Is there such a thing as the great American perfume? The question seems, on the surface, to be a silly one. Perfume, we’re told, is a frivolous enterprise. Even those who grant perfume with special significancetend to think of it as a sensual aide, a chemical potion that “attracts” people into your orbit.
But for a growing wave of independent artisans and enthusiasts, perfume is neither cosmetic nor sexual. It’s high art: an abstract, deeply evocative play on the sense of smell that can evoke specific places, times or personalities.
“There’s a common misconception that perfume is about memory. It’s not. But it is about emotion,” says Christopher Brosius, founder and nose behind the avant garde line CB I Hate Perfume.
His own perfumes, he says, are about having a private experience, about smelling something tuned in to your life story. He’s produced fragrances based around violet or white flowers, as you’d expect a perfumer to do, but in his Brooklyn studio, you’ll also find a best-selling scent entitled Wet Sidewalk London, along with one surprisingly wearable number, Beast – a rugged, manly-man scent, all about smoke and leather and the general sense that you wouldn’t embarrass yourself trying to fix a flat tire – that’s based on the smell of roast beef.
If you see scent as art, a perfume is less like your favorite shirt than it is like your favorite movie, less about public attraction than about private entertainment. A good perfume, Brosius says, “should always speak directly, and very, very clearly, to the person who wears it”.
From this angle, the search for a great American perfume is not only reasonable, it’s necessary. We have great American novels. We have outstanding musicians, ground breaking directors, dancers and chefs. But American perfumes?
They do exist, but finding them is difficult. To explain this, we have to dive into the complicated relationship Americans have with smell.
Art forms thrive in cultures that appreciate them. The French, for example, treat fragrance as a matter of cultural heritage; they have academies for perfumers, popular books on the art of perfume and even a museum, the Osmotheque, devoted to preserving historically significant fragrances. Accordingly, nearly all great or classic western perfumes – like Guerlain’s Mitsouko or Chanel No 5 – are French.
It’s not just the French. Every culture has a scent culture, just as every country has food and music. If there is competition for the title of perfume capital of the world, it’s coming from Dubai. The Middle East has such a good relationship with smell – not just perfume, but floral attars and perfumed smoke used to scent clothes – that its regional tastes for dark, rich roses or saffron, or the complex, medicinal-smelling wood known as oud, are increasingly setting the trends for the rest of the world.
In Japan, meanwhile, the concept of scent as high art has existed for centuries: they have kōdō, the art of incense, which can take decades of exhaustive training to master. As with Brosius’ definition of perfume, the point of kōdō is not just good smells; it’s attuning yourself to a particular scent on an emotional and spiritual level.
And then … well, then you have Americans. Who are known for insisting on fragrance-free products and banning perfume from office buildings. As such, American culture is, relatively speaking, scentphobic.
“Perfume is not something that has a good connotation,” says Josh Meyer, the perfumer behind the Portland-based Imaginary Authors. “If you think about somebody who walks in the elevator, and they’re wearing ‘perfume’, no one assumes that’s an incredibly wonderful perfume they’re wearing. No one thinks it’s a good thing.”
It’s not just that Americans supposedly don’t like fragrance: the fragrances we do like tend to smell weird to everyone else. This comes down to a simple fact that the French, among others, embraced long ago: things which smell good often also smell dirty.
The most famous example is jasmine. People adore its rich, sweet smell, but part of what makes that smell so distinctive is a high percentage of odorant molecules known as indoles. And you smell indoles, in a very different context, every day: they’re present in human feces. In other words, one of the world’s most beloved flowers smells like shit. You won’t notice the similarity if you’re smelling a live flower, but when it’s on your skin, you might.
The list goes on: lactones, which are used to mimic peach and gardenia, are also present in unwashed hair. Musk is “sexy”, but primarily because it recalls the smell of sweat and genitalia. Where Europeans are relatively comfortable with “animalic” scents – things that smell like the human body – Americans are famously aversive to them.
“A lot of women will come in,” Brosius told me, “and they’ll say, ‘I want something that’s sexy.’ And then, of course, you ask: what does that mean to you? And a lot of the time, they’ll come back with a lot of fancy soaps, or clean sheets, all the things that this puritanical American society considers to be important. If you show them something that is very sensual, or truly animalic, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting.’”
Granted, I don’t know many people who could wear Beast. But Americans’ demand for hygienic scents can have bizarre results.
Angela Sanders is a blogger at Now Smell This, a must-read hub for perfume culture. The site has reviewed everything from the now-extinct 1943 version of Rochas Femme to Britney Spears’ Fantasy. She told me that perfumers are going out of their way to make “clean” scents for the American market, and they’re overcompensating in the process.
“Perfumers,” she told me, “consider orange blossom to be a particularly American scent.” Orange blossom, it turns out, smells like soap. Another ingredient that goes into scents aimed at Americans is what Sanders calls “laundry musk”, synthetic un-sweaty musks that appeal to us because they’re used to scent laundry detergents and fabric softeners.
The result is something like Love in White, the perfume presented to every American first lady by the British house Creed. Creed likes to promote itself as the preferred perfume of royalty – you’ll find Queen Victoria’s name on their packaging – but when they crafted their “White House perfume”, what they came up with was a formidably hygienic mix of oranges and indole-free white flowers that smells, according to one unwitting test subject, like “bathroom powder”. As in, powder with which to scrub your bathroom fixtures.
The ideal American perfume doesn’t smell clean, it smells like cleanser. Leaving aside whether any reasonable person would spend 0 – the current price of Love in White – for something that smells like it could kill mildew, if that’s what American sex appeal smells like, we might as well just dab Purell on our wrists and call it a day.
It wasn’t always this way. The story of American perfume begins with a scent that is also just about as dirty as you can get. The first great American house is one that American snobs overlook: the long-time drugstore stalwart Estee Lauder.
“Not only are the classic Lauders terrific fragrances with distinct personalities, the whole Estee Lauder story with Youth Dew is especially American,” Sanders says. “Youth Dew was super influential, both for its fragrance and for its revolutionary idea that women might actually buy scent for themselves.”
In 1953, when Youth Dew was released, perfume could only be purchased for a woman by her man. Then as now, perfume was considered seductive, so for a single woman to wear fragrance meant she was announcing her sexuality without announcing that she had a man at whom to direct it. This meant that perfume, like sex, was something only married women could have. It also meant that – again, like sex – men got to decide what their wives liked, often without consulting them.
Estee Lauder (born Josephine Esther Mentzer; she was an early adopter of the idea that seeming French gave you a leg up in the perfume business) solved this problem by giving women a “perfume” that wasn’t. It was “bath oil” meant to be put in the tub. Women could buy their own bath products without attracting the wrath of the patriarchy. It smelled so good, however, that women began wearing it on their skin. Voila! Lauder started selling Youth Dew as “perfume preferred by the modern woman”, and a woman’s right to choose fragrance was established.
Youth Dew’s opening is so loud and intensely spicy that, for a contemporary nose, it’s ugly. But once you acclimate to its over-the-top 1950s idea of femininity, its warm, resinous base is still deeply comforting, like a thick wool blanket or a wearable fireplace.
Lauder, bless her, also pioneered the “clean” American scent with White Linen, which does indeed smell like laundry. But Sanders points me to a third Lauder classic – released in 1975 under their Clinique brand, another American company with a French-sounding name – that is so sophisticated it’s nearly French.
“Aromatics Elixir is [a] landmark American fragrance,” she tells me. It’s the point where American perfume intersects most neatly with the classic French style; plush, deep, and complicated, with lots of rich flowers and polished wood. But you’ll remember it for its opening, which is like nothing else: simultaneously milky, feathery and strangely bitter, it smells like dried herbs, or spices cooking in butter, or, most of all, like medicine.
That medicinal association is no accident; Aromatics Elixir, that most French of American perfumes, is advertised as an assortment of ingredients “believed to have specific effects on mind and spirit”. In other words, it is supposed to be healthy. Twenty-two years after Youth Dew, Lauder was still performing the same trick, perhaps the most American trick of all: convincing women to wear perfume by convincing them that it’s actually something else.
And then, there is the renaissance. When I went to the high-end Brooklyn boutique Twisted Lily and asked what they had in the way of American perfume, their fragrance specialist Anna Young promptly went to the shelves and pulled down about 20 different bottles. She knew the background of each creator, and the stories were so varied and bizarre – a painting teacher with synesthesia! A clairvoyant astrologer who was called to an essential oil shop! A vegan psychologist who makes perfume named after Hegelian concepts of being! – that it felt less like shopping than like being read a weird collection of short stories.
But very few of those stories began with traditional perfume training. In the past few years, the internet has enabled a vast explosion of indie perfumers, everything from Etsy shops to prestigious niche lines. The ability to connect to internet communities like Now Smell This has made American perfume a new enterprise, run largely by talented amateurs.
This began with CB I Hate Perfume. Brosius was a New York cab driver with no formal training. He holed himself up in a Brooklyn studio surrounded by warehouses and truck loading bays, where he produced strange genre-breaking scents that smelled like sidewalks and bonfires and opium smoke. He emerged as one of the most respected names in the business, but he is the exception, not the rule. The idea of perfume “indie”, of a one-man outsider operation that earns just as much legitimacy as any major name, is more or less unheard of.
Understandably, Brosius feels a little uncomfortable with that. “Being the one who opened that floodgate,” as he puts it, comes with certain liabilities. “So many people that I’ve encountered, it’s like, oh, yeah, I’m an independent perfumer. Well, I’ll be the judge of that,” he says. “You thought perfume was so fascinating, and if I can do it, anybody can do it, certainly you can do it, so you got yourself a pretty bottle, and you filled it with something that, frankly, is pretty mundane.”
Making perfume from the outside, Brosius stresses, doesn’t mean lacking respect for the form. You can work without training, but you can’t work without craft. Sanders concurs: “American indie perfumers are still getting their sea legs.”
Yet Twisted Lily curates their perfumes very carefully. And much of what Young showed me seemed to carry on the tradition of doing the wrong thing in the right way.
Slumberhouse, for example, is run by Josh Lobb, a Brosius fan. Young calls Lobb “a master of things that are not correct, but evocative”. He works in dark, hyper-saturated colors that verge on disturbing. Norne, his most famous scent, is the smell of a Pacific north-western forest, and it certainly does smell like being stuck in an early X-Files episode: fir, fir and more fir, as far as the eye can see. But it’s a powerful experience: deep, dank and smoky, not exactly the smell of trees but the smell of needles decaying on the ground. You can feel yourself lost in a very large, wild place that may not wish you well.
On the other end of the spectrum, Imaginary Authors takes pride in perfume accessible to those who are intimidated by it – a very American project that, in a way, runs all the way back to Estee Lauder. “My intent when I started the company was to get people interested in perfume when they felt, I don’t have that access,” Meyer says. “I wanted to find a way to talk about perfume without talking about naked chicks or a guy in a cowboy hat.”
His tactic was to present each perfume as a synopsis of a novel that doesn’t exist. The perfumes are intentionally “likeable” (and inexpensive) but, because of the narrative aspect, they’re also interesting. They’re remarkably specific in their sense of place. The Cobra and the Canary smells like the midwest in a bottle: hay, blacktop, car-seat leather and a faint tinge of tobacco from somebody smoking a cigarette in the front seat. It’s like wearing a Bruce Springsteen album. Meyer also comes from California, and his recent Yesterday Haze is supposedly a very sad Californian story. It opens on lots of fruit before slowly subsiding into flinty, mineral dust; that is to say, the California perfume smells as if it’s undergoing a drought.
Any of these perfumes deserves to be called particularly American – not because they play to soapy, hygienic concepts of “what Americans like”, but because they are so strange and so specific, and because they feel free to take liberties with what perfume is supposed to be.
“It’s kind of hilarious, because it’s a reaction to years of Polo Sport and Clinique Happy. Now, American perfumes are really loud,” Young told me. “It’s that quintessential American thing of ‘Fuck you, I’m not going to play by the rules.’” Which is the most venerable American tradition of all.
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