Tynan Sinks—beauty writer, makeup experimenter, fragrance aficionado. Ahead, he discusses the most iconic ’90s fragrances—and the ones we’ll be nostalgic for years down the line.
Listen—I know that everyone loves ‘90s nostalgia but please, count me out. I was there for it all the first time around. I’m good!
It’s not that I don’t get it. It’s easy to feel like the world is on fire at all times, so reminiscing on, I don’t know, Tickle Me Elmo and The Backstreet Boys might bring some temporary comfort. But like, it kinda sucked back then, too, remember? At least now we can text.
But there is one form of nostalgia that I’m always down for. The nostalgia…of scent.
Fittingly, one of Instagram’s favorite candle brands, Otherland, just released a collection of candles created around nostalgia—specifically ‘90s nostalgia. Otherland Founder and CEO, Abigail Cook Stone, told me, “Scent is the strongest trigger of memory. Of the five senses, scent is the only one that goes straight to the amygdala and hippocampus: the areas most closely associated with memory and emotion.
In brain imaging studies, when subjects smell something distinctive and memorable from their past, there’s a flurry of neurological activity: Pathways in your brain light up like a Christmas tree! It’s a powerful way to be transported to the past, and the science of scent memory is a fundamental part of how we approach the candle creation process at Otherland.”
There are a few scents that have become iconic when we think back to how the ‘90s and early 2000s smelled. Some you expect, some you might not. I did a little thinking and pulled together the scents that I find to be the most memorable and nostalgic—so come with me on this trip down memory lane and let’s get triggered.
The early Gap scents are seared into our collective memory, though there is still an argument about which of the three—Gap Dream, Gap Heaven, or Gap Grass—was the true standout. Let’s fight! For me, it’s Gap Grass.
Actually, for Abigail, it was Gap Dream. She told me, “For me, I’m very moved by the freesia notes in our Dreamlight candle from our Carefree ‘90s Collection. It instantly takes me back to my childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and sneaking from Gap Kids over to the adult section to spritz myself with Gap Dream, the eau de toilette they released in 1995.”
I didn’t even tell her I was including the Gap scents in this piece. When I tell you these were ‘90s staples…
Gap Grass was released in 1994, just before Dream, which would have made me…seven? (I know some of you reading this were born in ’94 and I prefer not to discuss that, thanks!) I remember seeing in the checkout line at The Gap, and my mind was kind of blown. It was the first time I realized that perfumes had the opportunity to be more than just pretty. Not that Grass (the scent) isn’t pretty or grass (the…like, actual grass) isn’t pretty. But you know what I mean. It was both imaginative and literal.
It was made to emulate the scent of, wait for it, grass. With notes of fresh green leaves, water lily, cucumber, musk, and you guessed it: grass. It was fresh, green, and clearly, very memorable.
Bath & Body Works Warm Vanilla Sugar
There were three kinds of girls in middle school: The Warm Vanilla Sugar girl, the Cucumber Melon girl, and the Sweet Pea girl.
I was a Warm Vanilla Sugar girl, obviously. I would slather it all over myself, so thick that it would barely dry down. The scent is sweet, confectionary, and cloying. But she does what she came to do, you know? What else do you expect from a scent with vanilla and sugar in the name? This isn’t Chanel No. 5.
Oddly, there is a sandalwood note buried somewhere in the base of the scent and, every so often, the dry woodiness would peek out, almost cardboard-y, only to be smothered again into the syrupy sweet notes that surrounded it. It absolutely crystallized a time in many of our adolescents. For me, it smells like middle school. I’m not saying that correlation equals causation, but I am saying that I wore Warm Vanilla Sugar all the time and now I’m gay.
This is the first fragrance campaign that really sticks out in my memory. Remember how big it was? And all that ad spend definitely paid off because this is like the ‘90s in a bottle.
The scent is light, airy, very approachable and was an absolute must-have in 1997. Almost equal parts fruits (heavily citrus) and florals (mostly white), with a base of amber and musk, this sort of became the scent of the few years surrounding it. I don’t believe in gendering scents, but Clinique Happy was inherently feminine. If they released it again today, I have a feeling they’d spin it as a unisex fragrance, but what do I know.
It was enjoyed by girls and women of all ages, which is a trait shared by very few scents. I love that—when a scent isn’t made for one age category. Clinique Happy can never be “too young” or “too old”, but it did evoke the same feeling from everyone wearing it.
Victoria’s Secret Love Spell
First of all, justice for Love Spell. Love Spell is low-key a great name for a fragrance. What more is a fragrance if not the closest thing we can get to a literal spell for love? A veritable love potion. In a lot of ways, fragrances revolve around love and sex. Love Spell just calls it what it is.
The scent isn’t bad, either. It’s fine! It’s cute. It’s fruity, floral, musky, and woody. It’s extremely run of the mill and leans into being fun, sexy, romantic, a little subversive. Whatever, it’s a Victoria’s Secret scent and the real secret here is that some of the scents are good. Love, a more contemporary Victoria’s Secret scent, is my favorite from their collection.
Love Spell puts peach at the front and center. It’s juicy, tangy, very sweet, with a dry down that holds a lot of dry woodiness that tries, if not fails, to temper the sweetness throughout. But it works because really, the fragrance doesn’t need to be tempered. You wouldn’t want Love Spell to be tamed.
Curious by Britney Spears
“DO YOU DARE?” Ugh, GOD. Remember that campaign? Major. This was…a moment. This is the legendary miss Britney Spears we’re talking about. The pop star, at what was arguably the height of her career.
Even cooler, it was right when celebrity fragrances were becoming a thing, but not yet commonplace. Glow by Jennifer Lopez had launched two years prior, and that scent did numbers like no one had seen or expected, so brands saw the opportunity to cash in and started gathering up the girls. But this was back when, and, no shade but, to have a celebrity scent, you actually had to be…a celebrity. A perfume by Britney Spears was a big deal.
Britney teamed up with Elizabeth Arden to launch Curious, the first of many very successful scents. It’s just sort of, exactly what you’d think Britney Spears’ flagship scent would smell like: white florals, vanilla, and musk. It’s not stifling, but it wears consistently all day, and on me, it doesn’t wear down.
It’s so fun, and in my correct opinion, a classic. We were all wearing it. People catch it on me and they know. I always get “Are you wearing…Curious…by Britney Spears?” Why, yes I am. And then they launch into how they wore it all through high school and how they still love it. See? A classic.
Acqua di Gio by Giorgio Armani
Okay ,I have to tread lightly because you never know who’s around. People are still out here wearing this. Which is fine, it’s just, this fragrance is something to everyone. It’s a scent that we all know, whether you know that you know it or not.
Acqua di Gio is made up of no less than like, 25 notes, and if you think I’m about to rattle them all off to you, you’re playing yourself. This is the “more is more” of fragrances, which is very ‘90s, if you think about it.
This scent isn’t even bad. It’s just a lot. Acqua di Gio is very aquatic. It’s beachy and at the same time, metallic. It’s light, breezy, but the base of the fragrance has all your typical notes, woods, patchouli, musk, that anchor it and make it a “men’s cologne.”
It’s on the sweeter side, for a men’s scent from the ‘90s or otherwise, and it’s actually pretty enjoyable. It’s one of those scents that you’d love if one of your exes hadn’t worn it. And everyone has an ex that has worn Acqua di Gio. This one goes in the camp of Curve and Fierce for me. They’re like a fuckboy trifecta.
Speaking of fuckboys.
Oh, my god. Axe dropped like, a week before is started high school and every teenage boy was wearing it (while I was wearing Curious). Just…remember that? How it smelled like chemicals and hot fabric?
Try as I might, I can’t even begin to tie a note to any of the scents because they were just so artificial, and so traditionally masculine. Literally my mind doesn’t even go to “cedar” or “amber”, I just think of MOUNTAINS and WAVES. Not scents, but concepts that all men’s scents are modeled after, because (supposedly) men are too stupid to wrap their brains around patchouli, so you have to give them something like “forest.”
I just remember walking into the locker room after gym class, which was the epitome of terror to 14-year-old me, and having every guy in there absolutely shot-gunning Axe all over his scary body. They were, and I guess they still are, marketing it as a deodorant and a body spray, so these guys would just shower in it. Clouds of billowing up from between rows of lockers, thicker than steam from the actual showers. You could taste it, I swear to god. Are men still wearing this? They’re still wearing Old Spice, which frankly is why I don’t trust any of them.
Ugh. There are so many scents that really strike the nostalgia chord, I could go on for hours. I often think about what scents from today are going to become the new icons of tomorrow, both for me personally, and for all of us.
This leads to me to my next category: popular scents today we’ll be nostalgic for in the future.
Le Labo Santal 33
Not many people know this, but it is actually illegal to wear any other scent but Le Labo Santal 33 in New York City.
Yes, if you too would like to smell like…skin, like every person in New York, then the soft blend of woods, papyrus, and leather is perfect for you. This, above any other contemporary scent, will be what we all smell in 20 years and be pulled back to this exact moment. If global warming hasn’t fried us all by then, that is.
Maison Margiela REPLICA By The Fireplace
I love the REPLICA collection and I love seeing which selection from the line that people respond to. You can tell a lot about someone by which REPLICA scent they wear. For me, it’s Funfair evening. The sweet smell of cotton candy and sticky churros hanging in the hot evening air—there is nothing like it.
But the one REPLICA that people really go up for is By The Fireplace.
Why? Dude, people love woody notes. LOVE. Men especially. I’m serious, men smell a good, woody scent and absolutely lose grip.
By The Fireplace is delicious. It’s a sweet, indulgent take on woods. They took cedar and balsam and absolutely sexed it up with clove, chestnut, and vanilla. I’d describe it as “decadent,” but I hate that word.
The scent has more of a throw than most. If you’re not careful, it will enter the room before you do. But maybe that’s not a bad thing because everyone loves this scent. I was bar tending one night and this woman caught a whiff of it and told me she wanted to do unimaginable things to me where I was standing and I was like, boy have I got news for you.
Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille
I love nothing more than when people take a completely run of the mill scent, slap a designer label on it and insist on paying $350 for it and telling you about it. “Oh this? It’s Tom Ford.” I kid. Tobacco Vanille is sweet, spicy, beautiful, comforting. It’s luxurious and sexy. It’s good on everyone. It’s okay to love vanilla, and love it in all of its forms, whether it’s Warm Vanilla Sugar or Tobacco Vanille. There’s a reason why people love vanilla so much. It’s familiar, it’s disarming. It’s good.
Diptyque 34 Boulevard Saint Germain
It pains me to admit this but one of my best friends wears this and it’s very good.
This is on some grown man shit (I use that phrase in the gender-neutral sense.) It’s sophisticated, it’s spicy, it’s not too sweet but not too cold. It’s a chypre that perfectly plays all parts of itself. A little woody, a little green, a little floral. It’s smells like the way a private library smells, like a decanter of expensive scotch looks.