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Photography Peter Ash Lee

Why we only want to smell like our natural selves


TextAlex Peters

We investigate the recent trend of perfumes designed to enhance your natural scent and make you smell uniquely... like you

In Tom Robbins’s 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the smooth-riding cowgirl Bonanza Jellybean is explaining to a group of women visiting the ranch that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their natural essence and that it, in fact, works in their favour. “Here’s a little self-celebration I bet you ladies never thought of,” Bonanza tells them, “What you do is reach down with your fingers and get them wet with your juices. Then you rub it in behind your ears.

It’s a wonderful perfume,” she says. “Very subtle and very mischievous. Men are attracted, I guarantee you.”

It’s an unusual trick, and one I imagine not many readers will go for, but there has recently been a number of perfumes released that play on this idea of enhancing one’s “natural essence” so that you can smell uniquely like yourself. Glossier’s aptly named perfume, You, for example, is designed to smell mostly… like you. Or as Glossier puts it: “that familiar human-y note” that’s “creamy” and “warm.” (I imagine Bonanza Jellybean winking in her grave at their choice of words here). DSH Perfumes Special Formula X fragrance is similarly described as the ultimate skin scent. “It’s YOU,” their adverts cry, “only better!” A natural smelling scent, “Special Formula X” morphs to amplify each person’s skin so that the fragrance “just smells like more of themselves…in the best possible way,” explains founder Dawn Spencer Hurwitz.

“Elevator Music really needs a wearer, it really needs a person. It has no value by itself.” Ben Gorham

Escentric Molecules’ Molecule 01 is described by perfumer Geza Schoen as “one of those skin-sexy scents that makes you want to nestle into it.” Designed to blend with the wearer’s “natural pheromones” to enhance their allure, the perfume creates a unique, indefinable radiance that is different for every individual. Similarly, Elevator Music, the fragrance collaboration between Byredo and Off-White, was created to allow for personal expression. It is “less dictating” than traditional scents, “you have a hard time describing or placing it” Byredo founder Ben Gorham explains. “It really needs a wearer, it really needs a person. It has no value by itself.” A sentiment echoed by Glossier: “Please be advised that the formula comes incomplete,” they say of their perfume, “You are the first ingredient.” 

But where has this demand for my-smell-but-better, emphasis on YOU, skin scents come from?

Perfume has always been a good indicator of what’s going on in contemporary culture. There were the earthy patchouli and sandalwood scents popular in the hippy 1960s. The rich, heady perfumes of the 1980s – think Poison by Dior – which accompanied big hair and even bigger shoulder pads. “The American woman has acquired a taste for eaux de toilettes and colognes that are usually strong and lasting,” reported The New York Times in 1988. Then came CK One. Calvin Klein’s clean, unisex scent reflected the stripped-back androgynous 90’s aesthetic. Minimal and effortless, it signalled the end of 80s decadence. A sheer scent Kate could wear with her sheer dress.  

What aspects of our culture today, then, are these skin-centred scents symptomatic of? I imagine there are certain people – the kind of people who wield the word “snowflake” like a weapon and like to accuse the younger generations of killing everything from handshakes to the marmalade industry – who would point the finger at millennial narcissism. The selfie generation so obsessed with themselves that they are now making perfume so they can smell like themselves.

Special Formula X came about organically, however, never intended to be sold as a perfume. Originally a skin-analysis formula designed by perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz to get a feel for how her clients' skin would react to fragrance, more often than not the clients would ask for some of the “test patch” too. “I realised with my clientele that a few of their needs could be met by this one fragrance design,” Dawn explains. “They could have a simple, unique fragrance that always suits them and a light, non-invasive, easy to wear scent that wouldn’t feel ‘too much.’”

Many of Dawn’s clients couldn’t find a fragrance on the market because the current perfumes were “too much fragrance,” she says, “too strong or too complex.” Similarly, Molecule 01 came about because Escentric Molecules’ perfumer Geza Schoen wanted to “create something unconventional, not too perfumistic, something for my friends who said they didn’t like fragrance.” It’s a subtle scent that “doesn’t go in all guns blazing, flashing its wares like a can-can dancer,” the website tells you.

“In the past, the beauty business has invoked the ‘natural’ in order to counter negative connotations attached to artificiality, frivolity, or the synthetic. There also may be an idea of anti-branding, that you want to smell like yourself, not a celebrity.” – Kathy Peiss, American History Professor at the University of Pennsylvania

Is it, then, from a desire to not infringe upon one’s own or one another’s space that these non-offensive, unaggressive scents stem? “Elevator Music” was created to disappear into the background. “We tried to capture a scent that was sort of elevator music for your life,” explains Off-White founder Virgil Abloh. “It’s not at the forefront.” The perfume equivalents of staying in your lane.

Or does this desire to smell like oneself come from a yearning for authenticity and individuality? In a time when everything and everyone can be altered and enhanced – whether that be digitally or cosmetically – what is authentic is now more meaningful. #nofilter #nomakeup #noperfume. In an article titled “Authenticity: The Way to The Millennial’s Heart,” Karl Moore, an associate Professor at McGill University, writes that authenticity is regarded as of one the most essential values to millennials, while Dr Heather Ford from Leeds University writes that we’re “witnessing a renewed interest and valuing of authenticity. Where content that is seen to be ‘real’ is more likely to succeed.” It doesn’t mean that these things are necessarily true, mind you (the idea of performed authenticity is one explored in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”), but the appearance of authenticity, of effortlessness, of naturalness, is one that is sought after and valued. And now you can smell uniquely and authentically like yourself (just a little bit better).

“It’s hard for me to know whether this trend is something truly meaningful, or simply another stab by marketers at reaching consumers,” says Kathy Peiss, American History Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. “In the past, the beauty business has invoked the ‘natural’ in order to counter negative connotations attached to artificiality, frivolity, or the synthetic. There also may be an idea of anti-branding, that you want to smell like yourself, not a celebrity.”

Or maybe it’s simply that after thousands of years of making perfume we’ve just run out of new aromas! Who nose.

Whatever the case, with the current demand for bespoke and personalised products and the ever-increasing advancement of technology, smelling uniquely like yourself is a trend that is likely to develop even further. In her 2014 short film Swallowable Parfum, “body architect” Lucy McRae explored the possibly, maybe one day a reality, of a cosmetic capsule that, when eaten, synthesises with the body so that when you perspire you sweat your own biologically enhanced fragrance. “No one would have the same excretion of fragrance apart from identical twins because of the way our DNA is structured,” Lucy explains. “It’s a perfume that works from the inside out. The body is the atomiser.”

P.S. If you were intrigued by Bonanza Jellybean’s opening perfume trick but don’t feel quite ready to use your own natural scent, allow me to point you in the direction of Vulva Original, a vagina-scented oil that comes in “Original” and the distressingly named “Exotic” and “Eighteen”. Personally, I’d recommend sticking to the natural stuff.  

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