CK One (Calvin Klein)

Beautiful Ad, Beautiful Frag

It might surprise you to read that I consider CK One a great fragrance. I flirted with it throughout the nineties, but don't recall ever buying a bottle, although I believe I was gifted a half-ouncer one year for Christmas or something, and I wore it and enjoyed it. CK One is among the few openly chemical compositions I can forgive; Klein wished to create an androgynous anti-perfume, and he learned that this was only possible by eschewing form in favor of function. There are only three CK frags I truly like, and this is the third (Obsession for Men and Truth for Men are the others). 

Context is everything. The early nineties ('90-'94) were just a cultural extension of the eighties. It's true that grunge music, mainly by Nirvana, marked an irreversible cultural shift away from the glam-fueled excesses of the prior decade, but it wasn't until 1993 that the decade formed its own identity. Kurt Cobain's untimely death disrupted grunge's Berlin Wall-pulverizing momentum, but his immortal It-Factor genie was out of its bottle, and America went from Cindy Crawford to Kate Moss like someone flipped a switch. As with any past era, you had to live through this one to fully understand it. I was thirteen, and acutely aware of everything. Women had suddenly started to wear jeans to church. Makeup had become optional. Tattoo culture had escaped from biker bars. America's collective idea of sexiness could no longer be found in Robert Palmer songs. Sexy was the disheveled waif in a tank top, fresh off a weekend bender and with breath that could wake the dead. Hence the Kate Moss thing - she was everywhere. 

CK One was as much about the Kate Moss ads as it was about the fragrance. Its ad campaign was a rolling black and white panoramic film of half nude teenagers loafing around Mr. Klein himself, with the beautiful Jenny Shimizu and Stella Tennant making the occasional guest appearance to broaden the frag's cultural and international appeal. Did the perfume live up to the hype? I think it did. CK One is obviously the inspiration for Creed's Silver Mountain Water, and many writers note its nondescript and somewhat snowy freshness as laying the foundation for the endless acres of soapy-fresh frags that followed. I happen to smell it as more of a floral musk cologne, its lineage traceable to eighteenth century citrus eau de colognes, updated by Klein to smell new and a little strange. My nose settles on the white floral tones generously laced into the composition, and I find the principal thrust of CK One to lean very slightly feminine. 

This brings me to the vaunted concept of CK One: Oneness. An increasingly politicized notion of fashionable androgyny had permeated into the mainstream by 1994, and Klein wanted a fragrance that anyone, man or woman, could wear. Transgenderism had yet to become a bedrock talking point, but the conversation had begun, and Klein's fragrance needed to reflect these changes as artistically and accessibly as possible. The product came in a nondescript bottle that bore neither masculine nor feminine traits, a colorless flask with a dull grey atomizer and transparent script. The fragrance straddles the same delicate balance of its classical cologne progenitors, managing to somehow interweave the masculine nuances of precious woods and potent barbershop musks with distinctly femme notes of faux jasmine, freesia, and muguet. Never too dry, never too sweet, the package was as finely tuned as a Bechstein piano. It smells overwhelmingly synthetic because it was designed to, not because of budgetary or creative constraints. In this regard, hiring Alberto Morillas to compose the scent was a stroke of genius; Morillas' portfolio is populated with fragrances which are obviously soapy, designer-grade, and unabashedly chemical, earning him the nickname Chemical Morillas. 

How does CK One read today? Transgenderism has now become a bedrock American issue, and it's one that I'm far more open to than most of my fellow Republican friends. Oneness is a uniquely American concept: the idea that all are equal, and that everyone is someone. Gay, straight, or bi, transgender or cisgender, Klein's unifying goal was to coalesce identities into a perfume with universal appeal. We were all meant to smell as One. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the sexual politics of the nineties and the identity politics of today - instead of deference to some, Klein embraced all. The public embraced him back, and CK One was a bestseller for years, and continues to be. In 2021 we're faced with constant news stories about the plight of transgender people, and while I think that some of it is noise, I'm largely sympathetic to them. I was raised in an America where people from all walks were not written off just because they turned out to be complicated, or because they challenged established social norms. I've grown into a person who sees people of every persuasion as who they are: people. This goes for trans people too. People are alive, and as Charly Baltimore once said, life is pain - get used to it. Some transgender people struggle with their transition, with the medical and emotional intricacies of their gauntlet transition process, and with the harsh beauty standards society imposes on them. Then there are some transgender people who have survived the struggle of transitioning, have become beautiful examples of their gender, and have stepped almost effortlessly into their lives as model citizens. 

Many Conservatives get hung up on "men are men, women are women." I believe that people are defined by their behavior. You are what you do. We don't go to our graves being remembered as men and women. We go being remembered as husbands and wives, authors and mathematicians, artists and musicians, architects of our chosen or god-given identities. We live together, and we all die eventually. The Oneness of the nineties was perhaps more of a heroin-chic lip-lifting "whatever" sneer, but it has happily evolved into a contemporary conversation about what it means to be a human being. If there's a lesson to be gleaned from the original CK One campaign, it is that America's ideal of Oneness was once encapsulated in a lovely little smell that virtually anyone could pull off, on any day, at any place. For the cost of a pizza, the fragrance, and the sentiment it comes with, is yours. There's still hope for us, and it smells rather good.