July 12, 2017

The Dry Down #12: Now That's What I Call '90s Perfume Hits

Hello Dry Downers! We have missed you. We are sorry for the delay between letters, but we were busy planning the next Dry Down Live (which happens tomorrow! We are so excited!). That event is all sold-out, by the way (thank you!!!) but we are going to be doing more in the fall, and also hopefully taking the show on the road next year.

This week’s letter is all about perfumes of the 1990s. Both Helena and I became teenagers during that decade, so its scents have imprinted on our hearts and minds in a pretty intractable way. Below, we work through six scents that have delighted and stymied us for the last twenty years. Enjoy, and may you forever smell like teen spirit. --RS.

Ck One, Calvin Klein - HF
At Lafayette and Houston, where the street turns over from the subway and the rise of the hill comes up from the border of the West Village, there used to be a gas station. I never once got gas there, and never stopped there in a car. I maybe never even bought a water bottle from the strangely-normal rest-stop store behind the gas pumps, but that gas station is the thing that I miss most in the entire city, of all the things that have shut down in the partial lifetime I have spent here, the thing whose absence makes me feel most like I have lost something, most profoundly like a stranger in this city

Across the four lanes of Houston from the gas station was a billboard - actually, it’s still there, I just think of it in the past tense because it no longer matters desperately to me. But when I was 11 and 12 and 13 and spending summers in New York running around a past version of Soho with a friend the same age whose dad owned a bar in the neighborhood, that billboard was everything to me, and what it was advertising was almost always CK something or other.

It occupied a prime piece of New York City real estate, in a time when the internet was nascent and print advertising was king. Calvin Klein didn’t only launch CK One in the 90s, and CK One was not its only monolithic, decade-defining success. Calvin Klein launched a whole life’s worth of products, jeans and underwear and little white t-shirts and aftershave and eveningwear and, yes, perfume. Part of the monolithically successful campaign for these things was a series of highly pornographic ads, in which celebrities in CK underwear and jeans wrapped themselves around each other or contorted themselves around themselves in states of partial undress. Often they started blankly into the camera, dead-eyed and unafraid; they were the keepers of all the sex that people older than me were having, that I did not know how to acquire for myself, and they glowered, a hope and a challenge, at me from a hundred feet in the sky while I waited for the light to change at Houston. It was the first free pornography I ever encountered in the world. It was the first thing to promise that sex was real, to hint at a mysterious freedom I could not have imagined on my own.

I was never aware specifically of what these ads were for, other than Calvin Klein in general. Looking back, I realize they were mostly ads for CK One, the scent that dominated and defined the 90s, the scent that yanked us all forward into the smell of the future. CK One is a chimera - it has so many varied and contrasting notes in it that it actually manages to smell like none of them at all, getting to nothing by way of a whole lot of something. That was the whole genius of this perfume, and the thing that the endless perfumes that have tried and still try to imitate it never quite get right. It steered us away from from any identifiable reference to male or female, and therefore made perfume accessible to whole categories of people who up until then had had no interest in personal fragrance. It lifted sex out from the animal and the grotesque, and brought it into the realm of pure geometry. By taking away everything fancy or decorative, every indicator of wealth or abundance, it did the impossible, and made sex elegant.

CK One is the most perfect product of that era of Calvin Klein’s hegemony, but it also echoes into a whole category of things that still tug my heart back to those billboards. I was never cool enough to buy the wide-band-branded matching cotton CK underwear sets, but I wear them constantly now, as though trying to show my teenage self that I haven’t forgotten her, that I am still here trying to keep all the promises she learned from a twenty foot tall photo of Kate Moss. Those underwear sets were, and are, perfect in the exact same way CK One was perfect, in the same way that those slick-limb-filled pornographic ads were perfect. All of these things were at once completely sexless and extraordinarily sexual. They got to the heart of sex, or one of its hearts, through a sort of radical minimalism. Sex was distilled down to the fact of a body, the arrangement of its parts in space, its angles and surfaces. It removed from sex not only the reductive and binding choice of gender, but the clutter and noise of individualism. One could move along the pure strong lines of desire without grappling with one’s whole identity and history, without having to dress up in all the bells and whistles of the particular self.

The 90s, at least on the surface, in its advertising campaigns and in parts of its monolithic style, turned away from beauty. It offered women an alternate mandate to the maximal femininity of the 80s - we exchanged big tits for waifish bony shoulders and sunken clavicles, and we exchanged loud clangingly seductive florals for clean citrus scents that smelled like laundry, and linen, and clean skin, and nothing at all. The desire to disappear, to get by the means of the body free of the trap of the body, is somewhere in the impulses that drive and define sex, and that was what those posters, and the smell that forever summons them up for me, promised. It was a perfect oblivion, the way a symphony comes down to a single, clean, ringing note, then fades out to nothing.


Country Apple, Bath and Body Works - RS
When the nineties began I was six years old, and when they were over I was sixteen. I came into the decade swiping my mother’s Anais Anais from her vanity (the stuffy gardenia-bomb with a frosted plastic bottle and a drab Laura Ashley-esque label was launched in 1978, but had reached peak popularity as a humid daytime floral by the late ‘80s), and ended it tending to a messy sink crowded with a dozen cheap bottles of my own, mall souvenirs that added up to something approximating a teenage personality. Because mall corridors were where we nineties babies forged our sapling selves, ragged around the edges but starting to congeal: every new trip to the the corndog-scented brown tile plazas became a fresh opportunity for commercial baptism. We self-abnegated at Claire’s, paying a gum-popping classmate to stab a tiny icepick through our exposed cartilage without using any numbing gel; it was a rite, a ceremonial, a fifteen-dollar-awakening to the higher self. We bought the fake vomit at Spencer’s knowing that it was a flagrant waste of babysitting funds (NB: at thirteen, nothing feels like danger more than being willfully stupid with cash) only to hide it in a drawer and forget it for a decade. We didn’t know who we were yet, but we felt like we were getting closer in ugly mary janes with gummy platforms, like we could carve ourselves out from the fake marble floors, like every choice we made with a fistful of fives was a crucial step forward (or backward, if, god forbid, you picked the wrong crop top, wrong brand of choker, wrong jelly shoes). All purchases felt high-stakes, definitional. It was a lot of pressure for an eighth grader grappling with glossy, insipid, monocultural capitalism, and I remember that once or twice, standing in front of a counter full of Body Shop lip glosses, the stress almost broke me.

This tween anxiety -- the melodramatic fear of making a bad choice, a choice that would change your course forever -- seemed particularly acute when it came to picking out a fragrance. Because -- and I would challenge you to ask anyone who was young in suburban 90s America to tell you otherwise -- picking out a signature body scent was one of the first, and therefore most important, missions for teens set loose in the mall to harness their own destinies before rendezvousing later with their adults at a designated (and discreet) pick-up spot. Fragrance shopping had to be done alone, or at least with no parental supervision. Not because it was particularly taboo, but because it felt like such a loaded, intimate decision, one that involved armpits and crushes and being kissed for the first time. In the ‘90s, not a lot of teens had large fragrance wardrobes -- the going idea was that you chose one scent at a time and stuck with it, until people (read: people you might want to go to a dance with) started to associate it with you, until you could waft out of math class smelling like Cucumber Melon and everyone in the next period would know you’d been there. The immensity of that decision could feel pretty crushing.

The funny thing about this, looking back, is that most fledgling teens in the ‘90s were all wearing the same body spritzes as each other, an endless copycat of a copycat of a copycat merged into one big, sweet, headache-inducing cloud. Of course, there was always someone who came to school wearing her mother’s boozy Amarige, but we weren’t actually all that interested yet in glamour or originality. What we really wanted was to make correct choices, and for most of us, the clearest way to make a pre-approved creative decision that still felt like an act of will was to pick one of the dozen or so original body splashes manufactured by Bath and Body Works.

The first Bath and Body Works store opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1990, and quickly popped up in every mall across the country thereafter (there are now 1600+ stores in North America, most of them tucked somewhere between the Limited Too and the Hot Dog on a Stick). Tiffany Yanetta wrote a fascinating article on the brand’s history and future on Racked, and what I took away most from reading it is that its founders knew exactly what the hell they were doing. They created a fake “founder” named Kate and put forth the mythology that Bath and Body Works stores were just her quaint country outposts, rather than high-churn factories of body creams created by committee at giant fragrance conglomerates. The early scents -- Sun-Ripened Raspberry, Country Apple, Juniper Breeze, Plumeria, Sweet Pea -- felt botanical, folksy, and almost healthy, like a high-vitamin fruit cocktail you could absorb through your pores. The body splashes -- by far the defining product of the 90s set -- was perfume made safe; it was watered-down to the point where it was impossible to put too much on, and yet strong enough to project a knowing sillage as you shuffled to class. If the aesthetic endpoint of perfume in the 90s, at least for those going through puberty, was to smell like a simulacra of the mall, then body splash accomplished that task immediately. Everyone recognized those dozen scents, as regular in the lunchroom as microwaved pizza, and they knew what they meant: you had been shopping on your own, you too had made your mall pilgrimage, and you had made your choice.

My Bath and Body Works scent was Country Apple, which was not exactly the smell of apples, but more like a green jolly rancher left to dissolve in a can of Fresca. At the time, it was considered the “bohemian” choice of the bunch (Sun-Ripened Raspberry was for effortless, frustrating beauties, Plumeria was dramatic and overripe and therefore reserved for a few queen bees who got there first, Juniper Breeze was sporty and butch, Peach Nectar was too eager to please and as cloying as a high-pitched laugh, Freesia was moody and sensitive to criticism, Peaberry...well, no one ever really figured out Peaberry girls). Country Apple was playful and candy-sweet and also a slight bit dirty underneath, which made me feel at thirteen like I had chosen a competitive edge of tenacious grit that only cost me $8.99. Of course, I didn’t really have the edge on anyone. I was a victim of marketing, of mall neon, of those headphones in Josie in the Pussycats that subliminally whisper “buy this! it will make you popular and beloved and less afraid of being in your body and maybe even mistaken for someone who has a clue about what they are doing!” underneath bubblegum pop hooks.

There is an entire Ebay community dedicated to buying and selling vintage Bath and Body Works products, some of them now marked up 300%. Bath and Body Works has also gotten hip to this trend, and now, every summer, re-releases a few classic products with great fanfare (and on huge discount; the lotions are $3.95 right now??) in order to prey on the nostalgia of women exactly like me. And I get it; my pulse quickens when I hear the sale has come around again. I zoom back into my middle-school bedroom, comforted by the ritual of spritzing my hair with candy dew before school. Because selecting a body splash was a way of outwardly ordering a messy internal world, of slotting yourself into a neat box of inoffensive freshness when your body was so often confusing and spilling over its own edges. All 90s mall scents offered this panacea of giving into a category, of choosing your own zodiac sign  -- GAP scents with their elemental names, the fruit basket cornucopia of the Body Shop (were you a Satsuma or a Summer Mango?). They knew that young people had exactly two hours and thirteen years of insecurity to play with every time they hit the mall; just enough time to run into a store, select an identity from ten distinct options, and run out again. It feels crass in the rearview, like we were all taken in. But in 1995, stepping out of the shower and dousing my torso in Country Apple was the way I first learned to really look at my naked body, and to think about it as a moving vessel for aesthetic ideas. I was playing into type, but at least I was learning how to play.  


Colors, Benetton (original vintage) - HF
I always say, as many people do, that I don’t like vanilla scents. But I also suspect that I’m lying. I know that over and over I reach for and come back to scents that have vanilla curled up in the base notes, sneakily defining the perfume long after I’ve been wearing it, like a Trojan horse of sticky, addictive sweetness.

Colors by Benetton, the original vintage from the late 80s and early 90s, is a weird loud fruity floral with a woody-vanilla heart, which sounds incoherent and awful when I type it out, and is sort of incoherent and awful. It’s the total antithesis of the minimal scents that defined the 90s forward into the decade's future. But Colors is reaching back to the past, and in doing so, it’s undeniably seductive. This fragrance is more than the sum of its parts - the hidden wood notes quickly overtake the floral, and it’s more smug than bright, more purring than loud. It feels like a casual daywear version of the big power-seduction scents of the 80s, which is probably exactly what Benetton was trying to make when they designed it - Poison in daylight and on a budget. It smells like easy glamour, like looking good in sweatpants, like throwing on a t-shirt that's been balled up on the floor. And then right at the bottom, it hits you with a big vanilla note, all self-assured sweetness, all classic, well-known major-chord femininity. The hot mom accord.

Vanilla is supposed to be the most comforting of scents - supposedly men in various surveys and interviews often say that vanilla is their favorite scent on a woman because it smells like the perfumes their mothers used to wear. It’s pretty weird how easily we’ll admit our Oedipal strangenesses when talking about perfume, but perfume also undeniably has a lot to do with moms, no matter who you are and no matter whether or not you had a mom yourself, no matter whether or not that mom wore perfume. Moms are a whole lot of things more than a parent to each of us, and one role to which the mom returns again and again is that of a very specific and deeply ingrained sex symbol.

We talk about the hot mom a lot now. Clothing items sell themselves with “mom” as their identifying adjective, and, thanks mainly to Lorde and Kim Kardashian, “mom” has become a shorthand for “you look hot.” But this idea of the hot mom, of being mom meaning being fuckable, achieved a particular full-bodied power in the late 80s and rode that wave of glory into the 90s. The women who dominate my imagining of womanhood as it began in early adolescence are not my mom but other people’s moms. They are the soccer moms, the PTA moms, the rich moms carrying platters of healthy snacks, giving everyone a ride home in that year's model of Ford Explorer, where the leather still smells like new car. Moms who read all the sex tips in Cosmo, moms who stringently taught their daughters how to beautiful, who seemed not really to be older, but simply better at being teenage girls. Moms who knew about sex, and who knew what time everyone was supposed to be home. Colors, to me, is the ultimate soccer mom perfume. Colors is what other people’s moms’ cars smelled like, and wearing it makes me feel sexier than nearly any other perfume, as though the whole world might seamlessly do my bidding.

The soccer mom was a softened, suburban version of the trophy wife, the gold-digger. The soccer mom had undoubtedly been extremely beautiful in her youth, the kind of girl who could and did have any guy she wanted. Maybe the soccer mom used to be a swimwear model, or maybe she just looked like one. She had taken her good looks and found someone who could support her in the kind of lifestyle that allowed her kids to go to soccer practice at their private high school. When everyone was paring down to waifish androgyny in the 90s, the soccer mom kept in athletically sexual good shape, with perfect tits framed by an only-slighter-better-than-realistic push-up bra, spectacularly toned legs emerging from shorts she might have borrowed from her daughter’s closet. The soccer mom tried on her daughter’s clothes and looked better than her daughter did in them. She had remained the reigning beauty of her family despite giving birth to children, despite holding their whole polished suburban life together with her two hands. The supermodels of the 90s can be divided by a soccer mom metric: Claudia Schiffer and Christy Turlington are soccer moms; Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss are not. Cindy Crawford turned out to be a stealth soccer mom; Stephanie Seymour seemed like she should have been a soccer mom, but wasn’t. Shalom Harlow and the second wave of 90s supermodels were definitively anti-soccer mom, attempting to wrest femininity definitively into the realm of youth, out of the soccer mom’s manicured claws.

This suburban creature was where a defiantly traditional femininity, with its secret hard edge, the blade under the smile, stayed alive in a decade and a culture that claimed to have done away with and moved past it. The more the 90s in its billboard letters said this kind of blond, tan, femininity was over, the more it seemed somehow subversive, the more having a crush on your rich friend’s rich mom felt like you were getting away with something. I grew up on the campus of a high school with a soccer team, and in the fall and the spring, walking past the field at dusk when practice got out, I’d see them arrayed in a tableau around their SUVs, all tan limbs and streaming golden hair, like one of those paintings of the sirens or a cluster of goddesses bathing in a stream out of the eyes of men; impossibly powerful, speaking a silent language made up of the anger that simmers beneath carefully maintained beauty.

I don’t know that these moms wore Colors, a scent released in 1987 that found the height of its popularity in the very early 90s, when I was almost too young to consciously notice things like how people smelled. But it seems like the kind of scent this kind of woman would have worn - not on a date with her husband, not to any occasion for which she had to dress up, but in her true element, before throwing on a fleece windbreaker and short shorts to go pick her kids up from their soccer game, the fragrance permeating the taupe leather back-seats of her SUV as she drove from one errand to the next. A friend gave me a vintage bottle of Colors a couple years ago, and every time I put it on I feel like I have slipped inside what it must have been like to be one of these women, smug and powerful, casual and vigilant, my beauty sliding in like a sneak attack from a previous decade, like the vanilla-wood notes coiled under a too-friendly fruity floral.

Dirt, Demeter - RS
We talk a lot about Chris Brosius, one of the founders of Demeter Scent Library and now owner of CB I Hate Perfume here at The Dry Down, but there is a reason for that. Not many people make that kind of permanent dent in the perfume narrative, that hard right turn. In the 90s, Brosius did something that no one else could do, but that everyone else desperately wanted to do: he captured the smell of dirt. For a generation obsessed with grunge, this was an enviable accomplishment. When Dirt came out in 1996, in its little rectangular bottle with a light brown stripe, it emerged into Bergdorf Goodman as part of Demeter’s first fragrance trio. The other scents were tomato (an exact replica of a sun-warmed tomato plant) and Grass (freshly mowed sod, down to the milky end of a single blade). The Demeter sell from the beginning was hyper-realism; the assurance that this thing really does smell precisely like that thing. They marketed uncanniness, that audible “huh” you get from sniffing something that should be impossible. If most perfumers would self-describe as brushstroke impressionists, Brosius was working in a different medium; he was making olfactory snapshots with near-photographic accuracy. Dirt did, and still does, and always will, smell 100%, unequivocally, like rich earth right after it rains. It smells like a trowel full of potting soil shoved under your nose, all those minerals churned to gold by worms. It smells like the Garden Center at Home Depot, that industrial greenhouse full of Miracle-Gro and 2 for 1 petunias. It smells like stained jeans and sneakers that will never get clean after a storm. It comes exactly as advertised, and it in many ways, changed the fragrance market forever.

Demeter is now sold in Duane Reade (these days, Brosius makes defiantly weird perfumes for CBIHP, presumably with all that f-you money he got when Demeter sold in 2002, and honestly, more power to him), but it is important to remember that it all began at Bergdorfs. Dirt was meant to be a high-fashion meta-experiment, a controversial statement piece. It was a defiant, winking response to the ultra-femme florals that crowded the market in the mid-90s (Pleasures, Sunflowers) and even more of a middle-finger to the “clean” wave (CKOne, Issey Miyake) that convinced customers that chic was equivalent to minimal and transparent. Dirt became a cult hit almost right away, not in small part because Kate Moss started saying that she wore it in interviews for fashion magazines. Moss has since changed her signature scent countless times in countless magazines -- she has been linked to Escentric Molecules, Chanel No. 5, Bluebells, and you know, her own fragrance line since, but the crucial fact is that she was cosmically aligned with Dirt at a time when it mattered, when Kate Moss had just enough snowballing star power, right as her waifish chic was cresting, to directly meteor a perfume. And it is important too that Moss was a famed waif; the only kind of woman who was given a cultural pass for smelling “dirty.” There are a lot of facts I could unpack about Kate Moss and how spaghetti-strap heroin chic was really only available to thin white women who used their bodies as selling tools to ratify a monoculture during a specific moment in history, but that’s another essay for another day.. But suffice it to say, if Kate Moss’ celebrity said anything at all in the 90s, it said that people really loved the idea of a roughed-up girl who was doing things she wasn’t supposed to do, in places she wasn’t supposed to be. And of course, that girl smelled like a mud puddle. Now we know, given Moss’ post-90s, self-branded Top Shop ascendance, that she was always in the right rooms, making the right moves. But the faint trail of dirt remains.

Grunge, the music/fashion aesthetic that many people now associate with ripped flannel shirts and pins of Kurt Cobain (both of which you can currently buy at Forever 21), sloshed out of muddy places. The Pacific Northwest always smells a little like Dirt, the perfume; the scent hangs around in the fog. It is a life-giving and life-sucking smell there, it clears the lungs, and is also hard to take after 200 consecutive overcast moons. When I was traveling all over northern Oregon late last year, I kept thinking I had put on Dirt, but I had not packed it. That fragrance is just the natural Eau there, where it smells much more like loam than teen spirit. You always feel a little bit dirty there; the grime never quite washes clean. Grit sinks into the skin, but it’s not unpleasant. The bridge between a human and a bear is just more porous, which can lead to a feeling of great power. But there is also a fear in it, a vastness that is overwhelming and scary and can threaten to crack the chest open. I found myself on the verge of tears walking through Oregon’s woods; that smell opened up something inside of me that did not want to close.  That place wanted me to go primordial, to chip all the way back to shale. I wasn’t really prepared to feel that, and I would maybe recommend anyone vacationing in Oregon to bring along an Emotional Support animal. In any case, that land is the land of Dirt, its origin story.

It is also where Kurt and Courtney became stars, snogging on the cover of Sassy in motheaten cardigans. And because they were pop cultural catnip, the ripped-stockings-smeared-lip-home-bleach look went rapidly viral and the market pounced on it -- how can we sell this to kids, how can we package rebellion and make them pay, how can we take this anger and make them thrilled to buy it. Marc Jacobs famously did a grunge collection in 1993. And then Kurt and Courtney famously tore up and then burned those clothes, calling themselves “punkers” who couldn't be bought or sold.

It is difficult to say if Dirt, the fragrance, is a punker or a ploy; it looks a lot more like the latter with 20 years remove. Grunge was God to cool teens in 1996, and here comes a scent with the promise of making you even grungier. It looks like a “hello, fellow kids” sort of fragrance, a grown person glancing at the youths and thinking yeah, they'll love this. But then, if you follow the work of Brosius at all, he has for a long while positioned himself as apart from the rest of the industry, an enfant terrible of sorts in witchy black outfits who literally called his perfume company “I Hate Perfume.” Now, that's just plain old good marketing, but for him, I think it really may be true. Well, he actually loves perfume, but is devout in his hatred of all the frippery bullshit around it (and has said as much in any interview you can Google). He likes smoked meat accords, and has a cologne in his line that is definitely just the scent of semen. He's a perfume punker in his heart, which is why the pop status of Dirt must pain him a little bit now -- today, teens are buying Kurt Cobain tees at Urban Outfitters, and Dirt at drugstores next to the toothpaste. Something tough from the 90s has surely been lost, though of course, teens right now are facing tough enough times of their own. Grunge had its issues (sexism, lack of diversity, a kind of numbing ennui that crushed genuine enthusiasm, at least that was its effect on me at 13), and I harbor no nostalgia for it. But I do sort of miss when celebrities were burning couture.

I always keep a bottle of Dirt around, have since I was a teen. There have been years that I've let the bottle go dry, but it has been a near constant on my dresser. I can’t let it go. It was the first “difficult” fragrance I ever bought, a scent made to be weird and to curl the noses of other people on purpose. It was worn for shock effect, a kind of proto man-repeller (even though wet soil is universally cited as one of the best smells in the world when those fragrance surveys come out). Dirt is one of those odors that most people think “I love it but I'd never wear it,” right up there with fresh fish and Subway bread. But if you were the kind of person who wore it, who still wears it, you feel like you secretly leveled-up, faced the challenge. It makes you feel above reproach, which for an insecure adolescent was essential. Now I know that Dirt was simply the first in a long wave of hard to wear niche fragrances, a trend that hasn't ever abated. The Swedish perfumer Andrea Maack makes a scent called Coven which is like Dirt on steroids (soil plus a blood accord, plus ummm...bacon?) and a perfume clerk told me that all of the young goths of Bushwick buy the perfume by the barrel. The traditional fuck-off anointment ritual remains, just in a different bottle. Every generation gets the Dirt it deserves.

Heaven, Gap - HF

The Gap at the mall in the town where I grew up was set on a sort of a plinth, right at the center of all the stores, behind the fountain, holding court like king of the mall - which, of course, it was. Both Gap and malls, I suppose, still exist, except that in all meaningful ways they don’t. The most important way in which they no longer exist is that I am myself no longer a teenager. So many trend pieces, so many reports crying out the death of this or that cultural entity are in fact only making the statement “this mattered to me when I was young and now I’m not young anymore.” Who is to say that the mall doesn’t still matter to some kid somewhere, that there are not still pre-teens in the Gap, dreaming amongst the aisles of ill-folded khakis?

Statistically, malls are dying across America - closing down, turning fewer profits, leaking relevance. The stores that defined malls, propped them up and gave them shape - Wet Seal, Hot Topic, J. Crew - are going out of business or losing money hand over fist. The internet has rendered them no longer necessary, taking the mall and refracting it into a million available splinters, adding privacy and convenience, removing the need to get in a car, to put your body in sunlight, to reckon with the frustration of how a store can carry only a finite number of items. The coming end of malls, at least in this country, is an economic fact, but it isn’t what I mean when I say that malls don’t exist anymore - what I mean, instead, is that the things that once meant everything to me now only exist as echoes. But one of those echoes, one that would stop me in my tracks if I smelled it today, jolted back to the reason the mall is the name for a particular emotion, is Gap’s Heaven.

In the mid-90s, Gap launched a set of fragrances with single-noun names at an affordable price point, in little matching minimalist bottles, lined up prominently in all their stores. Everyone wanted them; we all knew which one we would buy if we could afford it, and at the mall we would smell one after another and pretend we could choose one, pretend that we could smell the difference between, and that we knew what it meant, for something to smell good, or bad, like a person or a memory or an idea, as though the dreamy pastel concepts by which these perfumes were named were recognizable, and familiar to us, the scent of heaven as concrete as the smell of garlic or roses or gasoline.

Heaven was a very middle-of-the-road green floral, a definitively inoffensive fragrance. It was far and away the most boring of all of them, a watered down and un-dangerous CK One rip-off, but I didn’t know that yet. It the one I always settled on, and if I am very honest with myself, the notes in it still match up with the scents I am over and over again drawn to today - orange blossom, jasmine, greens and lilies, woods and moss. White flowers over a scrubbed-clean forest floor is a recipe that worked on me then and works just as well on me now. Most likely the reason I still reach for these fragrances is some instinct, some promise of comfort, that Gap Heaven instilled in me long ago.

What it really was about Heaven was that it smelled like the inside of the Gap, like the store itself. It smelled like the promise of normalcy, which was what Gap offered, which was the siren song it sang. What I wanted to smell like was that sense of mundanity that took over when I walked into the store, the soap-bubble belief that being just like everyone else would square my experiences into the same frame and narrative as everyone else’s experiences, making me easy to know and to like. The 90s railed against conformity, it was when I learned the disdainful term “normals” and when we were all supposed to want to be beautiful freaks. But looking back now, what’s clear is that a culture only places itself definitionally in opposition to something because it longs for that very thing, and the 90s longed toward conformity, toward sameness, toward the comfort of known categories. That’s why places like the Gap thrived, that’s why perfumes tamped down their floral musky civet strangeness and learned to smell blank, and that’s why the mall was the locational heart of the decade. The mall was where we went to learn what everyone else wanted and bought and looked like. It promised that each question had only one answer. It offered to sand down the edges and soften the sharp high notes. It said that your experiences would contain no surprises, and therefore nothing could hurt you. The mall assured you that your life, the lives of people you envied, and the lives people lived on TV, were truly all one and the same.

If there was a concept of actual heaven to a six foot tall twelve year old girl who had never yet managed to actually make friends with anybody, it was that - the smell of industrial-strength air conditioning, and folded khakis, and a million white t shirts, and the hope of not standing out from the crowd. I wanted to smell like the Gap because I knew that the people whom I could neither get to approve of nor understand me liked the Gap. Gap’s scents said you could categorize yourself into knowability, that your heart and skin could be as neatly prepackaged as the line of shirts in a store at the mall.


Sunflowers, Elizabeth Arden - RS
Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden comes in a tall, flat, oblong flacon and is without a doubt, the color of urine -- or at least the urine of a not-very-well-dehydrated person. Someone in R&D at Elizabeth Arden (or likely a committee of many someones, all clad in jewel-toned powersuits or various shades of benign office lilac) chose the extra-large bottle (with its comically large white plastic cap that could double as a Dixie cup), supposedly to showcase the bold color of the juice . And it certainly worked, at the time. Sunflowers was wildly successful, flying off the shelves of glowing mall department stores from the moment it landed on them. Perhaps to a consumer’s eyes in 1993, the first connotation of bright yellow liquid wasn’t a pee sample for the doctor. Maybe they looked and saw a melted lemon snowcone, or Prestone brake fluid, or the slurry left at the bottom of a can of pineapple rings. Whatever it was, it proved irresistible. The fragrance, which was released in May 1993 to be ready in time for the Mother’s Day rush -- and if you have a distinct memory of this scent from your childhood, there is a 99% chance it involves a Mom --  made $50 million by the end of that year. It won the Fragrance Foundation Award for “Best Rollout,” which is an elegant way of saying “your marketing team fucking killed this one and everyone threw their capitalism straight at it.” There was something aggressively “happy” about Sunflowers, a promise which contains no small amount of darkness lurking underneath, but more on that in a moment.

Sunflowers, the flowers, are officially called Helianthus, and are native to North America. Native American tribes were said to have cultivated giant fields of them around 3000 BC in the Southwest, and some historians think that they were here even before corn, that golden fields predated maize ones, that for a very long time, all the hills around northern New Mexico looked like giant mounds of saffron. The seeds were a staple food then; they were turned into hearty mush, squat little cakes, dense breads. Oil was squeezed from the seeds and softened hair and cracked skin -- it was a miracle treatment thousands of years before Sephora found unicorn face serums and likely just as effective. Of course, like many beautiful things that were once native to this place, it was stolen, colonized, and turned into profits for someone else. The Spanish took the flower to Europe, and the Russians fell in love with the thing. Peter the Great was borderline obsessed, and put sunflower imagery on everything, like some despotic Blossom with a new label maker. A British person patented the method for deriving oil from sunflower seeds in 1716, thereby laying financial claim to something that other people had been doing perfectly well for a thousand years. The Russians continued to innovate sunflower crops, breeding them bigger, stronger, brighter. To this day, the most prestigious award in the field of sunflower science (a small but mighty field headquartered in Paris now, naturally) is named after a Russian researcher who was a genius at transpolination; it’s a big deal in the sunflower game to win a Pustovoit. We might have had a second space race if there was a similar virtue in being a flower breeder as in being an astronaut, but in a way, it wouldn’t have been worth it. The Russians straight up dominated the sunflower world for a long time, and it is the “Mammoth Russian” seed varietal that came back to the U.S. in the 1880s and that we still associate now with giant blooms the size of faces, with fluffy goldenrod tips. It is the Russian Mammoth that gives the Elizabeth Arden perfume its signature coloring; they are the same day-glo citric hue. (Also, you can thank Albert A. Schneiter, onetime editor of Sunflower Technology and Production, for providing the research basis for this quick journey through the floral past).

Sunflowers, the perfume, contains very little of this deep-seeded history. Of course, it also contains all of it, the journey of every little bloom between Arizona and St. Petersburg and back again. It could not exist without centuries of sunflower mythology. But that’s where the connection to the greater epic ends. For one thing, the perfume smells nothing like actual sunflowers. Helianthus smells vegetal and almost rotten, like a broken-apart celery stalk abandoned at the bottom of the crisper. No one really wants to bury their nose in a giant sunflower like an Anne Geddes baby; there is little pleasure to be found there. Sunflowers, the perfume, smells like lemonade laced with butter, a citrus bomb with a fatty unctuous thing going on underneath. It also contains notes of industrial air freshener, the honeydew you don’t eat in a fruit salad, and tree bark (at the very end). People went absolutely bonkers for it in the 90s, which I think tells us a lot about what that decade was like.

The ads for Sunflowers all featured a cadre of blonde women (the main model was Vendela) with their blonde children, playing on the beach; it was marketed, from the start, as a scent for mothers, but you know, blonde mothers, the kind who frolic effortlessly with their children in ecru cashmere on white sand. Looking at the ads now, they seem cynical, they are such a direct arrow pointed to the heart of middle-American mall-going consumers making the transition from the me-decade into the Clintonian era, which on its surface promised a better life for all (oh, rearview vision) and a kind of selfless generosity that anyone could buy right into with conspicuous consumption. The campaign for Sunflowers was all about an adman’s idea of privileged coziness, of sunny, moneyed escapades with children, of being a Good Mother, a Giving Mother, a Mother On Top Of It All Who Treats Herself To This One Thing. The perfume was an instant hit because everyone on earth for one year gave it to their mom, or to the mother of their children. It was an easy shorthand for “hey, you’re doing a good job at this whole maternal business” and it cost under $100. I have no doubt that many women got Sunflowers in the 90s and secretly cried in the bathroom afterwards, not because they were filled with joy, but because they were so fucking stressed out, and what they really needed was some help, not a bottle of yellow liquid that doubled as a pat on the back. But the marketing was too good, and Sunflowers was what they got. Rolled over by the Rollout of the Year.

When I smell Sunflowers on a stranger these days, I cannot do anything but think of my own mother, who wore it briefly for a few months when I was 10 years old, and also the mothers of every kid I ever carpooled with; even if these women never wore it, the scent has imprinted on me with a singular message: this is what women who are now your age chose to smell like when you were young. It is the scent of being taken care of, of being shuttled from the library to Dairy Queen, of being swaddled and held and then carted off to Planet Fun to splash around in a ball pit. For that reason, I should find it deeply comforting. But mostly, I find it menacing.

Smelling Sunflowers now makes me think of the R.E.M song “Shiny Happy People,” which was nearly ubiquitous in 1991, right around the time that Elizabeth Arden was coming up with the fragrance brief for their next scent. That song hit the top ten and has haunted the band ever since -- Michael Stipe told the BBC that “It's a fruity pop song written for children. It just is what it is...If there was one song that was sent into outer space to represent R.E.M. for the rest of time, I would not want it to be Shiny Happy People.” The thing is, it is always the fruity pop songs that get beamed out into the universe, and along with them, everything they lack. There is no weight to Shiny Happy People -- it’s just a bouncy, happy, stupidly catchy, muppety song -- it is as untethered to anything as a helium balloon. But because it appears on the same record as “Losing My Religion” -- one of the darkest pop songs about loneliness and suicidal thoughts to remain a karaoke staple -- “Shiny Happy People” sounds all the more empty. It sounds like it is covering for something. It is a grimace that looks like a smile. Sunflowers is the same way. It is a HAPPY scent, in HAPPY yellow, for HAPPY mothers and their HAPPY children. But it is five tracks -- and five sprays -- away from questioning one’s belief in God. There is a wince underneath its oily, florid smell, a crying jag in the bathroom. We might send this perfume into space, but then again, what does that say about us?