A favorite mall-brand body spray scent of the Y2K era, vanilla is back with an upscale twist.
As late ’90s and early 2000s nostalgia captivates Gen Z and beyond, vanilla has come roaring back in a wave of new fragrance and body-care launches in the past two years. Joining frosted eyeshadow and lip gloss as the latest example of Y2K style taking over beauty trends, the scent’s newest iterations are a sophisticated update to those of the peak Bath & Body Works era.
“What I love about the revival of vanilla is that it’s sort of taking it back to that idea that it is this very sensual, beautiful, easy to love smell,” said Rosie Jane Johnston, whose brand By Rosie Jane launched a vanilla fragrance called Dulce in September. Inspired by “Los Angeles in 1996,” the fragrance was promoted by the brand with a ’90s-themed playlist shared in the brand’s Instagram Stories and on its site. While Johnston said she drew inspiration from The Body Shop’s ‘90s-era vanilla products, her fragrance is a modern take with notes of hinoki wood and musk that “cut how strong it is,” she said.
“As basic as the note may sound, it’s one of the most expensive and one of the most versatile ingredients in perfumery,” said Mona Kattan, whose fragrance brand Kayali launched its Vanilla Royale Sugared Patchouli on November 16. It’s the latest vanilla launch to hit the market in the luxury fragrance world, and a new addition to the brand’s vanilla-focused lineup that started with its Vanilla | 28 scent in 2018.
According to data from a 2022 survey by Gen-Z media company Kyra, vanilla is the No. 1 scent among Gen-Z beauty shoppers, ahead of rose, fruit, citrus and lavender. Marina Mansour, vp of beauty and wellness at Kyra, said the fragrance note is reminiscent of the “body sprays” of the “early noughties.” And for a young person, it’s associated with “your first serious fragrance or the fragrance that people would gift you,” she said.
New brands in the personal-care arena have also leaned into nostalgia and embraced the mall-brand classic scent. Hand sanitizer brand Touchland’s vanilla-scented sanitizer is one of its best sellers and will be added to a Sephora endcap in a few months, said the brand’s founder Andrea Lisbona.
“Vanilla, for some time, has not been a popular scent,” she said. “But it’s having momentum, [because] you go back to your young days with no worries and no responsibilities.” Like other recent vanilla fragrance launches, the sanitizer was promoted with nostalgic images including old Game Boys and Nintendo consoles.
“Potentially the same people who were buying it” in the ‘90s and early 2000s “have grown up, and they want a more sophisticated, elevated version,” she said.
“What we are seeing now is a comeback of vanilla with a modern twist,” said Natalia Lebedev, chief fragrance officer at body-care brand Native, which launched a vanilla marshmallow body wash in September. “As consumers seek the feeling of nostalgia and comfort during this time, and especially during the holidays, [vanilla] provides a sense of familiarity and inspires feelings of ‘home.’”
In Johnston’s view, the massive popularity of vanilla in the Y2K era was its undoing, with mass brands taking vanilla and “exploiting it to the point where it just became the cheap version of it.”
“It was all synthetic, designed for maximum impact with very little cost,” she said. “So you started to get this not-great-smelling product that people associated with something cheap and not good.”
“Vanilla notes have been around for many years, but they truly became popular in the early 2000s as consumers needed something that would provide comfort and hope,” said Lebedev. “During that time, there were a lot of products with creamy vanilla elements, then after, there was a shift to floral, fruity, nature-inspired scents.”
This time around, high-end brands are leaning into making vanilla more upscale by pairing it with more complex ingredients than its early aughts predecessors.
“When we were working on Vanilla Royale, we wanted to take our cult fav Vanilla | 28 and make it extra sexy and decadent. So, in addition to the vanilla and brown sugar, we brought in notes of golden rum, creme brûlée, royal oud and sugared patchouli,” said Kattan.
Avant-garde luxury vanilla fragrance brands have joined in on the trend with updated vanilla scents in recent years. That’s included Heretic, with its Dirty Vanilla launched in 2020, and Byredo, with its Vanille Antique released in April.
But experts agree that nostalgia is one of the most potent forces driving the vanilla surge for all generations.
“We’re all collectively yearning for the same thing, which is a break, especially right now, and an emotional escape where everything feels like it did pre-Covid,” said Johnston. “It’s probably the yearning for something simple and feel-good, coming out of where we’ve all just come and what we’ve all just been through.”