What Should A Dad Smell Like?

In the ’80s and ’90s most dads bore a strong musk reminiscent of a certain Calvin Klein product. Today, it’s not quite so simple.

Emma Chao/Fatherly; Courtesy of Getty Images

Every so often it happens that my father’s cologne will waft back into my life, bringing with it memories of deep pile carpeting and summers in San Diego. On an errant breeze or atop the mistrals of air conditioning, this scent arrives, and I immediately begin to look around for my dad. Not my dad as he is now, in his seventies, walking laboriously after double knee replacements, hair turned gray and eyes crinkly. But the father of my youth, a 40-year-old pharmaceutical Lothario wearing patterned rayon shirts and pleated silk dress pants, and smelling strongly of Obsession for Men by Calvin Klein.

This happens less and less often: Obsession for Men was the quintessential ’80s and ’90s scent, big and round, musky bass notes with myrrh and mandarin on top. That kind of brash cologne — aggressively plush and applied with abandon — has gone out of style. But in the small quiver of sense memories I carry of my father, the scent of his cologne is still the arrow with the truest aim, flying through the years on an mnemon-olfactory parabola only to strike me in the heart when I least expect it.

Now I’m the 40-something dad, and my sons are roughly the age I was then, when I unconsciously packed away my father for all time: His mustache, his clothes, his scent, circa 1988. It takes just a mote of empathic projection to realize that how my children experience me now will be with them until they are my age. I know now this is a tender high-stakes moment as a parent, just when my kids begin to see me not just as a parent but as a person who exists in all his weirdness beyond them too: the dad who wears pink jorts, has crazy hair and many tattoos, a mercurial, extravagant, explosive, loving writer who’s always falling asleep on the couch and smells like...smells like...smells like nothing.

According to Proust and science, olfactory memories are stronger, more direct, more evocative and longer-lasting than memories encoded by our other senses. And while there are many things I’ll be leaving to my children — a collection of erotic art, hypercholesterolemia, $10,000 — one legacy not being deposited in their memory banks is the nostalgia-crushing scent of fatherhood.

Someday, as a sirocco ladened with hot Saharan air and Mediterranean lushness whistles past their grown-up noses, I’d like them to think of me. Or at the very least, I’d like them to remember me as pleasant-smelling. Even as my belly bulges, knees give out, wrinkles form and hair disappears, even then might I live on in their minds as the 40-something weirdo, full of whim and vigor. Cologne might be my only chance.

I’ve experimented with scents since high school, shrugging on various personae over the years, but halfway through the journey of my life, it seems I should settle. The first cologne I ever wore was Armani’s Acqua di Gio, a mid-range aquatic scent with bergamot. It was the cologne my prom date, an Italian exchange student, a hard-partying high-cheekboned beauty named Francesca, wore. I adopted it too. It smelled of danger, and sex appeal and, after Francesca was killed in a car accident, heartbreak.

When I left for college, I disavowed cologne and hygiene in general as bourgeois indulgences. But when I emerged from that dusk of stinking self-righteousness into the dawn of bourgeois ambition, I started wearing cedar-scented Terre de Hermes. This was because for a while I befriended an extremely handsome man named James Kloiber who had salt-and-pepper hair and worked in luxury PR. I wanted everything Jim had, including his scent. That lasted for exactly one bottle, when I realized that the reason he smelled luxurious was because the cologne was expensive. I was back to scentlessness.

And while I still love Le Labo’s Santal 33, I have discovered — via dating apps — that it is the fragrance of fuckbois. It is not a dad scent.

I needed help, so I called Kevin Keller, who runs a company called Fulton & Roark, based in North Carolina. Since 2013, Keller has been on a mission to modernize fragrance. Fragrance, the affable Keller insists, not cologne. “The word cologne is kinda a charged word. A lot of guys just shut down. They hear that and they think of that guy they knew, often a dad, their dad or not, who wore way too much of it.” According to Keller, “The most important thing is that a fragrance makes you feel comfortable.”

Over several weeks, I worked through the battery of small vials that Keller supplied, including Fulton & Roark classics like Ramble — which felt like being pleasantly lost in a fir forest — and Sterling, which made me feel like an English gentleman, with its notes of leather, tobacco and bergamot.

I expanded my search to other fragrance makers. Among another set of vials — MiN’s Scent Stories Discovery Set, Vol. 3 — I found Voodoo, a mysterious concoction that set my brain inexplicably aglow. And I formed something of an addiction to Bowmakers, an elusive scent by DS & Durga, which smells resinous and woody, like a violin workshop. Outside of the sampler set, I could only find it in shower gel form and exclusively in the bathrooms of Thompson Hotels, which is why I sometimes travel to a new city to stay in a Thompson Hotel just to cadge (and hoard) all the tiny bottles. Their sampler set also includes scents like Debaser (moss, tonka bean, fig) and Cowboy Grass (vetiver, sagebrush, thyme).

My sons and I are well past the age of cuddling, much to my weepy dismay. Even a hug is hard to come by. Heeding Keller’s admonition, I don’t douse myself in the stuff in the way my father did. I could smell it, and those close enough to me could smell it, but my children didn’t seem to notice at all. But then I met David Moltz, the guy behind DS & Durga, at a party recently and was extremely starstruck. He says, as he’s gotten older, he’s gotten more aggressive in the application. (He’s 42, I’m 42. Our kids are about the same age.) So I started with a few more spritzes. Many more spritzes. Then I began to feel something. At last.

I felt alternatingly sexy and sophisticated, frequently manly, as if I had my life together. Only a man with his life together, I thought, wears a cologne, embracing the logical fallacy, as only a man who is using cologne to pull his life together can. As I enshrouded myself in a subtle mist of sweet-smelling air particles, I became not only the man I was — mercurial, flawed, smelling like a cowboy on the high plains — but also the man I wanted to be.

I let go of the fantasy of finding my scent and realized that a father, a man, a human being, can be many things. I had many facets and needn’t be nude or descending a staircase to know it. I needed only to experiment with olfactory self-worth and expression. We all know the brilliance of one facet can affect the sheen of the others.

Smelling good, I felt good, and in feeling good, I was more patient, upbeat, charming — debonair even — more confident, less prone to snap, or to fasten my self-worth to the roller coaster car that is a tween’s treatment of his parent. All this from an atomizer. So whether my kids remember my scent or not, hopefully they’ll remember me — on a passing breeze or a gust of air conditioning — as a man of many scents, a happy man indeed.