Perfume is the ultimate con. Here’s a bottle of fragrant water, apply to your pulse points and take a sniff of the new you, waltz into a cloud of scent and see how it changes you for the better. I can’t say that I understand the act of “wearing scent”, but I keep trying to make sense of it through words. This huge, self-indulgent essay is an attempt to string every perfume I’ve ever loved into a coherent narrative.
Part I: CK One
The first perfume I ever chose for myself was CK One. I don’t remember the when or the how, but I remember the why. CK One. First released in 1994. One of the first fragrances to be truly, openly marketed as unisex. You may know it.
It comes in a clear frosted bottle (a flacon, as they call it) that looks a little bit like a flask. It embodies that unnerving, uncanny notion of “unisex” that is crisp, clear, clean-lined, Incorruptible Pure Pureness. Puerile, almost. Sexless. If you stripped CK One down to its gray heather Calvin Klein briefs, you’d find nothing but smooth plastic underneath. But that’s all concept, of course. As a fragrance, it smells like bergamot, like your silkiest Earl Grey, and pineapple, like your juiciest summer holiday. Like both of those things, it’s deeply inoffensive. It lasts for about as long as a whisper, and then it’s gone, and all you’ve got to remember it for is a soft trail of musky sweetness. It’s the only perfume I’ve ever worn, offered, and repurchased. I love it dearly.
Prior to that, I’d worn Moschino. First I Love Love, and then Funny!, two young, bright things that exist solely to squirt half of a perfect orange into your eyes, then flutter away. They’re a little loud, upon first contact, but also endearing, like a playground of girl detectives trotting about in patent shoes. Can’t fault them, even if they make your temples tender to the touch. For a while, I thought all perfume felt like that: a headache you endured for the greater aesthetic good.
CK One was the turning point. Despite opening with a similarly loud burst of citrus, there was a gentleness to it that struck a chord. I keep recognizing that touch, these days, in perfumes that have nothing to do with the monochrome unisex utopia of CK One—I’m thinking, for instance, of Elizabeth Arden White Tea, or Versace Yellow Diamond, two lighthearted fragrances from the women’s side of the perfume shop. The spirit of CK One is also alive and well on the men’s side: by the time I was ready to move on, I considered buying myself a bottle of Azzaro Chrome or Burberry Weekend for Men, two citrus cocktails that smell, truly, like Saturday morning feels. As hesitation turned to procrastination turned to desperate overthinking, I joined a fragrance forum and asked the fragheads, the alcohol-sniffers of the internet: what’s a good grown-up fragrance for people who love CK One?
“What you need,” they said, “is Penhaligon’s Quercus.”
Interlude, The First
Penhaligon’s Quercus is “a cologne of some sophistication, named for the iconic English oak.”Back then, it cost twice as much as CK One, and it showed in the packaging. It came with a beautiful glass stopper, a neat yellow bow, and it could absolutely not be found in stores in my corner of the world. I wrote it off as a cute daydream and returned to the aisles of the perfume shop, where I would soon find myself worshipping at the altar of a no less pretentious icon, Chanel 19.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll introduce you. If Chanel 19 were a person, she would wear a white button-up to a barbecue. Sleeves folded back, collar crisp with starch. Hair up in a chignon. Pearls on her earlobes, daggers on her tongue. Insufferable. She speaks her mind and knows retribution won’t come near. Chanel 19 was born unbothered and will die unbothered, having learned nothing. Why grow, when you’ve already come into the world perfect? Are you flawed? Are you anxious, depressed? Do you feel defeated, hopeless, floating about in a deprivation tank of purposelessness? Chanel 19 says don’t be—and stop whining, for god’s sakes, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.
Chanel 19 is the most beautiful, most unrelatable of perfumes, is what I’m trying to say. I am not strong enough to wear it without feeling like it’s wearing me. I admire it, nonetheless. Chanel 19 is what finally sharpens my senses to the quiet complexity of perfumes that come in green bottles.
Part II: Infusion d’Iris
I buy my first green bottle during a celebratory visit to a perfume shop. I spot a neat little row of tiny bottles on the shelf, laid out almost taxonomically like precious gemstones. I try one, two. The third is green, and it transports me. I’m wearing my best broderie anglaise and lounging in a dilapidated conservatory. I have nothing to do, pursue, or achieve, and I am content.
The perfume in question is Prada Infusion d’Iris, and it smells like knowing everything is going to be okay. It’s what perfume people call powdery—a quality most often associated with the comforting touch of fabric softener and baby powder. It’s enveloping. It’s glorious on paper blotters and shirt collars, but where it really shines is on slightly overheated skin. It’s got a touch of warmth in there somewhere that may or may not be incense, depending on your lot number. It’s soft and gentle and delicate and it may very well serenade you into a coma.
In the end, unfortunately, it’s just too cozy. It’s got the gentleness of my old favorite, but it lacks clarity. I begin to seek something else, something green with a zing, something that won’t pretend to tolerate me like Chanel 19, nor tempt me with contentment like Infusion d’Iris. Enter, in a shower of jasmine flowers, Monsieur Li.
Part III: Monsieur Li
Monsieur Li, full name Le Jardin de Monsieur Li, is inspired by “a Chinese garden poised between reality and imagination.” It’s the giant bamboo and carp pond section of the world’s fair that is the Hermès collection of perfumes inspired by jardins. It’s got the zing I’m looking for, the zest, the zhuzh, the pizazz. It’s joyful. It recovers the citrus from my CK One, but it’s got a little jasmine too, a little floral to make the whole thing rest easy on the skin. On me, however, it never does. I’m knee-deep in the pond but the carp keep skittering away. Monsieur Li is such an elusive fragrance, so light, so bright, I might as well be wearing an idea.
I try my best, but in the end, I can’t commit to it either. I pass it on, as I pass on my Infusion d’Iris. It’s not them, it’s me. I want to wear that Chanel 19 and I won’t rest until I’ve got what it takes.
Interlude, The Second
In the meantime, I maintain my regular pilgrimages to the perfume shop, where I learn that I like the unfussiness of many men’s colognes, with their herb gardens of lavenders and mints and thymes and their “masculine” bouquets of violets and geraniums. Barbershop-esque, office-safe, these are the boring bottles that smell clean and crisp, like they’d burn a little if you sprayed them on a scrape. They are efficient. They don’t say much of anything at all. They clock in, get the job done, clock out. (This, I learn, is the aromatic family. I begin to accept that I am being adopted.) I never really buy one of these competent colognes for myself, because I am gifted a bottle of Roger & Gallet L’Homme Menthe and it turns out to be perfectly fine. I wear it to work. It’s fine.
The world is vast, though, and there is still much to explore. I consider florals. I buy myself a mini bottle of L’Occitane Néroli & Orchidée, but forget I own it. I fall head over hells in love with Gucci Bloom. I learn that I like tuberose, a white flower with an unfortunate name that reminds me of the white plague. I like how tuberose can be twisted from a creamy, cloying, smothering flower into something darker, closer to rubber or gasoline. I am intrigued by Serge Lutens Tubereuse Criminelle, but I manage to keep it together. It’s all downhill from here. I learn that I like oud, which is essentially just resin from a sick tree. I buy a cheap bottle of an oud concoction so vile I never wear it (I spray it on the inside of my coats though, and that works well enough). I decide that I will explore camphor next, because there’s nothing I want more than a perfume that smells like mothballs.
I consider spices, too. I learn that I love–really love–cardamom. Pink pepper, saffron, nutmeg. I discover a new fragrance family where I feel at home, full of spicy men’s fragrances that feel like an expensive overcoat. I confirm that 1 Million smells incredible and refuse to accept constructive criticism on this opinion. I make it my goal to learn to love Terre d’Hermès, with its strong pepper note, but I can’t get over the fact that it smells like a 60-year-old millionaire wearing a silk dressing gown, driving a dune buggy, smoking a cigar. (Think Pierce Brosnan in The Son, or Paul Gross in Alias Grace. That is what Terre d’Hermes smells like.)
I make my peace with the fact that I am a) awfully boring, b) about to embark on a lifetime of wearing men’s aromatics in the summer and men’s spices in the winter. When my Roger & Gallet is up, I will buy something elegant and respectable to replace it, maybe Prada Luna Rossa, or a nice Mr. Burberry. Might even go a little wild and get a bottle of Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb for winter.
And then it happens. Just as I decide that I will become a beacon of restraint (Beau Brummell, come at me), it all screeches to a halt.
Part IV: Toy Boy
You know Le Male by Jean-Paul Gaultier, right? That blue perfume bottle that’s shaped like a man, specifically a ripped sailor in a striped shirt? I’ve often wondered about that bottle. I’ve often wondered about the concept behind the TV spots and print ads for that perfume, that veritable parade of chiseled, clean-shaven male models in muscle shirts. In the radically heteronormative world of perfumery, Le Male is a men’s perfume that epitomizes masculinity by being deeply, unquestionably, unapologetically homoerotic. What’s that Barbara Kruger quote again, “you construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men”? Yep. That’s Le Male, alright.
(If Le Male were a movie, it would be Querelle, a 1982 arthouse film about a sexy sailor who can’t seem to keep it in his marinière. There’s a lighthouse in the poster, shaped like a literal penis. IMDb warns against “strong homosexual undertones” but they’re just tones, really. Jean-Paul Gaultier himself names the film as an inspiration. Le Male was never meant to be a straight perfume.)
All of this to say that Le Male is the sexy sailor who walks in 1995 so Toy Boy can run in 2019. Toy Boy, a men’s perfume by Moschino, is a teddy bear in BDSM gear. You may think I’m being inventive with my words, but far from it. In the TV spots, The male model in charge of selling this camp creation dons a full leather outfit to prowl around a hedge maze, eyes wide as a sacrificial deer’s. He holds on to the bear-shaped perfume bottle like a lifeline. His jacket fan-laces in the back, like one of my coveted Camp corsets, and he keeps his little hat on for the entirety of the proceedings. He’s pursued by an audience playing pursuer but he is not fearful—if anything, he is curious. In one of the print ads, he wears an H-harness. In another, nothing: all that’s in the frame is a bear and a bicep.
I love the Toy Boy ads and hate the Toy Boy bottle. “Who would want to smell like a black lacquered bear?” I wonder aloud one afternoon, before sitting down to read through the notes. Turns out the BDSM teddy bear is a woody spicy fragrance, my latest family of choice. It’s got pear, elemi pepper, rose, my beloved cardamom, vetiver. I don’t hesitate. I order a bottle without ever having smelled it, and it is the furthest thing from a mistake.
Toy Boy is what I’d call boozy. Right out of the bottle, it smells like the deep end of a bucket during grape harvest, syrupy and thick, the juices just beginning to ferment. But it’s got that velvety touch of a too-ripe pear, too, and a strange freshness that comes through every once in a while, which I believe may be the rose. It doesn’t belong, that freshness, but as it pierces through the haze, it resets the experience. Like Sisyphus is sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill every day, so is the Toy Boy sentenced to stalk the maze every night. We’ve got an R-rated production of Maze Runner in our hands here, and the spray bottle is the clapperboard.
I’ve described this perfume, in the past, as a sexy poached pear doing the can-can in a boudoir turned cabaret. Today, I’ll just call it beautiful–if a little bizarre.
Interlude, The Third
It is during my love affair with Toy Boy that I acquire a reputation as a rose person. I don’t fight it. I’m on my third Cerería Mollà rose-and-oud candle, after all, and I’ve bought the diffuser oil too. I love the stickiness of a good rose: if there’s one in the room, you can’t not sense it. From bud to bloom to bone-dry petal in a gifted sachet, a rose is beautiful all the way through. It’s beautiful even as it begins to go bad. (And if you too would like a fragrance that smells like a week-old flower vase, Un Jardin Sur La Lagune by Hermès delivers a very pretty picture.)
A rose is beautiful all the way through, yes, but I find that the most interesting rose fragrances I come across are grand bouquets on their deathbed, either musty and dusty or sickly sweet. Take Frederic Malle’s Portrait Of A Lady, a dress-up box for a Miss Havisham on a break from a career as a ringleader. She keeps a steamer trunk of military uniforms and little-drummer-boy jackets and discolored silk slips. She may have kept a lover in there too, for a time, but she’ll never tell.
Penhaligon’s Much Ado About The Duke is a similarly dramatic rose, with a heavy, jammy, syrupy quality that makes my teeth ache. This isn’t rose water; this is rose honey, fit for a champion hedonist. “Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose,” the Duke would probably say, quoting Georges Bataille’s Erotism: Death and Sensuality, which he hasn’t read, only skimmed, because one shouldn’t need that many words to say that to love is to ruin. Rose d’Arabie by Armani Privé, another rose-and-oud concoction, dries down to something like a memory of this Duke–not quite him, but close enough.
Like the rose itself, these perfumes work because of what they juxtapose: the velvety rose petal, soft as skin, is the prize atop the thorny stem. These perfumes say here’s something to work toward, but know that it may draw your blood. Etat Libre d’Orange’s Experimentum Crucis understands this better than most. For the first twenty minutes or so, it is repulsive. It smells–no, it reeks–of nothing but crusty, three-day-old sweat. It’s a foul, hyper-realistic first impression, but if you survive it? You will find Prince Charming holding court among the rose blooms. There’s poetry to the whole experience. It makes me think of the werewolf transformation scene in The Company of Wolves, where the man is in the beast is in the man is in the beast. It makes me think of the 1978 Czechoslovak version of Beauty and the Beast, where the avian beast moves with the alluring grace of ballet dancer Vlastimil Harapes.
And yet, how sad to think that if I went to a perfume shop and requested a perfume that smells of a beast who’s also a man, I’d probably be handed Dior Sauvage. As if, by beast, I’d meant Johnny Depp faking some sort of primal oneness with nature in a culturally appropriative perfume ad.
Interlude, The Fourth
I once knew a girl who wore a perfume called Funeral Home. Much has been written about the scent (or scents) of death, from the stench of putrefaction to the rose-scented odor of sainthood, but Funeral Home doesn’t go there. The brand describes it “a blend of classic white flowers including lilies, carnations, gladiolus, chrysanthemums with stems and leaves, with a hint of mahogany and oriental carpet.” It is a perfectly named fragrance: it takes after the place, rather than its occupants.
This is the battle that looms in the horizon when I set out on a new olfactory expedition, this time to explore the world of “church scents.” No two people will agree on what a church is supposed to smell like. A “church scent” may be something a woman wears to church–something discreet, inoffensive, possibly contemplative. It may be the scent of incense, or wood varnish, or subtly decaying flowers, or age-old stones dripping with moisture on a cold day. Mothballs. Wine. The scent landscape of a church is infinite.
(This is how I come to own a bottle of Dirty English, which will only ever smell clerical if you consider the priest I once saw wearing a leather jacket over a cassock. Dirty English smells like his jacket in an alternate reality where his jacket is actually an armchair, his gospel a biography of a 19th century explorer, and his communion wine two fingers of whiskey. This particular man wears a lot of fragrances; Urban Hero by Jimmy Choo would be a safe gift.)
You may have noticed that my church references all veer Catholic, because no one is more obsessed with Catholicism than a lapsed Catholic. You may have noticed, also, that Catholic-inspired church scents veer incense-heavy. Ask the internet for directions and you will get a holy trinity of recommendations: Cardinal by James Heeley, LAVS by Filippo Sorcinelli, and Avignon by Comme des Garçons.
Cardinal and I don’t mesh at all. I’d expected it to be bold and full of presence, full-chested like the bird and full-bellied like the men in the red cassocks, but it isn’t. Spray it once, twice, wear it as a shawl, it’ll still be gone faster than the host melting under your tongue. LAVS I’ve yet to try, but I’m not sure I want to. It’s one thing to wear a Catholic church-inspired scent; it’s quite another to adorn myself with a fragrance that’s come into the world as a linen spray for the Pope’s liturgical vestments. Avignon I have no interest in; I’ve been to enough churches, visited enough liturgical shops, played with enough ex-votos to know that Avignon has nothing to offer that I don’t already have. I also know, without trying it, that it’s not the Comme des Garçons for me.
Part V: Zagorsk
From Commes des Garçons comes the fabled Series 3, a collection of incense fragrances named after cities standing in for religions. There is Avignon, standing in for Catholicism; Kyoto for Buddhism and Shintoism; Jaisalmer for Hinduism; Ouarzazate for Islam. And then last, but never least, there is the restrained Orthodoxy of Zagorsk.
Zagorsk is first described to me as a gunshot in a pine forest. (And if you know, you know.) I fall in love with the fragrance on the strength of that line alone; I know, deep in my bones, that Zagorsk is going to be cold as a slap, sharp as an intake of breath on the first day of the year. It’s going to be full of mysteries, and it’s going to change the molecular structure of my soul.
It does, but not in the way I’d envisioned it. There is no gunshot. Zagorsk is either the prelude or the aftermath, but there is no gunpowder here, no violence, no kick. For Instagram, I described Zagorsk as an office fragrance for those in the business of being ascetic bad bitches. Here, with all the words at my disposal, I will describe it as mental clarity. Zagorsk smells like mental clarity feels. It feels clear-headed but wide-eyed, self-assured, a knight on the side of brightness and light. Zagorsk says “not today, Satan.” Zagorsk says I am virtuous and strong, unmovable, world’s firmest line in the sand. I will not stray. I know the path I must walk and I will not stray. Zagorsk says strap in (not the seatbelt, silly, the cilice, the hairshirt), the world is brutal but beautiful and we won’t start fights, but we will finish them if they come knowing.
I keep Zagorsk on my bedside table and I wear it when the going gets tough. Every other day, I wear its less righteous cousin, Lalique Encre Noire.
Part VI: Encre Noire
Pick a ballpoint pen, any ballpoint pen. Now sell me the pen. Tell me how it smells. You may not know it, but it smells like Lalique Encre Noire.
Encre Noire has the heft of a paperweight and the unmistakable shape of an antique inkwell. Not just any inkwell, though: the Biches inkwell, designed by René Lalique circa 1912. Lalique, you will remember, was a master jeweler and glassmaker, a household name in both Art Nouveau and Art Déco. The perfume has made a bit of a name for itself, too.
“Encre Noire smells like the aftermath of a forest fire. After the flames have suffocated and nothing remains, only ash, you stand in the middle of the decimated landscape smoking a cigarette and sipping bitter lukewarm coffee.” This is how a reviewer describes Encre Noire. It’s bitchface in a bottle, others add. Reviews of Encre Noire are a joy to read, in part because the perfume itself is so simple. There are four named notes to Encre Noire: cypress, vetiver, cashmere wood, and musk. The brand story for the fragrance is nonexistent, the ad minimalist. And yet the final composition is Gestalt at work, so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s beautiful, and so we can’t help but ascribe it meaning. There’s a lot to imagine in the sensorial space that Encre Noire leaves untouched.
If I had to join in on the fun, I’d say Encre Noire is Chanel 19’s younger, less serene cousin, Zagorsk stripped of the righteousness. Cold-blooded beasts, all three, with Encre Noire leaning just a touch closer to mischief. It reminds me of a song called Weapon for Saturday (I’m the fastest horse in the Derby race, only know how to win first place, and I always get my way), if I could rewrite it to be about armor for mondays. It reminds me of the Effin Birds twitter account, or that dril quote that reads “I will face god and walk backwards into hell.” I appreciate how it’s calm and collected, but with a gentle undercurrent of chaos. Encre Noire is the voice in my head that says “what if we just… let it all burn?”
We never do, but man. What if we did?