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Change Is in the Air : Forget seduction and sin. Perfume of the '90s holds the promise of purity, optimism and global well-being.

August 06, 1993|DEBRA GENDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Using seduction to sell perfume is a time-honored practice. Decades before Richard Avedon's sexually charged com mercials for Calvin Klein's Obsession in 1985, Dana in troduced a now-famous image of a hot-blooded violinist kissing his accompanist to sell Tabu.

But watch closely during the next two months as more than a dozen new fragrances hit the market. Something's in the air, and it's not necessarily L'Air du Temps.

This fall, the perfumes dominating the $4.8-billion fragrance business will smell of freshness, purity and nature. Their ad campaigns are chaste, and the message, according to some, is redemption--as in "going back to the way things were, before drugs, loose living and AIDS," says Annette Green, president of the New York-based Fragrance Foundation.

But what does purity smell like?

Mostly plants and herbs, it turns out. Among the great fresh hopes: the fruity-floral 360 Perry Ellis; the "entirely natural" Tribu by Benetton; crisp-smelling Mariel (as in Hemingway) by H2O Plus. Add to the list Clarins' Elysium, La Prairie's just-launched signature scent, Delicious by Gale Hayman and Annick Goutal's Eau d'Hadrien, and you have a confluence of light scents not seen since the '50s.

"We went through that whole hard-rock thing of '80s," says Green, ticking off the decades by their smell, "the designer fragrances of '70s . . . in the '60s there was musk and hippies." The desire for lighter scents, she contends, "is more economic than anything else. Times are tight. People are re-examining their lives." And in the view of those who sell fragrance, consumers are nostalgic for a more traditional, innocent time.

Sophia Grosfman, an odor evaluator--commonly referred to as a "nose"--at International Flavors and Fragrances Inc., New York, attributes the trend in "feminine" perfumes to the social climate:

"We're going back to the way it used to be. A woman wants a man to follow and a man to love."

She likens the shifting winds of fragrance to those in fashion. "We tried pants, but they were too castrating to men. Fragrances are like fashion--an accessory to the person. The new fragrances are a little less arrogant, a little less intrusive."

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Purification through fragrance is tried and true. In "A Natural History of the Senses," Diane Ackerman writes that "the floors of medieval castles were strewn with rushes, lavender and thyme, which were thought to prevent typhus."

Perhaps, the thinking goes, perfumes made with similar botanicals can stamp out the sensory memory of a decade rank with overindulgence. From 1990 to 1992, the amount of essential oils sold in the United States increased by 102.6 million ounces, according to the Fragrance Materials Assn.

The emphasis on natural scents by members of the fragrance status quo reflects an attempt to reach those young women who, for the past few years, have bypassed perfume counters for aromatherapy boutiques. At shops like Bodyography in Century City, shoppers--often with their boyfriends in tow--blend their own fragrances, scented soaps, massage oils and shampoos. For the uninitiated, there are books describing the healing or behavior modifying properties of various plant extracts.

One might be tempted to label aromatherapy shops outposts of pseudo-science, except that the scientific community has recently begun examining the relationship between odor and behavior, the studies often funded by fragrance companies.

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More and more, people are relying on their senses to assess their own well-being, says Susan Schiffman, professor of medical psychology at Duke University Medical Center.

Schiffman recently conducted a study of the influence of odor on mood. A large number of women were divided into four groups: subjects menstruating; those not menstruating; those taking estrogen; those taking estrogen and progesterone. At various times, each group was given a fragrance, a placebo or nothing. "Fragrance improved mood in all groups," she says.

"The best way to explain it is that odor stimulates the limbic system (the part of the brain that controls emotions, behavior and smell). Anatomically, the odor center of the brain and the emotional center overlap."

Feeling better--and smelling better--through science is what the Menlo Park-based Erox Corp. is banking on with its new fragrances, Realm Men and Realm Women. Erox scientists caused a stir in the media recently by claiming to have successfully replicated human pheromones, a chemical substance secreted by the body to produce a response in others. Unfortunately, the pheromones merely cause the wearer to--in the words of the company's marketing campaign--"feel more confident and competent." Not exactly Love Potion No. 9.

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Indeed, women who work, go to church, garden and raise babies don't want to smell like smoldering sexpots. They'd much rather feel good about themselves, according to market research and focus groups--and fresh, a word that turns up repeatedly in the marketing literature of this season's perfumes.

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