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Tondal’s Vision, Hieronymus Bosch, mid-16th century
Tondal’s Vision, Hieronymus Bosch, mid-16th centuryVia Wikimedia Commons

Anxiety, credit cards and meth: when did fragrances get so abstract?

New perfumes are tapping into revulsion, dark emotions and bad memories – but what’s behind this rise in niche scents?

Ever wanted to smell like plastic bags, balloons, or priest’s clothes? We’d guess… probably not. But if you’ve got so much as a passing interest in fragrance, you might have noticed a growing trend for niche perfumes containing offbeat, evocative or even disturbing notes. Independent labels such as Marissa Zappas, Universal Flowering and Toskovat are gaining traction on #PerfumeTok, as are websites like Fragrantica where people dissect their unconventional aromas and conceptual scents.

Some of these seem deliberately designed to unsettle or confuse. But Not Today, a Hannibal-inspired fragrance by Filippo Sorcinelli, is designed to smell like fear and anxiety. One TikTok user said it made their “hair stand up on end. My husband recoiled when he smelled it… absolutely unsettling.” Another said it “smells like a torture chamber, indeed, I had to scrub it off immediately.”

Filigree & Shadow’s Sui Generis has notes of the drug methamphetamine. One wearer wrote that it “smells like the inside of a room that something terrible happened in... I was wearing this at a show that my friend met me at and when she gave me a hug she said, ‘Oh my god, did you pee yourself?’” James Elliott, the perfumer behind the scent, shared an email with Dazed from a customer who wrote: “I really can’t believe how you made that meth smell. I’m pretty sure my brain would light up like Christmas if you did a CT scan on it. You nailed the scent that secretes out of the body on the second day of use.”

Romanian perfumery Toskovat has attracted attention for its avant-garde scents, courtesy of nose David-Lev Jipa Slivinschi. Inexcusable Evil is one of these. One owner of the scent, who is 21 and from the US, discovered the brand on TikTok: “I saw a post about it and right away was incredibly curious because the cologne had notes of blood, gunpowder, and ozone,” he says. “It pulls very spicy, metallic, and almost raw on my skin. It’s not unpleasant, though! I’ve been asked dozens of times what I’m wearing.”

Alongside jarring and boundary-pushing smells, other cult perfumers are tapping into the deep recesses of nostalgia, including NYC nose Marissa Zappas. Her Pink Bedroom Oil, created in collaboration with Portia Munson’s dildo and tampon-filled installation at the Museum of Sex, evokes being a girl in the 90s, complete with plastic doll head notes. Or there’s her best-selling Annabel’s Birthday Cake which emulates the sugar-fuelled excitement of a party, featuring balloons – a latex note – and white cake, with some reviewers saying they can smell melted candle wax. Toronto brand Universal Flowering has formulas with notes of white chalk and pencil shavings, with the scents being a “romantic extension” of founder Courtney Rafuse’s “memories past and future”.

Our brains’ olfactory memory links smells with memories and emotions, and it’s a powerful process – studies suggest that when we smell something, our brains can take us back to that initial sniff. “Memories consist of multi-layered sensual impressions: smell, sound, textures, colour waves and emotional encounters or triggers, all of which contribute to the moments we hold as souvenirs from the past,” says Niklaus Mettler, creative director at In’n’out Fragrances. He worked on last year’s Jacquemus pop-up at Selfridges, putting together a scentscape inspired by Simon Porte Jacquemus’ childhood summer holiday memories, of “Marvis mint toothpaste, a fizzy electrolyte flavour reminiscent of a paracetamol tablet, and the chlorine-rubbery scent of a public pool,” he tells Dazed.

This experimentalism has cropped up in home fragrancing, too: DS & Durga’s Pasta Water candle features a “faint umami depth”, saline, semolina wheat and a “chef’s secret” bottom note. Even more specific – and eerie – scent profiles exist for home scents: Bazaar Baltimore produce an ‘abandoned hospital’ candle with “oddly satisfying notes of mould, dust, decay with medicinal undertones”. Homely! Yet it’s worth noting that unusual, object-based or hyper-specific scents are nothing new – Demeter’s library of scents has long drawn on everyday smells such as vinyl records, kitten fur and even baby’s heads.

But why are fragrance heads seemingly less interested in cutesy floral, ‘basic’, or traditional gourmand scents? If “perfumery has always been very much the echo of the world”, according to fragrance luminary Frédéric Malle, then what does it mean that perfumes are getting weirder, more conceptual and delving into memory and unsavoury things? “This could be due to the constant changes – politics, cost-of-living – that are increasing cortisol, or stress, levels and people are finding a source of comfort with nostalgic perfumes,” suggests cosmetic formulator Kyle Frank. At the same time, “there appears to be a new trend of ‘dark moods’ and a rise of exploring alternative identities,” he adds. 

Some people are using perfumes to explore their ‘shadow selves’ and pick out smells that repel and trigger visceral physical responses. Others might use these niche scents to reject the gender binaries of classic perfumes, or as an extension of their individualism, a way to cut through culture that can sometimes feel homogenous. Glossier’s You and Santal 33 by Le Labo are much-loved scents for a reason, but just like hit songs can be overplayed, oversaturation can lead to staleness.

More than just a reaction against mainstream fragrances, some scents exist as a protest or critique. Toskovat’s Inexcusable Evil, Slivinschi explains, is a statement about modern-day conflict, with its notes of bandages, iodine and burning flowers. He tells Dazed: “Inexcusable Evil … applies to one’s skin the trauma that has haunted our species since its dawn.”

The decline of the high street and e-com boom has made shopping for new scents trickier since you can’t transmit smell digitally. Listing notes like ‘jasmine’ or ‘orange blossom’ might seem straightforward but often feels abstract and unclear in practice. It’s much more interesting, and effective, to suggest a vibe through hyper-specific items or scenarios. When a perfume is described as “sticky sweet waxed floors of an arcade, bells and chimes signalling your high score, a sip of cola” (à la Pearfat’s Multiball), it’s more appealing. Long may the weird, emotion-led olfactory renaissance continue!

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