Last week I was saddened to read that the great designer Kenzo Takada, known simply as Kenzo, had died of Covid-19 at the age of 81. I never wore any of his designs, and I’m not an expert on his work or his career, but I do remember looking at Kenzo ads in my mother’s W magazine as a child and teen. And, of course, I’ve tried various Kenzo-branded fragrances over the past couple decades.
When someone asks me how I first “got into” fragrance, my answer might fall anywhere from my childhood love of Avon perfumes to my initial encounter with Chrisopher Brosius at Henri Bendel to the night I first stumbled across MakeupAlley.com. Those are all easy, and positive, memories.
One moment that takes a little more time to parse is the day I bought my first bottle of Kenzo Parfum d’Été.
In the 1990s and 2000s the Kenzo fragrance line offered slightly unusual, but not overly challenging, fragrances for women who gravitated towards artistic packaging—Flower (2000, Alberto Morillas), in its minimalist bud-vase bottle by Serge Mansau, was a longtime success for the brand…
…and Kenzo Amour (2006, Daphne Bugey and Olivier Cresp), packaged in curvaceous post-modern vessels designed by Karim Rashid, featured notes of frangipani and rice steam, which sounded really unusual for the time, although the overall composition was a contemporary comfort scent.
Parfum d’Été, which preceded both of these, was Kenzo’s effort at reaching a younger audience with a more casual fragrance than the original Kenzo perfume (1988) or Kenzo King Kong (1980, Anna Sui’s favorite!). I happened to come across it just when I needed it, and although I don’t wear it anymore—my tastes have shifted, and it’s likely been reformulated anyway—it will always remind me of a particular era in my own life.
I was a graduate student in art history, just a year and a bit into my coursework, and like most graduate programs, this one had a hothouse atmosphere, compounded by its small size and the university’s relative isolation. I didn’t know anyone for a hundred miles around who wasn’t part of that program, and I was single and living alone without any emotional or creative outlets to help me vent the pressure I was feeling. (Not to mention that our campus internet was still rudimentary and the connection in my apartment was only good for university email.)
One afternoon I was in the campus library and I ran into one of my professors, who pulled me aside to the library cafe for a “short conversation.” It turned out to be one of the lowest moments of my time in that program. By the time I returned to my library carrel, I felt so humiliated and demoralized that I briefly considered dropping out of grad school.
I didn’t have any classes the next day, and I needed to get out of my apartment, but I couldn’t bring myself to face our department offices or even the library. Instead, I made a trip to the local mall, which was my secret escape from campus for the five years I lived there. I could only reach it by taking an infrequently scheduled public bus, but once I’d arrived, I was safely anonymous and could temporarily redirect my mind from its usual worn groove of seminar readings and midterm grading and interlibrary loan requests while picking up a CD or some Clinique makeup.
I can’t be certain of the exact location, but I remember stopping at a temporary counter stationed just outside one of the anchor department stores—probably Lord & Taylor, although there’s a chance it was Macy’s. Either way, the counter was featuring a selection of fragrances. I paused to look and the sales associate staffing the counter greeted me.
I don’t remember that woman’s name, but she was an excellent salesperson. Without making me feel pressured, she invited me to try several perfumes and told me a little about each. Givenchy Amarige was among them; she described it as “a joyful perfume.” The one that caught my interest was Kenzo Parfum d’Été (1993, Jean-Claude Delville and Christian Mathieu). I liked the translucent leaf-shaped bottle and I found the fragrance pleasing too. Best of all: I was able to read a list of its notes, a rare opportunity at that time.
At that time, my scent wardrobe consisted of Shalimar for (very infrequent) evenings out and a rotation of Betsey Johnson (her first perfume, released in 1992) and The Body Shop Ananya (1994) for day. Unlike that classical French “oriental” perfume or those 90s fruit-bombs, however, Parfum d’Été was light and fresh, built around ideas like “scent of sap” and “secret flower.” Its promotional materials described it as evolving like the times of the day—dawn, noon, sundown—rather than as topnotes, heartnotes, and basenotes.
Looking back now, I can see that Parfum d’Été belonged to the wave of sheer ozonic florals with fruity-green accents that flourished in the 90s, like L’Eau d’Issey (1992, Jacques Cavallier) and Banana Republic W (1995, Jean-Claude Delville). But it was different than anything I’d worn before, and I needed a change.
“I think I’ll take this one,” I mused aloud after sniffing a few other fragrances and coming back to Parfum d’Été, “even though it’s kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision.” The sales associate replied, “But I think you have put a lot of thought into this decision!” And home I went, on the bus, with my new acquisition in its bamboo-patterned box.
I wore Parfum d’Été for the rest of that academic year and the following summer, and through another year or two. I used up my first bottle, then a second one. By the time I left campus, ready to start writing my dissertation and looking for museum work, I had moved on to Demeter Olive Flower and Shiseido Féminité du Bois. I’ve kept an empty Kenzo bottle all this time, however, just as a reminder.
This scented recollection could come across as very trivial (although, if you’ve read this far and you’re visiting this blog in the first place, probably not?): I was feeling down and some retail therapy lifted my spirits. But the clarity and persistence of that memory makes me think there was more at stake.
That episode, and the bottle on my dresser, endured as affirmations that small sensual pleasures like perfume were still very important to me, although lately I’d been feeling so detached from them; that other forms of creativity besides visual art deserved my attention; that my existence wouldn’t be permanently tethered to that academic department, that campus, that small town. The conversation at the perfume counter was a welcome reminder that a total stranger (yes, she was trying to make a sale, but was also a kind person) was able to see me as a curious and appreciative individual. That afternoon was a foreshadowing of a time when I’d eventually be able to reclaim and expand some of my past interests. Until then, I’d keep my magazine-reading and my emergent scent-obsession to myself, but they could cheer and sustain me in private.
I had no idea how large a role fragrance would end up playing in my life or how many other aromaphiles I’d meet in the coming years later. I’m sure many of those aromaphiles have similar stories to tell. If you’re one of them…please feel free to share in the space below!