I read recently in the New York Times that (like so many other businesses) Brooks Brothers has filed for bankruptcy. They’ve been around forever. The article was a nostalgic deep dive into Brooks Brothers history, penned by none other than Lisa Birnbach of the original Preppy Handbook (remember that?) and she talked about her fondest Brooks Brothers memories. By the way, you should check your bookshelves, because those old Preppy Handbook paperbacks bought for laughs (or research purposes) in 1980 are now selling online for upwards of $40.
Reading all that history triggered a wave of memories and feelings. I was very much of that Preppy Handbook age. I was also an odd, bookish kid from an eccentric, bookish family and I never quite found my clique in high school. My last two years there were kind of a blur – keeping my head down and my grades up, trying to ace the SAT so I could be a Merit Scholar, and spending a lot of my time in my room listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue while studying the Preppy Handbook.
I read that book from cover to cover so many times. I studied it the way you study sacred texts from lost civilizations. I thought it was the greatest thing ever. At the same time, in my mind, it was like reading fiction – like I was reading the Brideshead Revisited Style Manual or something, because at that point in my life I’d never seen a true preppy in the wild, in their natural habitat. I’d never played tennis or set foot in Brooks Brothers or been to a country club, much less Martha’s Vineyard, and nothing about my life suggested that I ever would.
The girls at my high school, the more popular girls, leaned hard into preppie-dom. They had their Pappagallo Bermuda bags with the button-off covers and their striped Izod belts and cute matching headbands and their small gold stud earrings. But it was still fashion — it wasn’t real to them either, just a style they copied, and no doubt they’d all have been wearing Nirvana tee shirts and plaid flannels a decade later.
I loved the way the preppy girls dressed, and I could have whined at my parents to buy me some of that gear, but I didn’t even try; it seemed unattainable to me. Those girls with their glossy blonde hair looked perfect for the part, and I just … didn’t. They would graduate and go on to Georgetown or the University of Virginia or maybe even some Ivy League school in New England, fulfilling their chosen destiny. Me? I had no idea what to do with myself.
I got to thinking about the original Ralph Lauren perfume. Like the cute headbands, that fragrance was everywhere in my high school — those big, elegant, square red bottles no doubt on the dresser of every Izod-bedecked girl I followed down the hall, an oblong Lauren travel flacon tucked in every Bermuda bag. And I remember how much I liked that scent, and yet I never owned it. The odd thing was, looking back, I couldn’t remember at all what it smelled like. I could conjure up other scents from that time – my best friend’s Cristalle, her mom’s Fidji – but I drew a mental blank on Lauren.
So, naturally, I did what perfume nuts do. I found some vintage (like everything else, it’s been reformulated several times, so look for bottles labeled Warner or Cosmair, those are the oldest) and bought an old splash bottle on eBay with maybe an eighth of its liquid remaining. I was kind of shocked Lauren is still in production; reviews on Fragrantica suggest the current version is a wan, sour ghost of its former self.
Life’s full of surprises. Years later I married a preppy guy, the genuine article, a man who’d gone to boarding school and who played squash and wore madras unironically and whose family golfed and dined at the country club and summered (yes, that’s a verb) on Nantucket. I’m not sure my earlier studies of the Preppy Handbook helped out that much, but I rose to the occasion. Of course it’s a bit funny when I think about what attracted him in the first place – that I was the opposite of those sunny, friendly girls who surrounded him, with their Seven Sisters degrees and tennis tans and family money. I wore only black. I was shy and clever and sharp-tongued. He joked that I was the first woman ever to tell him no. (Challenge accepted.) I suppose he found me every bit as exotic as I found him.
Eventually my vintage eBay bottle of Lauren showed up. The bottle’s prettier than I remembered; it looks even more “classic” with forty years of age on it. And the smell?
It all came flooding back. The top notes might be a hair off, but as it blooms it’s just … lovely. Kind of astonishingly lovely. I was hoping it’d smell recognizable and that I wouldn’t hate it; those things were true. But I wasn’t prepared for how first-rate a fragrance it turned out to be, and still is. I get a grassy-green top note, then we’re into the fruits and florals, but with a richness and tenderness that breaks my heart a little. I can see how it came from the era of, say, Poison and Opium (both of which I love and own vintage versions of, by the way) but it’s a much more quietly elegant scent for all its richness. Notes of citrus, black currant, ylang-ylang, jasmine, mimosa, carnation, broom, marigold, thyme, cedar, sandalwood, and oakmoss.
Had I lost my mind? Apparently not; google revealed that the estimable Bois de Jasmin gave it a rare five stars in her excellent review. Turns out the nose is the legendary Bernard Chant, who did the original Halston, Cabochard, Azuree, and Cinnabar – in 1978, the same year as Lauren. My vintage Cinnabar and Lauren’s spicy, woody base definitely have a bit of kinship, now that I think about it.
Did you wear Lauren back in the day? Or now? Oh, yeah, and of course I got right back on eBay and bought a close-to-full vintage bottle, because I need more Lauren in my life. Better late than never.