Sometimes, when I’m feeling stressed, I go to Century 21. The department store is an international tourist destination that also buzzes with local Hasidic and Russian women in a bizarre old-world meeting of the shoppers. There are so many people, so many discounted luxury goods to peruse. And yet, despite the sardine-packed space, there is something calming about its beauty counters—especially the scents. Even if I’m not buying anything, spending time amongst the varied crystal bottles, baby cumulus-cloud cotton balls, the fingerprint-free cases, and heavenly smells can be therapeutic.
The other week, I slumped around the makeup counters and stopped at Clinique. I have always appreciated the brand’s razor-sharp designs and calm colors; containers filled with creams and liquids of pale peaches or yolk yellows. On a display stand next to the makeup counter were three tiny bottles of Clinique perfumes, the size of alcohol nips. I picked up Clinique Happy first.
Clinique Happy, or rather, simply Happy, enters a person’s senses like the dew that rises from an orange peel that was just torn from the fruit. The smell has a pick-me-up power that seems like it could wake someone up from even their most exhausted stupor. The bottle is shaped like a tall oval with a metal cap a fourth its size, like a utopian skyscraper; a sort of blemish-free afterworld where everyone lives in white spaces with a white vase of just-picked flowers next to their made bed. The bottle’s glass is clear but slightly magnified so the thin tube is enlarged; it curves like a slender hip from its spout to its bottom. Happy doesn’t spray, it mists.
Science has long connected scent with memories and emotion. Within the brain’s olfactory cortex, which processes smells, there is the almond-shaped amygdala, which controls the functions of both emotions and memory. The olfactory cortex is also connected to the hippocampus, a warped wishbone lookalike, which is responsible for our learning habits and emotions. So it follows that a smell can easily put someone at ease in a stressful situation, or trigger déjà vu.
If you’re me at the Clinique counter, that means being transported to a moment at nine years old. I’m driving around with my mother in the midst of her divorce to my father. Just an hour ago, she discovered that she had accidentally left an iron on and it burned a hole in our apartment’s living room rug. Her muffler is dragging. Madonna’s “Take a Bow” is playing on the radio. Woe is us. But she is wearing Happy. When she turns the steering wheel, that rise-and-shine scent drifts from her wrists. When I smell it, it reminds me of a garden she once had when I was a toddler. It reminds me of the large house that came with the garden. For a moment, things don’t seem so bad. Maybe, even if it is for a second in between a second, we are happy. A few years later, when I enter high school, I also wear Clinique Happy.
Clinique Happy smells different from my other perfumes. My maraschino-cherry-red square Gucci Rush bottle takes me back to my college days clubbing in Russia, inhaling a pack of cigarettes and hailing gypsy cabs when the sun comes up. My Tom Ford Black Orchid is that same sleepless schedule but in New York, and maybe more erotic (Ford noted the velvet concoction was meant to smell like a man’s crotch). These are my all-consuming scents: heavy, overpowering. They stay on my clothes the day after and are tangled in my hair. But Clinique Happy is not for noxious, crazed nights. The scent lifts me up. Its crisp effect was so powerful that, after coming across it at Century 21, I once again want to wear it, 15 years later. I leave with a 1.4-ounce bottle of clear, thin liquid. I keep the orange box that it comes in.
It’s no wonder I came back to Clinique Happy. According to Matthew Frost, global account director at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) of Estée Lauder, Happy is still one of the company’s best-selling perfumes. It was made to last, and it’s remained legendary around the Lauder offices since its inception in 1997. Then, the smell was a 180-degree change from the soaked scents of the ’80s, which were about “big, bold, seductive florals that were very much known as the shoulder pads of a suit, in which a fragrance would enter the room before the woman,” says Frost. Clinique’s pleasantly hoppy scent was also a detour from the overcast grunge that took over in the early and mid-’90s.
The scent is based on three floral foundations: ruby red grapefruit, bergamot, and spring mimosa, all of which play off of one another “in a kaleidoscopic fashion,” says Frost. In its development, Estée Lauder was the first to use “mood mapping,” a testing process in which a panelist is asked to smell an aroma and then match it with an emotion. Funny enough, the name “Happy” was heavily under wraps, but when testers were asked how the scent made them feel, many of them answered that it made them, yes, “happy.” In a Vogue article by Charles Gandee from the September 1997 issue, Clinique’s marketing department described the smell as a “clean, vibrant, fresh, modern, comfortable-to-wear-but-not too-casual floral scent with a citrus note.” Whatever it was, the smell struck a chord.
It took the company 111 tests to create what Happy is now, and yet, there is that simple name. In a 1997 New York Times article introducing the scent, Stuart Elliot opens the piece by wondering: “Is Happy a dopey idea for a fragrance or are critics just being grumpy?” The all-encompassing name was thought up by Clinique’s senior vice president Jim Nevins, who was watching an A&E biography about Judy Garland. It included a clip of the actor singing “Get Happy.” While the name had been harshly critiqued by outlets including The Village Voice, Nevins defended it. “But Happy has an intellectual idea: happiness is the one emotion with the widest range. A happy person is probably the sexiest person. And you don’t have to be in Tahiti or live on Fifth Avenue to be Happy.” The Times story further delves into how Clinique’s launch of this perfume would be a bold, risky move: a reported $15 million dollar launch with timeless ads shot by a big-name photographer. There would even be commercials, in which Judy Garland’s tune “Get Happy” would play in the background.
Even if you’ve never smelled Clinique Happy, you will at least remember the ads. The company tapped Steven Meisel to shoot the models—17 of them, to be exact—including a young Karen Elson alongside the main face, Kylie Bax. According to Gandee’s ’97 Vogue article, the models played like children on set, galloping and tousling each other’s hair, while Meisel shouted “happy” over and over again. There is a shot of Bax with her neck tilted back, her eyes closed, flashing an optic-white smile, as if she was caught in a laugh. It was a far cry from the slouchy-cool attitude of a boob-less Kate Moss for the unisex CK One campaign, nor was it the hypnotic come-hither image of Milla Jovovich drenched in red for Dior’s Obsession. Instead, the imagery was inspired by a Vogue editorial from September 1993, also shot by Meisel, which featured a euphoric in-love series of then-couple Kyle MacLachlan and Linda Evangelista. In the images, the two embrace and kiss in cable-knit sweaters. Buying Clinique Happy was to be the laugh of a wildly free 20-year-old model or the eye-locking moment between MacLachlan and Evangelista. It was swiping a credit card for that feeling. Dan Brestle, Clinique’s president at the time, called it “an emotional purchase.”
Before I leave Century 21 and before I buy anything, I spray a Clinique Happy sample onto my wrists. I remember when I used to rub the perfume’s scented tear-outs from magazines on my neck. I remember my mother cutting up a fat orange for me. How fresh! How happy. Who doesn’t want to be happy? And if you can bottle it up? Even better. I’ll buy it. Fifteen years later, I’d sure reapply it too.
Originally Appeared on Vogue