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Acne is the latest fashion label to be distilled in a signature perfume.Christina Gliha/The Globe and Mail

In the early days of the 20th century, designer fragrances were routinely spritzed in poorly ventilated dressmaker salons to refresh their stale air. Very quickly, launching a signature perfume became equally as important for infusing a fashion brand itself with fragrant mystique.

The first official fashion scent was called Nuit Persane, created by French designer Paul Poiret with perfumer Maurice Schaller in 1911. Unveiled as a complement to Poiret’s clothing and in keeping with the era’s Orientalist fantasy of draped tunics and flowy trousers, it reportedly smelled of amber and spice.

The latest example of a fashion brand’s design ethos being distilled in a bottle is Acne Studios par Frederic Malle, which debuted in April and sells for almost $700 for 100ml at Holt Renfrew stores.

Acne was founded in 1996 as a multidisciplinary creative collective (“Acne” is founder Jonny Johansson’s acronym for “Ambition to Create Novel Expressions”). The Swedish company’s first fragrance is a collaborative project led by emerging perfumer Suzy Le Helley and released under the umbrella of the luxury scent collection, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle.

“Like a garment made from a common material, but whose treatment and cut make it a sublime piece” is how the Swedish brand describes its approach to scent (i.e. fresh and crisp while also channeling softness and warmth). Acne’s perfume also takes inspiration from Nordic phenomena such as the bright nights of Scandinavian summers.

Tasked with translating this word salad of juxtapositions, Le Helley delivers pearlescent violet and peachy vanilla on a cloud of white musk, the stuff of fluffy towels and the whoosh of a laundry vent steaming with the exhaust of posh dryer sheets. The overall effect plays into the brand’s neoclassical vibe, as does the bottle, which pairs Frederic Malle’s plain silhouette with a slash of Acne’s trademark salmon hue to give the juice a sunset gradient.

The Acne debut caught my attention because, in 2010, when Frédéric Malle’s luxury perfume range launched at Holt Renfrew, fragrances as an extension of fashion weren’t part of his plan. Malle, who founded his label 25 years ago and announced he was leaving the company on April 18, has always focused on perfumer artistry as an antidote to the hyperbole of the fragrance industry and its fixation on branding and celebrities. “The important thing is what’s in the bottle – that’s what is going to end up on you,” Malle told me in an interview at the time. “You’re not wearing the brand, you’re not going to bling Chanel when you’re wearing the fragrance. You’re going to smell like something.”

But in 2013, Malle dipped his nose into the fashion world by launching a fragrance collection with Belgian designer Dries Van Noten. He’s obviously come around to the idea that a fashion label’s perfume can be innovative, capture the zeitgeist and define a brand for a broader group of consumers. With so many bottles flooding store shelves (some 16,000 debuts since the pandemic reignited the perfume market in 2020), the pressure to squeeze all those outcomes into a fashion brand’s debut bottle has never been higher.

“When Coco Chanel created her perfume in 1921, she faced heavy criticism,” fragrance expert Michael Edwards reminds me of No. 5′s early naysayers, who questioned what a clothing designer could possibly know about creating perfume. Yet by the 1930s, perfume and fashion were inextricably linked, in part because it gave designers a relatively inexpensive product to offer a new customer with little money to buy couture but craving a bit of its magic. “And it allowed them to talk about themselves – very, very useful, when you think of it,” he says about fragrance as another medium for fashion storytelling. (The avant-garde juice of Chanel’s debut was arguably more about artistic experimentation than Acne Studios’s olfactory self-portrait, but she’s an outlier.)

As chief taxonomist of the industry guide Fragrances of the World, Edwards has been classifying perfume for more than 40 years. His book American Legends traces the evolution of American fragrances from the 18th century to the present. Its case studies double as a who’s who of fashion history and the role scents play in designer success.

The minimalist American Halston, for instance, debuted his velvety namesake scent in 1975, distilling his clothing’s stripped-down elegance into a sculptural glass teardrop flaçon by jewellery designer Elsa Peretti. Much like his pioneering use of the faux textile Ultrasuede in shirtdresses a few years earlier, the shrewd choice of a formula overdosed in newly patented Iso E Super (a now-famous synthetic ingredient that gives fragrance a similarly plush, cocooning dimension) made the runway-inspired scent a runaway hit.

Equally lucrative were Ralph Lauren’s masculine and feminine debuts Polo and Lauren, which premiered together in 1978. Polo’s British racing green flask and leathery herbal freshness have a clear point of view that send the same message about a sporty, elegant identity as the designer’s preppy clothes. Lauren’s square burgundy body inspired by Victorian inkwells interpreted the traditional tailoring of the brand’s newly launched women’s collection. Their instant success cemented Ralph Lauren’s status as an arbiter of an aspirational lifestyle.

In contrast, it’s easy to forget that Calvin Klein’s eponymous first feminine scent landed on counters that same year. While tasteful, it made no statement of personality. It wasn’t until his next foray, Obsession in 1985, that a scent would achieve the success of Klein’s blockbuster jeans.

The Acne scent is more of a Calvin Klein than a Halston: fine but not fascinating. It’s pleasantly powdery and inviting. Like Acne’s staple jeans and biker jackets, its sense of luxury comes from achieving a comforting and straightforward result via high quality materials. It is, as they say, deceptively simple.

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