Ointment and perfume gladden the heart: so doth the sweetness of one’s friend through advice for the soul. —Prov. 27-9
The cologne you always wear is totally without nuance! —Diane Chambers
Fellow doctor of journalism and famous drug abuser Hunter S. Thompson warned that once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The same is true of any kind of collection. There is potentially no end to acquiring and accumulating what one deems precious. For serious collectors—completists—there is always the very real danger that the collection will consume the consumer. I never managed to amass a serious drug collection. I just kept on ingesting them, and the collection consumed me, like some perverse Yakov Smirnoff routine.
Any alcoholic will tell you that happiness can’t be bought in bottles, that confidence doesn’t come in liquid form, that one is too many and a thousand is never enough. When I stopped drinking, I found all of these things to be true. I no longer wanted to go to the store and collect a bunch of bottles. I could walk with my head high because it no longer ached every morning. There would never be another one and thus no need for 999 more.
There is a slight hitch, however. I have discovered another sort of happiness that can indeed be bought in bottles, another kind of confidence that can be sprayed on and dabbed behind each earlobe, and which is equivalently habit-forming, to an arguably addictive degree. I am of course talking about the genius of perfume.
Since the millennium, perfumes had stagnated in the cultural consciousness, perhaps due to the overinflated ad campaigns by fashion behemoths like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. But over the past decade, perfume has once again become ultrahip amongst the ultrahip.
In 2014, the trendsetting Polish festival Unsound commissioned three of electronic music’s leading artists—Kode 9, Tim Hecker, and Ben Frost—to design corresponding Bass, Drone, and Noise-themed fragrances under the banner, Ephemera. More recently in a 2022 edition of the Perfectly Imperfect newsletter, an au courant periodic e-mailout from New York City, Adam Green of rock band The Moldy Peaches confessed his newfound love of discovering and stockpiling contemporary and vintage fragrances. “I began to see perfumes as snowglobes that carry information as a landscape,” said Green. “Collecting them became an adventure, walking around the city realizing every city block had stores with samples of these precious artworks.”
The haute perfume world has flourished recently in part because our senses have been so sequestered. Even after all that handwashing and grocery sanitizing, it still seems that not everyone uses Dial. Don’t you wish they did?
The pandemic gave us all the most intense fear-of-missing-out. But it also bestowed upon us the most intense fear of being trapped inside, and being caged within our own bodies. It can be repugnant to be human, to smell human. The archetypal enemy agent in the film The Matrix admits that the worst thing about civilization is the smell: “I can taste your stink,” he hisses at Morpheus, smearing sweat from his bald head. Body odour is equivalently central to the themes of class and privilege in Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film, Parasite.
Still a more apropos storyline is the Canadian director Gary Burns’s 2000 film, Waydowntown, in which one of the characters becomes obsessed with scents. Waydowntown is a clever satire about a group of hyper-capitalist office drones living and working in Calgary’s city centre. They wager each other one month’s salary that they can survive without stepping outside of the city’s elaborate pedway network, thus confined indoors for a seemingly endless stretch, not unlike what we all just lived through, pandemic-wise. The lack of fresh air quickly suffocates one of the gang and she turns to obsessively sniffing perfume samples from fashion magazines. Perfume provides her sense of escape. Wait, wasn’t Escape the name of a perfume? And Obsession?
When the coronavirus public health protocols lifted and many of us more or less defiantly doffed our masks, we all started to smell one another again, and to recall that some of those smells are unpleasant. I, too, became more sensitive to other people’s natural and artificial odours, and self-conscious of how I smelled, wanting not to offend, not to smell like I just rolled out of a sleeping bag. When you go to the perfume counter to get perfume, they almost always give you a few free samples because … try some, buy some. And we do. We’re all searching each other for some glimmer of recognition, a whiff of understanding.
Department stores traditionally placed perfume counters right at the entrance to attract impulse purchases. Newer retail environments are tending to tuck them away. SSENSE’s scent section is on its top floor, like reaching the final level of a video game, and the newish Holt Ogilvy building, a more traditional house of worship for conspicuous consumption and extreme capitalist accumulation, keeps its perfume department in the basement. Up or down, there will be several salespeople ready in wait to sniff us up.
They are all very attractive and seductive and adroit at making one feel desperately inadequate lest they are also attractive and seductive. I seldom achieve any adequacy equilibrium and am usually convinced to buy something that I am quite certain should make me a more attractive, more seductive, more interesting, and ultimately a better person. Quite certain indeed.
Valmont; Maison Francis Kurkdjian; Tom Ford; Serge Lutens; Frederic Malle; Hermés; Bvlgari; La Perla. Some were pleasant, floral, sweet, melancholy. Others reeked and smelled rotten as they wore with time into the skin. One of them reminded me of my parents’ bathroom, a rich bouquet mixed with the crisp hint of aftershave; another was reminiscent of a soft leather baseball glove on a hot summer’s day. One smelled of chocolate, another of cherry brandy; one of hazelnut, another of musk. The more perfumes I tried, the more perfumes I loved, stacking them ever higher like smoked meat on a sandwich—like an all-dressed steamie.
David Letterman was always a hero of mine, and many of the most beautiful women who appeared over the years as guests—actresses, models, Julia Roberts—remarked on Dave’s cologne. He would never reveal what brand he wore, only that it was a combination of two varieties. So I figured that three was better than two, and four was better than three. Layering scents fascinated me and made me feel less stifled in modern life and inside my own skin—skin that now smelled like a rotting flower garden with notes of leather and wet paper bag. I felt like my third nostril was opening.
I recalled a plotline from Batman, the version starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton as the superhero, in which Nicholson concocts a poison, activated by blending several cosmetics together, forcing Gotham City residents to refrain in fear from using personal hygiene products of any kind. Was I searching for conspiracies, worrying that some evil force might be harming my unborn children?
The truth is more damning than fiction, though, and the evil force is in fact the capitalistic profit motive in predictable opposition to human health. Many of the fragrances I had discovered—including BYREDO’s Black Saffron and Portrait of a Lady from Frederic Malle—contained the preservative BHA. BHA is banned for use in the EU, but not in the US and Canada, meaning that many cosmetics and some foods contain it to extend the product’s shelf life.
BHA may or may not cause endocrine disturbances that affect fertility, meaning that a spritz of Old Spice might enhance desire and diminish ability. It’s on David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen watchlist of potentially harmful chemical additives, but Canadian regulators have okayed BHA with a caveat for future caution. If it’s not banned, and there is money to be made (these two variables often fit hand-in-glove) you can expect it to be ever-present. Even a scented candle from Maison Margiela contained BHA and a dire warning, “Potentially harmful to aquatic life.”
I’m not aquatic, though, I thought. I don’t plan on becoming aquatic. So unless the stuff is going to make me grow gills, there shouldn’t be a problem. I was obsessed. Every note was also a mood, entirely artificial and yet more experientially real than other sensory media. Perfume scents were different to me than, say, the tele-visuality of movies and TV re-enacting real life, or recordings sonically reproducing music. Every spray of the perfume bottle was in fact a bit of the perfume itself, the real thing, not a reproduction, not a replication, not a mediation, as if putting on Sgt. Peppers would magically spray The Beatles incarnate into the room. That sense of presence, that indexical connection to reality, I believe is central to perfume’s enduring cultural fascination: fashionable or not, scent is eternally here and now.
Throughout 2022, I descended routinely down into Holt’s underworld and ascended SSENSE’s Old Montreal edifice as if to heaven, where the scents are kept. Alternating waves of loathing, curiosity, indifference, and desire regularly sweep these rooms as a sparse smattering of patrons still shop in person, rearranging objects and their energies like sand on distant shores. I have come to know and like and even enjoy the company of the people who work in these environments, as evidence that capitalism more than ever organizes our social relations. When the arcades have collapsed and there are no more shops to wander, and no reason to, when the only article of adornment we can’t adequately appreciate online is perfume, there is all the more reason to venture into these spaces and attend to their stories. Like listening to an ageing relative, then becoming one.
We do what we are told by media and the culture industries: exchange money for objects, talismanic in nature, which communicate certain truths to ourselves and others. The truth of perfume is that it is either a shield or a weapon, defensive or offensive. It depends upon the wearer, the audience, and the situation. Do we wear it for ourselves or for other people? Why do we choose our own favourite scents and not someone else’s?
The word audience has as its Latin root audio, audire, to hear. What is the word for an audience for scent, the receiver of smells? Of the five senses, scent seems to me to be the most overlooked. Even our linguistic hyperbole—words like “overlooked”, for instance—favour sight. But smell is among the more transportive senses, carrying its receiver elsewhere in space, to another moment, reliving a memory in time, or off and away to another place.
The smell of lavender takes me back to verdant primaveral springtimes spent in my grandmother’s garden in the 1980s. Fresh tar returns me to the train crossing on Rue Saint-Ambroise in Saint-Henri in 2010—and further back, to the retaining wall constructed of oozing black railway ties holding up a sand dune near my place of birth in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1977. My mother’s perfume when I was a child—Opium, then Hermès—sometimes made me nauseas and panicky, the richness short-circuiting my equilibrium, overwhelming my olfactory sense. It was the pressure of beauty that I felt, the obligation of perfection.
Maison Margiela makes a line of perfumes that are inspired, literally, by memories, and attempt to recreate niche instants. Dubbed Replica, material language describes each perfume’s flavour—i.e. waxy wood, linen, soft skin. In highly specific and ironically distant fashion, each is assigned a location and date. Thus, Whispers in the Library seeks to replicate Oxford, 1997. Autumn Vibes is Montreal in 2018.
I remember Autumn in Montreal in 2018 and somehow the scent is remarkably familiar. Even the suggestion is enough to teleport the smeller away, awash in nostalgia for a place in time we don’t have to have experienced. It’s all very personal. And yet universal.◼︎