Stop using the term “oriental” to sell perfume
When Sue Kim started working in perfume in 2002, she started out in a small boutique in Virginia owned by an Indian and Korean-American couple. Kim sold fragrances based on feelings a customer wanted to evoke. “Connecting someone with a scent that touches them emotionally is the best way to sell scents,” she says. “Not only will they love it, but it will stick in their memory.” She remembers her first bottle of perfume, the cheerful Tommy Girl, which she received as a gift from her sister-in-law in 1994. Her sister-in-law has since passed away, but every time she smells Tommy Girl, she thinks to her. Perfume, for her, was more than a commodity – it was a link to the past.
Looking back, Kim realizes that it was unusual that she didn’t learn how to sell fragrance using the fragrance families and genres common in fragrance retail today, such as floral fragrances, aquatic or greedy. Maybe it was because she worked in a boutique run by a POC couple who might not have wanted to sell fragrances with labels that had a storied history, like the long-running “Oriental” fragrance family. “.
“The word oriental never appealed to me,” Kim says. As an Asian American, the word triggered an emotion. She remembers hearing the term used to describe Asian culture when she was growing up in Philadelphia in the 80s and 90s. Whether it was used for food or people, most of the time she understood it as a signal of difference, a signal that even though she spoke English and dressed in American style, she would still be seen as someone out of place. In perfumery, she has always encountered him attached to the ideas of mysticism and exoticism. Sometimes, as a customer, the sales people suggested “oriental” perfumes to her, not quite understanding what “oriental” meant. Kim also wondered what it was supposed to mean – was it a fragrance from an Asian brand or ingredients from Asia? In fact, it was none of that.
The first “oriental” perfume came from the luxury French perfumer Guerlain in 1921. The perfume, Shalimar, still proudly presents itself as the “first oriental perfume in history”, with notes of citrus fruits, vanilla, amber and jasmine. Today, ad copy still notes that it is inspired by “the passionate love story between an emperor and an Indian princess”, and emphasizes “desire” and “sensuality”. Shalimar quickly became Guerlain’s second best-selling fragrance and one of the most iconic fragrances in the history of perfume. According to France Amérique, in 2017 there were 108 bottles of Shalimar sold every hour.
After the success of Shalimar, the “oriental” genre took off. The marketing term was applied to other iconic fragrances over the following decades, such as Chanel’s Coco (“a mysterious and provocative oriental fragrance”) and YSL’s Opium (“[symbolizing] Yves Saint Laurent’s fascination with the Orient and his unique understanding of a woman’s hidden emotions and inexplicable passions”).
And yet, perfumers have never quite agreed on a clear definition of what qualifies a perfume as “oriental”. Unlike other genres, like chypre fragrances, which feature an oakmoss base, the label has no clear boundaries or rules. “[Oriental] has always been synonymous with the exotic, the foreign, that kind of invented image, which was just a spicy, maybe incense, smoky scent,” says Kim. Perhaps the genre would have made more sense in the 1920s, Kim says, when traveling to Asia via perfume was an irresistible fantasy. But a century has passed. In 2021, India or China is one plane ride away. It’s easy to see the real places the label is meant to represent.
“The genus was named after [Shalimar]says independent perfumer Carter Weeks Maddox, founder of Chronotope fragrances and another advocate of what he’s come to call the “O-word.” “With [the O-word] being racist, that doesn’t describe anything either.
“They use it because they believe they have the right to use it. This is a privilege execution. -Sue Kim
Yet the perfume industry clung to the label for most of the 20th century. In retail, gender could be used to help stores make a quick sale, as a shorthand for evoking a fantasy – usually sensual and erotic. For some legacy European perfumers, the genre could be seen as part of their history and heritage, like Guerlain’s pride in having invented “oriental” perfume with Shalimar. “They use it because they believe they have the right to use it,” Kim explains. “This is a privilege execution.”
While fashion and beauty began to struggle with cultural appropriation, the perfume industry, for the most part, remained stubbornly in the past. When brands release fragrances inspired by their version of Asia, “they just reduce us to this very racist, outdated image,” Kim says.
But then again, according to Maddox, perhaps perfume has always been, in some ways, a tool of imperialism. For example, take the origin story of the rich narcotic tuberose, a flower native to India and Mexico, which the Spanish conquistadors brought to Europe after colonizing Mexico. It became one of Louis XIV’s favorite perfumes and was a popular perfume ingredient in the Victorian era, symbolizing “dangerous pleasures”. Tuberose, as an ingredient, is a way for Europeans to show off their imperial conquest, Maddox explains. “As long as institutions use it, it’s not going away.” By foregoing the use of the “Oriental” genre, after all, they wouldn’t simply be giving up a label — perfumers would be giving up the ability to see the Orient through the lens of their brand.
Kim, Maddox and other perfumers are making their anger heard in a variety of ways. Sometimes Kim sends angry Instagram DMs late at night to brands that still use the label. She also notices when Maddox calls out an organization about their use of the word and offers to continue the conversation from the perspective of a Korean American. It’s about collaboration and support, Kim says, but the next step is to explain why the word is offensive. “I don’t really leave much room for debate,” Kim says. “That’s why I keep wanting more Asians to speak up. We have consumer power, don’t we? If a brand offends us, if we don’t buy from them, they’re going to stop to use the word.
Consumers have never organized a boycott, but the industry is slowly changing. This year, the British Society of Perfumers and the Fragrance Foundation both issued public statements on the removal of the “Oriental” genre. “In the context of perfumery, the term oriental was never intended to be offensive, but perceptions are changing. After extensive consultation, we have decided to use our position of influence to provide a more inclusive vocabulary,” the British Society of Perfumers wrote.
Over the past two years, online perfume shops like LuckyScent have changed their genre from “oriental” to “exotic” (another loaded word and another), while department stores and Sephora have quietly begun to categorize perfumes by easy-to-understand categories like “spicy”. or “fresh”. “It’s funny how quickly people turn their backs on the word every time they learn what it does, its effects,” Maddox says.
But while things have changed for some perfumers, older European perfume houses like Guerlain and Chanel and L’artisan Parfumeur retain their “Oriental” labels, and some independent perfumers still appropriate Oriental culture as their own. In 2018, the luxury fragrance market was valued at nearly $12 billion. Even today, he profits from the sale of bottles of an outdated and racist fantasy. (Guerlain, Chanel and L’artisan Parfumeur did not respond to requests for comment.)
Kim once recalled going to a perfume show where a representative stopped her from taking a photo of a Chanel perfume, saying they had had trouble with Chinese counterfeiters. Kim tried to explain that she was a perfume collector, pulling her Instagram for proof. She still thinks about that memory. “It just underscores what the perfume industry thinks of Asians, Asian consumers. Is that really how people are taught to deal with customers? Are you teaching them to stereotype and offend them?”
Kim recalls other times when she felt like an outsider during her years working in the industry, such as being the only Asian American in the room, noticing moments of racism but not speaking up , moments on which she did not insist. “I think especially in my generation we were told not to talk. We were told to go to school, work hard, not cause trouble and be successful,” Kim says. Her parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1983, when she was 3 years old. His family had a classic immigrant story: arriving in a new country, speaking no English, working any job to get by. So, even when she experienced racism, she felt she had to tolerate it, to get out of it. “And that’s what happened in the perfume industry. It was almost like, oh, it’s too big to tackle. So let’s put our heads down and don’t get fired,” Kim said.
Today, however, she is no longer holding back. She works as an independent consultant for many independent fragrance brands, helping them create strategies and visions for new fragrances. In Kim’s contract, she specifies that the brands she works with must commit to no longer using the “oriental” label. So far, they’re all okay.