Why Are There So Many Blah Perfumes? (Plus Three Un-boring Scents That I Can't Stop Sniffing)

Sometimes it seems like amazing, unique fragrances are way outnumbered by the so-so ones.

Mar 21, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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This is my extremely serious fragrance-smelling face.

Hey, it’s finally spring! And today is National Fragrance Day! (But you already knew that, right?) So, I figured it was a good time to talk about fragrance -- especially because there are some good new ones that I’ve been smelling like a fiend. 

But before we get to them: If we’re being honest, quite a few fragrances stink. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful, unusual, masterful eaux out there. But if you’ve been on a subway car or in a large crowd lately, you’ve probably been exposed to some nefarious olfactive sorcery. You know what I mean: jagged metallic colognes, bubblegum-drenched corner-store bouquets, fruity concoctions like an Edible Arrangements gone bad, scents that gracelessly wallop you in the nose like a prizefighter two decades past his prime. 

Or maybe you’re familiar with what my friend, the perfume writer Barbara Herman, calls “office perfumes.” These are the soapy, watery, clean-as-a-whistle scents that are usually inoffensive, perfectly nice, and palatable. They’re often lovely, but not groundbreaking. (Which isn’t always a bad thing, but you know what they say about all work scents and no play.) 

So, why are many not-great perfumes popular, you ask? Here’s what’s important to know about the state of fragrance today. First of all, it’s big business. And I mean big. Last year, a study by market research institute Ceresana forecast $15.6 billion in worldwide fragrance revenue by 2019. If you’re a large company that wants to launch a perfume properly -- put in the R&D, create a marketing campaign and secure global distribution -- you want good return on investment, which means you’ll ideally give people what they want. 

But! To have a global hit, your fragrance needs to not only sell well in one or two countries; it needs to appeal to Brazilians, Canadians, South Koreans, Australians, everyone. So if you know that in one part of the world, a certain smell is disliked, you probably won’t include it. Instead, you go for crowd-pleasing scents (or, in industry parlance, “notes”). This partly explains why fruity florals have been so big for years -- they’re easy, popular, and often pleasant. 

As you might imagine, off-the-wall or challenging scents are harder to sell in huge numbers. For instance, you might know Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely fragrance. It’s a pretty, musky-ambery floral. You can still find it today, and it’s a well-done scent. But do you remember her second fragrance, Covet? It had a grassy, lemony, chocolatey vibe -- quite unconventional, especially for a celebrity-backed perfume. It was a creative risk, but it didn’t exactly soar commercially, and now there’s no mention of Covet on SJP’s website. (Which feels a little sad, as though it never existed.)

Then there are the rushed fragrances that are going to sell no matter what. You know the ones I mean. I have not smelled the Justin Bieber perfume, because I am old enough to be Bieber’s mom, but that dude could put vinegar in a bottle and it would still move millions. (Please don’t start a Twitter feud with me, Beliebers.)

Now, this isn’t to say that large companies don’t release beautiful or challenging fragrances. They do, absolutely. (If you have not worn Coco Mademoiselle, you should run out and try it today.) But I do hope that it illustrates why it can seem as though there’s a lot of bad or blah stuff out there. And I hope it encourages you to find a fragrance that you seriously love, because for every Eau Hell No on the market, there’s a smart, challenging, intoxicating fragrance just waiting to be adored. 

One of those, if you like heady and full florals, is Byredo’s Flowerhead EDP. Ben Gorham, the man behind Byredo, let his cousin’s traditional Indian wedding guide this scent.You know how the bride and groom exchange floral garlands? If you could bottle that moment and scent, this is it. The fragrance is bursting with wild jasmine, rose petals, tuberose, lemon, and -- not surprisingly, considering the fact that Gorham lives in Stockholm -- lingonberry. It's all wrapped up in amber and suede, which makes it feel sensual. (That’s one of my least favorite words, but it’s the right one, so.) Flowerhead smells fresh and green and somehow hot, like it’s begging to be warm on a sticky summer day. If summer ever comes.

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I love how timeless this bottle is.

Maybe you’re not into lush florals. That’s cool. In that case, you might like The Odd Fellow’s Bouquet from Atkinsons 1799, a wonderfully eccentric English heritage brand that’s been revived. (Atkinsons is name-checked in Mrs. Dalloway, by the way. Literary cred!) Now, apparently this is a men’s fragrance, but I don’t think that scents need to be assigned to one sex or another. If you like something, you like it, no matter your gender identity. And I really, really like this. It’s a spicy, slightly sweet, subtly tobacco-tinged scent that makes me think of old books and whiskey and gingersnaps. It is very sexy in a grown-up way; you wear this with oxblood lipstick and your best lingerie, and then you smell your wrists all night long. 

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A wee sample of The Odd Fellow's Bouquet by Atkinsons 1799. 

Finally, Carven has released a follow-up to its first fragrance, L’Eau de Toilette, and it is just so pretty. I’m guessing that it’s intended for young women, because it has a breeziness and brightness that is completely modern. (No woman smelled like this in, say, the ‘70s.) You smell sweet pea and lemon right away, then freesia and white hyacinth, and it all settles into a light wood dry-down. Like Carven, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian is French, and this feels like what a young Parisienne might wear while strolling along the Seine. It’s simple, clean, light, and fresh. OK, and yes, it’s office-friendly, but it’s interesting enough that you’ll wear it outside of work, too. Promise. 

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This may be the most green I've seen in months.

Which fragrances are you liking (or not) these days? Are you planning a National Fragrance Day rager? Let me know in the comments and on Twitter. (Oh, and I’m launching a beauty website soon, so keep an eye on The Glowhow.)