It’s a racist, outdated term, but some of fashion’s biggest brands are still using it to sell fragrances.
When Sue Kim first started working in perfume in 2002, she began in a small boutique in Virginia owned by an Indian and Korean-American couple. Kim sold perfumes based on the feelings a customer wanted to evoke. “Connecting somebody with a fragrance that touches them emotionally is the best way to sell fragrances,” she says. “Not only will they love it, but it’ll sink into their memory.” She remembers her own first bottle of perfume, the cheerful Tommy Girl, which she got 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 of her. Perfume, to her, was more than a commodity — it was a connection to the past.
Looking back, Kim realizes it was unusual that she didn’t learn to sell perfumes using the scent families and genres common in perfume retail today, like floral, aquatic, or gourmand. Perhaps it was because she worked at a shop run by a POC couple who might not have wanted to sell scents with labels that came with a fraught history, like the longstanding family of ‘oriental’ perfumes.
“The word oriental never sat right with me,” Kim says. As an Asian American, the word triggered an emotion. She remembered hearing the term used to describe Asian culture as she was growing up in Philadelphia during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Whether it was used for food or people, mostly, she understood it as a signal of difference, a signal that even if she spoke English and dressed “American,” she’d still always be seen as someone who did not belong. In perfume, she always encountered it attached to the ideas of mystique and exoticism. Sometimes, as a customer, sales reps would suggest “oriental” perfumes to her, not fully understanding what “oriental” meant. Kim wondered what it was supposed to mean, too — did it mean a perfume from an Asian brand, or ingredients from Asia? In fact, it was none of those.
The first “oriental” perfume came from luxury French perfumer Guerlain in 1921. The scent, Shalimar, still proudly touts itself as the “first oriental perfume in history,” with notes of citrus, vanilla, amber, and jasmine. Today, the ad copy still notes it’s 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 scents in perfume history. According to France Amerique, as of 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 perfumes throughout the next few decades, like Coco by Chanel (“a mysterious, 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 never quite agreed to a clear definition of what qualifies a scent as “oriental.” Unlike other genres, like chypre perfumes, which feature a base of oakmoss, the label has no clear boundaries or rules. “[Oriental] was always synonymous with exotic, foreign, this kind of made up image, which was just a spicy, perhaps incensey, smokey perfume,” says Kim. Perhaps the genre would have made more sense in the 1920s, Kim says, when traveling to Asia via scent was a compelling fantasy. But a century has passed. In 2021, India or China is a plane ride away. It’s easy to see the real places that the label is supposed to represent.
“The genre was named after [Shalimar],” says indie perfumer Carter Weeks Maddox, founder of Chronotope perfumes and a fellow advocate against what he’s begun calling the “O-word.” “Along with [the O-word] being racist, it also doesn’t describe anything.”
“They use it because they believe they have the right to use it. It’s an execution of privilege.” - Sue Kim
Still, the perfume industry hung on to the label for most of the 20th century. In retail, the genre might be used to help stores make a quick sale, as a shortcut to evoke a fantasy — usually of the sensual and erotic. For some legacy European perfumers, the genre might be seen as part of their history and heritage, like Guerlain’s pride about inventing the “oriental” perfume with Shalimar. “They use it because they believe they have the right to use it,” says Kim. “It’s an execution of privilege.”
While fashion and beauty has started to wrestle with cultural appropriation, the perfume industry, for the most part, has remained stubbornly in the past. When brands launch scents inspired by their version of Asia, “they just reduce us to this one very racist, outdated image,” Kim says.
But then again, according to Maddox, maybe perfume has always been, in some ways, a tool of imperialism. For instance, take the origin story of the rich, narcotic tuberose, a flower native to India and Mexico, which Spanish conquistadors introduced to Europe after colonizing Mexico. It became one of Louis XIV’s favorite scents 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 are still using it, it’s not going to go away.” In giving up the use of the “oriental” genre, after all, they wouldn’t just be giving up a label — perfumers would be giving up the ability to view the East through their brand’s lens.
Kim, Maddox, and other perfumers are making their anger heard in various ways. Sometimes Kim fires off angry late night Instagram DMs to brands still using the label. She also notices when Maddox calls out an organization on its 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 about explaining why the word is offensive. “I don’t really leave much room for debate,” Kim says. “This is why I keep wanting more Asian people to speak up. We have the consumer power, right? If a brand is offending us, if we don’t buy from them, they’re going to stop using the word.”
Consumers have still never organized a boycott, but the industry has been slowly changing. This year, the British Society of Perfumers and the Fragrance Foundation both issued public statements about removing the “oriental” genre from use. “Within the context of perfumery, the term oriental was never intended to be offensive, but perceptions change. After long 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 boutiques like LuckyScent have switched their “oriental” genre to “exotic” (another charged and othering word), while big department stores and Sephora have quietly started classifying perfumes by easy to understand categories like “spicy” or “fresh.” “It’s funny how quickly people actually will turn their back on the word whenever they learn what it does, the effects of it,” Maddox says.
But while things have changed for some perfumers, legacy European perfume houses like Guerlain and Chanel and L’artisan Parfumeur hold on to their “oriental” labels, and some indie perfumers still appropriate Eastern culture as their own. In 2018, the luxury perfume market was valued at almost $12 billion. Even today, it still profits off of selling bottles of an outdated, racist fantasy. (Guerlain, Chanel, and L’artisan Parfumeur did not respond to requests for comment.)
Once, Kim remembers going to a perfume show where a representative stopped her from taking a photo of a Chanel perfume, saying that they’d had issues with Chinese counterfeiters. Kim tried to explain that she was a perfume collector, pulling up her Instagram for evidence. She thinks about this memory, still. “It just highlights what the perfume industry thinks of Asian people, Asian consumers. Is that really how you teach people to deal with customers? You teach them to stereotype and offend them?”
Kim remembers other instances of feeling like an outsider in her years of working in the industry, like being the only Asian American in the room, noticing moments of racism but not speaking up, moments she didn’t press back on. “I think especially in my generation, we were told not to speak up. We were told to go to school, work hard, don’t cause trouble and succeed,” Kim says. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1983, when she was 3 years old. Her family had a classic immigrant’s story: arriving in a new country, not speaking a lick of English, working any job they had to get by. So even when she experienced racism, there was a sense of having to tolerate it, to get by. “And that’s what's happened in the perfume industry. It’s almost been like, oh, it’s too big to tackle. So let’s just put our heads down and not get fired,” Kim says.
Today, though, she no longer holds back. She works as a freelance consultant for many indie perfume brands, helping them create strategies and visions for new scents. In Kim’s contract, she specifies that the brands she works with must agree to stop using the “oriental” label. So far, they’ve all agreed.