Monday, August 9, 2010

Calvin Klein's Obsession(s)

Most of my favorite fragrances didn't impress me much upon first sniff. It was only after I wore them for a week or so that their magic started to take hold and I fully appreciated their many facets. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of my favorites come from another era; today's fragrances, almost to a one, are designed to smell great to the prospective buyer instantly without any delayed gratification or subtle development. I smelled Armani Code and liked it straightaway. Calvin Klein's Obsession (1985), after spraying it from one of the 15ml minis that my local Zellers stocks like candy, smelled like "Department Store Fragrance Counter, 1991". A bit floral, a bit spicy, a bit warm and vanillic, and very, very familiar. I wasn't hugely impressed, but I'd paid for it so I figured I'd give it a few days to see if it grew on me.

And grow it did. It grew exponentially. It was the only fragrance I wore for a good three months. The bitter, spicy wallop up top, the rich, boozy floral heart and the vanillic, woody base became olfactory catnip to me. I sprayed it on my pillow and on bookmarks. Wearing it made me feel mysterious, subversive, and (yes) sexy. It stopped smelling slightly dated and started smelling like just about the Best Damn Perfume Ever.

Naturally, I got a bit worn out on it and started wearing other things, but I still come back to Obsession often and it never lets me down. The opening herbal/green/leathery sucker-punch is sort of a make-or-break moment; either you love its sharp bite or you recoil. (This is also the most "butch" stage of the fragrance, for the men in the audience looking to expand their fragrance selection. Obsession is a great starting point - nothing girly about this stuff.) Once the top fades, Obsession becomes softer and thicker, with an ambery floral accord that's smoky and almost damp. Notes of brown sugar, coriander, musk, and (I swear, though no list of notes proves me correct) chili pepper waft throughout. The drydown is mostly a mossy, woody, blessedly dry vanilla with a whisper of patchouli. The sillage is tremendous - more than two sprays and you can clear an elevator - and the lasting power is excellent without being nuclear. Despite its '80s connotations and many imitators, Obsession remains a well-crafted, luscious bombshell of a scent. It's also one of the few oriental fragrances that bloom beautifully in the heat of summer, at least on my skin - must be the green edge, which keeps it out of the dusty and suffocating territory occupied by the likes of Youth Dew and Shalimar.

Obsession for Men, relased a year after the original, initially struck me as hopelessly dated and obnoxious, a fragrance for a Wall Street power broker with shellacked hair and a looming midlife crisis. I first smelled it from a sample I got in a charity event gift bag two years ago and decided it was inarguably Not Me. My fragrance tastes being expanded these days, and my love for '80s powerhouse scents in full swing, I bought a mini of it a few weeks ago and was taken aback. Either it's been reformulated recently (I have no idea how old my first sample was) or I've become more accustomed to strong orientals than I thought I was; Obsession for Men strikes me as quite powdery, with a woodier quality than the women's version and much less heavy. It brings to mind spicy talcum powder, damp leaves and dried vanilla beans over a bed of smoky cedar and sweet musk, like a less cloying and synthetic version of Gaultier's Le Mâle. The sillage is good but not overpowering, and the lasting power is typical for a men's eau de toilette on my skin - about 4-5 hours. I like it, but it's not at all what I was expecting, and it's miles removed from the image conjured by its name and the associated scent memories of the '80s and early '90s. It's also not dramatically masculine - most orientals read as fairly unisex to my nose anyway, but Obsession for Men is particularly soft and easily wearable for women. In a blind sniff you may confuse the two Obsessions with their intended genders.

Both versions are ripe for rediscovery and renewed appreciation. Obsession is the perfect antidote to the candied-sweet swill currently dominating the women's fragrance market, and Obsession for Men is the perfect antidote to...well, just about everything happening on the men's side. Give these two hits of the '80s a fresh spin.

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