Calvin Klein CK One, 1994

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Perfumers Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont.

A friend brought up CK One yesterday in a discussion. The Calvin Klein names sound the same to me and it only clicked which CK perfume this was when I remembered the advertising campaign. The teenage faux-grunge advertising. Oy.

I’ll tell you how it is that I’ve never smelled CK One before: target marketing works. In 1994 and I was 30, or twice the age of the target audience. I lived in New York and CK One advertising was public. In 1994, before social media, targeting simply wasn’t very precise. Rather than aiming, Calvin Klein flooded. Billboards, television, magazines and newspapers, subway posters. I had to swerve to avoid it. If CK One launched today I’d simply never see it. It just wouldn’t show up in any of my feeds.

CK One was intended for a young audience, but the images were in everyone’s face, so a sort of self-recusal took place on-by-one. The perfume appealed to you or not, depending largely on whether the story being created included you. Imagery that read as cool/aspirational to the 21 year old who found the ads exciting didn’t appeal to me. Thin, world-weary teens playing Peter Pan meets Lord of the Flies? It screamed significance in fashion patois, but the post-grunge styling was years late and a shoddy attempt to cop a style from a subculture. The CK One campaign started a few months after Kurt Cobain killed himself. The notion of Calvin Klein trying to catch some momentum from grunge at this particular time was repugnant.

So I opted out. I was obliged to continue to see the images—I mean, I rode the subways—but that was the end of my participation. The contempt wore off after about a week. Then I just  navigated the images until the next thing came along and replaced them—a classic New York experience of my time.

I remember a couple of details about the perfume. It was ‘unisex.’ I was surprised that they made a big deal of it—was unisex that novel an idea? Also, the fragrance was supposed to be contemporary and clean. SO contemporary and SO clean that it was somehow beyond scent.

So I tried CK One ‘cold’ yesterday for the first time. I’ve never read about the perfume itself. I have a bottle of CK One and some 25 year old recollections of the launch.

CK One smells like it was intended to convey hygiene yet go unnoticed. It’s there, but it claims not to intrude into your consciousness. There’s been years of discussion about the contradiction and denial involved in fragrances trying to smell like nothing, so I’m sure applying the notion to CK One is nothing new. But CK One smells like a very specific nothing. It’s conceptual: a ‘clean’ fragrance + a masking fragrance = an impulse of purity. It allows you to feel invigorated without the invasiveness and effort of having to exhibit a clean scent. From the angle of 2017, hygienic fragrances seem very ’90s-specific, but for all I know, CK One invented the approach.

Of course the premise that two opposing olfactory forces will nullify each other doesn’t actually work on a practical level. Instead, you’re left with the remnants of a scent, like dry-cleaning chemicals that cling to your clothing. The perfume ends up locked in a cycle of constantly trying to invalidate itself. It might have been intended to be uncomplicated and undemanding, but it’s no surprise that it smells like effort and tension. (Cute bottle, though.)

It also smells like diet soda and Febreze, which wouldn’t exist for another another 4 years. I give CK One enormous credit for its methodically synthetic tone. It comes across as calculated and legible. I had never smelled it before yesterday, and yet it instantly smelled like an era. If CK One’s goal was to create a new style of fragrance, my experience points out how successful it was.

 

(image, Lord of the Flies, 1963)

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