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Why Perfume is Making a Comeback

The Dry Down's Rachel Syme and Helena Fitzgerald discuss scent memory, 90s olfactory favorites, and the radical feminism of perfume message boards.


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“A woman's perfume tells more about her than her handwriting,” Christian Dior once said. It’s fitting, then, that the creators behind the perfume world's most intriguing new(ish) project would be spearheaded by two female wordsmiths. Breaking haute perfume out from behind stuffy glass department store cases, The Dry Down, launched in 2016, is a long-form subscription email newsletter, occasional salon series, and online fragrance community run by journalists Rachel Syme and Helena Fitzgerald.

Using scent memory as muse, the duo explore, through personal essay and freeform narrative, broader topics about pop culture, memory, and the grander history of perfumery. Syme, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, also covering the perfume beat for The New York Times, has received the Perfumed Plume Award award for fragrance journalism. Fitzgerald has written for Pacific Standard, Bookforum and Hazlitt (among others), and also runs cult newsletter Grief Bacon, a humorous and nuanced exploration of emotional upheaval. Together, they’ve created a digital and real-life space for self-proclaimed “perfume nerds” to bond, share samples, and join in a centuries-old tradition of olfactory escapism.

Initially bonding over Twitter, the pair quickly realized their mutual love of perfume and its transformative, storytelling qualities (in one of her most popular newsletters, Helena includes her treatise on 90s CVS staples Cool Water and the nature of desire). Initially starting the project just for themselves and friends, it soon grew to thousands of subscribers, and today has a dedicated message board and Slack channel (which you can join here) to obsessively discuss perfume picks, scent topics, and even the newsletter itself.

There’s no doubt perfume is having a moment. As larger luxuries like home ownership, or even car ownership, move beyond reach for cash-strapped millennials, smaller luxuries—a $65 candle, tech-savvy luggage, an elegant bottle of perfume—have become a more egalitarian form of affluence. In addition, the entrepreneur and maker-movements have led to a wave of mostly female and minority-fronted indie perfumers, from Portland’s OLO to Tanwi Nandini Islam’s HI Wildflower line. Even larger perfume companies are recognizing the accessible and community-building power of perfume: rather than tapping a big name for the launch of their newest essence, Man Wood, Bvlgari opted to go with a social media influencer to showcase the fresh and accessible nature of the scent.

Beyond exotic notes and chic packaging, perfume famously has the ability to stir memory; projecting the intimate nature of one’s soul or act as a signifier of aspirational aims. Just think of Holly Golightly taking a moment to spritz herself with an elegant bottle plucked from her mailbox before heading out in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In addition to a monthly newsletter, The Dry Down also offers its popular “The Six” newsletter, where the pair will pick three scents around a theme and, in their own words, “go where the wind takes us.” For paid subscribers they also offer a weekly Perfume Diary, guest posts by perfume makers, historians, experts, and other well-established writers, as well as “Perfume Genie” in which, over e-mail, the pair will ask what readers would like to smell like, based on “favorite memories, your fantastical aspirations, your weird dreams” and will put together customized recommendations for new signature scents.

“It's something that's very accessible to people,” says Fitzgerald. “We're not writing about perfume in a way that’s too expert or technical. I think it's easy for people who are just starting to get into perfume to be overwhelmed.” Contrary to what we believed, the pair does not own hundreds of bottles of perfume. “I would say that we both own maybe ten,” they told usbut are strongly in support of hunting down a good free sample.

As to why perfume is having such a moment? “I think it has a lot to do with the concept of self-care,” says Syme, also citing the rise of skincare as a post-2016 coping mechanism for women. “People are more interested in talking about their daily routines and the things that make them feel human in an ever disconnected and digital world,” she explains. “Perfume is extremely offline, but at the same time, in the last decade, online culture has made it more possible to learn about perfumery than ever before.” She points to message boards that allow you to educate yourself about perfume notes and what perfume, at is biological level, really is. "In the last 4 or 5 years, the popularity of perfume culture has just exploded on internet message boards.”

She continues to say that while there’s always been a language to discuss perfume, the internet has provided an outlet to go deeper and geekier with it. And it’s not just Chanel no 5: the pair point to whole essays online dedicated to JLo’s Glow. "They think they're getting a note of Jasmine, but they're getting lily of the valley,” Syme explains, impressed with the obsessive nature of these online confessionals. She also noted that The Dry Down’s message board has often become a form of group therapy for women, who consult each other on what to wear to important life events like a wedding or job interview. "Everyone's like 'yeah! You can get the job' everyone's supportive."

Fitzgerald believes this comes as part of a trend towards beauty that isn't prescriptive—look at the popularity of Glossier and Fenty, or the newly launched, and highly inclusive, Flesh cosmetic line. “I think many message boards want to be about beauty but not in a way that claims there’s something wrong that needs to be fixed. Perfume is such a ripe topic because it is additive, rather than corrective,” she says, believing people are trying to find a way to talk about beauty that isn't just obsessive about one’s flaws. “It's more about personal narrative, rather than just about 'am I getting it right?'" says Fitzgerald “And in that way, I think perfume is radically accessible.”


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