We are officially doing nostalgia at the moment. There are waves of ‘90s hitting our wardrobes (hello, bucket hats), our faces (by way of lashings of lipgloss), and our music preferences (with Britney Spears firmly at the top of playlists once again). Latest in our desire to revive all things ‘90s and comfortingly familiar is vanilla scents, with the note being one of the biggest perfume trends of 2023.
It makes sense that vanilla has been enjoying a resurgence. Things have been rocky in a variety of respects over the past few years, and, similarly to the lipstick economy, where sales of less costly luxury goods skyrockets when the economy plummets, we seek reassurance during times of turbulence in the arms of the past or the products that evoke it. Anyone who lived through the heady late ‘90s was as likely to douse themselves in The Body Shop’s enduringly popular Vanilla EDT or Impulse’s Vanilla Kisses as they were to know all the lyrics to Wannabe and to wear a Baby G.
The thing about vanilla though, is that it’s not just the ‘90s link that makes it so powerful right now. I asked Margo Kujawa, head pastry chef at Lexington Site and recent contender on Bake Off The Professionals, why she thinks vanilla, which she uses “very freely in the kitchen” seems to tug at emotions so much. "Everyone (at least in Europe) has some form of vanilla-milk combination memory — think vanilla custard with apple crumble, baked vanilla cheesecake, or Creme Brûlée. The smell of it cooking makes everyone think of their childhood.”
Vanilla, reassuring though it may be, has long been synonymous with boring. The interpretation rendered in perfume might, for some, be a bit, well, vanilla. Enter the latest wave of scents, where perfumers have grabbed the vanilla baton and run with it, tying threads of other notes around it to round it out, spice it up, make it less bland, and more thrilling.
Founder and creative director of Olfactive O, Olivia da Costa, says that vanilla deserves the attention being lavished on it. “It’s like fine aged Parmesan or balsamic vinegar — new notes and nuances continue to emerge with time. It can be almost savoury, and adds an incomparable bloom and warmth to a fragrance.”
Simon Constantine, perfumer and founder of ånd Fragrance agrees that where there is vanilla, there can be range and playfulness. “Vanilla in its natural form has rich ground notes that add depth and a balsamic quality to fragrances, whilst the synthetically produced vanillins give varying qualities of sweetness that start as ‘cardboard carton’ and can be dialled up to overpoweringly cloying.”
My selection below is packed with novel, zany iterations of vanilla, so you can still have that much-needed cheering cloak hugged around you, while happily not smelling like confectionary.
Parfums De Marly Althair
The official line on this is that it’s a wood, vanilla, and amber combination — but take that and make it fancy, thanks to the vanilla being of the Bourbon variety. The sum total, when you factor in the orange blossom and cinnamon laced through, it is one of sparkly warmth, a crisp but brightly sunny autumnal day, bottled.
Dolce & Gabbana Devotion
This perfume is nothing short of a feat: you may think that vanilla plus candied citrus plus orange blossom might smell overwhelmingly like Fortnum’s around Christmas time, but no — the very clever perfumer Olivier Cresp has created something that’s one measure sherbet, one measure warm nuzzly cashmere.
Penhaligon’s Eau The Audacity
Sweet plus savoury works very well in the food world — think strawberries and balsamic, salt and caramel, prosciutto and melon — and it seems it also works well in perfumery, if this black peppery vanilla is anything to go by. The incense notes really round it out a bit further, giving you a vanilla that’ll cling to and warm the skin, but give off a distinct air of boldness.
ånd Fragrance Måd
Imagine a peaty forest ground with all the trampled flowers releasing their juice into the moss and soil. That is the main thrust of this one — with added vanilla and cloves to add the warmth you’d want were you traipsing through the great outdoors around this time of year.
£125, ånd Fragrance
Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille
As the name suggests, vanilla is the headline here — but, as per usual when it comes to Lutens perfumes, things are a little more complex than they seem at first sniff. Let this settle onto skin, and it reveals coconut, musk, a hint of honey. It is the one you should go for if you love the scent of warm skin after a day in the sun.
£125, Serge Lutens
Diptyque Eau Duelle
Ever wondered how you’d smell if you were achingly chic, lived in the Riviera, and were going out for a dinner date overlooking the Mediterranean lapping the shores? I’d say this is about right, what with the classy blend of vanilla, black tea, and pink pepper. It’s flirty, but never crass. Wear it with many gold bangles and you’ll channel the right vibe.
Ruth Mastenbroek Oxford
We’re going to have to take a walk for me to describe this one accurately. Think countryside, but very British, with herb borders in abundance, and every time the wind blows you’re hit by notes of lavender, clary sage, rosemary. It’s quite bracing. Then the sun comes out, and you’re lulled into a warmer, gentler place. Here comes the vanilla, the amber, the oud. This clash wouldn’t work anywhere but in Britain, and that quintessential English countryside charm is what Ruth’s captured in this confident scent.