Photo illustration by Ben Park.

The New Trend in Luxury Perfume? Smelling Normal

Concrete, teeth, and elevator music are just a few of the scents that perfume houses are now peddling.

by Erin Schwartz
Sep 14 2018, 11:36am

Photo illustration by Ben Park.

When Comme des Garçons debuted a new fragrance called “Concrete” in July of 2017, reactions (like concrete!) were mixed. For one, it didn’t smell much like its namesake. The New York Times described “an essence of sandalwood, twisted and kneaded until it smells like Silly Putty.” At an installation in a Brooklyn warehouse, ten cement mixers churned out dry ice redolent of balsam. “Concrete supposedly has metallic threads underneath the rose,” wrote Lauren Cochrane in The Guardian, “But it’s buried too deep for me—it’s certainly the sweetest concrete I have ever smelt.”

Although the fragrance inside doesn’t quite match the bottle—which is encased in concrete—it’s one in a growing class of scents eschewing romanticism for names and concepts that seem, at first, a little bit bleak, closer to the mundane nihilism of a strip mall than an English garden’s freshly trimmed hedges. For “Elevator Music,” a collaboration between Off-White and Swedish luxury perfumer Byredo, designer Virgil Abloh directed that the scent should smell almost like nothing. “High Lonesome” by Los Angeles-based label Mondo Mondo and the vaguely tropical “Unsettled” by perfumer and visual artist Bruno Fazzolari—the latter developed for an exhibition of the same name at the Nevada Museum of Art—use landscapes fresh out of a 1950s adventure movie to meditate on the harsh solitude of the desert in the former and the legacy of colonialism. (Fazzolari also created “Room 237,” a scent inspired by the hotel room brimming with homicidal ghosts in The Shining.) Designer and photographer Serge Lutens’s “Dent de lait” smells like losing your first baby tooth, an experience at once very bloody and very banal. And LA-based fragrance company Goest offers “Smokers’ Perfume,” designed to complement, rather than conceal, the smell of cigarette smoke. A stiff paper box with a flip-top lid contains five vials, sized to slide neatly into your standard pack.

Jacqueline Steele, the founder and perfumer at Goest (pronounced “GO-est”), described the fragrance in a phone interview as “add[ing] the one brick on top of all of the levels” already present in cigarette smoke. Steele isn’t a smoker herself, but she likes the smell; she describes it as a kind of cultural appreciation mixed with high school nostalgia for her friends’ exculpatory spritzes of Shalimar or Ralph Lauren Ralph after smoking at lunch. Plus, she says, “I like the smell of things that have been burned in general—I think a lot of people do.” Using cigarette smoke as half of the fragrance results in a perfume that molds to its wearer, repurposing what’s already there. “People don’t walk around with campfire smoke on them, unfortunately, but people do walk around with cigarette smoke on them,” she told me. “I was like, ‘Well, if I could preserve a really burnt smell that people are already carrying around and put it in a fragrance, I think that would be worthwhile.’”

Echoing contemporary fashion’s fondness for dad jeans and chest rigs, scent today traffics in two related desires: to be normal and to be prepared.

These deadpan scent concepts are popular, in part, for their banality, which seems almost friendly in contrast to the aspirational hyperbole of more established perfumes—after all, the average perfume-wearer is more likely to hear elevator music than waltz through a field of blooming jasmine, and might feel subtly negged by the latter for not vacationing in a jasmine-producing region that year. “At present, the world is seeming fairly dark, uncontrollable, confusing and basically a little bit apocalyptic,” Emma Grace Bailey, a beauty editor at the trend forecasting firm WGSN, told me in an email. “It’s hard to relate to the positivity conveyed in traditional perfume names. They seem false, out of touch with reality, and ultimately a little bit silly.” This encourages perfumers to “[tap] into the consumer mindset that is desperate to feel powerful again, to be in touch with reality, and is ready to help fight the impending doom.”

Artist Sydney Shen and designer Laurel Schwulst are experts at distilling the champagne fizz out of perfume narratives—the pair runs the experimental perfume review blog Perfume Area, a platform for short, allusive vignettes that say very little about a given fragrance’s top, middle, and base notes and a lot about its relationship to spiders and the odor of a rental Toyota. (Their review of “Black Citrus” by Vilhelm Parfumerie begins: “An ordinary British man in a tuxedo pulls a gleaming black piano through the sand. He came from ten years in the future to kill you.”) Shen said in a phone interview that she chose fragrance writing because “there’s no empirical vocabulary or language when we’re talking about scent in the way that there might be other systems,” which forces perfumers and reviewers to rely on metaphor. Shen, who works with scent in her visual art practice as well, once developed a fragrance for a show at Baltimore’s Springsteen Gallery inspired by a plague antidote developed by French graverobbers: it contained white vinegar, peppercorns, lavender, and wormwood and garlic oils. At the time the mixture was developed, scientific consensus held that disease was spread by bad odors, so scent wasn’t purely expressive: the right blend could keep its wearer safe from harm. “It got me to think about how a scent is weaponized, or [people] thought it could be weaponized in that way,” Shen said.

Echoing contemporary fashion’s fondness for dad jeans and chest rigs, scent today traffics in two related desires: to be normal and to be prepared. Scent can be armor—try smashing a perfume bottle encased in concrete!—but distilling the lost tooth, the concrete pavement, or the greasy, sawdusty smell of a hardware store also reminds you of somewhere you’ve been and something you’ve felt before. It’s somewhere everyone has been, too; the associations it evokes are in part canny cultural references, but they’re personal as well. “You want something with a little bit of intellectual content that isn’t trying to be an à la carte identity,” said Steele. “I don’t want to be Miss Dior; I want to be me. I want to have something that leaves a little bit of space for me to be part of it.”

Although it seems that perfumes will contain a whiff of nihilistic realism for the near future, Bailey contends that it’s not that simple; the products still follow the consumer, and sometimes, the consumer wants to escape. “If, within the year, all the current world problems are solved, I expect perfume fragrances will become happier, lighter and more optimistic,” she deadpanned. While that’s unlikely, “if we continue to see a downturn in mood, there will come a point where we need to be cheered up, and brands will respond accordingly.”

Comme des Garçons
Virgil Abloh