The signature scent may be the last grand gesture of personal grooming. After all, smelling not simply good but evocative, lovely, woodsy, seductive, terrific—with notes of anise and an underbelly of sage plucked from a heaving English garden bed!—might delight the wearer and those in her immediate circle, but its magic can't be captured in a photograph. If all this painterly application of beautiful creams and gels, of bold lips and dewy cheek color, and of body oils that make us glisten like diamanté-studded mermaids makes us feel good, it must also be noted that it is a little selfie-centered. Attention to our outer beauty can bring a certain inner peace, but scent is the one category of beauty that remains staunchly averse to the digital world: you can't smell an Instagram (yet!).
So like handwritten letters, telephone calls, and thrilling your besotted public in a neon velour zip-front hoodie with matching bedazzled sweatpants, the signature scent has a bygone, dangerous appeal. It's an indulgent holdover from a previous world—and therefore more worth it than ever!
We begin as Walter Benjamin—a man whose love for sprawling expanses of shopping centers has been matched only by Fetty Wap's—would want us to: in the department store! But before you descend into the basement beauty dungeon, think. You want to buy you, bottled. But who are you? Oh my God, this is a column about lipsticks and Clinique Happy, so instead, let's close our eyes and imagine a personal paradise. Is it a shaded grove in a forest in Loiret? Are you listening to SZA in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or, ah, yes: you're reading Eve Babitz in Diane Keaton's house in Something's Gotta Give? Inhale! Is that the woody smell of an old book, mixed with the lemony sugar of something Frances McDormand is baking in the oven and an afterthought of Jack Nicholson's Old Spice? I think it is!
Now to the testing grounds! Don't let yourself get spritzed, literally or figuratively: you are in control. Try everything, and BYO coffee beans to cleanse the nose, because you mean business and that means the sweet smell of success. Anything can draw you in—scent is about intuition, so follow your spirit. (I found my perfume—Roja Dove Lily!—a few years ago because a coiffed-beyond-coiffed salesman in velvet slippers spritzed it on a little piece of milky cardboard and cooed, "There are fewer certified perfumers in the world than there are people who have been to outer space!" Now I think about defying gravity every time I get dressed!)
But no matter how enrapturing or expensive, perfume is no genie in a bottle. Just spritzing yourself with eau d'you will merely make you a cog in the olfactory factory. Take a moment to think about women who smell truly good. It isn't simply a perfume that brings them to life: it's a nip of moisturizer, a puff of Oribe product in the hair, and often, something a little rancorous, like a Marlboro Light or a spike of something chemical from a fresh coat of nail polish. As Killer Mike of Run the Jewels raps in "All My Life": "Fuck the boss, I'm the goddamn owner / And I smell like YSL and marijuana." He smells like the owner, not merely the boss, because he doesn't just spritz on YSL and call it a day. A signature scent is about the mix of olfactory moments, blended into one signature experience that represents your aspirations (YSL!) and your lifestyle (marijuana!), the places you've been and where you're headed next.
Think of everything you use that could possibly have a scent and then get cooking. Might your drugstore-bought Aveeno chamomile body wash play well with the kind of weird lavender mints fetishized by Dickensian ingénues and sold at an old-timey candy store near you? Or is it better with the cloying thrill of a pink cud of Bubblicious? And old utilitarian sunscreen, which I hear is good for you or whatever, may perhaps conjure a lovely beachside reverie from the days when N*Sync seemed unconquerable (Do you ever wonder why??? This music gets you high???). If that's too quotidian, dip into the marvelous world of hair perfumes—and throw a patchouli sachet in your underwear drawer, like your bras just got back from a Dave Matthews Band concert!
What about deodorant? Could a classic stick of Secret be the secret to walking into any party like you're walking onto a yacht? Or is Acqua di Parma more your cruise ship's speed? Just as none of us are one static set of characteristics, so we are a bouquet of scents: we put on Margiela Lazy Sunday Morning after soaking in Mariah Carey's Luscious Pink Body Wash; we stuff rotisserie chickens with rosemary while we chew on cinnamon toothpicks.
And here's where it really gets nuts—(which, by the way, have you ever thought about smelling like warm nuts?)—it doesn't even have to smell good! I coat my hair, which I bleach to a Palm Beach Crash Helmet White, with an arsenal of purple conditioners and shampoos whose smells are about as enticing as a room-temperature dinner roll. But mixed with my astronaut perfume, my Old Spice Swagger, and my special summer addition, Trident Tropical Twist Gum? Well, it's eau de it me.
Rachel Seville Tashjian lives in Soho.