Photography courtesy of HILXIA SZABO/GALLERY STOCK
Creators are dismantling the idea that perfume is a luxury product for people with expensive tastes.
By Kelly Boutsalis
Date August 24, 2022
As an ’80s kid, I was introduced to perfume via the iconic powdery Love’s Baby Soft; the scent was everywhere — it was advertised in the teen magazines I read and worn by all my friends. But after those years, I stopped seeking out perfume in a serious way. Rather, it came to me.
Fragrance would often waft from my fashion magazines and spill out of my online beauty order packages uninvited and unsolicited, just like the perfume wielders threatening to spray me at department stores. The few times I went to purchase perfume was at those stores’ beauty counters, which I never felt wholly comfortable approaching; I was often left waiting too long for service, and I assigned this hesitancy to how I presented as a darker-skinned Mohawk woman. So those beautiful glass bottles were always in my periphery but never my destination.
When I did buy fragrance, it came from accessible spaces. I spent a regrettable amount of time tracking down Bath & Body Works holiday specials so I could purchase Winter Candy Apple-scented body lotion, fragrance mist and hand soap during sales.
Offerings from the big design houses felt too rich for my blood, too far out of my understanding. Did I like sandalwood? Or bergamot? Or none of the above? I hesitated about investing in a 100-millilitre bottle of something I wasn’t sure I would like or even wear.
Perfume felt too expensive, too hard to grasp, too white and insular, with the storied noses of fragrance rooted in specific French families. After all, this is an industry that uses “Oriental” to categorize a whole olfactory grouping. But fast-forward to today and a slow awareness of the perfume world came to me in a most unexpected place: on my For You Page on TikTok.
It was a TikTok by Tracy Wan (@invisiblestories) on four perfumes you smell frequently in Toronto. In her calm and quietly witty manner, Wan matched the fragrances to oft-seen city types, including Chloé by Chloé for “the quiet introvert with The New Yorker tote reading on the subway” and Santal 33 as the unofficial scent of the west end of Toronto. It felt like spot-on assessments from someone who is a keen observer and very knowledgeable about a specific topic (my two favourite qualities in a person).
With that one video, I wanted to know what else Wan could tell me about scents. She’s a writer and scent educator in Canada, and her bio reads “making scent and perfumery accessible.” She became my fragrance guru.
I immediately gravitated to her Decoding Perfume series on TikTok. Each instalment felt like a mini-lesson that broke down a fragrance family like chypre, explaining its origin, what that description evokes and multiple perfumes I could try that contained that scent. I would take note of which perfumes she recommended, beginning with the gourmand ones and then going outside of my comfort zone into some unfamiliar fragrance families.
While all other methods of trying to “sell” me on perfume didn’t work, I was completely sold by Wan. There was something about her music choices, tranquil voice and thoughtful, succinct storytelling, paired with images of perfume bottles and their ingredients, that made me feel like I was in an intimate tête-à-tête with a perfume connoisseur.
Wan herself thinks the appeal of TikTok is that its content is not conveyed in a slick package. “It’s a little bit rough around the edges, the editing is sloppy and the green-screen effect is admittedly horrible, but everyone uses it,” she tells me in a video call. “The platform’s level of roughness helps deliver some of the more inaccessible parts of fragrance and takes it down a notch.”
Most importantly for me (and for my bank account), Wan tells her viewers where to buy samples. She explains which online sites send small vials and which ones deliver to and within Canada. TikTok had cracked open the perfume world for me.
“There’s such a misconception that you have to spend $400,” says Wan. “Most people will never wear 100 millilitres of a perfume anyway, so why shell out for that big purchase when you can sort of rent it as you go?”
Fragrance accessibility is something that Wan really emphasizes; she explored it via her Invisible Stories website and during her time at summer school at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France, trying to dismantle the idea that perfume is a luxury product for people with expensive tastes.
She unpacks her understanding of the barriers to buying (from a general lack of scent vocabulary to the power dynamic at the perfume counter) and illuminates the areas in perfumery that make it easy to fall in love with fragrance.
Wan’s TikTok truly did open those heavy gates for me, showing me that I can sample perfume made by designers, introducing me to niche and indie brands and educating me on the language of scent so that I, too, can be swept away to another place or unlock an olfactory memory. I can spritz on “finger lime” or “wood sage and sea salt,” depending on how I want to feel that day and, ironically, feel a little richer for it.
This article first appeared in FASHION’s September issue. Find out more here.