Several times a year, it happens: the fragrance/beauty press announces a trend in the making, with their collective notice of this trend bolstered by a wave of new releases. How and why do trends happen? It’s often a case of “the chicken and the egg” between the press and the brands, and now that TikTok has become a newsworthy source, maybe we’re looking at a three-way dynamic.
Case in point: vanilla perfumes. Since this fall brought a crop of new vanilla scents from A-list celebrity/influencer Ariana Grande (Mod) and a few critics’ darlings brands like Ellis Brooklyn (Vanilla Milk) and Byredo (Vanille Antique), the usual media outlets have churned out a concurrent wave of trend pieces.
Thierry Mugler’s Angel (1992) is mentioned in some of these articles. Yes, Angel did establish the “gourmand” category of perfumery, but it’s not the whole story behind vanilla. Angel incorporates a hefty dose of ethyl maltol (also known as Veltol) for its caramel-and-cotton-candy effect, but it isn’t strictly a vanilla perfume—it wouldn’t be Angel without its juicy berry notes and its “overdose” of woodsy patchouli.
To talk about vanilla perfume in depth, you’d need to go back to 1858, when French biochemist Nicolas-Theodore Gobley isolated the vanillin molecule from vanilla extract. In 1874, German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann analyzed vanillin and figured out how to lab-engineer a synthesized version of it from pine bark. Guerlain introduced vanillin to fine fragrance in 1889 with Jicky, which still smells pretty fantastic, with a suave sweetness that’s far from “food-y.” And, if you asked me to recommend my favorite perfume containing an intense vanilla note, you know what I’d say? Shalimar, from 1925.
I also want to add that vanilla is not “simple” or “common” in terms of its natural history or its social history. Please see this article from Smithsonian (about the rarity and the environmental cost of real vanilla) and this piece from the Linnean Society of London (for the true story of Edmond Albius, the man who figured out how to make vanilla a viable industrial crop).
Back to the point of these fragrance-related articles, is vanilla perfume really making a comeback, and is it purely a Y2K-era taste? True, there was an early 2000s craze for the cupcake-y Aquolina Pink Sugar (2003) and the musky-sweet Bath & Body Works Warm Vanilla Sugar, but even during the successive fads of pink-smelling fruity florals and “just out of the shower” fragrances and blunt cedar-sandalwood blends, vanilla still had its loyalists.
Moreover, there are plenty of vanilla fragrances that—yes—pre-date Pink Sugar or Angel. Here are a few recommendations for pre-Y2K and pre-“revival” vanilla-inspired perfumes.
L’Artisan Parfumeur Vanilia, 1978
Vanilia was discontinued during one of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s various changes in ownership, which is a shame. If you’re ever lucky enough to smell some, you’ll recognize ethyl maltol’s sugary presence in Vanilia—yes, before Angel. I remember smelling this fragrance for the first time at Henri Bendel (r.i.p.) and thinking that it didn’t smell like regular vanilla extract but rather more like some confectionery that’s best enjoyed in small servings. Vanilia is Pink Sugar’s more tastefully dressed mother, and I miss seeing her around.
Cacharel LouLou (1987)
In a review for Now Smell This, I described LouLou as a floral-gourmand (“fleurmand”!) blend of “cherry-almond note of heliotrope, plenty of creamy white florals, and a liberal dusting of fancy talcum powder” around a vanilla core. It’s a Big 1980s Perfume but you’d never mistake it for Poison or Obsession—it has a sense of humor and youthfulness that balance out its strong presence. It’s perfect for a winter night out, or so I’d imagine since I don’t do that much anymore. Bonus points for the chic bottle.
Rochas Tocade (1994)
Speaking of bottles: Tocade‘s container is just plain goofy-looking, but that shouldn’t deter you from picking up a very affordably priced bottle of this gorgeous, somewhat over-the-top composition of fabulously fake rose, buttery vanilla, and skin-clinging amber. Incidentally, it was created by Maurice Roucel, the “nose” behind some very up-market perfumes like Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur (2000), Guerlain Insolence (2006), and a handful of Bond no. 9 fragrances.
Christian Dior Hypnotic Poison (1998)
Why does Dior insist on cranking out flanker after flanker for Miss Dior (the Miss Dior with the Natalie Portman ads, not the original Miss Dior from 1947) rather than promoting some of its classic fragrances? Hypnotic Poison, released during John Galliano’s tenure at Christian Dior, is a gourmand fragrance that manages to smell cozy and commanding at the same time, with its “sweetness of vanilla unfolding against the radiant freshness of musk and the milky bitterness of almonds” (as Victoria described it at Bois de Jasmin) and an unexpected licorice-y anise note.
Hanae Mori, 1995
When the Japanese couturier Hanae Mori passed away in August 2022, I paused to remember the years when her eponymous fragrances graced the shelves of every Sephora in the NYC area. Her original scent, nicknamed “Butterfly” for the shape of its cap, is a sweet dream of vanilla pudding with strawberries and whipped cream. It was released just a few years after Angel but smelled girlier and much less challenging, so I’m surprised and sad that it’s become so hard to find.
Come to think of it, none of these fragrances are especially easy to purchase nowadays, which may account for their absence in all the recent vanilla-themed articles. (There’s no point in mentioning too many fragrances that aren’t advertisers or can’t offer affiliate links, after all.) But if you dig around a bit, you may be able to get your hands (and nose) on some of these “OG” vanillas. You’ll be in for a treat.
To be continued soon, with a list of “niche” and indie vanilla suggestions!