The oriental category has included many iconic fragrances like Shalimar or Opium. But its exotic view of the East might be out of place in today’s market.
By Emily Jensen.
When French perfume house Guerlain launched Shalimar in 1921, the scent became a sensation in the fragrance world. Named after the Shalimar Gardens in India and featuring notes of vanilla, sandalwood, civet, and incense, the perfume exemplified what has since become known as the oriental perfume category.
A century later, the scent remains a flagship of Guerlain and the oriental category has inspired countless other fragrances, like Yves Saint Laurent’s blockbuster Opium and Comme des Garçons’ spicy Floriental. But by 2021, the term “oriental,” and its connotations of an exoticized, othered East, had faced some pushback within the fragrance world. This June, British fragrance historian Michael Edwards announced he would replace the term oriental in his fragrance wheel with the word “amber.” “In the world of fragrance, there is a growing sentiment that the word [oriental] is outdated and derogatory,” Edwards said in a press release.
But for others in the fragrance world, the term has increasingly less relevance not because of its offense, but because it is merely outdated and out of step with the fantasy today’s perfume consumers would like to buy into. Contemporary consumers are instead looking for more progressive storytelling in their fragrance, like sleek, gender-neutral scents or purportedly eco-friendly natural aromas.
“It’s a style that was invented by Americans and Europeans fantasizing about the East. It’s in no way a realistic depiction of Asia,” says Steven Gontarski, manager of the niche perfume store Scent Bar in Los Angeles. Gontarski, who is Asian American, says the term still serves a purpose in describing particular scents which fit that Western fantasy of the East. “It’s more a fantasy, which is why I think oriental is a perfect word for it. It’s not Asian, it’s not even real.”
“I have a very specific reason why I think it’s an appropriate word to use, but I can see why people find it problematic,” he adds. “I don’t think it needs to be locked up and thrown away forever, we should still think about the history of perfume and use that word to describe a very specific style.”
Sebastian Jara, the YouTuber behind the popular channel Smelling Great Fragrance Reviews, has stopped using the term “oriental” in his videos. But he personally still enjoys the category, and finds its trademark notes, like spices, vanilla, and amber, are in fact reflective of Middle Eastern tastes.
“I always felt that since I’m Middle Eastern and the Orient referred to the Middle East, to me I was comfortable with that term used to describe perfumes. Because it was referring to a style of perfumery with ingredients I am used to, used in our cuisine and for other usages in our culture,” Jara says. “But I hear people are still offended by it, and I don’t want to offend anyone.”
The term may not be that relevant at all anymore, as Jara says few mainstream brands are even releasing oriental scents these days. “I think the style has changed and evolved from what it once was, when it comes to speaking about mainstream designer perfumery. The classics are there, but they are not embraced by the new generation.”
In the West, the word oriental certainly can carry many harmful connotations, in particular a hypsersexual view of the Middle East and Asia. A 2013 Shalimar ad shows Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova ravished by a man on horseback in a vaguely Middle Eastern location before being shipped to the Taj Mahal. But in certain Asian countries, the term is not so charged.
“In Japan, there are very few people who have a negative image of this word [oriental],” says Yasuyuki Shinohara, founder and perfumer of Hokkaido-based brand Di Ser. To Shinohara, the term oriental does not encompass Japan at all, but rather North Africa and the Middle East.
“We often use this word in perfumes, for example, oriental floral, oriental citrus, oriental beauty,” Shinohara explains. “This is because English does not have the best words to describe Japanese culture and art, so we use these terms when explaining them to Westerners. But in fact, we use the term ‘oriental’ to mean art and culture that is a mixture of East and West.”
Newcomers to fragrance in the U.S., however, might still find the term jarring. Scent Bar refrains from using “oriental” in its store labels for that reason, Gontarski says. But then a quick glance around the store would reveal many perfume names shoppers could take offense to. The pejorative connotations now associated with the term “gyspy” haven’t stopped Gypsy Water from Byredo, the Swedish brand by Indian-Canadian creative Ben Gorham, from being a bestseller.
But few are fighting for oriental to stay in the mainstream vernacular. Whether you find the word offensive or not, the fantasy it projects of an imaginary “East” simply isn’t that appealing to many contemporary consumers, who in a globalized world can easily interact with a more authentic image of the Middle East and Asia. “It seems kind of old fashioned. Things are moving away from that. It’s not really fantasy that captures the imagination anymore,” Gontarski adds.
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