Scents and Sensibility


It has lately come to the attention of this column that the esteemed house of Van Cleef and Arpels is launching a men’s fragrance named Tsar. Curious as to how exactly this scent will evoke those dunderheaded and rapacious Russian regimes, we checked the Van Cleef website, which did not in fact confirm our suspicion that the stuff smells like serf’s blood, but instead said that it is redolent of lavender and bergamot.

But it got us thinking—if there’s a cologne called Tsar, what other noxiously named perfumes are out there? So we took a trip to Sephora, where a vast landscape of fragrances is laid out in alphabetical order, and though we didn’t find Oppression next to Obsession, we did observe the following trends:

1. Drug use retains its deep, immutable allure: Dior is in the lead here, with Addict ($52) and something called Hypnotic Poison ($42), and of course YSL still peddles Opium ($44). Jil Sander, who recently made up with her ex-bosses at Prada and is returning to design her eponymous line, offers, for $42, the rather vaguer satisfactions of Sensations. (Prada has a cosmetics line, too, with its own disagreeable conceit—the items are packaged to look like medical supplies, for those who find a hospital-detox ward seductive.) By the way, no one makes anything called Rehab, Recovery, Intervention, or 12 Step. (Please note: Most scents come in varying degrees of intensity; all prices quoted are for the weakest, and therefore cheapest, formulations.)

2. Nothing beats a decent address: Hermès thinks you should live at 24, Faubourg, which is in YSL’s Paris ($42) but not on YSL’s Rive Gauche ($40). Escada has something called Ibiza Hippie ($38), for libertines who are sick of patchouli; Giorgio (not Armani) has a product named after that refuge for bourgeois parvenus, Beverly Hills ($49); Ralph Lauren, who is from the Bronx, offers, among other monikers, Glamourous, ($55) its British spelling presumably meant to evoke the King’s Road rather than the Grand Concourse. As for Carolina Herrera, her signature smell is 212 ($40), with no apologies to 646ers forthcoming.

3. Perfume is not really about smelling nice for other people in the elevator, it’s about sex: Jean Paul Gaultier has even shaped his bottles like torsos—the women’s version sports a voluptuous poitrine and shadowy garters ($58); the men’s has pecs covered by a Fire Island-ready striped sailor shirt ($65). Vivienne Westwood, whose son owns Agent Provocateur, the naughty underwear store a block from Sephora on Mercer Street, gives us Boudoir ($50); Lancôme has not just O (as in Story of?) for $43 but Oui! (as in Molly Bloom?) for $55. YSL offers Nu ($55), which at first blush seems like something that wandered in off the stage of the Yiddish theater but actually is meant to suggest that you have no clothes on. At Versace, no surprise, there are twin scents called Time for Pleasure, for women, and Time for Action, for men (each $38), which tells you perhaps a little more than you wanted to know about Donatella’s view of human sexuality.

4. Europeans seem to make a much bigger fuss over this naming business than we do: Stateside designers are frequently content to just stick their own names on their bottles. There’s the unadorned Kate Spade ($58) and Marc Jacobs ($46); others are so confident they offer given names only, among them Ralph ($40), Oscar ($46), and the far less familiar Michael, as in Kors ($50). For some unknown reason, Anna Sui, who has products called Sui Dreams ($48) and Sui Love ($28), has resisted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to christen a fragrance Sui Generis.

But are these names, reeking of heat and hallucinogens, really getting consumers to loosen those purse strings? We did a little research into what the top-selling smellers for women 18 to 34 are, and here is what we found out. Number three is the scent that took the olfactory universe by storm when it was introduced a decade ago: Calvin Klein’s ubiquitous CK One ($38). Number two has a handle that combines cloying innocence with straightforward condescension: Mr. Hilfiger’s Tommy Girl ($37). And the number one fragrance for women who are 18 to 34? The answer should surprise no one in hard times like these: It is by Clinique, and it makes no claim that you will live at the Ritz or enjoy a three-way or wallow in a heroin stupor: It costs $36.50 and is called simply Happy.