Friday, November 7, 2014

Perfume of Contempt: Clinique Aromatics Elixir

How does a man go from proclaiming a fragrance to be his favorite, his life essence, for years depleting large bottles with alarming frequency, to a total purge and bitter dismissal of it? Aromatics and I had a torrid Last Tango in Paris love affair, if you could call it love. This is the story of my sadomasochistic obsession with her.

I purchased my first bottle of Aromatics Elixir from Sephora in 2008, along with my first bottle of Angel, another Perfume of Contempt that has since distanced itself from me with reformulation. Aromatics had gotten my attention because my friend Monica told me it smelled like dirty pussy.  After one sniff of the tester bottle, which gave the impression of patchouli and vinegar, I purchased 100 Ml and took it out to the car, where I sprayed a bunch on my arm. If you think the current stuff is strong, you should smell what it used to be like. It famously comes out of the bottle with a disturbing and addictive vinegar astringence that immediately renders you unable to smell it or anything else. 

There is a massive sour, soapy floral accord with jasmine, rose, and all the usual players petrified in a highly synthetic aldehydic chemical spill that prevents it from ever smelling natural. The chypre base smells how all the Estee Lauders used to smell when they had access to as much oakmoss as they wanted, with a distinctive dry, powdery "Lauderaide" that ran through all of them from Youth-Dew to Knowing but with a pronounced marijuana effect. Aromatics has a gorgeous, rich patchouli, which is the only thing that smells natural in this perfume that ironically was marketed to appeal to the first wave of hippies clamoring for "green" products.

Estee Lauder created Clinique as the 70s-spirited "natural" branch of her cosmetics empire. Its phony Francophile name, like the pseudonym Josephine Esther Mentzer gave herself, was conjured for a sense of European glamour and authority. The employees were made to wear white lab coats in a  charade of medical seriousness. Pristine still-life photographs by Irving Penn were used as advertisements and solidified the chic minimalism of the products. The products themselves were hyped for their lack of fragrances and suitability for allergic people. It's a lovely irony, then, that Clinique launched as its flagship one of the strongest perfumes of all time, which has a reputation for inducing severe allergic reactions in the perfume sensitive.

Aromatics (the "Elixir" part of its name was added later) was marketed as an early form of aromatherapy and capitalized on the hippie fashion for single-note oils of patchouli and musk. Its first print ads were psychedelic sketches of a Cher "Half Breed" type in solitary D.H. Lawrence communion with nature, a  popular 70s aesthetic that was also used for Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo and Eve cigarettes. Aveda, also launched in the 70s and later purchased by Lauder, appealed to a similar demographic, and is known for its products' distinctive Aromatics-like essential oil fragrances. A diluted companion cologne for men, Aramis 900, was released soon after. Customers have always complained about how strong Aromatics, sold only in a bluntly named, skunky "Perfume Spray" concentration, is, so Clinique salespeople were told to tell people it was meant to be sprayed and walked through, a method still proselytized by flibbertigibbets who are frightened of being noticed for their fragrance. 

My first real experience actually  wearing Aromatics was in a film editing class at community college that took place in a small computer lab. I used about ten sprays of it, that was just the way I did things then. The nebbish professor looked sick mid-lecture and excused himself to go out to the hall. A Perfume of Contempt had been born. During my four or five years wearing Aromatics I got many compliments, mostly from those who liked patchouli, incense, and pot. After my first bottle there was a big change, and I began hearing comments about bug spray. Because of the reduced presence of oakmoss or the replacement of treemoss or whatever they did to it, it never entirely settled on skin, just got sourer and sourer.

I told myself that it was still great, but I was in denial. I also steadfastly denied that it gave me a dull throbbing headache, even when worn in minuscule amounts, for years. Monica said that the original Herbal Essence shampoo, with its nefarious cocktail of chemicals masquerading as Garden of Eden naturalness, would strip your hair down to a straw-like texture, and it felt like Aromatics was doing this to my mind. Nonetheless, I went through four large bottles of it in as many years, two pots of body cream, one tube of lotion, one tube of body wash, one solid perfume, and three candles. My self-image was deeply entwined with Aromatics and its 70s strangeness. One of my crowning achievements was when a boyfriend bought his own bottle and wore it in lament even after I had broken up with him, to the consternation of all other faggots he encountered.

Then one day I just grew out of it. I'd been wearing "old lady" perfumes that repelled men for so many years and had such a schizophrenic fragrance identity that I thought it was time to wear things that might make me more approachable and wouldn't make me feel vaguely ill. I pared down my collection to essentials and shockingly kept no Lauders, almost all of which I had owned and worn for years. I also had to finally admit that Aromatics had been destroyed by reformulation. It's still an interesting perfume and worth smelling as the most intact ghost of classical French chypre perfumery still available in department stores, despite its American origins. With the ban of essential ingredients, however, Clinique has seemingly streamlined it into a more conventional rose-patchouli accord in the Coco Mademoiselle realm while maintaining an approximation of the vinegar astringence Aromatics is known for. Like most reformulations, it just refuses to sit comfortably on skin because of its weak base notes.

Aromatics has always appealed to women who are a little off, a little different, a little perverted: art teachers, French teachers, hippies. It inspires dogmatic loyalty in its users in the way Angel does, and when you meet another Aromatics lover it's like meeting another member of your secret coven. You instantly know more about each other than many people who've known each other all their lives.

Aromatics and I learned dark things about ourselves through each other while it lasted, though. We went right up into the ass of death. She wanted to kill me by the end. She was going to shoot me, claim self-defense, and say that I'd raped her, but I got away. I have passed her on the street, but it took me a minute to realize who she was.

1 comment:

  1. Herbal Essence definitely did strip the hair but everybody loved it. It was nearly ubiquitous and can be seen in the film Where the Lillies Bloom in a key scene. It was eclipsed by Body On Tap and then Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific. Shampoo was such a huge part of the 70s.