I have decided to seek out, proactively, some black perfumers and black-owned fragrance brands to highlight periodically, because I’ve been so concerned about the racial tensions in my city, state, and country lately, and this feels like something positive I can do through my little blog (I regularly encounter and try to handle issues around racial justice in my actual job). And someone I have recently discovered is Howard Kennedy, a longtime perfumer and “nose”, who created Lady Stetson and won five FiFi awards for “Fragrance of the Year” during his long career. He is one of the rare black perfumers recognized as having made important contributions to fragrance in the 20th century.
Today’s “Scent Sample Sunday”, then, will be Lady Stetson. This is a fragrance I probably would never have tried, were it not for the four-star review in the book by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, “Perfumes: The A-Z Guide”, which was one of the early influences that sent me down the fragrance rabbit hole. Here are their thoughts on Lady Stetson:
Really, if a fragrance like this doesn’t make you happy, what will? Aspirational types still buying up Chanel No. 22 in search of the sweet aldehydic floral of their dreams, take note: we sprayed Lady Stetson on one strip, No. 22 on the other, and observed the following. While No. 22 is heavy immediately with the plush iris that only Chanel can afford to use at every opportunity, Lady Stetson sets out on an airy, slightly powdery peach. As time goes on, No. 22 gets ever sweeter, to the point of discomfort, while the Lady seems simply to relax. It’s a well-balanced structure of just enough amber, just enough floral, just enough peach, just enough soapy citrus to pull up a smile each time it comes to your attention. This fragrance smells great without showing off, and truth to tell, I prefer it to the Chanel.
I am a passionate aficionado of Chanel No. 22, so this review attracted my attention and I sought out Lady Stetson at my local chain drugstore. Yes, there it was, with a number of other Coty creations, and very affordable at about $15-16 for a 1 oz. bottle of cologne; it is even less expensive online (can be found for $11 at one discounter).
Lady Stetson falls into the category of “floral aldehyde”, but it might equally be called a fruity aldehyde, given that peachy opening and the tangerine that follows. It’s definitely not a “fruity floral” as we currently understand that term. It has notes of aldehydes, peach, tangerine, rose, ylang-ylang, carnation, jasmine, sandalwood, amber and oak moss. Launched in 1986, it avoids the bombast of many 1980s fragrances. It is a light aldehydic floral, a bit old-fashioned and powdery in tone but definitely ladylike and not “old lady”. It has a warmth that suits autumn weather without hitting you over the head. Good longevity for a drugstore bargain: I get up to 8 hours with a single spray on each of my wrists and one at the base of my throat. Not huge sillage, but I get very pleasant wafts as I go about my day. I don’t find it really soapy, though the aldehydes definitely announce themselves together with a peach top note.
A rose peeks through now and then, but the most prominent flower notes to my nose are the ylang-ylang and carnation, and I love carnation in fragrances. Sandalwood and amber notes definitely make an appearance during the drydown, and linger. I suspect that this fragrance “wears” better in low humidity weather, which may be why some people find it best in fall and winter (I have loved it in October, which in my part of the US is crisp and cool without being cold, with very low humidity). Lady Stetson comes in cologne strength, but it has excellent sillage and longevity for that formulation, even enviable for many more expensive eaux de toilette. I will never say I prefer it to No. 22, but I thoroughly enjoy it and I’m glad to have it in my collection.
So who is Howard Kennedy? He was interviewed in 2008 in Perfumer & Flavorist, an industry publication: “Perfumer Profile: Howard Kennedy.” He began his career in the early 1960s and rose to become the chief perfumer for Worldwide Fragrance and Flavor Development for Coty by the 1980s. He left Coty in 1987, the year after Lady Stetson‘s launch, to start his own companies, where he went on to create what is said to be Avon’s first celebrity fragrance, 1990’s Undeniable by Billy Dee Williams, as well as other fragrances for companies like Avon and Ulta.
Even better, I found a brief profile of him on a post from 2016, on a blog called RonovanWrites. And it includes a link to his 1967 TV appearance on the show “What’s My Line?“, a program in which a panel had to guess the line of work of an unfamiliar guest by asking a series of yes-no questions. If you go to the clip, start watching at 12:09, and you will see a very young Mr. Kennedy being questioned about his occupation! One thing I love about this is that the host of the TV show comments that Mr. Kennedy is an apprentice (at the time, at Revlon) and that he hopes to become “the top sniffer”. Twenty years later, that’s exactly what he was, at Coty!
But Mr. Kennedy’s initial path to success was a rocky one, due to racial discrimination and outright segregation. The full story is recounted in the student newspaper of Eckerd College, a Florida college that denied him admission in 1962, when he would have been its first black student: “Black History Month Trailblazer: Dr. Howard E. Kennedy.” (Many non-Floridians don’t know that the state has a long, sad history of segregation and racial violence).
In response to this decision by the college’s board of trustees, all but two of the college’s faculty tendered their resignations. Eckerd was a new college, that had just opened in 1960; and its faculty, recruited away from other colleges, had expected it to be an integrated institution. The board of trustees reconsidered its denial, in light of this crisis, and six months later reversed its decision, whereupon the faculty withdrew their resignations. However, in the meantime, Mr. Kennedy had joined the Army, so the college’s announcement that he was now welcome to attend was a hollow promise. When he finished his service, Mr. Kennedy used his GI Bill benefits to attend the New York Institute of Technology, where he majored in chemistry and biology, with a minor in business. He also joined Revlon as a trainee in its quality control division, which is where he worked at the time of his TV appearance.
Aside from his significant career success, Mr. Kennedy’s story has another happy ending. About forty years after he was denied admission, Eckerd College leaders contacted him to apologize and try to make amends. He received an honorary doctorate from the college and joined its board of trustees, the same group that decades earlier had refused him, where he worked to increase opportunities and scholarships for students of color.
These are the kinds of hidden histories and stories that underlie so much of what we see in American life and industry today. How many other Howard Kennedys, denied educational or workplace opportunity, went into the Army in the 1960s, and never came home from places like Vietnam? This blog isn’t the place for political commentary, so I’ll end my cultural musings there.
Have you tried Lady Stetson or any of Mr. Kennedy’s other FiFi award-winners (Iron, Stetson for Men, Sophia, Nuance)?
Featured image from www.nj.com.