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FASHION : Making Scents of Our Surroundings : The pursuit of aromas for homes and autos has led to a staggering range of fragrances.

October 20, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Escapism is one of our culture's all-time biggest hits. Americans have long sought means to get away from it all, from dime novels to the current definitive illusion, virtual reality.

But, for the disenchanted who balk at sealing themselves off in strange robotic costumes, there is a middle ground.

Light a candle: A bouquet in the air can call up the mood of a forest grotto, a South Seas island, a country meadow. Impressions of your workaday urban condo with its wretched electronic accents will fade. You will experience aromatic reality.

More than at any time in history, perhaps, the country is following its collective nose. Environmental fragrancing products last year generated an estimated $500 million, and so far '94 looks bigger.

Maybe it's because people can't afford to travel to forest grottos, but our theory is it's just tidier to bring the forest ambience home--it saves so much laundry.

So, if your personal space lacks ambience, check the options. Fragrancing has come a long way since knockout pine scent--in a bottle that looked like insect bait--enhanced the bathroom.

Yes, there are better ways to impart atmosphere to the home, from aerosol spray to incense. But romantics will lean toward scented wax.

Candles no longer just burn; they impart aroma--and the choices available are staggering.

At Wicks 'N' Sticks in Thousand Oaks, manager Alecia Echolm couldn't count the number of scents available in the store, but said it was over a hundred, and growing.

"Now there are a lot more sophisticated fragrances," she said, "Before there was, like, cinnamon. Now there's Home Sweet Home, which has cinnamon and spice and clove, you know, combinations."

Some scents sound exotic, others nostalgic--from Rainforest to Bridal Bouquet. Many have the word country in their titles, and one expresses a particularly poignant escape: Clean Air.

Becoming as popular as candles are fragrant waxed chips, which are simmered over a flame in ceramic pots, melting a large pool of wax that produces scent beyond the capacity of several candles.

The chips make it easy to further combine scents, and at Gifted Candle in Ventura, co-owner Deborah Ramsey said she custom bags mixtures of chips and renames the combinations. Here are High Lonesome (cedar and pine), Hill Country (peach and cedar) and an indoor fantasy called Victoria's Secret (lavender, lilac and musk).

In spite of all of these options, the top seller at both stores is French Vanilla, which evokes a modest escape destination: an old-fashioned kitchen.

All the scents are imparted through a blend of oil and paraffin, so those who want to avoid petroleum products may want to use straight aromatic oils instead.

Many candle retailers also carry the oils. And, at The Oaks mall, we found Chestnut Ridge, a specialty shop in a cart, offering oils exclusively.

Here, Joe Fries explained the oil may be dropped on a clay circle called a light ring and placed over a light bulb to diffuse the scent. Or clay pots of oil give off a gentle aroma.

Fries, whose wife, Margaret, owns the business. On the East Coast where the couple lived until last year, nearly every home has added fragrance, he said. "Maybe it's because you spend so much more time in your home there," he said, "Here, people are more interested in their cars."

Fries' theory stems from the fact that more of his customers buy the fragrance vials for cars than for the home. The favorite automotive fragrances, he said, are Rose or Magnolia for women; Apple or Lemon for men.

Just for good measure, we checked to see what less romantic types are doing with their cars.

At Camarillo Car Wash, we learned that one out of three customers wants a scented spray added to the interior. To keep lines moving, there are just five scents to choose from, including Pina Colada and Country Spice. But the big favorites are the more mundane options: good old home-grown Lemon, and running neck and neck with it: a materialist's fantasy known as New Car.

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