Calvin Klein Obsession ~ an appreciation (of sorts)

Calvin Klein Obsession adverts

Calvin Klein launched Obsession in 1985, and it was the brand's first blockbuster in fragrance, far outselling the two fragrances that preceded it (Calvin Klein for women and Calvin for men, both long discontinued). Like many of the fragrances of the period, it was not meant to speak softly:

"The name Obsession is big, like a movie poster for this era," said Calvin Klein. "I think of everything I've ever done, how obsessed I was. Everyone is obsessed in the Eighties. And, of course, the name suggests an obsession with someone. A man obsessed by a woman." (via Women's Wear Daily, 1/18/1985)

Obsession hit its mark perfectly; based on the steamy advertising and magazine scent strips, it reportedly sold out at many stores before they even had the first shipment in stock. It continued to be a big-seller well into the 1990s.

The juice, by perfumer Jean Guichard, was appropriately provocative. Obsession is a warm amber-y floriental with soft spices and woods (the notes: mandarin, bergamot, green notes, jasmine, rose, orange blossom, coriander, tagette, armoise, amber and oakmoss); it smells like it's meant to be sexy, and it is. If it also smells loud, bear in mind who it was competing with — by 1987, Obsession was reportedly "rivaling Giorgio, the nation's No. 1 scent". (via Chicago Sun-Times, 12/9/1987)

I didn't wear Obsession in the 1980s, but I remember it well. Like Thierry Mugler's Angel later, it was everywhere, and everyone seemed to be wearing one spray too many (sometimes two or three). One spray, even now, is more than I can tolerate, but a little tiny dab renders it surprisingly tame, even approachable: yes, it's still strong, but most of the bite is in the early stages, where a bitter herbal-green edge laced with spices seems to linger longer than you'd expect it would or could. As it softens, the floral notes are rich, but grounded by the amber, and the vanilla in the base is nicely dry in comparison to today's overbearing dessert-fests. To my nose, it's a pussycat next to Christian Dior's Poison, released that same year.

I can't say I much care for Obsession even now, but in some ways, it's a more wearable scent than I'd remembered, and it smells markedly less dated to me than the other statement fragrances of the 1980s. I'll leave it at that, and close with a few expert opinions:

Obsession is rather like a ground-to-air missile, programmed to burst through any defence system to hit its target. It's a perfume which is out to win, and does, one way or another, with its pounding pervasiveness, persistent sensuality, and unbridled suggestiveness. (John Oakes, The New Book of Perfumes, p. 210)

A triumph of timing over substance...[Obsession] filled a very large oriental-shaped hole in the market. (Luca Turin, Perfumes: The Guide, p 265)

Ann Gottlieb, who art directed the scent, briefed the perfumer to do 'sensuality with a touch of raunch' and 'classy with a touch of trash'. She got it, but with the emphasis reversed. (Susan Irvine, The Perfume Guide, p. 138)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    This smells amazing on my Aunt who has worn it as long as it's been around. I associate it with her neck and always look forward to hugging her. I get pissed when she dares to wear something else. I love it on her, it smells great but I would never wear it myself.

  2. Anonymous says:

    One of my high school English teachers lived in a cloud of Obssession. You could *always* smell her before you saw her. On hot days, her scent seemed to permeate the whole floor her classroom was on.
    Obssession isn't the scent of seduction, it's the scent of abridged novels, tedious assignments, and vocab tests.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I've never been a fan, at all, of either of the original Obsession fragrances (men's or women's).
    But, I LOVE Obsession Night for men (never smelled the women's one). Reading this article made me want to wear it today, but I don't have the bottle here with me :/

  4. Anonymous says:

    How nice to associate it with someone you love!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Vocabulary tests, ouch! That would make me hate almost any scent.

  6. Anonymous says:

    And I'm lazy, I still haven't smelled Obsession Night for women!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I love Obsession on my friend – it smells awesome on her. She loves Kenzo Jungle and Lolita Lempicka on me. We could never switch our perfumes, I hate Obsession on me, she cannot stand Jungle/Lempicka on her skin.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Obsesssion … wow, does it bring back memories of high school! I swear every other girl wore it — I didn't particularly like it, but I remember at one point someone gave me one of those “designer imposter” fragrances that was supposed to smell like Obsession, and I wore it for a while. I can remember clusters of cheerleaders passing me in the hallway, trailing Obsession. Ah, the '80s! It's fun remembering, thanks!

  9. Anonymous says:

    It's always a surprise when something smells great on someone else, and it turns out to be something I normally hate.

  10. Anonymous says:

    It would be really cool to see a chart of “bestselling cheerleader fragrances” for each year, wouldn't it? I'm not even sure what it would be today.

    • texasperfumista says:

      IMO, it would be Viva La Juicy handsdown followed by Pink Sugar. VLJ is another one I desperately want to love but actually can’t stand for some reason, surprisingly enough bc I adore every other Juicy scent and really love the way the notes sound in the description, but it just doesn’t work in me. But yes the cheerleader perfume of the decade would probably be VLJ, don’t you think? :)

  11. Anonymous says:

    I didn't wear this in the 80s either, but I love it now. For me, one spritz on a cold day makes me feel confident, and also warmer. I buy the mini size at the drugstore and it lasts for years. Thanks for a kind word for this much maligned scent!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Cannot bear this one and didn't like any of the follow ups until the Secret one came along. Now this one I like. :-)

  13. Anonymous says:

    i'm glad you reviewed this one, a true classic, be it in a positive and negative way. it's very eighties. i first smelled it in the nineties and i liked it, in fact i still do (i'm thinking about purchasing a tiny bottle of the perfume, just for reminders). you're so right, it's very very loud and the loudness was reinforced by excessive use (just as it was and is with angel, poison and other 'poisonous' stuff, interesting that people are so generous when applying such strong potions despite being aware of the consequences :). and also, i cannot really imagine that obsession could get so popular if launched today, just imagine.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Glad to hear it still has fans!

  15. Anonymous says:

    I'm surprised, for some reason — wouldn't have pegged you as a SO fan, M.

  16. Anonymous says:

    You're right, it's hard to imagine Obsession taking off today. Personally, it doesn't smell like an 80s scent to me in the same way as Giorgio & Poison — if Obsession were lighter, it wouldn't feel as dated as the other 2. I wish I had a sample of the later Obsession Sheer — can imagine liking such a thing if it was done right.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Being in the prime of my life when this fragrance burst upon the scene, it was the fragrance to wear with big hair, and even bigger shoulders. I did love it and wore it when I knew that tonight held something wonderful in store for me. It was a hot sexy fragrance. It then seemed very dated as the 90's came upon us and I didn't wear it for probably 15 years until a neighbor of mine two summers ago on one of the doggiest days of August rang my bell. I can't even remember what she wanted, but Obsession unmistakenly wafted past my nose and into my house. I had to have it once again. I wear it occasionally, but don't have the nerve to spritz in the warmer months like she did. You know what? on her, it smelled downright amazing, 96 degrees and all!

  18. Anonymous says:

    That would an amusing list … I'd bet it would contain a lot of sugary-fruity-florals!

  19. Anonymous says:

    I meant that would *be* an amusing list … typing too quickly today!

  20. Anonymous says:

    God, Obsession really was everywhere, and it seemed like everyone in my H.S. wore it. One sniff brings me back to my Flashdance wardrobe, multiple plastic bracelets and florescent Swatch watches.

    I have to laugh about the wearing one spray or two or three too many. I have memories of my friends spraying it over and around their heads… And it bloomed even stronger in the Florida heat & humidity.

    One little tiny (tiny) dab is enough.

  21. Anonymous says:

    RL Romance would be on there too, for whatever year that was, and I'm guessing Lauren. And possibly Pink Sugar at a later year?

  22. Anonymous says:

    Was looking at some “big hair” pictures on an 80s nostalgia site a few weeks ago — should have thrown a few of those pictures on here today! Brings back memories.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Spraying it around their heads, LOL! I did use to wear much stronger scents than I do now (Halston, YSL Paris come to mind) but I hope I never drenched myself in them. Maybe I did though.

  24. Anonymous says:

    P.S. Im a senior in HS and the new “it” scent for the cheerleaders is Juicy Couture. Its all over the locker rooms. Thought I'd share that.

  25. Anonymous says:

    On second thought, I do smell BS's fantasy everywhere too. And most teens dont know when to stop spraying. Seriously, HS smellls like someone dumps bottles of perfume in the corners. And dont forget the guys Axe sprays and B.O. Lovely….

  26. Anonymous says:

    Obsession reminds me of my late mother. She wore Giorgio and all the Chanels too (gee, I wonder where I get it from?), but this is the one that really reminds me of her. Mom with a perm, shoulder pads, and lots of blush! Love it.

  27. Anonymous says:

    I'm sure I oversprayed, with wild abandon!

  28. Anonymous says:

    That sounds about right, and Pink Sugar for sure, I bet!

  29. Anonymous says:

    Shoot! We couldn't afford designer frags in HS. I wore Verve body spray (look it up, you'll laugh). Any children of the 80's remember that stuff? Otherwise I just “borrowed” from my mom's, grandmother's, or uncle's stash. BTW, my uncle had the best collection of 70's musks ever!

    Lizzi: hope you're not choking on the Juicy Couture. It could be worse, but I tried one spritz once and that was plenty. Can't imagine a whole locker room full of it!

  30. Anonymous says:

    Lizzi, thanks! Should have though of Juicy Couture, but didn't. Fantasy seems more obvious.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I'm sure it's impossible for me not to have smelled this at the time — I was in HS and college just as and soon after it was launched, though the fumes I recall being BIG at the time were Drakkar and Polo — but I have to say I really don't remember it at all.

    I'm going to have to take a sniff next time I pass the Macy's counter, but I don't have high hopes. I recently revisited a former late 1990s love: Tommy for Men (well, more than revisited, I actually bought a small bottle from eBay). It was a cheap synthetic nightmare that kind of disgusted me and I think I'm going to need to get rid of the bottle. So sad, since it hearkened back to such happy times!

    It's quite tragic how sometimes you can't recapture the past, isn't it? Or maybe 20 more years will need to elapse before certain fragrances smell “fresh” again.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Googled Verve body spray but didn't find it!

  33. Anonymous says:

    Yes, the perms! And they smelled for weeks, so you needed more perfume ;-)

  34. Anonymous says:

    Ah, but after that much time has passed, many scents have been reformulated past recognition, sadly. We complain about what the big luxury houses (Guerlain, Chanel) do, but in all truth they've kept their scents much closer to the truth than most.

  35. Anonymous says:
  36. Anonymous says:

    That's true. It makes me wonder if Grey Flannel (another oldie I've been really wanting to revisit) can be ANYTHING like its original formulation if you can now buy something like 120ml for $15!

  37. Anonymous says:

    Hey, thanks! The Confetti version, no less, and love the description “It still has a pretty nice smell.” LOL!

  38. Anonymous says:

    Oh, I loved, loved, loved Grey Flannel. Turin & Sanchez give the current version 5 stars, can't beat that!

  39. Anonymous says:

    I love the cans of talc shown below it as well! They look either like travel mugs or flour sifters or something. Quality stuff… and rolling about “still has a pretty nice smell.” Ha!

  40. Anonymous says:

    OK, I'm convinced… I'll drop $15 on that HUMONGOUS 4oz bottle of it sometime in the near future. But if you've enticed me to “waste money”… watch out!

  41. Anonymous says:

    This the same for me…my Mom! I guess this is why I am such a perfumaholic!

  42. Anonymous says:

    joe: I watched a boy I had a crush on in 8th grade spray literally half a bottle of Drakkar on his neck and I haven't been the same since. Yuck! Polo I still think smells good in a nostalgic way. I'm sure you've smelled Obsession even if you never knew anyone personally that wore it. It was just “in the air” in the 80's. As I recall, the “Imposter” version was just as popular as the real thing. Maybe it'll come back to you when you take a sniff. Hope it brings back good memories!

  43. Anonymous says:

    Beautyencounter has a 30 ml for $8.90…ha, now I've enticed you to SAVE money, LOL…

  44. Anonymous says:

    OMG, yes. My mom had one of those smelly perms. It was amazing how bad, and how long lasting, that chemical smell was.

    I have a soft spot for Obsession for Men on myself. It's not quite as nice on the actual owner of the bottle, for whatever reason, but I'm using it up for him. :-)

  45. Anonymous says:

    Joe, Gray Flannel is wonderful on both genders, and you can't beat the price. Keep the bottle in the fridge (assuming it is warm wherever you are) and spray with abandon – instant coolness. If you don't like it, I'll swap you something for it.

  46. Anonymous says:

    Obsession for Men was the very first scent I ever bought for myself, back in '86, but I have always loved the original Obsession. Sometimes I think I'd rather wear that than the men's.

    I miss the range of products that came with both scents. I am sorry to see the current product line cut down so much.

    Over on Basenotes, from time to time, there has been some spirited debate over whether the men's was reformulated/weakened at some point. (I believe it has been changed.) I wonder if the same could be said of the women's? Anyone out there notice anything different with it?

  47. Anonymous says:

    I wonder if perm technology has improved? It must have. I haven't had one in years — and when I look at pictures, can't believe I ever did!

  48. Anonymous says:

    I haven't any vintage on hand, so all I can say is that while it must have been reformulated by now (no way is a 1985 scent still being made with the same ingredients) they haven't massively modernized or dumbed it down. Although mine is probably 2-3 years old by now.

  49. Anonymous says:

    I was lucky enough to find three bottles of “vintage” Obsession for Men on eBay not too long ago. I do know this for sure: the current Obsession for Men product is an EDT while the original was a cologne.

    Obsession for Men, as I remember it vividly from '86, had a very pronounced cinnamon note to it and a rather “dirty” quality. The current EDT is so…emasculated. I can't think of a better word. I am so glad I found these “vintage” bottles.

  50. Anonymous says:

    I owned this back in the day, at age 15 or 16, when the school bus and high school hallways reeked of Poison and Giorgio. One of my best friends wore Fendi. My parents gave me Coco for christmas. All these scents very LOUDLY evoke awkward teen years for me. Would a memory by the name of “Light Blue” smell as sweet?

  51. Anonymous says:

    I work in a salon (as an aesthetician) and, once in a blue moon, one of the 20 or so hairstylists that I work with does a perm. Still smelly, but not quite so bad. And I'm almost positive that the smell doesn't linger on the hair for days like it used to. They're kinder and gentler now from what I understand and mostly just used to give body. You don't need a hair pick to “fluff” it or Obsession to cover the smell! :)

  52. Anonymous says:

    Obsession is the GREAT HIT AND MISS for me. A HIT because I fell in love with it at first smell, a MISS because I never bought it. I was a kid at the time and it was too expensive for me, so I wore Fendi instead. And now it's too late – I feel it's old, musty, dated and even on those days I almost feel like buying it I still think my Hypnotic Poison has much more class.

    By the way Secret Obsession is like a fuity floral diluted Euphoria vit a drop of Obsession per barrel. Sad :-(

  53. Anonymous says:

    Wonder if they'll ever come back in style? I love curly hair, wish I had the “real thing”.

  54. Anonymous says:

    It's been “de-skanked”? That's true of many fragrances today. Possible that whatever musk they were using originally is now banned, also possible that it's a design choice.

  55. Anonymous says:

    LOL — I suppose it would if you loved Light Blue ;-)

  56. Anonymous says:

    It's been de-skanked a bit and it's lost a lot of the richness it once had. 'Tis a pity…

  57. Anonymous says:

    My bet for the last few years would be firmly on Victoria's Secret Love Spell. I'm so haunted by that stuff, it's not even funny.

    So far, in college, I've been surrounded by athletes (my roomie's an athlete) who have a sincere appreciation of Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. It's not anything I've every smelled, but she's also a slight Chanel/ Burberry devotee which is right up my alley! :)

  58. Anonymous says:

    That's the 2nd mention of Fendi — I never tried that one. But surprised a Fendi fragrance was all that much cheaper than a CK?

  59. Anonymous says:

    That's too bad :-(

  60. Anonymous says:

    Ah, good call — I always forget (literally) about VS. And I'm sure Light Blue would make the list.

  61. Anonymous says:

    Oh yeah. I wore this one back in the day.

    To be honest, it never really smelled that good on me. However, I loved Eternity!


  62. Anonymous says:

    R, the only CK I ever wore regularly was CK One — me, and everyone else on planet Earth, right? LOL…

  63. Anonymous says:

    Sigh. My association with Calvin Klein's Obsession is rather more unfortunate than some. In 1988, the first inkling I had that my marriage was circling the drain was my husband reeking of the stuff when he arrived home after a “dinner meeting.” — “Oh,” he said, “I must have hung my coat next to the secretary's.” Right. It seemed like every secretary in New York wore the stuff. I, only recently elevated from the secretarial pond myself, had to suppress my tendency to shudder when I got on the subway every morning and evening.

    Divorce, therapy, recovery, a new career, a move to a different time zone… Now I'm back in New York and last year a client, knowing my fondness for scent, gave me a bottle of Calvin Klein's Obsession. “How lovely,” I said to her. “Oy,” I thought to myself.

    So I tried it out this morning. It's really okay, I'm happy to report. And, amazingly, knowing as I do the power of scent to recapture a memory in its entirety, I am not reminded, at least not in that visceral, ineluctable way, of my former husband and his extracurricular adventures. I'll never forget that time, but Obsession seems not to carry the freight of the memories. Maybe it's on account of the product having been reformulated?

    Anyway, thank you for the post, Robin. I don't know as I'll put Obsession into heavy rotation, but I'm happy to know that I really am shed of the last of that so-and-so.

  64. Anonymous says:

    Oh dear, what a story! I'm so glad trying it now didn't bring all that back in a bad way — must be nice to be rid of “the last of that so-and-so”. Hope you'll wear your gift in happiness :-)

  65. Anonymous says:

    It was 60% of the price of CK. Maybe because I was buying an European brand in Europe?

  66. Anonymous says:

    Fendi was lovely – I could smell pipe tobacco, vanilla, rum-soaked raisins, amber and leather.

    Can't stand it nowadays but in the early 90's I wore it with relish.

  67. Anonymous says:

    If you are talking about the original Fendi, it was amazing. It's changed a little, (less emphasis on the overt animalic notes) but try it if you get the chance. The original mens was fabby too.

    I think they've officially stopped making it. :(

  68. Anonymous says:

    Ah, that's probably it.

  69. Anonymous says:

    I love this scent. To me it is a truly unique oriental scent. While it is extremely strong and spicy, it's not the kind of fragrance that will fill up your nose and irritate you, as if some stuffy woman is walking by. It's very warm, very alluring and sensitive all at the same time.

    I find that when it calms down on your skin after a wihle, it gets sweeter and even warmer.

    This scent is great for any time of day as long as you only use one spray for mornings or for work. Perfect for evenings, especially elegant occassions. It is a very classy, sexy scent. I know for a fact that men love this on women.

  70. Anonymous says:

    So glad you love it, and totally agree on limiting to one spray for day!

  71. Anonymous says:

    Love it or hate it,you'll find it connects with your psyche!

    I adored it in the 80's…..almost bathed in it.

    Not for me now,but I always want it to be around.

  72. obsernity says:

    My first perfume back in 1990: it lasted just over a year and I was intoxicated throughout! Eternity, bought at the same time lasted a futher 3 years with more subtlety. Perhaps, when I’ve sprayed though my D&G The One and A Men, Pure Coffee, I’ll drift back into its influence.

    • Robin says:

      It’s probably easier to wear now than it was in the 80s…at least now not everyone is wearing it :-)

      • obsernity says:

        Ah, yes, go retro with the original hormone teaser, LOL. My bottle had a spay top cap> I notice now, the bottle has a removable cap.

  73. Subhuman says:

    Obsession smells like every department store fragrance counter I walked past as a kid in the early ’90s – they must have pumped it through the vents or something. I’m sure my mother or sister owned a bottle at some point, too. I bought a tiny bottle of it this week to re-acquaint myself with it and try it out on my own skin. I actually prefer the bracing, spicy topnotes to the generic oriental drydown, which is when the ’90s-department-store flashbacks kick in for me. Overall, it’s really not bad, and actually quite good if you go easy on the trigger (more than one spray and Obsession turns into Obnoxious). And it’s better than the men’s version, which is like Gordon Gekko in a bottle – way too dated and cheeseball for me.

    • Robin says:

      I think it also has that aura because so many other scents copied it…even if you weren’t smelling Obsession, you might be smelling a copy.

      • Subhuman says:

        That makes sense, actually, the same way I’m instantly familiar with the smell of CK One even though I never owned it or wore it myself, just some of the many imitators (Roots Uniscent, et al).

        Also, I’ve been wearing Obsession more frequently this past week and I find myself continually impressed with the far drydown, which lasts for-freakin’-ever and actually smells rather somber and sophisticated, something I didn’t expect given the top and middle notes. Perhaps I dismissed it as “generic” too early…

        • Robin says:

          And the plus is that now not so many people are wearing it!

  74. Dizzy Dazzy says:

    I used to wear Obsession (original) and I liked it well enough. A bit powdery and dare I say it, just a little bit musty. But, I never went out and bought more when it ran out, so I could not have been that much in love with it. I have the flanker now, Obsession Night (womens) and it is nothing like the original – its a bit like Burberry Brit. I like Obsession Night more than the original. I did not buy either bottle, both perfumes have been gifts. Both very nice but I am still after my holy grail lol! So when the Obsession Night runs dry I will be on to the next perfume rather than buying more of the same.

  75. Brigitte says:

    Obsession is kind of like my guilty pleasure fragrance. I remember smelling it on my grandmother in the late 80’s, who I adore, and the distinctive scent made me think of comfort, going to Disneyland, and all the other things I associated with my grandmothers visits. My mom just gave me a 10 year old bottle of Obsession (she hates it!), in exchange for some celeb fragrance I was bestowed that smells like hair spray to me. There’s something so distinctive about Obsession, that sets it apart from similar fragrances from that era. Though new Obsessions come out with provocative new names, I find the original Obsession is much more dark and distinctive than the new versions.

    • Robin says:

      It’s certainly more distinctive than Secret Obsession…

  76. Bruno says:

    I just love Obsession for men. I first bought it in 1994 when i came for a trip in America. Since then, I always have it even if sometimes I can stop wearing it for 6 months. I have like 30 bottles of perfumes, but Obsession is always the one I come back to. It is sensual, and when I wear it, there is always someone who is going to tell me that I smell “so good”. Plus, not a lot of men wear it and it has more personnality than all the new boring fragrances that come out every year.

  77. sweetgrass says:

    I was in a store today and I decided to try Obsession because I actually hadn’t before. So I was curious.. and it turns out it’s a hot mess on me. It started out fine, with the citrus and bitter herbaceousness, which I thought was kind of interesting, but then once that faded away.. Play-doh. All I could think of was Play-doh.. with a little sweet amber thrown in for good measure. And the Play-doh thing lasted a long time.. it got worse for a little bit, shading into something like sweet, heated plastic before going back to just Play-doh. It’s finally mostly gone, and now I smell mostly the ambery bit, so it’s sweet, but ok. It’s been about four hours now. I don’t think I’ll be wearing this one again.

    I also tried the men’s version for the sake of comparison, and it’s better on me, though it seems to be way stronger than the women’s version. Whatever the Play-doh/plasticky thing is in the women’s version, it doesn’t seem to be in the men’s version, or at least it’s masked well enough. I like the extra bit of spice and something else I can’t quite put my finger on.. pineyness, maybe?, but I find myself wanting a bit of edge, some smoke or funk or something to cut the sweetness of the amber. I sprayed a bit on the back of one hand, and I’m still getting wafts of it after having washed my hands. I’m not sure this is ever going to come off. :P

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