In the digital age, a sense of smell affirms our sense of self.
The air is starting to smell like smoking someone else’s cigarettes on someone else’s balcony wearing someone else’s coat you found on someone else’s bedroom floor. It’s not just the dead leaves signaling a new era –– something else is hanging in the cold, late fall air. While it beckons us back into old habits, it also ushers in Margiela Jazz Club, Le Labo Santal 33, and Diptyque Tam Dao. Retired are notes of bergamot and fresh linen. Reinstated are notes of cardamom and cedar.
Seasons come, seasons go. As the leaves turn to snow and we begin to analyze the ebb and flow of the past year’s cultural trends, a certain phenomenon seems to have truly permeated our spaces. 2023 has been marked by a fragrance frenzy. Suddenly, our online platforms have become saturated with fragrance content, from scentfluencers to #SOTD Fragrantica screenshots. Everyone has been talking and writing about perfume lately — but why?
Well, something else has cemented its place in our lives this year. Something that cannot be contained by seasonal trend cycles or a 2ml sample vial. No hashtag is needed to know that the year has also been marked by an intense influx of artificial intelligence and technological developments. Try as we might to go against the current, it’s been inescapable in media, conversations, and job descriptions. It feels like every tech advancement thus far has culminated in 2023.
Yet so has pushback against it. AI was a central issue in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and remains one for many whose professions are threatened to be devalued by ChatGPT and image generator tools. But as algorithms and language models slowly chip away at our sense of self, it’s only natural that we seek to reaffirm our individuality outside of digital spaces. In 2023, we seem to be getting this fulfillment from fragrance –– the final frontier left mostly untouched by online optimization. This year’s perfume obsession is our way of coping with a technology takeover.
Participating in this obsession means more than simply wearing perfume. It’s an immersive practice. With all of our interactions becoming increasingly digitized, it’s special to be able to engage with something that can truly only be experienced in the flesh. You can imagine what a perfume smells like through its Fragrantica notes, but you’ll never really know until you live through it lingering on a lover’s pillow, recognize it as you enter your best friend’s apartment, or catch a whiff as you put on that coat found on the bedroom floor of some party.
Just as the scent you’re wearing says something about your identity, knowing scents on others defines you as someone making a conscious effort to be terminally alive rather than terminally online.
And for a plethora of creatives who spent the year wondering whether their jobs will be replaced by AI, being able to detect the scent of Baccarat Rouge or Byredo Bibliotheque or something-by -Tom-Ford-but-you-forget-the-name-again affirms something slowly being taken away from us. It’s an indicator of skill and status. The status of a human, alive and engaging with the real world. The skill still yet to be taught to technology (as far as I know).
Picking up or passing judgment on these scents –– as they breeze past on the street, as they fill an office elevator, as they mingle with every other odor in a crowded bar –– can affirm as much for the detector as the wearer. Even though we are mostly witnessing this fragrance frenzy unfold online, the gratification of being in-the-know can only come IRL. Just as the scent you’re wearing says something about your identity, knowing scents on others defines you as someone making a conscious effort to be terminally alive rather than terminally online.
So what does your fragrance of choice say about you? There is plenty of TikTok content that will try to tell you. But no matter what you choose to wear as your signature scent or scent of the day, one thing seems especially important during this perfume renaissance: not smelling like anyone else.
Maybe you pair something earthy and animalistic with attending a DIY noise show. Maybe you pair metallic and mineral notes with showing up late to your friend’s vernissage and missing the free wine. Maybe, alone in your room, you put on a delicate floral perfume that was just released last week while looking it up on Fragrantica. In the community of those preoccupied with perfume, niche scents act as proof of individuality, further proving how closely we cling to fragrance as a marker of identity.
Oh, what would we do without those square tiles of stock images representing top, middle, and bottom notes? A perfectly sliced lime. A bright blue crashing wave representing sea notes. A line of brown smoke against a white background representing incense. Often, posters of Fragrantica screenshots won’t even include the name of the fragrance, just the note tiles. You could think of it as gatekeep-y. But really, in a world where every text message, purchase, and location is mined for data, there’s something rebellious about only defining yourself with an outdated website’s impression of aromas. It’s organic. It’s self-preservation. It’s mysterious. Isn’t the allure of fragrance, after all, the way it captures the ineffable?
The perfume renaissance has brought together those who think so. Some of us, though, go a step further in our quest to counteract the issue of identity in the digital age, with scents explicitly inspired by decades past. Plus, if an interest in fragrance does indicate a nostalgic longing for life before iPhones and SEO, then indie perfumers are definitely on the scent.
Known for a collection of perfume that captures Los Angeles in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Thin Wild Mercury has built an entire brand identity inspired by the era’s bohemian bliss. The perfumes are aptly named for vessels of cultural iconography, like the Chateau Marmont or Laurel Canyon –– where wearers probably imagine themselves residing in a past life.
They just released a second fragrance collection, this time evoking the vintage vagabonds of New York City, from the Beat Generation to Edie Sedgwick. With notes so carefully crafted to invoke generations gone by, their “fine fragrances steeped in nostalgia” allow the wearer –– and anyone who crosses their path –– to see an LED-lit world through sepia-toned sunglasses.
Meanwhile, NYC-based perfumer Marissa Zappas creates nostalgic yet avant-garde perfumes that aim to blur the line between fantasy and modern reality. Look no further than her latest perfume, Maggie the Cat is Alive, I’m Alive! inspired by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — a personality worth channeling.
This fall, Marissa hosted an event that combined literary readings with perfumes of the past. “An Evening of Scented Readings” featured a host of writers who read pieces inspired by a vintage fragrance as a blotter of the scent was passed around the room. Fitting, as she believes that “perfume –– both creating and wearing it –– conjures our past, present, and future selves.” Her poetically evocative scents go to show that you don’t have to long for another era…you can just summon it, if you so choose to.
In a world divided by the digital and the tangible, scent is neither. It transcends both and leaves us with a way to define ourselves that cannot truly be captured, not in the physical realm nor by Location Services. It can only exist in fleeting moments, in shared memories, in the things we can’t put into words. Some leave behind the sillage of their token Margiela perfume, others, the latest indie darling of #PerfumeTok. Either way, the converging trends of heightened artificial intelligence and perfume obsession in 2023 cannot be a coincidence. There is no cache –– fragrance sets us free.
In June, SSENSE announced the launch of an AI-based personal styling chatbot. Six months later, it seems to have disappeared from their site. Let us remain optimistic, earthly daydreamers. Perhaps disdain for artificial intelligence is catching on quicker than we thought — we who know the value of human-generated content, human interaction, and a unique signature scent. 🌀