My party trick is knowing exactly which perfume someone is wearing when they walk into a room. Le Labo's Santal 33, Yves Saint Laurent's Libre and Byredo's Mojave Ghost are all firm favourites in London circles — but these scents aren't unique to us. On a trip to New York, those bewitching, all-encompassing notes of sandalwood, mandarin and jasmine followed me consistently through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, then on to Paris soon after. It proved one thing: once a perfume achieves cult status, it's entirely unavoidable. But why do we all want to smell like clones?
In 2022, being the proud wearer of a certain perfume is akin to having the latest It bag perched on your arm. On TikTok, the hashtag for Maison Francis Kurkdjian's Baccarat Rouge 540 — dubbed the "rich girl perfume" by countless TikTokers — has amassed an enormous 103.6 million views and counting. TikTokers are even dreaming up romantic narratives for the scent.
"Imagine you're in a penthouse apartment in New York City," said Tayla Maree in a video that racked up 2.4 million views. "You've just come from a black tie ball, wearing a backless dress and the love of your life starts kissing you on the neck. It smells like sex. It's so incredibly sexy to me. I'd rather bankrupt myself than not smell like this."
The app also boasts countless reviews for Frederic Malle's Portrait of a Lady, Tom Ford's Neroli Portofino, Maison Crivelli's Hibiscus Mahajad, Parfums de Marly's Delina — all fragrances that cost hundreds of dollars.
@taylamaaree #stitch with @hannah_ledesma_ genuinely the best perfume in the entire world #perfume #baccaratrouge540 ♬ original sound - tayla maree
Our collective obsession with these select few perfumes is no doubt rooted in our desire after two far-from-luxurious pandemic years. Aside from these perfumes' prices and Instagram-worthy bottles, the various notes are positively opulent. Think all-encompassing saffron (notoriously costly), sweet and musky ambergris (famously difficult to come by) and highly popular sandalwood — creamy, woody and rich. Why wouldn't we want to treat ourselves? The past few years have been nothing short of deflating, as fragrance writer and expert Alice Du Parcq explains.
Buying the same fragrances says, 'Yes, I am smelling like every other hot shot in town, but it's gorgeous and I'm going to dance with the herd, because it's a safe space of joy and togetherness.'
Alice du Parcq
"The pandemic robbed us of so much cultural joy — so many artistic and inspiring experiences and so much sensorial glamour," she says. "But inside a bottle of perfume is liquid art, and a doorway to feel something emotional that has helped to pull us out of our work from home, homeschooling and leisurewear coma."
Du Parcq believes this is why perfume sales shot through the roof recently. According to Beauty Matter, lots more of us have spent money on fragrance — it seems we were longing for a small piece of luxury in dampening times. Endlessly popular perfumes by brands like Byredo, Le Labo and YSL certainly fit the bill. Du Parcq continues, "We had time — and possibly more cash, given no one was eating out or travelling — to explore fragrance, not to mention a desire to invest in something special and meaningful." These popular fragrances are all eau de parfum, too — concentrated, long lasting and as a result, expensive.
Though a limited few might've been able to actually catch a whiff of whatever we were wearing, on daily walks or trips to the grocery store, perfume still held value for some people. Rachel Herz, PhD, is Brown University adjunct professor and neuroscientist who specialises in the psychological science of smell. She recently told R29 that fragrance and mood are connected, and that scent can immediately trigger emotions and memories, evoking things like positive experiences and loved ones. For others, there might not have been much reason to wear perfume during the darkest days of the pandemic, but with the world opening back up again, it's clear we're gravitating back to scent in droves — a select few luxe versions in particular. Coty pinpointed the TikTok-famous Gucci Flora and equally beloved and luxurious Burberry Her (made by perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, the mastermind behind Baccarat Rouge) as recent winners. Like the latest trending accessory, these fragrances convey status. While isolation may still feel very raw, the new opportunity we have to saunter around in a plume of these commanding scents says, "I have arrived."
Matthew Herman, co-founder of fragrance brand Boy Smells, reports that personal fragrance is becoming increasingly popular as we "re-enter the world."
"The great thing about perfume is that it elevates your self-perception. It is the scent equivalent of rose-coloured glasses and travels with you like a luxurious bubble, adding extra shine to your sense of self." When Herman falls in love with a scent, it is because he sees himself in it. "Scent pulls from your memories and experiences, reflecting different parts of your personality. In that way, it can open new ways of seeing yourself and expresses that back into the world. We come from various traditions or cultures, but have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves in the now."
Having been isolated for so long, it's no wonder we're using these bold and confident perfumes to announce our comeback. In a viral video, TikToker Emma, aka @perfumerism, put it plainly: "To all of the girls who have been collecting perfume since lockdown, I can't even tell you how excited I am to wear perfume to events. I smell too good to stay at home," she said. The aforementioned Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Perfums De Marly could be spotted in the background of her video.
Le Labo and Byredo give the illusion of being artisanal — and we're buying into the notion of being an 'insider'. To be in-the-know holds a certain power.
Head to TikTok and you'll see content creators dedicating entire videos to these cult perfumes, dissecting every note in order to decipher why everyone loves them. In a lot of these clips, the theme is similar: aspiration. Of Santal 33, TikToker @hebesy says, "I think it smells like an expensive New York Hotel. A velvety woody beast that you have to dress well to pull off." @justderose's thoughts on Byredo's Gypsy Water are similar: "Your coolness factor just went up tenfold," she tells her thousands of viewers considering the purchase, while TikToker @perfumejoy likens wearing YSL's Libre to balmy Parisian nights, wearing heaps of gold jewellery and drinking crisp champagne. Of YSL's Libre, commenters agree: "Best smell ever. Everyone asks me which perfume this is."
As for the likes of stripped-back and minimal Le Labo and Byredo, Ren Reynolds, aka The Fragrance Nerd on TikTok, believes that they give the illusion of being artisanal — and fans buy into the notion of being an 'insider'.
"Certainly, if we look at the history of Santal 33 and Gypsy Water, they had a niche-to-mini-mainstream phase relatively soon after release," says Reynolds, hinting that to be in-the-know holds a certain power.
@perfumejoy What perfume do you want to see next? #perfume #aesthetic #glam #ysllibre ♬ inhale exhale wild side. - nia
Perhaps the most poignant reason why we're gravitating to the same fragrances is our intrinsic need for community — to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. It makes sense. Pandemic isolation cut us off from friends, family and work colleagues, making plenty of us question our identity. From Animal Crossing to Zoom quizzes, it was comforting to bond over a handful of shared interests — perfume included. Du Parcq explains that buying into the most predictable fragrance frenzies came to feel like an empowering act.
"There was a communal fuck it vibe, particularly during the second lockdown, because life was pretty damn depressing, scary and dispiriting. Buying the same fragrances says, 'Yes, I am smelling like every other hot shot in town, but you know what? It's gorgeous and I'm going to dance with the herd because it's a safe space of joy and togetherness.'" Du Parcq adds that wearing something popular creates "easy and joyous" connections between people. "Quite frankly, in these current times, easy and joyous is what everyone craves. There's a desire to invest in something special and meaningful that draws us closer to each other."
Reynolds adds that perfume acts as a community signifier and an in-group maker. "It's interesting that a person has to be quite close to appreciate the scent," he says, "so it may be that this relates back to more socially non-distanced times," evoking memories of intimacy and friendship. While Herman believes that many things can contribute to a perfume's popularity, he corroborates that more than anything, the scent has to capture your sense of identity. "This undeniably draws you in. The best scents usually have something familiar to them as well as something altogether unexpected and this is a mirror to life."
The likes of Le Labo and Byredo will no doubt always reign supreme in fragrance circles. But there are also a handful of burgeoning brands vying for a space atop your dresser and are on course to become the next cult classics.
Merging traditional Scandinavian self-care rituals with the trend for contemporary living is Colekt. The gender neutral collection only consists of three perfumes — or cologne concentrées as the brand calls them — yet it is slowly but surely gaining a cult following, not least for the Instagram-worthy frosted bottles. Void, €230, is green and sprightly thanks to basil, mint, citrus and dry wood, while La Chambre, €250, features notes of zippy pink pepper, creamy orris butter and earthy oak moss that are comforting and clean.
Then there's DS Durga. Though already stocked at luxury department stores like Nordstrom in the US and Liberty London in the UK, the brand is still under-the-radar enough to garner inquisitive attention from passersby. With fragrances named Burning Barbershop and Cowboy Grass (both evoking curious tales of yesteryear) not to mention the unexpected I Don't Know What (a fragrance enhancer that has that je ne sais quoi, of course), the brand combines vivid storytelling with distinct aromas.
If you're after something more affordable, Zara's Cities collection (created by the best nose in the business, Jo Malone) is filled to bursting with future cult fragrances that are impressively long-lasting and luxe, but won't break the bank.
And we can't forget Boy Smells. Though Suede Pony and Flor de la Virgen are arguably the brand's most popular scents among perfume lovers, Herman champions Rose Load Eau de Parfum 65ml, $98, as an unsung hero in the ever-growing collection. "This is one scent everyone should allow themselves to try," he tells R29. "It's the most indulgent, gushing version of rose, woods, and spice. Raspberry blossom and rhubarb attach themselves to the rose in a way that expresses the flower in a wholly new way that is highly vibrant, and I love that. It's 100% not your grandmother's rose."
With the notion of smell linked so closely to identity, our frame of mind and the way we interact with each other, it is clear that perfume goes so much deeper than an evaporating spritz. The next time you find yourself perusing the expertly curated perfume department at your local store, remember that there isn't anything lame about following the crowd. Du Parcq has the last word: "When it comes those blockbusters like Baccarat Rouge 540 and Le Labo Santal 33, if you've been pining after them, seen them on social media or you're simply curious about all the fuss, then what better time to blow your paycheck?"
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