lunchtime buy

The First Time I Saw Myself in a Perfume

Photo: Sephora

Flower by Kenzo was the first perfume I ever truly loved. My mom had given me other fragrances, like Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers — samples and gifts with purchase. But Flower was the first scent I picked for myself.

When I was in junior high, my parents took me and my little brother to Paris. We saw the sights, gawked at how much everyone smoked, and took a special trip to a duty-free shop my mom had read about in Fodor’s. The store, someplace near L’Opéra de Paris, was run by a lady from Hong Kong and had mirrored countertops overflowing with fancy skin care and perfumes. My mom was (and continues to be) obsessed with Sisley products and spent a few hours talking with the owner of the shop about her skin-care routine. After making her purchases, she turned to me and said, “You can pick out a perfume.”

I knew my mom wouldn’t approve of anything too sexy, so the Jean Paul Gaultier fragrances in bawdy, torso-shaped bottles were out. And I was afraid I wasn’t grown up enough for Chanel. My eye was drawn to a bottle on the shelf that looked like a red poppy encased in ice. It was Flower by Kenzo, and the proprietor praised me for picking it out, calling it a “good choice.” When she sprayed it, it smelled like violets, softness, and baby powder, like the getting-ready process at a sophisticated lady’s vanity table. It was feminine and exotic, completely unlike the fresh, unisex scents like Tommy Girl and Polo Sport that my classmates were wearing at the time.

I didn’t find out till years later that Kenzo was the first and only Asian-founded Parisian fashion house. And I didn’t know back then that Flower would become a worldwide best seller. But I remember when the Taiwanese actress Shu Qi filmed a video ad for the scent, because it was one of the first times I’d ever seen an Asian face in beauty.

The perfume still sits in my bookshelf at my parents’ house. It’s so different from the musky florals I favor now as an adult. But when I go home, I spray it because smelling it reminds me of the power of scent memories. It brings back the first time I smelled something and thought, I feel grateful to be alive and experiencing this. I only wish I had gotten to meet Kenzo Takada before his passing so that I could thank him for opening my eyes to the possibility of seeing myself in beauty.

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The First Time I Saw Myself in a Perfume