At one time “drugstore” simply signified the place a fragrance was purchased rather than a pejorative comment on its worth. Consider this–in 1975, Revlon chairman Michel Bergerac pulled the Revlon brand from department stores and placed it into drugstores, at a marketing level known in the trade as the mass market. Now available at Rexall Drug were Charlie, Revlon’s wildly successful modern chypre; Intimate, Ciara, and Norell. Bergerac made the move when the competing Estée Lauder brand outstripped Revlon in the department stores, where the mid-priced Revlon lost sales to the higher-priced, “premium” Lauder products.
The move enhanced, rather than hurt, the Revlon brand. Its newest fragrance, Jontue, became a bestseller, as did Enjoli a few years later. Shopping at the drugstores, I would find an array of both classic and modern fragrances that ranged from Dana Tabu to New West for Her to the blockbuster franchise of Elizabeth Taylor. The three decades from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s were halcyon days for drugstore scents, with many of the fragrances becoming near-instant classics, immediately recognizable in their ubiquity and proudly worn by thousands of women.Many drugstore fragrances have become to one degree or another cultural touchstones. There are just as many of them as there are niche and department store fragrance icons, and they elicit a certain nostalgia among those whose first bottle of fragrance might well have been Love’s Fresh Lemon. Some captured a moment in time (Enjoli’s cheerful feminism) or a fragrance trend (Bonne Bell Skin Musk; Coty Vanilla Fields). Others had counterparts in more expensive premium lines (Emeraude) and some had brief popularity before vanishing from the radar (Jovan Grass Oil).
By the time Revlon entered the drugstores, Bonne Bell, Houbigant, Prince Matchabelli, Dana, Max Factor, Coty, Perfumer’s Workshop, and Jovan (among others) shared the single-counter turf that was invariably towards the front of the store in the cosmetics section. Each of these lines produced at least one classic. Coty alone produced over ten of them, including Muguet des Bois and Sand & Sable. Even a less prolific brand like Charles of the Ritz produced scents as widely varied as its eponymous Charles of the Ritz fragrance, Jean Nate, Enjoli, and Forever Krystle. Although it was at a zenith almost 40 years ago, Jean Nate is arguably the most famous American drugstore scent; it above all others seems to express best the idea of a drugstore classic. Some might say that 4711, a German cologne first produced in 1792, deserves top honors.
With shelf space and sales associates at a premium, drugstore fragrances relied on television and print advertising and word of mouth to spur sales. More dollars were spent on television advertisements for Wind Song, Charlie, Enjoli, and Babethan ever were spent on similar advertisements for Guerlain Shalimar, Chanel No 22, and Robert Piguet Fracas. Tuxedo-clad Shelley Hack striding into a Manhattan hotspot after generously spraying Charlie onto her neck (“Now the world belongs to Charlie!” said the confidently spoken voiceover) prejudiced at least me against leaning in favor of purchasing perfume in a department store.
One spray of spicy, sassy Babe* on my wrist reminds me how different the drugstore fragrances of the 20th century were to the sugary and fruity mall fragrances of today. Babe’s blend of vetiver, floral, and waxy honey was marketed to young urban sophisticates. Today, this style reads as “adult” in a way that would not now be marketed to young women. Also in the chypre category was Prince Matchabelli’s mid-priced drugstore winner Cachet.
Due to the youth-oriented, hippie shift in the 1960s, musk occupied a special place in the classic drugstore pantheon. These musk fragrances were sold not as accessories to a wardrobe but as extensions of one’s own natural smell. Bonne Bell Skin Musk, Jovan Musk, Coty Wild Musk, and Alyssa Ashley Musk were simple “you, but better” aromas that fit in with the youth zeitgeist and were perhaps the first “anti” perfumes.
A later trend in drugstore scents traded on the openly erotic with sex pheromones, a category of fragrance dominated in the drugstore by Jovan, who made so much money on the concept that they became the first corporate sponsor to underwrite a major concert tour (Rolling Stones American Tour, 1981). Sex Appeal burned brightly before giving way to the less successful Andron. Both were responses to the age-old question of what perfume attracts women, and what perfume attracts men?
Flankers that spun off the original classic might be issued years after the original had faded from view, turning one release into a prolonged event: Ex’cla.ma’tion spawned six flankers, right up into the new millennium. Charlie had a whopping nine and a thirty-year lifespan.
Many of the classics have not stood the test of time, largely due to reformulation or to stylistic revisions that have flattened or dulled the originals: Emeraude is a case in point. Many others are consigned to memory and to perspectives that no longer suffice as sellable. The romance of White Shoulders has given way to the questionable allure of Lollipop Bling. Will we see another Jean Nate, something that can be a nearly collective fragrance experience?
What are your favorite drugstore fragrances?
*Many thanks to OperaFan for sharing precious drops from her personal collection.