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A Tailored Fragrance Gave Me an Existential Crisis

Am I not tropical, fruity, and fun?

Hawthorne Work and Play Scents Photo: Hawthorne

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Hawthorne is like a fancy BuzzFeed quiz that tells you exactly what to buy at the end: two semi-custom fragrances named “Work” and “Play.” It’s a format I’m well-versed in — I can tell you whether I’m a Lumière or a Cogsworth (Cogsworth), what my biggest pet peeve is based on a sandwich I built (the misuse of the word “literally”), and if I’m good enough for this lady’s son (literally no). I’ve put in my Gladwellian 10,000 hours on these personality quizzes, but Hawthorne sent me spiraling down an existential black hole.

What does it mean to smell like something?

The grandiose idea that one should have a tailored scent is the thought behind Hawthorne, a not-even-one-year-old startup from Phil Wong, a Hood By Air designer, and Brian Jeong, a former Wharton student (he dropped out to start Hawthorne). But it’s not something I’d seriously considered until watching this video where people match a scent to its celebrity. The success rate was shockingly high. “Tropical, fruity, fun, flirty,” leads to the correct guess: Ariana Grande. With Hawthorne, I’m the celebrity. It’s the ultimate luxury made for the mainstream, but I just neurotically obsessed over what my scent would say about me. Am I not tropical, fruity, and fun?

I answered questions about my diet, my style, the industry I work in, my preferred drink, my typical Saturday night plans, and my personality, wondering how any of the above related to scent. I agonized over defining my style: streetwear, sportswear, high fashion, preppy, hipster, or casual.

Considering how often I wear a gray T-shirt, it shouldn’t have taken me that long to click “casual.” But gray tees are mostly about anonymity, and is that really what I want from a scent? Perfume commercials are notoriously awful, and mine would be worse — just 30 seconds of me ducking in and out of shadows and behind corners:

Voice Over: What’s that smell?

*Brief musical interlude*

Voice Over: Anonymity.

Hawthorne’s questions have less to do with “your essence” than they do your physiological makeup. Jeong tells me: “It’s not representative of you as an existential being.” Lol, okay.

The quiz asks about your style because it gives them a “risk threshold.” If you dress casually, you’re not going to get some exotic scent. Your diet matters because if you eat a lot of meat, your skin is oilier and thus will hold onto the scent’s oils better. If you’re at a club Saturday night, you’ll need a heftier scent than the dude who prefers to Netflix and chill. Taste is probably the most important one. “Scent is so intricately tied with taste,” Jeong says. As a bourbon drinker, “you're obviously going to get something in the wood category.” Obviously.

My dread might sound melodramatic, but anyone who paid attention in… science class (??) can tell you scent is the sense most tied to memory and emotion. Smell preferences can be locked in before birth. That’s a metric fuckton of pressure. Scent is also a critical part of our, ahem, brands. Dan Green, who teaches Savannah College of Art and Design’s fragrance marketing and management minor, told Teen Vogue, “What [luxury fragrance] brands want to do is connect with their consumers in a very personal way — they want to become a lasting part of their lives, they want to be a part of their identity.”

Frederick Bouchardy, founder of the "fragrance house” Joya, tells me the most important question he asks a private client is “How do you want it to make you feel?” and not to worry about if or how a scent will represent you. I liked that.

Still, I waited for my scents the way other people wait on bloodwork. When they arrived, “Work” immediately threw me off. I didn’t see myself in the suave European traveler that squirted out of the bottle. I made others play the celebrity scent association game with “Play,” not letting on that it didn’t actually belong to a celebrity. Guesses included Alex Rodriguez, Drake, two Justin Timberlakes, a Liam Hemsworth, a George Clooney, and a single Kelly Clarkson(??). A mixed bag of people, and I didn’t identify with a single one.

Hawthorne sent along an additional small vial, though; one I matched closely with, but not perfectly. It smelled warm and fruity, but more importantly, it made me feel good, calm. Like a scent that might puff out of a candle at your favorite neighborhood restaurant. It was comfortable.

Even before I received my scents, I was fully on board with the concept. One man’s dire existential crisis is another’s perfect gift, as they say. I actually bought one for my dad for his birthday because I was so in love with the quiz and the quirky drawings, plus I thought he’d appreciate that feeling of getting something tailored just for him. I texted him a couple days later to ask if he was nervous about the scents he was going to receive. He texted back “No.”