Smells Like Teen Spirit: The Tempting Nostalgia of a 90s-Era Perfume

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If ever there was time for nostalgia, it’s 2020. The year that brought us social distancing, Zoom fatigue, and doom scrolling has left many feeling out of sorts. As much as we’re all trying to adjust to the new normal, it’s comforting to think back to a time before every hug came with added worries and the concept of travel wasn’t reserved for daydreams. Everyone tackles their longing for the past differently. Some people reconnect with old friends; others rewatch favorite sitcom episodes until they can recite the dialogue; I sift through drawers and scour the internet searching for old perfume.

Ever since New York’s stay in place order began in March, my head has been filled with thoughts of fragrances past. I’ve always loved perfume, but under ordinary circumstances, I’m focused on what’s new, discovering a line I’d never heard of or the latest release from a beloved perfumer. Now my preoccupation is odor-evoked memories distinctly from the 90s and early 00s. Growing up during the Clinton administration and obsessively interested in fashion and beauty, I followed launches and kept up with what were, to my mind, revolutionary trends. The moment I catch a whiff of citrus, I’m reminded of CK One, Calvin Klein’s unisex juggernaut, which was released in 1994 and immediately challenged old ideas about gender and grooming. I can still recall the double-page ads that featured it-models like Kate Moss and Jenny Schmizu in gritty shades of grey and the scented strips I’d tear from magazines and rub into my wrists until the paper crumbled.

Amongst my friends, the vibe was considerably girlier. I still have flashbacks to the sugary pungency of the Victoria’s Secret body sprays we collectively hoarded in junior high. The dollars we diligently saved from our allowances were blown in a frenzied haze of fruity floral, but the thrill of walking out of the VS store with our pink and white striped bags felt liberating, like in that moment we were adults. Likewise, the candied depth—and cutesy bottle—of Thierry Mugler’s Angel was an almost unattainable goal. Released in 1992, the scent was the first gourmand or foodie fragrance to hit the market. A luxury item and the kind of enveloping, sexy concoction that few parents at that time would feel comfortable purchasing for their preteen, we sniffed its vanilla and patchouli aroma repeatedly on mall testers, dreaming of the moment we’d be sophisticated enough to wear it.

Fragrance loyalty is a concept I’ve yet to embrace, so there were dozens of scents that made their way onto my radar during my youth; each came with its own memory. Freshman year of high school meant loving the chypre sparkle of Chanel’s Cristalle only to switch to Armani’s peony and pineapple-laced Acqua di Gio. I discovered Madonna wore Robert Piguet’s classic, Fracas, and promptly doused myself in tuberose. Even my classmates’ preferences stick in my mind; I will never think of Estee Lauder’s Pleasures without smiling to myself about my close friend Rocio and the cloud of white lilies that accompanied them wherever they went.

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