Polo (Ralph Lauren)

Perfumery, like all other art forms, is subjective. What makes an individual prefer one fragrance over another is largely a matter of personal association. If a scent reminds us of things or people we cherish, if it pushes our unique "happy" buttons, we like it. And if it doesn't, we don't. Nothing personal. It is what it is.

Less common -- but just as powerful -- are fragrances that tap into our bad, sad, or angry frames of reference. In such cases, prejudice overrides all attempts at objective logic. We know that a scent is just a scent. It's ephemeral; it can't hurt us. We grasp the concept behind it, appreciate the creative skill that brought it into being, and agree that the end result is a success.

And still, we hate it-- and nothing is going to change our minds.

I first encountered Ralph Lauren's Polo in 1982, the Christmas before my fourteenth birthday. At the annual family gift swap, my uncle (an executive with Ralph Lauren Corporation) handed out identical canvas-and-leather gym bags stuffed with Polo promotional swag: perfume sample cards, lotions, soap-and-shampoo sets, bath towels, zippered makeup cases. We could never afford these items ourselves, and our uncle knew it. His real gift to us was this vicarious glimpse of the high life, a taste of luxuries beyond our grasp.

To us, my uncle and his family inhabited Mount Olympus-- a stratosphere high above our messy, mundane world. Way up there, grownups knotted pastel cashmere sweaters over their shoulders and drank chilled white wine year-round. Their clean-cut junior-preppie offspring dropped references to "lessons"-- ballet, voice, flute, French horn -- in tones of upper-class boredom and reserve. We envied and idolized and found it next to impossible to relax around them.

That year, the family Christmas party was held at our cramped suburban home. My cousins responded to our generic mall-bought gifts with polite, detached thank-you's. Then came the Polo gym bags, handed around with indulgent smiles. They stood back and watched us coolly as we erupted with excited delight. Here was something we could flaunt in front of our peers, tangible proof that we were better than they thought we were (or than WE thought we were-- a subtle but important distinction). I combed through the contents of my fancy gym bag, opening, sniffing, squeezing, sampling. By the end of that hour, I reeked of Polo from head to toe. Later that evening (after the cheese and Triscuits but before the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding) one of my posh cousins voiced the opinion (not to me of course, but to someone who would dutifully trickle it down) that I was a freak. The verdict was definitive; the gods had spoken.

Not too long afterward, my uncle accepted a corporate position with Proctor & Gamble and moved his family to the Midwest. Almost three decades have passed; I can count on half of one hand the number of times I've seen my cousins since. And Polo? Can't stand the stuff. Call it transference, if you will. But disillusionment, like despair, like fear, has a scent. For me, that scent is Polo.

Don't get me wrong. The objective portion of my brain thinks that Polo is a fine work of perfumery-- crisp, enlivening, reminiscent of the deep woods on a late spring morning. If it had been honest and unpretentious, if it had not put on airs -- and who knows, maybe if my cousin hadn't called me a freak that winter's day -- I might have even grown to like it.

But no. I loathe it. It steals the forest primeval and plants it in the center of a gated country club that will never admit me as a member. It brings back to me all that was elitist, excessive, and nauseating about the Reagan Era. It holds all the missteps, disappointments, and embarrassing moments of my awkward childhood. It makes me feel bad about myself, for no very good reason. As a result, I will always, always hold it at arm's length.

To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no person can make me feel inferior without my consent. Why should a perfume be any different?

Scent Elements: Pine, chamomile, artemisia, basil, thyme, cumin, coriander, patchouli, oakmoss, vetiver, leather, tobacco