A good cologne or perfume promises a bottled dream, but the scents that have captured the hearts and wallets of cool guys over the past few years have been less fantastical than careerist. You know: you’ve got your cologne for the post-Coachella ayahuasca retreat (Byredo’s Mojave Desert). One for the mindful afternoon matcha break in Nolita (Maison Margiela’s Under the Lemon Trees). And the unofficial scent of members-only co-working spaces (Le Labo Santal 33).
Into this no-days-off scentscape sweeps ERL’s Sunscreen, a $115 bottle of eau de toilette that smells like, yes, sunscreen. Spritz a bit on your wrist and the bikini-lined Coppertone cutie flashes before your eyes—along with swimming pools, teen soap operas, and maybe those opening chords of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin.’” ERL, the brainchild of creative director Eli Russell Linnetz, is easily one of the most evocative brands to emerge in recent fashion memory, both vague and entirely on the nose: its filmy football jerseys and multicolored puffers serve as a portal into the lost world of Abercrombie-clad youth, when sex sold, fashion was innocent fun, and the mall was the village chapel. In other words: the clothes are almost like a perfume themselves. So why not add a fragrance to top it all off?
Much like Linnetz’s clothing, his little bottle of Sunscreen instantly evokes late ’90s and early 2000s Americana, a pre-9/11 dreamscape of overheated blacktops and boy bands and sunset wallpaper in strip mall nail salons, a time when all of us millennials had it good. It’s very innocent, arriving in a little see-through pool floatie or a retro styrofoam box. (Incidentally, the period it recalls is one in which one song of the summer was a spoken-word graduation speech about the benefits of sunscreen, put to music by director Baz Luhrmann. “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth!… Trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back on yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.”)
In fashion, image is everything, and so scent typically takes a backseat. But smells can be even more graphic, more telling, than images, which is the thesis of a book that arrived (like ERL’S Sunscreen), in late July, from historian Karl Shlögel. The Scent of Empires traces the twin histories of two of the defining perfumes of the 20th century: Red Moscow and Chanel No. 5. Both derived from related scents created in early 20th century Tsarist Russia to celebrate the 500th year anniversary of Catherine the Great, and yet one (Red Moscow) eventually came to embody thwarted Soviet promise, while the other (Chanel No. 5) embodies ruthless capitalist triumph. The other thesis of Schlogel’s book is that perfume is inextricable from the aura of power—that fragrances evoke “the violence and seductions of their epoch.”
ERL’s Sunscreen squints at that assertion like a surfer gazing into the sun and says, “Huh.” Sunscreen is about not doing anything but reapplying this cologne to your body—the packaging floats, so you can bring it into the pool and just keep spraying. It is for constant consumption, and no output. Unlike those striver scents mentioned above, it celebrates the synthetic world: chlorine, the chemistry of sun protection, the California dream. “Go west!” it says, full of naive possibility. Its slightly cloying tanning oil scent—top notes of Solar Accord and bottom notes of coconut—is trashy and horny. It does not work to live or live to work. Instead, it has a summer job mixing the frozen yogurt while The Offspring plays.
Would it be too much to say that Sunscreen is the smell of the American Dream, a little chemical, utterly fake, more expensive than you might think, and yet somehow innocent? Or maybe it’s just an awesome perfume that smells like…sunscreen. Don’t overthink it, man!