin based perfumery headed by Tanja Bochnig. They’re known for using exclusively natural materials, with a particular focus on sourcing ingredients that aren’t derived from animals, noting that many natural materials (like the aforementioned civet and ambergris) can cause great harm. This purchase was the product of a deep dive into Reddit-like review sites like Fragrantica and Basenotes, and blogs like Victoria Frolova’s Bois de Jasmine. I found one reviewer on Basenotes (cannot remember her handle for the life of me) who really seemed to know her shit. She was the person who convinced me to find samples of cult classics like Serge Lutens’ “Muscs Koublai Khan” and taught me how to discern different notes and how they’re interpreted. She also brought to my attention that you can use the adjective “liturgic” in contexts outside of Catholicism. A gleaming review of this scent, “Calling All Angels,” was so enveloping that I bought a bottle of it blind. And I’m so glad that I did. It’s centered around amber, and gives it the character of a warm sweetness with honey and vanilla accords (as well as rose otto), which is then contrasted by a blend of incense, frankincense, precious woods, tonka bean and labdanum, which I can only describe as absolutely intoxicating. For others, I’ve found it was never overpowering, but I could personally smell those intense polarities on my skin all day. It almost felt like a little secret I got to keep for myself, from the first euphoric spritz all the way to those sweet, woody base notes. I ran out of it about a year ago and have since moved on, but I can’t help but feel nostalgic for that wonderful siren sound.