Are We In A New Era Of The Signature Scent?
From scent gatekeeping to obsessing over niche perfume brands, #PerfumeTok proves Gen Z is taking personal fragrance very personally.
At only 16, Lucia De Angelo decided Chanel N˚5 would be her signature scent—and she’s never wavered. Now age 24, she says it’s still her signature fragrance, but her reasoning for it has changed. “I chose it because it’s iconic and because it was supposed to be for ‘grown-ups’ and I wanted to grow up as quickly as possible,” she says. “Now, I use it because it feels like home and childhood. I have grown into it, I couldn't change it even if I tried.”
While the perfume industry has long sold the idea of the “signature scent” (after all, this kind of loyalty secures a customer for life), in recent years the idea has been seemingly threatened by the ever-revolving door of new brands and viral TikTok fragrances. However, Biz Sherbert, culture editor at the creative agency The Digital Fairy says that issue has not quite been the case. The abundance of fragrance content has actually re-marketed the idea of signature scents in a new way and for a new generation. “TikTok has led to more people experimenting with different perfumes, and thus having a stronger opinion on what suits them best,” she says. “It’s also exposing larger audiences to the world of perfume connoisseurship, unlocking a new approach to scent.” Currently, #PerfumeTok has over 2.6 billion views and counting.
“For the new generation of signature scents, it’s less about wearing something recognizably popular and more about curating mystery and exclusiveness.”
Sherbert assays that the fragrance industry’s content boom is growing similarly to how makeup content exploded in the 2010s, with creators like Jeremy Fragrance now attracting followers who otherwise wouldn’t previously have been interested in perfume. Because fragrance can offer instant gratification, “perfume content has the potential to fill the void as many lose interest in skincare and makeup routines with loads of steps,” she explains. “An interest in fragrance also aligns well with the ongoing trend of curating a hyperspecific vibe,” Sherbert adds, noting how even the niche language used by websites like Fragrantica mirrors the kind of language people often use to describe themselves online.
Since scent, emotion, and memory are so intertwined, the search for a defining fragrance is often a quest to be recognized and remembered uniquely—something that’s appealing for a generation obsessed with one-of-a-kind thrift finds. Writer Aley Arion explains, “I never really got that ‘perfume’ talk from my mom or my ex-stepmom growing up, but when I became an auntie in 2015, I started to think about micro-legacies and how my niece and nephew would remember me.” She recalls how the perfume Red Jean by Versace reminds her of her ex-stepmom. “I remember what all the women in my family smelled like. Not just their perfume, but what they cooked, and how their scents lingered on their clothes. I wanted that be intentional about creating that.”
Sherbert says she’s noticed an increase in interest in personal and custom scents after trends like “vabbing” (using your natural body fluids as perfume) and pheromone perfumes have gone viral. Even if people are not engaging in those specific trends, many creators are making “what I smell like” videos, where people show off the layers that create their personal scent, or are even asking their viewers to comment what they think they smell like. A simple spritz of Hollister perfume doesn’t cut it anymore. She sees a pattern of people are branching out to try niche fragrances and avoiding more commercial scents and celebrity fragrances. “People are becoming more interested in how fragrances work with their body chemistry,” she says. “It’s the perfume equivalent of knowing which skin care ingredients work for your skin, specifically.”
“You don't want to be the person at the party walking in wearing a scent everyone can recognize.”
As signature scent becomes even more intertwined with online identity, a perfume going viral can be off-putting for the original wearers. For Omar Taleb, a 23-year-old writer based in Toronto, watching his favorite fragrance gain popularity made him to stop wearing it altogether. “Dior Sauvage used to be my signature scent in high school, but at this point it’s basically like Axe Body Spray,” he says. “You don't want to be the person at the party walking in wearing a scent everyone can recognize.” Taleb explains he has since been hesitant to commit to one scent because it may take off and become too mainstream.
Livia Rose Johnson, based in New York, believes wearing the same scent as someone else is “worse than showing up in the same outfit”. Since she’s partial to rose scents, Livia used to buy all kinds of rose-based perfumes from Joe Malone to Dior, but none of them felt quite right. She then started shopping at metaphysical stores for body and aroma oils. “I felt like that was where I had to go to get the pure scent,” she says. “Right now I wear a mix of opium rose musk and a few other ingredients collected from different stores.”
While the search for a signature scent has existed for generations, increased perfume content online has meant there’s also a heightened awareness of what other people think of your smell. It’s why Replica by Margiela perfumes have taken off on TikTok, says Sherbert, because each one conveys what she calls, “a dreamy life experience”. With fragrance names like, By The Fireplace, Beach Walk, or Lazy Sunday Morning, “a wearer can imagine the scent becoming part of their own personal narrative.” For the new generation of signature scents, it’s less about wearing something recognizably popular and more about curating mystery and exclusiveness. That means yes, personal scent gatekeeping is back.
Then there will always be the signature scents that choose us. Model Beca Michie has worn Taylor Swift’s Wonderstruck perfume since they were 14 years old. Six years later, Michie says they have tried to break away from the fragrance a few times but always goes back to it. “I buy it online and stash it, because I don’t think it’s still being produced,” they say. “I’ll wear a different scent for occasions I don’t care about, so I don’t go through [Wonderstruck] as fast.” Gina Lin, a fragrance developer at Firmenich, first combined Noir 29 by Le Labo and Wet Dew by Nomenclature as testers and has been wearing them both ever since. “They found me and stuck with me,” she says. “Now someone saying those scents remind me of them is my favorite compliment to receive.”