The perfumes of Estée Lauder have always intrigued me; I grew up with them on my grandmas’ dressers (Youth Dew for Grandma Ruby, Pleasures for Grandma Louann), played with the bottles while my mom got new makeup at Clinique, had a weird, short-lived love affair with Beyond Paradise.
As I got more and more into perfume culture, I read all about the Estée classics; the writers were basically falling all over themselves with love and respect for these old-school fragrances. For a while, the classic Estées were hidden under the counter and you had to ask for Private Collection or Aliage, but not anymore! The company dusted off the fusty bottles, gave them an Instagram-worthy makeover and put them on display once again.
I’ve already dallied with Youth Dew and White Linen (which my mom wore at my age), but I wasn't satisfied with that tip of the iceberg — no way. There’s nothing I like more than hanging out with a challenging perfume for a few days.
I asked Estée Lauder to send me a few of the big classics, and then I took each one along with me as I did my daily errands, seeing how these powerhouse perfumes work in 2016. Spoiler alert: They do! You just have to ~*open your mind.*~ And your nose, of course. Your nose is important.
Estée Lauder’s vacation home in the Cap d’Antibes inspired her to create Azurée, but it’s most definitely not a beachy scent.
Azurée isn’t easy to get to know; its complex blend of leather and woody notes means it can be polarizing. The opening notes are quite herbal, with bergamot shoving the lighter gardenia aside and taking up all the space. As it develops, Azurée becomes a woody, yet still a little floral chypre. To some, it might smell dated, but to me, it smells like something that’s about to come back in fashion. Azurée is also quite unisex.
While he was working as art director for Estée Lauder, Tom Ford released Azurée Soleli, which later (mostly) became Bronze Goddess. Please note that Azurée does not smell anything like Bronze Goddess. Still great, though.
I just love Estée. It absolutely sparkles, and it should – it was created to smell the way a chandelier’s jewels look. Once you smell it, I promise that makes sense.
Estée isn't necessarily a beautiful fragrance, per se, but there's something special about it. It's a beautiful woman who's a little bit tough and flinty, and though she's wearing Oscar de la Renta, she's not thrilled about it. The perfume is a bomb of aldehydes (perfume speak for the notes that lift a scent up, or make it feel "bubbly" or "soapy") blended with bright citrus top notes and a dark, almost-weird oakmoss base. Many of Estée's longterm fans have taken to the Internet to complain about the reformulation, but I've never smelled the original. (Perfumes often need to be reformulated from their vintage version because of new laws and regulations regarding the ingredients, or perhaps a certain ingredient has become insanely expensive.)
Of the four fragrances I tested, Estée is the one that feels the most like me ... the me who sips champagne all day on a crisp spring day in a super-sexy white suit. You know, the real me.
Aliage was created as Estée’s first “sports fragrance,” which means it’s supposed to be worn doing very WASP-y sports like tennis and horseback riding. Aliage is a very ‘70s fragrance, all green and clean with a sweaty, just-exercised edge. Now Smell This calls Aliage “unabashedly American,” and that’s bang-on. It doesn’t smell like a French perfume in the slightest, and it isn’t; after all, Estée Lauder is one of the most famous and respected American perfume houses of all time, and the fact that they keep fragrances like Aliage on the shelves long after their moment of popularity is heartening.
Luca Turin, the famous perfume critic, basically falls all over himself to compliment the Estée scents, and for good reason. Each one was painstakingly crafted to suit a particular point in time and an Estée customer. Aliage smells like the air after you’ve mowed the lawn, and maybe you forgot deodorant while you were mowing - but it's the good kind of sweat!
Cinnabar was the biggest surprise for me; it’s the scent I thought I’d love the most and I actually ended up liking it least. Cinnabar was launched in the late ‘70s as a competitor to YSL’s mega-popular Opium, and it smells quite similar, with intensely spicy notes of cinnamon and clove in a vanilla and amber base. Since I’ve always liked gourmand and warm, spicy scents, I thought Cinnabar and I would get along just great. However, I don’t think clove is for me, and the clove notes in Cinnabar are very strong.
Cinnabar is not a quiet fragrance; it opens with a strange blend of aldehydes, peach and plum, then settles into the spicier notes as you wear it. Like Azuree, I can see Cinnabar having a renaissance in the future when people get sick of laundry-soap wan florals. The powerhouse ‘80s tired out everyone’s noses and they needed a break, OK?
But for those of us who were wearing eau de baby powder in the '80s, these perfumes can feel totally new and fresh if we let go of their old-school reputation and try them in this Instagrammable era. I quite like the idea of wearing a vintage perfume with a super-modern outfit, or a head full of pink hair.
Photos by Amy Gee.