1987, St. Pierre and Miquelon…. I was 18 years old, and used Finesse hairspray to tame my crazy head of curls. I was in love, heart-splayed-open, can’t-catch-my-breath love, for the first time in my life, with a French boy. The affair lasted the 3 months I was in St. Pierre to study French, but has become iconic to me, a touchstone of romance I can call up whenever I want….if I am able to find a bottle of Finesse shampoo.
Signature fragrances are not for me. I’ve tried them. Love’s Baby Soft when I was a teenager….somehow ending up in my stocking every Christmas post age 14, a curiously strong scent that came to represent Christmas for me, but wasn’t how I wanted to represent my true self. I tried on scents of women that were special to me… Chanel No.5, White Shoulders, Giorgio, Anais Anais. I loved these scents and the women that wore them, but none of them smelled like me.
The first perfume I ever bought for myself was LouLou by Cacharel. I was drawn by the bottle, a blue, jewel-shaped flask with a red stopper. It made me feel how I wanted to feel at 20- exotic, special and devastatingly feminine. There are a handful of boyfriends whose memories lie wrapped in that scent, but above them all, there is an image of me, so very young, stupid and beautiful, more in love with herself than any of them, a girl whose dreams deserved a really arresting bottle and a scent that suggested opium dens and velvet, an exotica far beyond her small-town roads and college routines. It was the closest I came to having a signature, and I’ve often thought about ordering the odd vintage bottle on ebay, just to remember.
In my artist days, I took to wearing Sandalwood and Patchouli. When I came to Korea, the Koreans kept asking me if I were sick, mistaking the scent for herbal medicine. One night, at Macondo, a salsa bar in Hongdae, an older American man stood next to me at the bar, and said ” Oh my god. You smell like my rec room, circa 1979. Can I smell you?” I took a shot, let him smell my neck, and put my perfumes away, for many years.
About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to start wearing perfume again. I discovered Demeter and Black Pheonix Alchemy Labs. I ordered vial upon vial of dark, true scent with names like Asphodel and De Sade. Everytime I travelled, I bought a sample pack of big-name perfumes. I threw all my little bottles in a basket, and picked one at random each day, letting the name, the mood of the scent define me, for a few hours. I still do.
You never know which Shelley will show up, nor do I. I have a floral, hyper-femine persona who will offer to help you with the copier and make the coffee- if I pick my bottle of Belle De Nuit by Fragonard that morning. I might cast long eyelashes at you and make little restless sighs over the computer if I’ve come to work wearing Blood Kiss ( BPAL) . God help your heart if I’ve pulled All Night Long ( BPAL) from my cupboard of tricks.Oh and the scent of Birthday Cake( Demeter ) in the corridor? That was me, smiling all the way to class.
I don’t act anymore. Still, I love dressing up, becoming someone else. Yes, I know scent-free is the thing now, and I respect that. Usually, you have to get really, really close to me to know how I smell. Instead, I project the attitude of the scent I’m wearing. You’ll know I’m wearing Clinique Happy because my smile comes the moment I see you. The moments that I am withdrawn, moody and deep inside myself…Clinique Aromatic Elixir is my scent and you’ll know it before you ever smell it.
And there are moments…. where the experience I have with a particular person becomes intensely fused with the scent of what I am wearing. These moments don’t even have to be romantic or intense; they just come seeping under my base notes and infusing themselves into the shade of Shelley I am that day.
If I can name the scent that makes me think of you, I’ve really loved you. And I will think of you everytime I wear that scent, which I will pick at random, you filling my day and my thoughts like an accident, no matter what age I am, where I live or what I’m thinking about, what I’m writing.
And for a day, a couple of hours, you become my signature.