In Search of Lost Cherry
What Tom Ford’s most popular perfume tells us about the reasons men want women to want themselves to smell good — and why we should demand better for ourselves.
There is something to be said for smelling like something you eat. Hélène Cixous writes in Stigmata: Escaping Texts that “...eating and being eaten belong to the terrible secret of love.” To be wanted, so completely and rapturously, that your beloved consumes you whole.
In fact, romantic cannibalism has sort of been having a moment lately. Between breakout dream-pop star Ethel Cain’s self-titled character, tragically consumed by the wretched man she adores, to memes about biting your boyfriend making the rounds on all corners of the internet — it seems worth investigating, in this particular cultural moment, why people (women, mostly) want to smell like food. There is much to be said on this subject, and much of it has already upset people. There are innocent fantasies of girlhood and unsexed affinities towards baked goods tied into what might be called the more sinister gourmand-industrial complex, and it is by no means my intention to disturb these wholesome scent preferences. That said, the ways in which sweet candy perfumes intersect with gendered politics of desirability and class are no clearer articulated than in Tom Ford’s 2018 viral cherry organza Lost Cherry.
I would love to hear an earnest argument for how a perfume quite literally named after a vulgar euphemism for a woman’s lapsed virginity is not related to misogyny. It is an obvious enough influence to have eventually become retroactively opaque in the pursuit of commodity fetish. Beauty products are made to make women more desirable to men – of course, they bear coded signs of that very desirability. I also don’t mean to suggest I am somehow above this fact of life. I use Too Faced's Better than Sex mascara because I want all-day lift, but I hear the ghost of Andrea Dworkin screaming at me in Yiddish the entire time. Suggestive beauty product naming accomplishes what the toy company Mattel cracking jokes about their profit-based value system in the Barbie movie accomplishes for Mattel profits tied to the sale of tickets for the very same movie: postmodernity is defined by critique of the product embedded into the product itself. It gives you something to think about, a connection to briefly make. Wielding the power of this sexy perfume is like the excitement of losing your virginity. But then you stop there. You don’t think about it any further. Zizek has been saying this for decades. Products no longer sell you a product, and they no longer even sell you just an idea. Products sell you an entire mindset, a politic, a worldview, and they do it in ways often in seemingly direct conflict with their values in order to earn your trust. Why would Victoria’s Secret, a lingerie company, suddenly become interested in a bare-faced simple beauty campaign. Why would Dove, a company producing deodorant and soap marketed to help people smell better, care about your self-esteem? Thankfully Tom Ford Fragrances does not try and pretend it is a feminist beauty product company – but many people who consume it still somehow mentally place it on the neck of an “empowered woman,” whatever that means in the scheme of advertising.
Tom Ford himself as a designer and businessman is hardly known for his demure marketing. At its best, the worldbuilding of Tom Ford as a house has stood for the provocative in service of understanding ourselves more honestly. Like the surprisingly modern character of Samantha from Sex and the City, you get the sense that they both are tired of not saying the quiet parts out loud. That sex is a force as constant as the sun, and even the most repressed souls yearn, desire, like all humans do: in inconvenient and obscene and incorrect ways. But quite frankly, there is a difference between revealing and challenging the coded interchanges of heterosexuality, and reproducing them wholesale. Where I think this vision falls apart is when it leaves the tight control of a single room of creatives, and more or less integrates wholly into the pre-existing market for beauty products. If Tom Ford fragrances can’t even clear an f-bomb past certain production circuits, I fear for its ability to make serious waves in the cultural politics of suggestive beauty naming, or whatever loose assembly of legacy platitudes people suggest Lost Cherry might serve to provoke. This is all to say, I have seen women do better for themselves — and I want more for us.
There are two important questions at play here. Firstly: is Lost Cherry a good perfume in its own right? And secondly, does what it represents for the culture surrounding perfume consumption bode well for the general state of creativity in fragrance? Luckily enough, the answer to both of these questions can be summarized in a single word: no.
Lost Cherry opens with a blast of bitter almonds. I’ve noticed a trend among many Tom Fords (including the equally popular masc counterpart Tobacco Vanille): the opening spray is very provocative, and the dry-down is extremely conventional. In the case of LC, the initial sour profile of the cherry note fused with the bitterness of almonds recalls cyanide, and in one case, the purported smell of decaying corpses. Into the drydown, however, the nutty profile becomes sweeter and the cherry becomes candied. There is very little evolution beyond the first fifteen minutes — once it settles, it does so for a couple of hours of diffusive aspartame fruit showboating, and then it is gone.
I can understand why people call this perfume addicting. Usually, the formula for creating this effect is the combination of something widely palatable with the traces of something extremely offensive at high doses. This was the secret to most perfume in the 20th century. Jasmine was entrancing — narcotic, even — because of the traces of urine-like indoles found within the composition. Rose became sensual with the addition of civet, the perineal gland secretion of a small mammal related to the common genet. Lost Cherry uses the rich, juicy profile of a cherry accord to hide notes of alcohol and decay on the wrists of impressionable young women.
This is not, inherently, my issue with the perfume. Rather, I find Lost Cherry does far too much to achieve far too little. The notes blend together, the careful deceits fall flat: there is a reason this perfume is perhaps the belle of the dupe economy. If its formula weren’t so generic, it wouldn’t be so easy and popular to duplicate. The second reason so few fans of this scent own a full bottle is, of course, the high price point. A 50ml bottle currently retails for $395. This brings me to my second concern: Tom Ford is not entirely responsible for the inflation of the luxury fashion markets at large, but its most popular offering does absolutely embody the particularly nefarious intersection between completely unreasonable status-based prices, products lacking in conceptual substance, and second-hand male voyeurism.
Of course, when you deal in products made and sold under the luxury market, oftentimes prices are less a reflection of the material costs of production and more a material representation of a brand’s prestige and identity. You aren’t paying for the perfume inside Lost Cherry’s bright red bottle, you’re paying for the bottle itself as an idea.
You’re paying for an individual enumeration of Tom Ford Beauty, now itself an individual enumeration of the loose collection of ideas festering within the digitized remains of a woman selling cleansing oil in mid-century New York City formerly known as The Estée Lauder Companies. I do not labor under expectations that Tom Ford will lower its prices. I do, however, wish we would stop doing their marketing for them. Lost Cherry as an idea is virtually inescapable on the internet: it is recommended, mood-boarded, and, as referenced before, most often-evangelized through the recommendation of fakes. It is the idea, and you, dear reader, can only ever reach for pale imitations. You wish you could smell like this, but of course, you shouldn’t. There are several far more sophisticated cherry-based perfumes made by independent and niche perfumers. There is nothing that Lost Cherry does that Strangers Parfumerie’s Cherry Amaretto (retailing for $ 90 USD) does not do better. And much of Lost Cherry’s allure — the seductive, red-lipped ingénue, essentially lied from an amalgamation of vamp Pinterest boards — is best enacted as a self-aware subverted performance and not a marketing strategy.
I love Lana del Rey as much as the next Tumblr-expat, but I also think what makes her music so electric is her self-aware vulnerability. She’s thinking and acting against her own best interests; she’s playing out self-destructive spirals, but fuck it, she loves him. You may think I’m asking too much of a cosmetic product, but the culture of self-described “empowerment” surrounding Lost Cherry and other fruity-sweet ultra-femme contemporaries does none of this. It is not performative, it merely performs. Something like Mugler’s Angel, widely considered the first gourmand perfume, was so glorious precisely because it was so vulgar and controversial. Some men drooled for it, but just as many loathed it. It was regarded as both chic and trashy, sexually ambiguous, alluring, and ostentatious. In my humble opinion, there are two ways to interrupt the very real modern cultural tradition of men wanting women to smell like food so they can better be consumed: either cut your dessert with something sophisticated and off-putting or dial the saccharine indulgence up to eleven. Part of me wants Lost Cherry to tone it down, and another wishes it would have gone all the way.
Where it presently stands, however, feels halfway between pruning oneself for male fantasy, and searching for something perfectly mediocre in your own right. My wish may be unreasonable, but I one day hope to see women justify spending entirely too much on sweet perfume for its own sake. Maybe this is how you feel about your decision to wear Lost Cherry, and that is perfectly fine. Wear it to your heart's content. I just hope that one day, we can decide on figureheads for the neo-gourmand fourth-wave feminist revolution that smell a little less like plastic on accident, and a little more like plastic on purpose. 🌀