It’s the stuff of birthday cakes and ’90s perfumes: Vanilla is nostalgia bottled, and this winter there are many ways to spritz on sentimentality. Indie fragrance houses like Ellis Brooklyn and By/Rosie Jane are putting vanilla front and center in their launches. “You’d think we got together and were like, ‘Hey, let’s all do vanilla,'” says Rosie Jane Johnston, the perfumer behind her namesake brand. “But everyone gravitates emotionally toward the same things.”
Right now, that’s one big olfactive yearning for the days of mall hangouts and baking with mom. “With the chaos over the last three years, I wanted something completely uncomplicated; the ’90s were a more innocent time for me,” says Johnston. “Everyone was wearing vanilla and everything smelled like it: The Body Shop, candles, vanilla-scented Beanie Babies — everything.” The grunge generation’s love for the fragrance note was ignited by 1992’s Thierry Mugler Angel, the first modern gourmand scent and “a heady, perfume-y thing that you didn’t wear, it wore you,” says Bee Shapiro, founder of Ellis Brooklyn. It’s proof that vanilla doesn’t always have to smell like a cupcake — it can even verge on risqué. In fact, vanilla was once used in so many love potions that its sale was banned in Medieval Europe. And its scent has been shown to work as an aphrodisiac on rats. How’s that for sexy?
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These new vanillas are a natural extension of the ’90s redux fashion trend (faded bootcuts, anyone?). Although, to be clear, vanilla scents never entirely disappeared from our lives (unlike those bootcuts). Line up three of your favorite fragrances, and odds are good that there’s some vanilla in at least one because it’s one of perfumery’s most universally comforting scents. “It’s in foods we’ve associated with treats since childhood, such as ice cream,” says Meabh McCurtin, a perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances. “It’s strongly linked to our memories and a signal for pleasure. It’s hard not to feel happy when you smell it.” There’s a reason why people have cookies baking when they’re trying to sell a house, adds Johnston.
To transport you into a cozy, homey place this winter, accessory designer Jennifer Fisher blended vanilla and coconut for her first fragrance, My Scent. “I want anyone wearing it to feel sexy and to smell like a fresh-baked cookie,” says Fisher. By/Rosie Jane Dulce is “a true vanilla, straight up. A tiny amount of Hinoki wood [makes it] elevated, but it’s still just undeniable vanilla,” says Johnston, who most definitely is not exaggerating. Misting it on gives you that same warm-as-a-hug vibe you get from a sniff of vanilla extract. Ellis Brooklyn Vanilla Milk doubles down on the snuggly perfume trend by blending vanilla with a creamy milk accord. “Milks are having a huge moment as well [for their] comfort level,” says McCurtin, the nose behind the scent.
These are not complex, multifaceted perfumes because maybe, just maybe, that’s not what we all need right now. They are the fragrance equivalent of the perfect cashmere sweater and jeans, something you can throw on without thinking about it and feel good wearing. They are joy and simplicity, and that in itself is something to smile about — like a big plate of sugar cookies.