On Another Note: Perfume’s True Colors in 2020

Benetton, 1988

The past few months have been…a lot to think about. America’s intense reckoning with its history of racism has touched every corner of our culture, even the perfume-internet. Lately I’ve felt all sorts of ups and downs while following these events’ various ripple effects within the fragosphere. A few examples:

I was astonished when the European niche brand Bruno Acampora announced the release of a perfume named Melanin (tagline: “We All Have It”) inspired by “Africa, its abundant richness, cultural variety, colors, sounds and smells…a fragrance of fantasy with a deep meaning…an imaginary smell of Melanin, the pigment in our skin”….and used the #BlackLivesMatter tag to promote it, all without the participation of any actual Black people.

And I was heartened by the rapid reaction of the online fragrance community (basically: NOPE) and by Acampora’s resulting decision to cancel this tone-deaf and/or opportunistic release. Then I was startled again by the remarks of various online commenters who didn’t understand why this issue had to be “a big deal” or why we all couldn’t stick to “perfume, not politics.” (The Melanin info has largely been scrubbed from the web, but you can see a lot of it here.)

I was dismayed by a social media post in which a prominent perfumer defended the use of the term “oriental” in perfumery as a compliment (Westerners just really love all that dreamy Asian culture and style!) and resisted feedback from others who tried to explain that it’s an instance of colonialism and an outdated label that trades in stereotypes. And I valued the discussion that continued from there.

I was cheered by the ways some of my favorite indie perfumers have already responded to shutdowns, social crises, and semi-isolation by creating beautiful scents that will bring joy to their wearers.

And I unfollowed someone on social media who participated eloquently in the anti-racist pushback against Acampora’s Melanin but then, a few days later, mocked and name-called a (white) independent perfumer in an unrelated post. (Because, if you can’t show respect across the board, what’s the point?)

People (including me) are full of surprises (some bad, some good) and contradictions, I suppose.

Benetton, via Roc Canals Photography, circa 2015

I haven’t posted anything on complicated topics until now. For one thing, I generally don’t write much about my non-perfume life. (Discussions of diversity and social justice have long been present in my “day job” and are even more central right now, but I don’t blog about my museum work.) Furthermore, I don’t want to make any sweeping statements about racial injustice in America, because it’s not my story and I don’t have the answers.

However, I can share a few small goals that I’m setting for myself, as I continue to listen and learn in my scent-life (and beyond). I plan to:

…review more perfumes created by people of color and brands owned by people of color. I’ll probably need to try a little harder to seek them out and order samples, since they might not (yet) be carried by major retailers or represented by big PR companies, but I’ll make the effort. Here’s an interesting article that I bookmarked back in June, by the way: “Black-Owned Perfume Brands Are Practically Non-Existent: Here’s Why,” in The Zoe Report.

…incorporate more diverse representation into posts in my “Vanities” and “Art of Perfume Advertising” series. Again, I might have to look a little harder than usual, especially for perfume ads featuring Black and Latinx models, but when I find these images I’ll have a lot to share, including thoughts on why they’re so hard to find.

…read more books written by Black authors. There are so many lists of titles out there, including lots of non-fiction. However, knowing myself and the ways I learn best, I’ve been seeking out fiction like Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone and memoirs like André Leon Talley’s The Chiffon Trenches. I highly recommend both books.

…share more art by artists of color. In June I dedicated my Instagram feed to the work of Black artists whose art has left a lasting impression on me in my studies and in my various museum jobs. I’m grateful to know of these artists and, moving forward, I’m looking forward to learning and posting about many more.

…update and refresh some of my own teaching on fragrance culture, including a reworking of my “Fragrance 101” class with a discussion of problematic terms like “oriental” and the need to replace them…and possibly a new class topic or two, especially when we’re able to gather in person again.

Thanks for reading this far. I hope you’ll stick with me through this process as well. And if you’ve recently come across any relevant articles or books or other Black-owned perfume lines that you want to recommend, feel free to share in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, buy me a cup of coffee!

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