A few days ago, many of you shared your scented memories in response to a journalist’s questionnaire, and I loved reading your stories about your earliest fragrance memories, the scents that you loved and, in a few cases, those you hated from early on. I thought I would share my own stories in return, starting with my childhood when I first fell in love with perfume, then hated it immensely due to a few scented traumas, and then fell back in love with it for good. I’ll tell you a few tales, from lavender to YSL‘s famous Rive Gauche, and the impact of Jean-Claude Ellena‘s first breakout hit and acclaimed “masterpiece,” First for Van Cleef & Arpels. There will be talk of Hermès‘ Caleche and Bel Ami, as well as Fracas, Opium, Kouros, and Egoiste, and even a funny work story about Dior‘s Fahrenheit when I was first starting my legal career at an infamously tough law firm.
I’ve lived in a lot of places in my life, well over 25 the last time I bothered to count, but no place was more influential in making me the perfume-lover that I am today than the few years I lived in Cannes, starting when I was about 6 years old. Cannes is located about 15-20 minutes away from Grasse, the epicenter of French perfumery in terms of raw materials, particularly lavender. But lavender was all over the Provence and the South of France, and our house was no exception.
We had a villa up in the hills, with a long driveway lined with massive lavender bushes whose scent was rather hard to avoid. Inside the house, the decorator had filled seemingly every drawer and cupboard in sight with scented cachet bags of dried lavender identical to those that appeared to inundate every shop, restaurant, railway station, bathroom and kitchen within a 100 miles. Last year, upon reading Roja Dove’s book, “The Essence of Perfume,” I discovered one name for this sort of Lavandin was “Bastard lavender,” which I think is extremely fitting for the aroma that assaulted me from every nook and cranny. To the young me, it was utterly unbearable, as I had a sensitive nose even then, and it launched a lavender phobia that persisted unabated for decades and until quite recently. Even now, I’m extremely wary of any product containing the blasted note but, back then, I would physically avoid any parts of the property that contained the horrific purple bushes. Instead, I stuck to places where mimosa trees grew tall and proud, dropping a blanket of sweet yellow powder all over the ground. I loved the smell, and that sentiment also persists to this day.
Inside the house, the decorator had placed the most beautiful blue, black, and silver bottle inside every bathroom vanity or cabinet. It was something called “Rive Gauche” by Yves Saint Laurent. Back then, I didn’t know the 1970 creation was considered to be a legendary masterpiece, or that the scent started Saint Laurent’s reputation for brilliant, innovative, and incredibly chic fragrances. I was six years old, and all I knew was that it was a really chic bottle, and it was in my bathroom cabinet. The first time, I sprayed it in the air, and I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, it’s hairspray. Floral hairspray!” I thought it had accidentally been labelled as “eau de toilette,” because I truly couldn’t imagine that someone would, you know, actually put that thing on their body. Aldehydes? Clean musk? I didn’t know what any of that meant. To me, it was a heavy, massive cloud of endlessly clean, white sharpness with soapiness that, together, smelt just like hairspray or an air refreshener. I found it revolting. (As with the case of the lavender and mimosa, my feelings about clean, white musks date back to this precise time in my life, and have remained unchanged for more than 30 years.)
That bottle in the bathroom taunted me for weeks with its competing threads of visual, aesthetic beauty and heinous scent. There were times when I considered the idea that perhaps the decorator had left it as a sort of sanitizing bathroom spray to clean up bad potty odors. It was really difficult for my young mind to conceive of anyone actually wearing this thing as a personal fragrance, and if you had told me that Rive Gauche was considered to be one of the great fragrances of the 20th century, I would have thought you were insane. In the end, I settled for using it occasionally as a bathroom deodorizer, and even then I wasn’t particularly enthused. I know it’s heresy, but my feelings remain unchanged about Rive Gauche.
In the years and decades which followed, I developed a full-blown love affair with all things Yves Saint Laurent, starting first and foremost with the man himself. I loved him and his clothes; he was one of my idols; and when he died, I wept. I wore almost all his scents, even if I had to surreptitiously “borrow” my brother’s Kouros for a good 5 sprays at a time when I was a teenager (something he still doesn’t know about to this day). I bought most of them up to his last, great hit, Champagne or Yvresse, which I’ve recently begun a tradition of wearing on the last few New Year’s Eves as a symbolic, scented parallel.
In all those decades, through all that love, I have never once gone near or re-tried Rive Gauche. Not once. Ever. In fact, I had successfully and completely blocked Rive Gauche out of my mind as even being a part of the YSL catalog of fragrances until I started blogging. I would see people rave about the scent’s brilliance and beauty, and my mind struggled to comprehend that they were actually referring to the same thing I once used (extremely reluctantly) as a bathroom sanitizer. That dichotomy bore home more powerfully than anything else the simple fact that there is a scent for everyone in this world, and one man’s treasure is another man’s… ahem… dreaded aldehydes, shall we say.
The young me may have misunderstood Rive Gauche’s intended function, but I was fully clear on the glories of my various family members’ personal fragrance collections. My mother’s mis à toilette table was littered with bottle upon bottle of orientals, chypres, skanky florals, and big powerhouses. Joy, 1000, Jolie Madame, Femme, Alix Grès, Fracas, Bandit, Lanvin’s Arpege and Scandal, and so many others. In hindsight, I don’t remember any Guerlains except Mitsouko perhaps, but there were so many fragrances there, who knows. I do recall Guerlain being a part of my sisters’ collections, although one of them usually stuck to Chloé, a scent created for that fashion house in the mid 1970s by Karl Lagerfeld. It was a gorgeous perfume back then, and I used to sneak into my sister’s room to look at the beautiful bottle with its entrancing golden, orange liquid and to spray it on myself lavishly. Little did I realise that one of its great appeals to me back then was its strong dose of tuberose which has ended up being my absolute favorite flower in both nature and perfumery.
My father’s collection wasn’t safe from my predatory raids, either. His favorite was Guerlain’s Habit Rouge, though he also wore Monsieur Givenchy, Monsieur Lanvin, Dior‘s Eau Sauvage, Chanel Pour Monsieur, and others whose names I now forget. I personally wasn’t so taken by the more citric fragrances on my skin (a telltale precursor to my current habits and tastes), but I loved them on him. I opted instead for Habit Rouge but, above all else, and in an equally telling signifier, the one I really fell for — hard — in later years was Hermès‘ leather chypre, Bel Ami. I loved Bel Ami right from the start, spraying tons of it in the air to sniff appreciatively. (Oh dear, I’m starting to realise the number of family members who are going to be seriously irate at what I used to do to their fragrances. I hope none of them ever read this.)
Above all others, the main focus of my attention was on my mother’s collection, starting first and foremost with “that white scent in the jet black bottle.” That is how I thought of Robert Piguet‘s Fracas for years, never absorbing or remembering the name, but always being entranced by it more than any other fragrance. I was utterly obsessed with the massive white floral bombshell and its radiating waves of narcotic tuberose. I think I truly thought it was some sort of drug in a bottle.
It certainly seemed to have an effect on people like nothing else that my mother wore. I distinctly recall one man walking past my mother and almost stumbling to the ground, as his head spun around at the scent wafting past him. He rushed up to ask her what perfume she was wearing, and there was this expression on his face…. It turned out to be an expression that I would see time and time again when people smelt Fracas on my mother, an expression that I know I had myself whenever I would surreptitiously douse myself from her bottle, a certain glazed looked in the eyes, as if one had been drugged on something utterly mind-blowing.
Alas, my own “collection” hardly included anything so interesting. When I was maybe 5 turning 6, I was given what my parents must have considered to be a “starter kit,” consisting of something by Cacharel and Nina Ricci‘s famous L’Air du Temps. I liked the former, though I can’t recall the name now, only the look of the bottle. But the latter? Pfffftttt. L’Air du Temps was fine but utterly boring, insipid, and so damn restrained after the stolen wonders of Fracas. The bottle was exquisite, but I had little use for L’Air du Temps, so I started begging my parents for a “proper” perfume of my own.
My beloved parents not only thought it completely natural for me to wear perfume, but were happy to indulge my curiosity and interest in learning more about the subject. As you might have gathered by now, we were one very fragrance-obsessed family, but I think it was generally quite common for children to wear scent in France, at least back then. Yes, I was perhaps a little more advanced in my tastes than most kids of that age, but my parents found it to be quite normal. They certainly didn’t mind indulging me for my birthday, though I wonder now in hindsight just how much my mother knew about my secret habit of wildly spraying her expensive perfumes like a Nordic Berserker and was indirectly trying to put a stop to it by getting me my own stuff.
So, for my 7th birthday, they bought for me a bottle of a new scent that had been released a few months earlier to great acclaim, something called First by Van Cleef & Arpels. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was made by Jean-Claude Ellena and was his first, great hit, the scent that put his name on the map in the perfume industry. It was miles and miles away from what he does now because nothing about First was minimalistic, light, and delicate. It was an aldehydic bomb with endless layers of jasmine but also his first use of hedione, a synthetic with a fizzy, sparkling greenness and citrusy quality. (According to The Perfume Shrine, Ellena used 10 times the concentration of hedione than what had been used in the famous Eau Sauvage.) But, above all else, First is known for its massive, blowsy, floral aldehydic bouquet. Do you see where this going after my story about Rive Gauche?
I took one sniff of my birthday present, and I remember struggling to hide my response. Rive Gauche hadn’t seemed like actual perfume but this was clearly, most indubitably, not only perfume but an utterly unfathomable horror of a perfume! “My God, what on earth is in this bottle?!,” I asked myself. I couldn’t fathom how something could smell so…. whatever the hell First was. I didn’t know the word “aldehydes,” or anything about “jasmine” and “ylang ylang;” I merely thought of things as “perfume.” And this one was completely unbearable. Wave upon wave of heavily frothy, floral soap lather, coming at me like a massive tsunami, threatening to drown me in pure misery. After trying a few times to desperately convince myself that my birthday present was “nice,” I gave up the fight, and returned the bottle to my parents. “Please, can I have something else? Anything? Please?”
So, they bought me Hermès Caleche, in what is a clear sign that, back then, not even experienced perfume lovers were particularly aware of specific scent ingredients, perfume families, or that something could be part of an identical genre. You see, Caleche was…. wait for it… an aldehydic floral scent. Yes, aldehydes. Again. Exactly like my Rive Gauche bathroom “deodorant,” and that horrific VC&A First. Except this one seemed to have even MORE of them, mixed with iris and the citrus that I already knew that I didn’t like.
I burst into tears, and sobbingly swore never to wear perfume again. Despite some of the great perfumes in my parents and siblings’ collections that I had liked, I now illogically concluded that everything called “perfume” had to be just like those traumatic scents that I’d been inundated with — and I didn’t want to have anything more to do with the entire business whatsoever. I stuck to that decision for quite a while, and decided that I really hated perfumes, all of them, across the board, and that I was never going near another one again. I was honestly and quite genuinely traumatized, with First being a deadly blow and Caleche finally sealing the deal. (Rive Gauche doesn’t really count because I remained seriously convinced it could not be actual “perfume” but a room sanitizer.)
Then, one day, a year or so later, my mother brought home a fragrance called… Opium. If you’ve read this blog for any period of time, you know my feelings about vintage Opium and my intense love for it, but you might not have understood just why it so fundamentally changed my views on perfume as a whole. And it all stems from my prior fragrance traumas. Opium was like nothing I had ever smelled before in my life, and it barreled over me like a force of nature. Lawyers have a term called Force Majeure which refers to a chance or accidental occurrence that frees one (always in the context of a contract), and often encompasses things like an “Act of God.” Opium was my strange sort of “Act of God” Force Majeure that freed me from my hatred of perfumery, and really created the passion that has led to who I am today as a perfume lover and even, in a sense, really to this very blog. Opium changed everything.
Years came and went, and my tastes continue to develop in favour of the powerful, dark, or skanky but, above all else, for the big (really, really BIG) 1980s powerhouses. As a pre-teen, I may have worn Paris out of love for Monsieur Saint Laurent, but I raided my father’s Bel Ami and Antaeus. In high school, I wore Montana‘s Montana (later called Parfum de Peau), Givenchy‘s Ysatis, and Parfum d’Hermès (now horribly changed into something entirely different called Rouge d’Hermès). Secretly and stealthily, though, I would drench myself in my brother’s Kouros and Drakkar Noir. By the time I went to college at 16 or 17, I was firmly set in my perfume tastes for the rest of my life, bringing a bottle of Coco, Giorgio Beverly Hills, and my beloved Montana in my suitcase, while wondering which guy I could persuade to buy and wear Lagerfeld Pour Homme (reformulated and now called Lagerfeld Classic) so that I could… ahem… “borrow” it. (The vintage cologne actually became the impetus for me starting this blog with a first, very brief, early sort of “review.”)
There was a new love on the horizon, too, something strangely named after weather measurements and called Fahrenheit. I think I was in lawschool when I really fell hard for the Dior scent, though it had been a big hit for a few years. It still wasn’t considered “comme il faut” to wear a man’s scent in those days, and gender classifications seemed set in stone just as much as they had been when I was a 6-year-old spraying my father’s Habit Rouge, but I loved Fahrenheit. The way it was back in the early 1990s brought me to my knees with an instant, very visceral reaction that was far more intense than any afforded to me by Chanel’s relatively recent, Egoiste.
I liked the latter a lot, though, particularly because of its hefty amounts of Mysore sandalwood. I found the scent entrancing every time I stepped into a department store, even though the sales assistants (particularly those in NY’s Bloomingdales) would haughtily inform me that it was for men. “See, it says ‘Pour Homme.’ Come, let me show you our Chanel No. 5.” Then, as now, I would shudder at the No. 5 name; no more aldehydes ever, ever, EVER!!! So I dismissed their condescending attempts to push me towards gender “suitable” scents, and defiantly sprayed Egoiste all over myself.
Still, it was Fahrenheit that I really loved, and it was Fahrenheit that almost got me in trouble one day at work. I was a young associate at a very famous, national law firm whose partners had (and still have) a terrible reputation for ruthlessness and ferocity. This was a sweatshop even by the standards of sweatshop firms, one complete with a suicide rate and lawyers on the other side sometimes making the sign of the cross when the firm’s name was mentioned. Someone once described my old firm as “the biggest bunch of psychopaths ever assembled under one roof,” and you certainly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of any of them, including one senior partner whom I shall call “Mr. X.”
He was a hugely influential, powerful “rainmaker” for the firm, and a little man with a serious Napoleon complex. He was also a very sharp dresser and a bit of a dandy who was always extremely fashionable. I had never worked with Mr. X until, one day, he called me into his office. He launched into a rapid-fire barrage about a case, details spewing so fast and thick that I really needed to pay attention carefully, especially as he wanted me to handle an important litigation motion (a summary judgment, I think it was) with a very fast turnaround. I tried to pay attention, really I did, but there were these whiffs of an amazingly beautiful scent wafting quietly in the background, filled with spices, brightness, warmth, sandalwood, and dark leather.
I quietly drew closer to Mr. X, then closer still, until I suddenly heard a mighty roar of “What the HELL do you think you’re doing?!!” in my ear. He had caught me instinctively sniffing him — with my eyes closed no less! I opened them to see him glaring at me, red-faced and outraged. I simply said, “You wearing Fahrenheit, aren’t you?” That seemed to have been the last thing he expected to hear but, since he was the sort who was quick to take offense at things, his eyes narrowed, and he aggressively demanded, “Why?”
“Because you smell absolutely amazing, and Fahrenheit is one of my favorite things.” He stopped dead in his tracks, but he could tell that I really meant it and his chest seemed to puff up with pride, though he also clearly thought me strange as a loon and completely off my rocker. It was obvious that he’d never had such an experience, let alone at work, with someone basically making an utter fool of themselves by mooning over his scent like something out of an old Pepé Le Pew cartoon. He really didn’t know what to say, though he muttered, “Well, I’m glad you like my fragrance, but don’t go around sniffing people in the office again!!!”
It all ended much better than it could have (particularly given how things operated in that particular firm), and in the years that followed, I ended up working a few more times with Mr. X. He was almost mellow with me, at least by his standards. I think the main reason why was because he had a soft spot for me that was due solely to the incident with his Fahrenheit, though it probably helped that I wasn’t terrible at my job, either. He may have thought me completely crazy, but I suspect that, deep down, Mr. X was actually a secret perfumista himself. You can sometimes sense when people have a shared interest in something, even if they don’t talk about it. And there was a look in Mr. X’s eyes at my behavior over Fahrenheit that told me he understood, even if he wasn’t used to an underling sniffing at him blissfully like a dog at a fire hydrant.
So, those are a few of my scented memories, both fond and traumatic. Thank you for having shared so many wonderful stories of your own this week. I really enjoyed each and every one of your comments. Happy Friday, have a super weekend, and stay warm!