You wake up, brush your teeth, have a shower and get changed back into your pajamas for a day of sitting on the sofa behind your laptop. But you may also, like I do, allow yourself a singular self-indulgence: a spritz of aftershave or perfume as part of the morning routine. It begs the question: what’s the point of a fragrance when there’s nowhere to go, no one to see, to charm or to seek a compliment from?
Before lockdown, many of us wore fragrances for the satisfaction of others. Yet as we’ve become more enclosed and, as a result, more in touch with ourselves, fragrances have become more of a personal luxury than ever. As the perfumer Timothy Han puts it, “Do you wear fragrance for yourself, or for others?”
Or perhaps, scents have become a way to remember who we are. Han recalled how a friend insists on wearing lipstick every day to give her “a sense of normality in a very abnormal world,” something many of us are searching for in one way or another, whether that’s by hunting for a hedonistic night out or finding tranquility in birdwatching.
Wearing perfume has a place in lockdown for this very reason: maintaining a modicum of reality is a valid excuse for splurging on a new scent. In many ways, fragrances are the ultimate luxury — you are, quite literally, spraying money into thin air — and even an entry-level bottle seldom costs less than $100 USD (at least if you follow the advice of style magazines). “You can’t see a fragrance, no one can smell you in a picture. Fragrance is about wanting to feel a certain way,” says BYREDO founder Ben Gorham. For some of us, recreating a certain feeling is integral to keeping our sanity.
“We need fragrances to remind ourselves of the best memories, the people in our lives.”
“For those that wear [perfume] for their own personal reasons, a sense of confidence or escapism, then it definitely would be viewed as a necessity in the morning routine. For me, it definitely is,” says Leo Gibbon, founder of the independent fragrance brand IIUVO. Gorham agrees: “It’s part of people’s daily rituals — burning a candle, spraying a room or your hair, wearing fragrance. Whatever you do to make yourself feel better, keep doing it. We shouldn’t lose who we are in these times, if anything we should become sharper versions of ourselves when things get tough.”
These times encourage escapism: we’re cooped up indoors and craving distractions, even if they are short-lived. A modicum of self-indulgence — whether that’s reading, cooking or listening to music — can transport us elsewhere, even if only for a matter of seconds. “I don’t necessarily think you have to physically escape your residence to achieve a sense of escapism… [Do] anything that allows you to block out normality and focus on something that means something to us for our own reasons,” says Gibbon.
Fragrance is a subtle way of achieving this. Ludovic Bonneton, who runs the Parisian fragrance house Bon Parfumeur brand, emphasizes the connection between fragrance and our own subconscious. “We need the fragrances to remind ourselves of the best memories, of people in our lives, and to bring smiles and laughter to lighten the daily grind,” he says.
So if perfume is to become a purely personal pleasure — one that connects us to ourselves instead of attracting others — perhaps the types of scents we seek out should change, too. And at a time when prioritizing our sense of self has never been more important, it might be time to retire the old-school idea that wearing perfume is inherently an act of seduction (perhaps epitomized most gratuitously by Tom Ford’s fragrance advertisements). Independent brands, who have frequently positioned themselves away from the “sex sells” ideals traditionally foisted upon the fragrance industry, are perfectly primed to capture the attention of audiences whose own relationship with scents may have been overlooked by traditional marketing.
“I want people who put on my fragrance to feel like an individual. Like someone who does their own thing and never cared much about conventions,” says Han. “You definitely don’t enter my world if you want to blend in.” His fragrances are deliberately polarizing: they feature the smells of asphalt, lacquer, coal, metal, wet moss, or blood. They’re not for everyone — and that’s the point. They place emphasis on the wearer, instead of the person leaning in.
IIUVO, too, was founded on a rejection of the idea that fragrances’ only purpose is to appeal to other people. “That whole narrative, for me, is boring,” says Gibbon. “It’s selling a dream to people — a kind of subterfuge. ‘Wear this and you’ll have Naomi spread eagle on an Aston Martin,’ I genuinely can’t get my head around how that sh*t still works.” Their most recent release, which was dropped in the midst of the U.K.’s lockdowns, intended to make that point explicitly — even down to the fragrance’s name, BULLSHIT. Its campaign captured a bull defecating, not-so-indirectly throwing shade to the fragrance world’s go-to advertisement techniques of a sundrenched beach, an old sports car, or a gorgeous sexually-entwined couple.
Though BULLSHIT took 18 months to develop, it arrived just at a time when our relationship with scents has shifted. When a potential lover leans into your neck and asks what you’re wearing, it’s not going to be all that romantic when you exclaim, “BULLSHIT.” Its wearers are doing so exclusively for their own enjoyment. “Ultimately, it’s an extension of you,” Gibbon says.
And it’s this idea — that fragrance can articulate who we are, not just who we want to attract — that will, hopefully, emerge from lockdown. As Gorham puts it, “I want [our customers] to feel like the best version of themselves at that moment: whatever that moment and version might be.” Even if, for now, that version is stuck on the sofa in pajamas.