Scent has the power to trigger specific emotions and sharp memories out of nowhere. It’s why certain perfumes can stop us in our tracks and send us down a spiral of nostalgia of who we were or who we were with when we wore them, unlocking specific details with every note. Andy Warhol would only allow himself to wear a perfume for three months before retiring it and moving on to something else, building up a perfume library that chronicled his life in the process.
Andy’s not alone. Although I’m not flush enough to rotate my fragrances on such a cycle, I try to buy a bottle of something new once or twice a year or when I go on a trip. This year, in a fleeting moment of bliss, I purchased 3.3 ounces of Lush’s Karma, a patchouli-orange scent they’ve made since the 90s that is said to have been worn by Alanis Morissette and Michael Stipe.
Clearly I’m living in the past, so I reached out to a couple of perfume specialists to get a sense of what they’ve been smelling and selling in 2021.
My roommate works in a niche perfume boutique, and said the fragrance she probably sells the most of these days is Gris Charnel by BDK Parfums, a fruity-spicy-woody scent that the BDK website says is inspired by a “hand-to-hand seduction punctuated by knowing smiles” and “ a scent of sleepless nights, mischievous and lascivious embraces.” In a year marked by the return of touching strangers it makes sense that people would flock to something seductive. Though my roommate chalks sales up to the influence of perfume Youtuber Demi Rawling, who claims it smells like “a chai latte.”
If you’ve spent any time on perfume TikTok, you already know this year’s breakout scent has been Baccarat Rouge 540 by Maison Francis Kurkdjian, a fragrance whose popularity has divided the perfume community between those who think it takes the right person and moment to pull it off versus those who find the floral woody smell overbearing, overdone, and overpriced (it starts at $325 for 2.4 ounces). My roommate is of the latter opinion, saying “everything with ambroxan [the molecule responsible for the smell of ambergris] has been popular lately for that rich fuzzy velvety projection.”
Many people online have called Ariana Grande’s Cloud a Baccarat 540 dupe sold at a fraction of the price, which I don’t believe, but the packaging is very cute. The other big celebrity fragrance of this year is Billie Eilish’s, a scent simply called Eilish. Bottled in a Gaultieresque bronze bust, Eilish is said to have notes of fruit, vanilla, and musk. “I have synesthesia, so my favorite smells are these like, amber-colored smells, to me, in my brain,” Eilish told Vogue. Sure.
I also reached out to Barbara Herman, author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume and the founder of Eris Parfums. She noted the persistence of “the ever-ubiquitous” Le Labo Santal 33, which you can now purchase at Costco, and the rise of knockoff maker Dossier.
“To me,” Herman said “the most interesting development of the past year is less about the diversity of the scents, and more about the diversity of perfume's audience and makers.” She also remarked on the democratization of perfume as a driver of change that has led to the calling out of Orientalism in perfumery and the near industry-wide eradication of “Oriental” as a category in favor of the more descriptive and less racist “amber.”
No matter what scent you chose this year, justice was apparently on-trend. But put the Santal down, please, unless you want to smell like everyone and their literal grandmother.