Fragrance captures the essence of a cultural moment as much as clothing and music do. The sense of smell triggers memories more strongly and immediately than the other senses. Therefore, it is no wonder that people become majorly attached to their favorite perfumes, often continuing to wear the same ones even as they move through different clothing styles.
Perhaps the most iconic perfume of all time is Chanel No. 5. Famously worn by Marylin Monroe, the fragrance embodies beauty and glamor. Though it smells a bit mature by today’s standards, it was known for its sense of fun at the time of its release. Chanel No. 5 is a deliberately and obviously artificial floral that is finished with a huge dollop of soft powder. Its over-the-top femininity evokes the last years of Hollywood’s golden age, the last moments before fashion loosened up and style ceased to be classic.
Calvin Klein’s CK One is beloved precisely because it represents a rejection of traditional femininity and prettiness. Positioned as a unisex scent, CK One captured the attitude of the early ’90s. It is clean, sharp and utterly unfussy. It was the ideal fragrance for a cultural moment known for its lack of interest in cultivated style.
Fruity florals have been the most popular type of fragrance for the past 15 years, and Calvin Klein once again created a singular representation of an era in popular culture. It is sweet and practically edible, but it has a spicy core that distinguishes it from other fragrances in this genre. Its richness gives it a womanly edge that much of the decidedly teen-oriented fruity floral competition does not have. A Euphoria perfume set is still a great gift all these years later due to the enduring appeal of this fresh, subtly provocative scent.
Interestingly, today’s most beloved perfumes are best appreciated when contextualized in collections. Maison Margiela’s Replica line recreates specific locations, like a jazz club in Brooklyn, a warm beachfront or a Parisian flower market. Derek Lam’s line captures the energy of different New York City districts. Nest’s scents are inspired by paintings of flowers but are not rote olfactory facsimiles of the images. They are layered, complex interpretations of what the flowers represent and how they contrast with the other creations on the collection.
In all of these instances, perfume comes to say something important about how people treat the notion of style. Whether traditional prettiness or fringe abstraction is the flavor of the day, some genius perfume developer will figure out how to communicate those ideas through the sense of smell.