What in the World Is a $590 Scratch-and-Sniff T-shirt Doing in 2020?


The universe tends toward ever-increasing disorder; earlier this year, the luxury fashion house Lanvin released several varieties of scratch-and-sniff T-shirts priced at $590.

At one time, the scented T-shirts would have been unscented hats, because that is what Jeanne Lanvin sold in the Parisian hat shop she opened in 1889, roughly one and one-quarter centuries before a multibillion dollar private Chinese conglomerate called Fosun International acquired a majority stake in the luxury fashion brand born of her enterprise.

The shirts came in four sizes, three varieties and two genders — cherry (for men), blackberry (for women), and strawberry (for both).

Their scents were faint but not subtle. A person standing nearer the wearer than manners permit would be met with the brazenly synthetic aroma of artificial fruits. The cherry T-shirt smelled of cherry-flavored cough drops. The blackberry T-shirt smelled purple, the flavor of artificial grape. Over email, a Lanvin representative insisted the scents “corresponded to the fruit that was pictured on the shirt.”

At present, there are just about 7.7 billion people on this planet, and most of them couldn’t fashion you a scratch-n-sniff garment if you paid them. By this measurement, Lanvin comes out ahead. But does it make admirable use of its advantage?

That is one of the thousands of questions the T-shirts inspire.

There is also the riddle inherent in their design: What if (or, from Lanvin’s point of view, why don’t) certain things (e.g. T-shirt fabric) smell more like other things (e.g. grape gum)? If we assume, as it appears Lanvin does, that novel scents are intrinsically desirable in one’s clothes, why these scents? Why now? What is the cash value of a shirt that smells significantly more like cherry-flavored cough suppressant than other shirts? (The company’s optimistic guess: $590.) For how many days is a $590 T-shirt good before it turns, and is worth merely $295 (the shirts’ eventual discounted sale price)? Is it acceptable that some people enjoy the option to buy a scratch-n-sniff T-shirt that, with shipping, cost more than the supplemental $600 allotted weekly to 30 million unemployed Americans to keep them fed and housed after the initial eruption of the coronavirus pandemic? What do blackberries smell like? And why is the shipping not free?

The New York Times purchased, on sale, one cherry-scented cherry shirt and one grape-scented blackberry shirt for a total, after taxes and shipping, of $631.24, and to whom should the apology be issued?

To A. G. Sulzberger, the newspaper’s publisher, for allocating a portion of his publication’s budget in this way?

Or to a person who could have really used $631.24 — for instance, any resident of Florence, Ky., who was recently transported by ambulance and subsequently charged that city’s standard $630 ambulance fee?

Would it be better to disperse the apology among many people — for instance, hundreds of New Yorkers who walked on any particular occasion to avoid spending $2.75 on subway fare? (Or would any apology be hollow since the money was not taken directly from these individuals’ coffers?)

If three people purchase full-price yearlong digital subscriptions to The Times as a result of reading this article — this article specifically — the scented T-shirts could, in a technical sense, offset their own cost. Would their purchase be justified at that point, or is it immoral and preposterous under all conditions? What does $631.24 mean at this particular moment in time?

Scratch-and-sniff is a feature, a deed and a technology derived from the experiments of Gale Matson, a chemist who grew up in a small town in Minnesota and later went to work for his local global manufacturing conglomerate, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

One of Mr. Matson’s first tasks after joining the company was to refine the practice of producing ink copies of documents without the use of messy black carbon paper. While tweaking a manufacturing technique known as microencapsulation in 1966, he invented what we now know as scratch-and-sniff.

Its basic concept is this: A bunch of itty-bitty plastic-coated balls, filled with scented substance, can be made to rupture with light physical contact (Mr. Matson suggested “fingernail pressure”), releasing their scent into the air.

Mr. Matson’s patents describe how he created capsules filled with “one part perfume oil and two parts diethyl phthalate,” and coated them onto a sheet of paper. The paper remained odorless until the capsules were scratched open.

Since the 1960s, forms of microencapsulation have been used to preserve attractive colored stripes in toothpaste and to create the mysterious liquid crystal substance inside mood rings. Today, a common application is masking the bitter taste of pharmaceutical drug ingredients. The same technology is imbued, as we know, in scratch-n-sniff stickers, stamps, wall paper, album covers and T-shirts.

Gale Matson died in 2004 after more than 30 years at the company, which is known today as 3M. Its scarlet logo appears on products ranging from neonatal monitoring electrodes to helicopter blade repair paste to Scotch tape.

“He loved working at 3M,” Mr. Matson’s son Tim recalled. “They say you bleed 3M red.”

“I never got to see where he worked, because it was in a secure location,” he added. “Until they patented something and disclosed the inventions, it was all trade secrets and tight security.”

Tim Matson said his mother recalled receiving gifts of French perfume left over from his father’s experiments. Two of the perfumes the elder Mr. Matson microencapsulated in the Minnesota laboratory were “My Sin” and “Arpège” — fragrances created for Lanvin in the 1920s.

The thing about a $590 T-shirt is that, upon acquiring one, you immediately become the human assistant to a $590 T-shirt. Your compensation for this role is capped at the amount of joy you personally are able to derive from the act of wearing it.

Besides the basic maintenance of the T-shirt — which involves ironing out the stubborn creases formed in its cardboard journey across land and sea, and handwashing the cotton to preserve the scent of the fruit cartoon (the cherry scent vanished after a single wash and wear; the blackberry shirt was never washed for fear of same) — there is an additional component of mental exhaustion.

There is the temptation, always, to remove the T-shirt before eating, or engaging in light physical activity, or setting foot outdoors in case it attracts bees — behavior that would seem to undermine the act of purchasing a supposedly wearable item in the first place.

Alternatively, you could wear it normally and end up with a $590 no-longer-scented cherry-scented very-short-sleeved T-shirt with a faint indelible enchilada sauce stain on the front, and two tiny holes on the back near the bottom hem — holes whose origin is as enigmatic to you as that of the electron, you having given this T-shirt every possible comfort and advantage in life — that you cannot even donate it, because who would want to receive a stained, punctured T-shirt, now devoid of the original selling factor, which must have been, had to have been, that this T-shirt can be made to evoke the unmistakable scents of artificial fruits?

A spokesman for Lanvin said that the shirts were digitally printed; that the scratch-n-sniff scent was meant to remain for up to 50 washes; and that the idea came to Lanvin’s creative director, Bruno Sialelli, after he encountered a green tea-scented shirt on vacation in Okinawa.

The earliest synthetic fruity flavors, many produced from compounds still used in flavorings today, were offshoots of the Industrial Revolution — literally. They originated as byproducts of coal or fuel oil processing, or were leftover from the distillation of pure alcohol.

Nadia Berenstein, a flavor historian, said that then-new industries based on burning fossil fuels shed “all of these carbon rich molecules” that chemists could “then play with and manipulate in various ways to kind of reorganize them.” By changing the molecules’ structure — by heating them, for instance, or adding sulfuric acid to form new compounds — early flavor scientists could alter their sensory qualities.

“Scent” is a tidy noun to describe a tremendous riot of molecules volatile enough to fly up into our nasal cavities, where sensory receptors describe them to our brains. The majority of scents we encounter in everyday life are made up of large, complex combinations of chemical compounds — often several hundred apiece. To replicate a scent exactly, down to the molecular level, therefore requires an astronomic level of precision and effort.

Fortunately for those who would seek to replicate scents, a close approximation is generally good enough to satisfy.

John Wright, a British-born flavor chemist and a former vice-president for International Flavors & Fragrance, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of tastes and smells, compared creating scents to drawing the Prince of Wales.

“What you think about Prince Charles in the U.K. is: He’s got big ears that stick out. So if you do a cartoon of him and you make the ears bigger, there’s obviously a point where you would turn him into Dumbo, and he wouldn’t be Prince Charles anymore,” Mr. Wright said.

Similarly restrained judgment, he added, must be exercised in scent re-creation.

The goal is to identify a few key elements people use to identify a particular scent, he said, “and accentuate them just a little bit — not so much. So that the ears are still Prince Charles, but a bit bigger than they are in real life.”

For cherries, that compound (benzaldehyde) is associated with a strong bitter almond note. The prevalence of benzaldehyde in artificial cherry formations is “not so true of actual cherries,” said Mr. Wright. “It’s something that’s often exaggerated and sometimes exaggerated far too much.”

But authenticity is not necessarily the aim.

The appeal of the artificial flavorings at the time of their creation, said Dr. Berenstein, was their novelty. Thanks to the sudden proliferation of mass-market confectionaries (itself a result of increased white sugar production at ever higher purities), flavors like fake strawberry became so widespread they entered what Dr. Berenstein called Americans’ “mass cultural sensory experience of the range of things that we associate with strawberryness.”

In other words, “I think the fake flavors tend to shape our expectations for what real things should taste like,” said Dr. Berenstein.

Early flavorists were not in the business of deciphering the molecular template of, say, a true apple (an arduous task that would have required reducing what Dr. Berenstein described as “a literal ton of apples” to a couple of millimeters of volatile aromatic oil). They were scientists taking note of the scents of the new substances with which they had begun experimenting. The chemical amyl valeranate, some of them noticed, smelled somewhat apple-y. Why not market it as “apple essence”?

Some of these scent chemists’ preliminary guesses about fruit flavor composition were remarkably accurate; certain of their intuited compounds were later discovered to be present in the fruits themselves. In the case of artificial banana flavoring, it didn’t even matter, at first, how closely the flavoring matched the fruit’s true taste.

“Artificial banana-flavored things in the U.S. were widely available about 10 years before actual bananas were,” said Dr. Berenstein, “so it’s really likely that people in this country ate banana-flavored candy before they had actually had a banana.”

Today, Dr. Berenstein said, it’s possible to determine accurate chemical compositions much more precisely: “You put a sample of strawberry aroma into a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, and you’ll get a readout that lists maybe three or 400 different chemical components that are volatile in it.”

Thus, while it may be possible for Lanvin to create a shirt that smells exactly like true blackberries — which, when purchased from the supermarket, give off only a faint odor of damp forest — the resulting scent might not be one most people would find pleasant.

“Maybe people would be repelled from buying clothing that already smelled a little bit like dirt,” Dr. Berenstein said.

There is something poetic, at least, in the Lanvin shirts’ concept.

“Smelling is a proximity sense. You have to be in the same room as something to smell it,” Dr. Berenstein said. “Covid, for a lot of people, manifests as this loss of the sense of taste and smell that persists even after the disease is over.”

“And one of the things about being in isolation is that we can look at other people through Zoom, and through our screens, but we’re not smelling other things. We’re not smelling other bodies,” she said. “The digital world is scentless and odorless.”

Smell is also intimately connected to our memories. Odors and scents are chemically suited to trigger nostalgia.

With this in mind, I inhaled the cotton with the urgent indignity of a drowner spat upon dry land. Yet the physical act of shirt-smelling sent my mind rummaging through childhood memories unrelated to the scents themselves.

I am certain I received the occasional scented sticker on an elementary school quiz, but in my recollection, early cognizant years smelled of “unscented” things: wood pencils compulsively shaved to switchblade sharpness; painted metal from hands clung to antiquated and impractical playground structures; the soft old paper smell of communal class paperbacks; suffocating clouds of chalk clapped free from felt erasers (though clapping erasers was forbidden for this reason).

Trying to prize nostalgia from the shirts, I instead flashed back to the comforting sniffs I would take of my clothes and hair on the car ride home from my grandmother’s house, luxuriating in the pleasant “Nana” scent that would envelop me until they were washed. That aroma was strong. It was steeped. It was, my mother pointed out, smoke from my grandmother’s constant puffing of cigarettes; even now, if I pass a smoker on the street, my first thought is of immaculate housekeeping.

Is the swell of these memories, however unconnected from artificial fruit scents, a $590 experience, or perhaps priceless?

“I would be really surprised,” Dr. Berenstein said, “if the cost of putting these aromas onto these shirts is more than a couple of dollars.”

A new banana-scented T-shirt will be available from Lanvin in January. It will retail for $350.



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