Seeking a signature
READ MY LIPSTICK - Regina Belmonte (The Philippine Star) - February 27, 2015 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Your perfume, you’re wearing Chanel, aren’t you?” he asked me. “I can’t tell exactly which one it is, but I know it’s Chanel,” he added. I laughed, and nodded. “Yeah, good nose! It’s Chanel Coco Noir,” I replied, but deep down, it unsettled me that he knew what I was wearing. And it had happened before, with another fragrance and another person. (It was also Chanel. But in my defense, this photographer friend is a serious fragrance enthusiast. I think she would have been able to recognize any perfume, no matter how obscure or unavailable in Metro Manila, and my scent was neither.)

It seemed to me that his almost immediate identification of my fragrance — a straight guy at that! — defeated the purpose of wearing a fragrance to begin with. Yes, obviously you wear one to smell good. But there’s always been an underlying motive to perfume selection.

Scent memory.

* * *

Scents burn themselves into your memory in a way that images never really do.

Images, they start out clear as day, but grow hazier and hazier as time passes, until all of a sudden you realize that for all that you said you would love him forever, you don’t quite remember what he looks like anymore. Everything is a bit of a blur, your memories are coated in mist, and all the details are lost. (Sometimes, the failures of memory can be such a blessing.)

But scents are different. You can catch a whiff of something and find yourself taken immediately back to a specific moment in time. You can smell a hint of something familiar in the air and recall things you thought you forgot long, long ago.

For someone so visually inclined, for someone who has soundtracked every last second of her life with all sorts of music, it’s scent memories that have really stuck with me.

For as long as I can remember, Christian Dior Fahrenheit: My father. Always my father.

Kenzo Flower: What I was wearing in high school when I was brushed off by a boy who had been totally glued to my side at the last party we both went to.

Kenzo Flower: Still what I was wearing on that same night, when my friend’s brother saw what happened and swooped in to save me from what could have been a totally self-esteem-crushing moment. “Are you wearing Kenzo Flower? That’s one of the sexiest scents ever.” We danced all evening.

Chanel Coco Mademoiselle: The warmth of a familiar embrace. “You smell really good” was all he ever said when I had it on, and I always had it on.

Balenciaga Eau de Parfum: What I wore to work-related functions to feel like an adult. “What scent are you wearing? It’s so elegant,” said a very glamorous lady I deeply respected.

YSL Saharienne: What I was wearing the first time I was ever allowed by my parents to set out in a foreign country alone. I was in Hong Kong, and I met up with some friends to go to a gig Carl Barat of the Libertines was playing in some tiny club. We had to go into a shady parking garage to find the venue, then we had to charm our way past the Irish bouncer into the already packed room. The bottle fell out of my bag in the mosh pit that we ended up in, but until then, I had never felt more free.

Fendi L’Acquarossa: What I was wearing when he drove me home late one night. (What I wore every time he drove me home.) I sprayed it on myself in the passenger seat to mask the scent of his cigarettes, which always seemed to cling to my hair and to my skin. Though in hindsight, I must admit I also sprayed it so that part of me would cling to him, too. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s okay, I like it,” he replied. In my Messages an hour later: I can still smell you. I have not worn it since.

* * *

The French model Caroline de Maigret, apparently the go-to resource person for every fashion website’s How To Be French listicles, often brings up perfume. In the book she co-authored with three of her friends, entitled How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are, she writes: “Find your perfume before you turn 30. Wear it for the next 30 years.”

It occurred to me even before I read that particular line in the book that I had been going about fragrance all wrong. I had been switching mine out fairly frequently — a new one for every upheaval, a new one for every romance, a new one for every period in my life. They don’t call it a signature scent for nothing. You have to find The One, and then wear it forever.

I grew tired of remembering different people every time I spritzed on something new (or something old). I decided it should be the opposite: That I would wear just one fragrance for the next few decades, so that every time anyone smelled it, they would be reminded of me. Scent memory. And as much as possible, it would be a fragrance that I could truly make my own. None of the big, familiar names, because I never again wanted to hear “Oh, you’re wearing _________!” None of the popular perfumes du jour that every other girl has on.

Because in a way, I guess, until recently I was using scent to turn myself into something else for someone else; to evoke a certain feeling in a certain moment, when in fact, the only thing my scent should ever have evoked was me.

I found my signature scent outside the country. I think I literally smelled every single perfume on the floor, narrowed it down to the few that I absolutely loved, and then sprayed the one I loved best on my own skin. Then I left without buying it. I went back for it because 10 hours later, I caught a whiff of it on my wrist, soft, beautiful, and complex, and knew that, at least for the next several years, possibly forever, this would be The One.

My shelf is clearer for no longer having dozens of bottles scattered all over it. Just the one, just The One. And I feel clearer for no longer needing to be anyone for anyone else but myself.

Find your perfume before you turn 30. Wear it for the next 30 years.

Find you, too.

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