Poison: Nearly 30 years after its debut, the name still causes a chill up the spine or a frisson of fear among those whose nasal passages were assaulted by Christian Dior’s titanic fragrance.
Launched in 1985, Poison entered a world of big perfume. It was the era of flamboyant, often bombastic scents. Even in this context, Poison made an immediate name for itself. Whether this was cause for celebration or not depended on who was doing the smelling. Poison, like Giorgio Beverly Hills, had as many vocal fans as it did vehement opponents.
I remember the first time I smelled it. I had recently started wearing Obsession, Calvin Klein’s new-at-the-time Oriental that had a hair tonic note in the base. But during a holiday gathering a cousin arrived, or Poison arrived with the cousin, shrieking in like a comet to the Thanksgiving dinner table. Gone were the typical holiday aromas: chestnuts, turkey, and pumpkin pie. We were served Poison alongside roasted yams and it was all anyone could talk about; even the old aunts clucked—in appreciation.
Even today I recall an explosive white-powder tuberose sweetened by grape-y berries, with a weird herbal accent (coriander, pepper) at the top that always made me feel a bit dizzy, as if the earth were settling beneath my feet. Remember that 1985 was near the end of the big Oriental era that had begun a decade before. Poison was the exact opposite, a behemoth white floral that didn’t smell anything like a flower but more like a synthetic floral orgy, something oh-so-right for the bigness of the Eighties.
The natural menthol note that occurs in tuberose marked Poison with a toothpaste-like, minty quality. Although the berried top notes responsible for the fruit-candy accord are immediately noticeable, it is this minty, green tuberose that sails forth, buttressed by orange blossom and for all I know a bottle of grape Nehi soda (tuberose+heliotrope+black currant). It’s a courageous fragrance actually, in that it overtakes and beats down its wearer, a risky fragrance that in its original form required personal boldness and sophistication to pull off. But where did I most smell it? On teenage girls, the same ones who would buy Cacharel LouLou a couple of years later, and the same ones who would somewhat counterintuitively be able to pull Poison off most successfully.
Ads for Poison, done in tones of purples and blacks, seemed to shroud the scent in darkness and in decadence, but the truth is that Poison was anything but. It was in my estimation the cheeriest of the Big Eighties scents, certainly the brightest and most garish. It would mow down, rather than seduce, its victims, who I liked to assume were pimply and gangly high-school boys.
This may sound odd, but Poison was the wrong “color” for me. I tried it, and it didn’t work with any of my clothing, not even with a bright blue suede jacket the color of a peacock’s neck. The sandalwood, opoponax, and vetiver drydown, which I perceived as a different color than the rest, took far too long to reach and was too subtle. A trace on the skin was pleasant the next day, but who wanted to wait that long to get there?
What was this stuff in the elegant, dark purple boule? For one thing, it was a radical departure for the House of Dior, its first truly modern fragrance and a giant step away from its past as a quiet stalwart of the upper middle class. For another, it was not meant for this traditional Dior customer but for new customers who would buy into its myth of female as dangerous vamp. That it reached an unlikely conclusion of soda and powder was beside the point. It was enough just to have its name on your lips: “Poison.” The name was daring and intriguing, what more did you need?
I tried Poison again recently and it seemed thinned-out, less complex, with the herbal notes gone, more white musk, and the base not as craggy. It had been domesticated and made less expensive (at the time, Poison was quite costly to make) and it just smelled cheap.
I washed it off my hand and dug out a picture taken on the day I first smelled it—was it really that long ago? And then I wondered, what since then would have the same shock factor? What do you think?