from Guerlain’s Shalimar up to Yves-Saint Laurent’s Opium. Over more than 100 years, Western perfumeries have turned to the East to tell the stories behind their fragrances. However, over the last few years, the backlash has grown against the usage of the name “Oriental”- the term traditionally used by people who live in the West to refer to the East as a classification of scents and in marketing. Today, a new generation of perfume lovers are turning to TikTok to take on the battle.
“It’s offensive, outdated, and not useful when describing fragrance,” said perfume critic Leila Inocentes (@leilainocentes) in a TikTok video posted last month. Inocentes demanded that fragrance companies not use”the “O word” due to the “racist and violent history” that is associated with the word. Vietnamese-Canadian marketing consultant and TikTok creator Han Tang (@theperfumemenagerie) also posted her thoughts last month on the term and how its usage in perfume perpetuates stereotypes.
They’re a part of the more significant movement growing in the wake of Black Lives Matter in 2020 and Stop Asian Hate in 2021, in which industry professionals and consumers started questioning the usage of Oriental as a term to describe fragrances. Since then, certain companies have slowly moved away from the time and associated images. But experts and TikTokers claim that the process is slow and slowed by opposition from certain brands. There still needs to be more done to eliminate the colonization of perfumery.
Some critics say that the term Oriental can be outdated as it portrays an image of the East through the Western lens that perpetuates stereotypes and causes the homogenization of diverse cultures. In perfumery, it’s been used to describe solid and spicy scents since the beginning of the 20th century (Shalimar one of the first examples — was launched around 1920). “In perfume teaching, Oriental is used to denote a warm, sensual note, which could be vanilla from Mexico, tree resins from the Middle East or spices from India,” says Tasha Marks, the founder of AVM Curiosities. The company creates interactive experiences for museums, such as The V&A, British Museum and National Gallery. “Out of context, it can be used to refer to an overall ‘other’. When we use that term it doesn’t do justice to the raw materials that come from these countries] and we’re not bringing justice to these peoples’ cultures.”
Yves Saint Laurent and models at the 1978 Opium launch in New York.
In the year 2020, a group of perfumers from diverse backgrounds came together to form a group, Future Olfactive. The group aimed to raise the profile and increase the number of marginalized BIPOC participants in the fragrance industry. “[We] publicly talked about how we’d like to reframe the eurocentric standards of perfumery [and] to transform the industry with new nomenclature,” says founding member Dana El Masri, who is also the founder of Jazmin Sarai Parfum. Others included Yosh Han, the founder of the Yosh perfume label. While the group is no more active, its database has been transferred to Scent Festival, an online resource whose goal is to liberate perfumery by educating.
in 2021 Scent Festival launched a Change.org petition to “Reclassify ‘Oriental’ and ‘Floriental’ (floral Oriental) in the fragrance industry”. Scent Festival claims it is because “these terms are outdated, derogatory and offensive,” saying: “These words were formed through the lens of colonialism when Anglo-European countries viewed themselves as the centre of the world and everything else was East; sensual, exotic and fetishised.”
Orientalism frequently portrays the East as unpredictably unpredictable, insane, and emotional in comparison to the rational logic of the West, according to Dr. Seyed Ali Alavi, professor at SOAS University of London. This narrative has led to the violence that has been aimed at Asian groups, and this increased after the outbreak of Covid-19. “Asian Americans in America found themselves walking along the street, [having] insults hurled at them,” states Michael Edwards, fragrance expert and the creator of Fragrances of The World’s scent wheel. The product is utilized by a variety of companies, including Sephora, The Perfume Shop and Ulta.
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The summer of 2021 saw Edwards make a change to his Oriental aroma classification of the fragrance wheel. It was changed in the direction of “ambery,” which is often used to refer to warm sweet notes. “Who is going to continue using a word that evokes feelings of anger, animosity? It’s not a matter of importance as long as amber solves the problem,” he explains.
Vanilla is among the ingredients found in Amber notes.
Inocentes claims that it is not logical to consider Oriental as a smell classification. “What does it mean to smell Asian?” she asks in the TikTok video. “More accurate ways to describe smells would be ambery, woody, spicy.” Linda Pilkington, founder of the London-based perfume house Ormonde Jayne, agrees: “Oriental refers to a specific region or a part of the globe. It has nothing to do with the type of scent.”
A lot of brands are now using amber, including Guerlain, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, Dior and Ormonde Jayne. However, searching on the internet for “Oriental perfume” online returns an array of results from different brands. Certain brands explicitly utilize Oriental in their names for their perfumes and are accompanied by marketing material that invokes photos that depict “ancient Persian oasis gardens glistening gold with evening dew” or “the distinctive, almost magical, atmosphere of an oriental palace.” A number of European multi-brand retailers employ Oriental to refer to a range of scents.
Refusal to alter
Yosh’s Han, who provides consultation services for clients like Liberty London, Barneys New York, and Anthropologie USA, points out that the perfume industry is mostly situated in Europe as opposed to fashion, for instance, which tends to be more globally oriented. “Even though historically, the French have dominated fashion or Italy, there have been such strong powerhouses from Japan, Korea, China,” she says.
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Colonialism is a deeply embedded part of the industry, largely because most raw materials originate directly from “countries that were colonised and still experiencing the aftermath,” Han says. “When you have fragrance suppliers who dictate the price in their fancy air conditioned offices while the farmers have no power over those costs, the dynamics are not favourable to POC.”
AVM Curiosities’ Marks claims that the benefits of marketing of orientalism are a factor in its use over time. “Oriental is a term that plays with the imagination, which is the good side of it. But, if when you look back at a lot of the advertisements for perfume and it’s more than only the word, but the image and everything else associated with it. It’s incredibly colonial,” she says.
Consultant Yosh Han.
The influence of consumer awareness could be driving changes. “Consumers need more information. They want more transparency not just sound clips,” says Han. “The change is happening because of the popularity of perfume TikTok and young people and it is clear that there are more youthful perfume TikTokers of different colors. They want to know more about perfumery. They are in search of all the knowledge. Also, since the internet is filled with Tik Tok videos, all of this information is easier to disseminate. The younger generation has a huge desire to know more.”
El Masri El Masri, from Jazmin Sarai, is adamant about an inability to tolerate ignorance. “The manner in which people talk and the way they perceive things is changing. It’s an ideal time for the fragrance industry to also change. It’s a continuously evolving business, as we need to evolve, whether regulatory or ingredient-wise or environmental wise. Therefore, why don’t we evolve also in terms of culture?”