Trailing Your Own Scent
by Alyssa Harrad, author of the memoir “Coming to My Senses”
Illustration by Kristen McGinty
Five years ago I sat in a borrowed studio at KUT Radio and listened to a BBC World Service announcer tease me, live on the air, about the smell of Austin. “Does it – ” he chuckled to himself, his co-announcer tittering in the background, “ – smell of beer?” “I’m sure that’s the scent memory some people have of Austin!” I said brightly, thinking of sticky bar room floors. “After all, we are the Live Music Capital of the World!”
I had been invited on the show to discuss the scent of Lithuania. I was writing a memoir about my obsession with perfume, and Lithuania had issued a fragrance they claimed encapsulated the scent of the nation. Since none of us had smelled it (it turned out to be a room spray smelling vaguely of false flowers, stainless steel and clean public bathrooms) we chatted about smells and memory, and whether it was possible for a perfume to represent a place. I told them about scent artist Sissel Tolaas, who reproduced the smell of the subway exchange platform between East and West Berlin — a smell that was, for her, the scent of Communism. Then I told them how Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer grew up loving Texas and cowboys and how, after a long-awaited trip to our fair state, he created Lone Star, a perfume smelling of leather, campfire smoke and sage-scented air on a hot night in Marfa. From there it was a short hop to Lone Star Beer and we were off.
I didn’t mind. By then I’d had a lot of practice dealing with jokes about perfume. In fact, the idea of my loving perfume had seemed, for a long time, like a joke of the best possible kind. I moved to Austin in 1995 to get my doctorate in English with an emphasis on women’s and gender studies, and my part of town smelled like sweat, coffee and the occasional cloud of patchouli oil. No one in my circle wore perfume — they were more inclined to mutter about chemicals and allergies. Perfume, I thought, was for women who had to figure out how to blow dry their hair and wear heels every day. I was lucky to leave the house in an unstained garment. When asked for a one-word description of my style I said, “Rumpled.”
Then I stumbled across my first perfume blogs and the witty, unexpected descriptions. Soon I was devouring the archives and sending away for samples of perfumes that smelled not just of flowers and resins but of tar, salt, packing tape, bubble gum and wet earth. Perfume, I discovered, was an archive of the world’s collective scent memories.
And perfume was glamour in the old, magical sense of the word. It was a spell, an invisible costume that allowed me to become a new person without changing the shape of my body, the color of my hair or even leaving my office. French perfumes, especially, had personalities. A dab of Tabac Blond from the grand old perfume house of Caron and – no matter what I was wearing – I was suddenly in a leather jacket riding an Italian motorcycle down a narrow street. A spritz of Chanel’s No. 19, and I was a well-tailored blonde, all sharp cool greens and impeccable iris and I straightened my spine to better protect my secretly tender, rose-scented heart. Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower bloomed into great armfuls of tuberose in Austin’s heat, a diva in white satin. I shimmied a little as I walked into the grocery store.
Soon I was devouring [perfume blog] archives and sending away for samples of perfumes that smelled not just of flowers and resins but of tar, salt, packing tape, bubble gum and wet earth. Perfume, I discovered, was an archive of the world’s collective scent memories.
Perfume was ridiculous. Perfume was gorgeous. Perfume was invisible – until it wasn’t. When anyone commented on how I smelled I blushed because it felt like they could see the inside of my head and because it still felt wrong to wear perfume in Austin. But it made me laugh, and that laughter blew the remains of my academic career out an open window. It loosened up my writing and my sense of who I was. It carried me to New York, where I acquired an agent and an editor. The grand old department stores on Fifth Avenue turned out to be a lot of fun, and walking down the busy, scent-crowded streets in my own small cloud of perfume felt absolutely right.
While I was going through these changes, Austin changed, too. It still smells of barbecue and, yes, it smells of beer, but it also smells of wild boar done three ways and kombucha cocktails. Perfume does not feel as out of place here as it once did. The growing number of indie luxe niche perfumes that pride themselves on their weird, non-commercial beauty and beautiful all-botanical lines are a particularly good fit. In spite of challenges like our endless summers and crazy pollen counts, I keep meeting people in this new Austin who are in love with perfume, like my friend Natalie Davis, a leather worker who collaborated with natural perfumer J. Hannah Co. to create Skive, a rich, resinous perfume that captures the scent of her studio. (I have a small bottle — it is great in winter and only gets sexier in the summer swelter.) But I meet people who have been here all along, too, like glitter witch and artist Angeliska Polacheck, who read my tarot cards and showed me a cabinet crammed with almost as many magic perfume bottles as I own.
I don’t buy much perfume anymore. Right now, I’m less interested in becoming someone new than remembering and expanding the selves I’ve been. It’s the perfume equivalent of finding the right cut and color in clothes – you know what you need. I’m getting through the summer in Parfumerie Générale’s smoky tea L’eau Rare Matale and Maria Candida Gentile’s citrus-spiked resin, Gershwin and Hermès’ salty Eau des Merveilles. When the fall finally comes I’ll smell of leather, tobacco, spices and honey. And in spring I’ll break out Aftelier’s Honey Blossom, which captures the gentle haze that hangs over a sun-warmed field of bluebonnets. Because Austin smells like that, too.
Read more from the Style Issue | September 2016