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It Smelled Like Gen X Spirit

Read more about the tech, music, style, books, rules, films and pills that scream Gen X.

In the mid-90s the annual ka-ching count reached approximately $90 million. It “disrupted the fragrance codes of the time,” said Alberto Morillas, the master perfumer who created the scent along with Harry Fremont.

“Everything was a bull’s-eye,” said Mr. Fremont. “Everything was created exactly with this market in mind. And it was a major turning point.”

First, there was the concept itself: the first “unisex” (unisex was the genderless of the ’90s) fragrance, a scent meant for the androgynous slackers that slouched around in one another’s thermals and plaids, that slunk into work in skinny black pantsuits over ribbed tanks and believed in combat boots for all seasons. It was billed as “one for all,” though what that really meant was one for all in this age group, and was greeted as revolutionary. In point of fact, the first perfumes were genderless, and only in the 1930s did the sexes start getting separated. It was then that it occurred to beauty companies that marketing to men might be lucrative. That is to say, CK One wasn’t the first unisex fragrance; it was the first openly marketed unisex fragrance. Which, with its whiff of cynicism, was in itself somehow very Gen X.

That was no accident: According to Mr. Fremont, the original brief came from an extensive study Calvin Klein had conducted on what would appeal to this particular disaffected consumer group.

Then there was the perfume: top notes of bergamot, lemon, mandarin, fresh pineapple, papaya, cardamom, green tree accord; heart notes of florals like violet, rose, lily of the valley; and bottom notes of green tea, oak moss, cedar wood and sandalwood, among others. It was criticized by those who didn’t like it for ultimately being, as one review went, “so intent on being gender-neutral from a perfume aesthetics perspective, that it literally comprises notes that act to neutralize each other, making the most anonymous and androgynous of beige pleasantries ever smelled at the time.”


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