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The quest for a scent that says me Add to ...

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“It’s been discontinued.” The overly tanned saleswoman at the fragrance counter of The Bay smiled at me empathetically. Trying to turn the shock on my face into an alternative sale, she quickly passed me a strip of paper freshly sprayed by a fancy black bottle. “Let me show you something similar,” she said. “This one is very sexy!”

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I wasn’t looking for sexy, but I sniffed the strip anyway. I couldn’t hide my disappointment – it wasn’t remotely close to the lingering, sophisticated, spicy, yet understated scent from an ocean-blue bottle that has been the way I’ve smelled for years.

It took me a long, long time to find my signature scent.

I grew up in China in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when economic reforms had just started changing the face of the country and Western products were still scarce.

I received my first bottle of fragrance as a gift when my mother came back from studying in Germany in 1992. It was a small, purple, tin bottle with a powerful nozzle that made a loud noise when sprayed. The scent was strong and floral. I wasn’t sure how to wear it, so I sprayed my hair to make sure it was noticeable, and went to school.

The scent attracted a lot of attention. I enjoyed the double takes from my schoolmates when they walked past me, some with a bewildered look on their faces. I was sure they were bewitched by the scent, and I felt ever so glamorous that day. It wasn’t until later in my life, when my English had significantly improved, that I understood the word printed on that purple tin bottle: deodorant.

I came to Canada right after my 17th birthday. High school was hard for a teenaged girl from China who didn’t speak English well. I went to great lengths to give myself a Canadian makeover. I worked a full-time job after school to fund my outfits from Le Château and makeup from MAC. Only one thing was missing: a fragrance.

In the 1990s, Calvin Klein was all the rage for teenagers; students in high school proudly claimed that they wore Eternity. As I was being paid only $6.50 an hour at various service jobs, I held off on this $65 purchase until I met Contradiction, also by Calvin Klein.

It was a peachy concoction in a frosted, cylindrical bottle, and the scent was fresh and somewhat unisex. I wore it to school and it worked! The girl sitting next to me stared at my newly purchased heels from Aldo and asked: “What’s that scent you are wearing?”

“Contradiction,” I replied. Trying to maintain my cool, I did not say another word.

She invited me to join her for lunch. I envisioned hanging out with the girls in her little clique, checking out each other’s wardrobes and talking about our favourite literature. For the remainder of my high school years, I had plenty of “friends” to hang out with, but literature never made it into the conversations, as they were dominated by talk of boys.

Through the years, I searched for the right bottle. There was the attempt to appear more athletic (and therefore sexier by Western standards, I thought) with beachy scents. There was the trial and error with Givenchy, after I realized that I wasn’t much of an athlete and chic was the way to go. Then there was the period of experimenting with all scents ‘zen’ when I learned to embrace my Chinese background rather than trying to erase it.

As I struggled through my 20s, both financially and emotionally, my taste in perfume was ever-changing. But somewhere along the way, things began to clarify. I discovered my career path, and true friendships slowly emerged. I learned to enjoy solitude, and my wardrobe started to reflect my own sense of style rather than trends. I dated guys who interested me instead of those who were interested in me.

Then a fluke happened. I was walking by The Bay on Queen Street in Toronto after work one day, and caught a whiff of something intriguing: warm and subtle, spicy but calm, oriental and slightly provocative. It was a confident scent; it was a scent for a woman who knew who she was. It was BLV by Bvlgari, and it was the scent for me.

I was once told by a marketing manager that the reason fashion houses can charge so much for scented water is that they are not just selling a fragrance, they are selling a dream – a dream of who you can be. To me, BLV wasn’t a dream of who I could become – it was a reflection of who I was. Ten years later, its blue bottle still is the only one standing on my vanity.

“Miss?” the sales lady tried one more time to engage me: “If you really want it, I can call head office to check for any leftover stock?”

I smiled at her and politely declined the offer.

“Maybe it’s meant to be,” I thought to myself, reflecting on how little I had been wearing perfume since my son was born.

As I walked out of the newly revamped shopping floor with its hundreds of exquisitely designed bottles on display, I checked my phone for e-mails.

One message from work stood out: As our department has moved to a new, environmentally friendly office tower, we’d like to remind everyone that this is a fragrance-free environment. Please refrain from using scented products.

Maybe it really is meant to be.

 

Rose Qiang lives in Toronto.

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