Zoologist Perfumes: animal subjectivity and empathetic imagination

Because, for most people, perfume is mainly about smelling good, niche perfumes — those that, by definition, do not aim to be pleasing to the masses — can be confounding. How, in God’s name, could anyone want to smell like a bat’s cave, oily rubber, or, gasp, a slightly warm armpit encased in a leather jacket? But because perfume is both a mass consumer luxury item and a sometimes avant-garde artistic expression, the range of what perfume is thought to be and is meant to do is wide indeed.

It’s because of this apparent space between commodity and high art that smaller perfume houses like Imaginary Authors, Zoologist, and a number of others really stand out. Though both offer a concept that is immediately and intuitively appealing, fictional fictions and animal icons — i.e., highly collectible lines of consumer products — they also push the wearer into territory beyond the merely “pretty,” “sexy,” or “cuddly” of mainstream designer fare, sometimes well beyond. Instead of functioning simply as an accessory one wears, some of these highly creative smaller perfume houses explicitly invite the wearer to experience alternate narratives or perspectival shifts that can challenge both one’s nose and one’s very idea of what perfume is supposed to be and do.

Zoologist Perfumes has revealed itself to be highly adept at bridging the distance between experiential art and comfortable consumerism. On the one hand, the entire line, and each fragrance is based and named for a particular animal — for example, Beaver, Civet, Camel, Hummingbird, and DoDo — is a siren song to collectors. This charming collectibility is amped up by bottles that portray anthropomorphized, Victorian drawings of each animal. And, to be sure, some of the Zoologist fragrances are, to my nose, accessibly pretty and pleasant, e.g., Hummingbird, Nightingale, and (the reformulated) Beaver. Others, though, are quite challenging, e.g., Hyrax, Bat, Moth, and Tyrannosaurus Rex, and all invite, even if they do not all require, a deeply considered experience from the sniffer.

Not surprisingly, there are those who scoff at the apparently gimmicky nature of houses like Zoologist and Imaginary Authors with their sometimes cute and precious concepts and narratives. See Fragrantica if you don’t believe me. On the one hand, more mainstream consumers often find these scents to be too weird. But another complaint seems to be based on the belief that a perfume should stand on its own, without requiring the explanations and elaborate contextualizing that occurs in the packaging. And part of me wants to agree. If I have to provide a paragraph explaining and preparing the reader for my poem, then my poem is, perhaps, not very good. “Show, don’t tell!,” budding novelists are reminded. And I can’t deny that some of the Zoologist and Imaginary Authors perfumes definitely do become more interesting when experienced alongside their accompanying narratives and images.

But I also think that it may sometimes be unfair, and even impossible, to expect to be able to separate the packaging — with its text and images — from the “juice,” as perfume people refer to it. Certainly, most artistic and consumer products take advantage of all sorts of culturally shared stereotypes and tropes to frame their work very deliberately, and so manipulate the viewer’s (or reader’s, or wearer’s) experience of the product. So, for example, though Chanel no. 5 is often thought to stand as an artistic masterpiece, this is largely because of the place no. 5 occupies in a now-bourgeois story of “sophisticated femininity,” albeit a story so ubiquitous that we may have effectively become anosmic to it. Unhelpfully, of course, Chanel still offers up explanations in its PR material anyway, the usual claptrap aimed at getting us to spend.

All this is a far cry from rhino breath and beaver fur which is precisely why I am so taken with the Zoologist line (I focus more on Imaginary Authors in a future post). While the company may well be capitalizing on our bourgeois penchant for collecting — perhaps in this respect its appeal is not so different from Beanie Babies or American Girl dolls — Zoologist is also inviting us into the world of animal subjectivity. Exploiting our sense of smell, which is, paradoxically, probably our most primordial and “animalistic” sense, this line invites us not merely to peer at animals from a distance, as if at a zoo, but to imagine and experience the world as it might be experienced by them.

With the perfume, Elephant, for example, it is intoxicating greenness that I am called to experience, the crunch and crush of sappy vegetation as I push through the jungle. And as I enter the watery world of the damp Beaver, I can’t help but wonder: “Is this what it would smell like from the Beaver’s perspective? These open, watery florals, this subtle muskiness and damp wood?” And, gloriously, even difficult, non-cuddly animals such as the rhinoceros and bat are handled in a way that respects their nature, instead of being reduced to mere cartoon characters that might be more easily consumed. And so Rhinocerous is rough-edged, leathery, and exceedingly, unrelentingly dry, while Bat evokes dank soil and overripe fruitiness. Yet somehow both still remain wearable, at least by my standards.

As it turns out, this is precisely the sort of experience that stimulates both my senses and my sense of empathy for creatures I usually imagine to be unlike me, if I bother to consider them at all. And it seems to me that this is precisely what socially engaged art is meant to do, though I should also confess that it is almost certainly partly because of my scholarly work in the area of animals studies that I am so taken with the Zoologist line. That, and, sure, okay, the irresistible packaging.

I’m curious: Do you think of perfume mainly as art? As a style accessory? Neither? Are there particular perfumes or perfume lines that you feel transport you into another’s subjective world? If you’ve tried the Zoologist perfumes, how has your experience with them been similar to or different from mine? Please share your thoughts in the comments below if you’re so inclined.

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