The beginning of my interest in fragrance coincided more or less with a momentous year in perfumery: 1981. It was in that first year of what would later be called the Big Eighties that a Beverly Hills boutique released an eponymous scent housed in a box with yellow stripes that evoked the store’s awning. Giorgio was an immediate and a ubiquitous smash, a powerhouse floral so outsized that restaurants were said to refuse seating to Giorgio-wearing patrons.
Giorgio was only the beginning of what would prove to be the last era of “big” perfumes. By the time super-scents Calvin Klein Obsession and Dior Poison were released in 1985, women were already wafting KL and Vanderbilt (1982), Ungaro Diva and Yves Saint Laurent Paris (1983), Chanel Coco, Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum, and Forever Krystle (1984).
These were the biggies of the Big Eighties, a decade that demanded excess in matters of style. That these fragrances breached personal space was, restaurant banning of Giorgio aside, not a consideration. Shoulder pads ready for a gridiron tackle, weapon-like jewelry, and hair stiff enough to poke an eye out were de rigueur elements of style.
Big Eighties me wore that decade’s grandiose scents with gusto. By the time I reached for that first bottle of Poison, I had a gigantic head of streaky brown hair that spent half an hour each morning in hot rollers. Poison was a white-powder white floral based around grape cola and tuberose. It fit right in with an outfit I wore frequently as I attended college classes: neon blue suede skirt and matching bolero jacket, with a pair of dark purple Joan and David heels that had an accent of green snakeskin. Snapping on a giant pair of red plastic hoop earrings and swiping at my mouth with Dior Holiday Red, I was prepared to take on the day.
Then there was Obsession, Calvin Klein’s throbbing amber. Obsession was an American scent and therefore contained a different type of sexual coding as did Poison. Poison was born in Paris and its “Poison Is My Potion” woman-as-black-widow ad was counter to Obsession’s clean, black-and-white nakedness. Where the model in the Poison ad was swathed in black satin and lace, the models (Kate Moss among them) for Obsession, were often bare-chested and bare-faced. For a while, there was a college-campus battle between Obsession and Yves Saint Laurent Opium, and I wavered between them, using Poison for “dressy” occasions and Obsession for wearing spandex leggings and pink Reebok hi-tops.
These were not the only scents I collected and wore during that zany, colorful decade. Coco was huge, too, but a bit “older” and more elegant than I was. Forever Krystle was forever smelled, but in order to enjoy it you had to be ready to associate yourself with a fragrance based on a popular prime-time melodrama. Was there a more successful fragrance associated with a television show or did Forever Krystle reach the zenith of that odd marketing scheme?
Givenchy Ysatis appealed to an older crowd. Yes, there was a Big Eighties scent for my mother, too. There were scents in every price range (the drugstore scent Lutece was huge, as was Sand and Sable) and configuration, but the popular thread was either white floral or amber. The outbreak of room-clearing titanic scents often makes me wonder if we are still feeling the backlash today, thirty years later.
Other notable scents released in the Eighties were Fendi, Estee Lauder Beautiful, Deneuve, Alfred Sung, Lady Stetson, Cacharel LouLou, Calvin Klein Eternity, Elizabeth Arden Red Door, and Guerlain Samsara. Elizabeth Taylor began a great theatrical run with 1987’s Passion. Most of these scents are still with us, but does anyone remember what Chris Evert smelled like? How about Gabriela Sabatini?
Bijan was a designer scent that had a splashy ad in Vanity Fair and that rode a second wave of designer fragrances behind Giorgio. That one had me running to Neiman Marcus and I wore it through to the end of the decade, at which point the hair came down, the shoulder pads came out, and I bought a bottle of reasonably quiet and introspective Caron Parfum Sacré and wore it until the advent of the fruity-florals, a few years later.
The Eighties were the last decade when perfume could stand in for personality, as something to hide behind, to put on or to take off like a mask. The super-scents of the Eighties paved the way for Thierry Mugler Angel, but things had changed. It wasn’t the same as cranking your Duran Duran record, teasing your hair, and reaching for LouLou.
By the Nineties, the color and the fun were gone. Whatever birthed Giorgio vanished into a new austerity and the boutique with the yellow-and-white awning rebranded as Fred Hayman Beverly Hills and then closed its doors in the late nineties, the scent of its original namesake fragrance floating down Rodeo Drive and up into the fragrance firmament where it forever resides in a swath of gilded florals as bright as the Los Angeles sun.
Big Eighties fragrances: there’s nothing like your first spritz. Do you remember yours?