In a 2016 essay for The New Yorker, writer Jason Wilson explores how a region of Italy was transformed into a "shorthand for a certain kind of bourgeois luxury and good taste." He is, of course, referring to Tuscany and the best-selling memoir Under the Tuscan Sun and its subsequent adaptation into a big-studio romantic comedy. The success of both the book and the film established “Tuscan” as a mainstream marketing adjective and winking cultural signifier. Wilson name-checked everything from bathroom tiles to pasta entrées to dog food; in the early aughts, if a product could be Tuscan-ified, rest assured that it would be.
It has been, give or take, two decades since the book was published and the Diane Lane-led movie hit the silver screen. In 2022, Tuscany as an aesthetic marker feels a generation behind, wholly outmoded, and dare I say…cheugy. (If anything, the Amalfi Coast replaced Tuscany as the location associated with elevated Italian-tinted taste some years ago.) Today, the most in-the-know regional references have gone micro. This is especially true for candles and fragrances marketed towards Millennials and younger Gen X-ers.
Selling expensive scents is a careful dance of art and commerce. I think of what Andrew Goetz of Malin & Goetz told me a few years ago for a story on luxury hand soap: "The thing about fragrance is that it's more evocative and emotional. It's what I call our Proustian narrative." And the go-to narrative of many fragrance companies currently includes highly specific geo-references.
Take Ojai Lavender, the latest scent from the Los Angeles-based P.F. Candle Co., a nod to a sleepy small city in Ventura County, California that has been a choice destination for hip urban dwellers looking for desert-adjacent tranquility and a chill place to do hallucinogens. (Even Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop has an official Ojai travel guide.) Continuing on the inland California theme, Ben Gorham's beloved Swedish label Byredo sells Mojave Ghost, a woody composition inspired by "the soulful beauty" of the Mojave Desert. The Brooklyn-based D.S. & Durga, founded by an architect and a musician, produced a "Big Sur After The Rain" scent. All three locales have reputations as relaxing weekend getaways for aesthetically inclined Californians.
New Yorkers, you're still in luck. When Drake released his first line of scented candles in 2020, one was named Williamsburg Sleepover, a wink to a corner of Brooklyn that The New York Times once called "arguably one of the hippest neighborhoods in America." That cheeky name added up to a floral-woody musk fragrance that "captures the essence of an urban garden under shaded lights." (It turns out that Rihanna prefers a Harlem Sleepover.) A 2020 Williamsburg reference is years too late for the Toronto rapper to seem clued-in, but the sentiment is there. The Instagram-friendly label Boy Smells sells LES, referencing the loud neighborhood populated by twenty-somethings in downtown Manhattan. One could assume it's only a matter of time before an even younger company one-ups and releases a scent named "Dimes Square."
It seems like the scent takes a back seat to the namesake in some cases. On paper, the LES candle reads as a haphazard jumble of notes—rice powder, peach blossom, cedar—that are "much like the bodega and wholesale food suppliers synonymous with the area." What? Look, it's all marketing–writing descriptive copy is its own beast. We've all got jobs to do. Glossy product photography and good branding will fill the gaps, as it always does. However, it is fascinating to watch a crop of younger companies take a similar "Tuscan" approach but opt for hyper-specific references that wink to their target audience.
The appeal is easy to see: the more niche the name, the cooler the product feels. Do you want a candle that says Los Angeles or one that says Los Feliz? Besides, if you're buying a candle online without being able to actually smell it, let's get real: you're mostly paying for the reference.