Make your home smell like a vintage car with the ‘85 Diesel candle. (Photo: DS & Durga)
There’s a reason why scents like Marc Jacobs Daisy and Davidoff Cool Water are top sellers: They have traditional notes with mainstream appeal. But what if you like standing out? Or would prefer to smell a bit like roast beef? For that person, there is CB Beast by CB I Hate Perfume, a Brooklyn-based line of “anti-perfumes.” Christopher Brosius, the perfumer behind the cult brand, doesn’t think too highly of most fragrances today. “A lot [of fragrances] are incredibly boring, redundant certainly, and far too many are pointless,” says Brosius.
In some ways, the fragrance industry today is like the movie industry: Start with a superhero base and add notes that are dark (The Dark Knight Trilogy) or loud (Transformers: Age of Extinction). A lot of money goes into the making and marketing of big name fragrances, so brands need them to sell. But not everyone wants a blockbuster like Daisy. Some people want something unusual, like the strange, even weird scents that niche brands like CB I Hate Perfume are creating.
“I come at perfume from a different point of view,” says Brosius of the classical notion of perfume as a fashion accessory. “I’m looking to create very different experiences.” And different they are. Take In the Library, for instance: an unusual perfume that captures the smell of books in a way that will immediately connect with readers. (The secret: An “English Novel” note that Brosius had derived from a real book.) Another fragrance, Invisible Monster, finds inspiration in a specific episode of the old cartoon TV series Jonny Quest to create a scent that’s floral and earthy.
Things also get a little weird in some of the fragrances by another Brooklyn-based brand, D.S. & Durga. And like CB I Hate Perfume, experiences matter. “The transportive quality of scent is my favorite thing,” says David Moltz, who founded the line with his wife, Kavi Moltz. He adds that you can create your own world around you through fragrances.
With Cowboy Grass, that world is the Wild West. David Moltz captured the lifelike smells of tumbleweeds, saddles, and cowboys and shaped them into a fragrance that has, he admits, a bracing note to it—but, as unconventional as the scent may sound, it’s one of their bestsellers. A secondary line, HYLNDS, explores ancient Europe with unusual notes like smelted iron, lichen, and mead.
D.S. & Durga’s line also includes ’85 Diesel, a candle with notes of vinyl, violet, and diesel smoke. It not only draws on Moltz’s memory of carpooling in a 1985 Mercedes Diesel (a car he now owns), but nearly mimics it. And it’s great.
If D.S. & Durga and CB I Hate Perfume are rustic and avant garde Brooklynites, respectively, Editions de Parfums is the Minimalism-loving Upper East Sider (with a home in Paris). Something of a founding father of this trend of niche brands exploring the olfactory unusual, Frederic Malle started Editions de Parfums in 2000 to provide top perfumers with the opportunity to create exclusive fragrances that are creative rather than commercial.
Many of today’s perfumes leave him as unimpressed as Brosius. Malle says he attributes the “insignificant perfumes” of the last couple of years in part to “the fact that many traditional perfume brands have been handled by marketing staff trained to sell cat food or soap and detergents.”
His line’s perfumes often have no concrete reference point. They are, as he describes them, “unidentified objects.” Some are unusual, even beguiling like L’eau d’Hiver by Jean-Claude Ellena, which Malle describes as “transparent and warm, in a world that was either fresh and transparent, or warm and opaque.”
In a sign that the unusual may be catching on, Estee Lauder bought Editions de Parfums last year as well as Le Labo, another niche brand that specializes in the not so ordinary. In 2013, D.S. & Durga collaborated with J. Crew. And Luca Turin, a perfume expert who recently coauthored Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, notes that oud, unfamiliar to many American noses, is increasingly making its way into fragrances.
So are we ready to smell like roast beef, ancient Europe, or diesel engines? Maybe not all of us, but as Turin notes, “The new is always strange.” He adds that sometimes strange goes mainstream (as in the case of Thierry Mugler’s Angel), stands alone, or fades away. Malle echoes that notion. “I believe that something truly new in a world where everything has been tried is bound to come across as a surprise,” he says. In a fragrance world saturated by smells that are fruity, floral, and candy-like, maybe the strange and weird is just the different.