French fashion house Lanvin has released a line of $590 scratch-and-sniff T-shirts.
And whom do we have to thank for this modern-day marvel? A Minnesotan, it turns out. Gale Matson, a chemist at 3M, developed the underlying technology in the 1960s while looking for, among other things, an alternative to messy carbon paper.
The shirts came in four sizes, three varieties and two genders — cherry (for men), blackberry (for women), and strawberry (for both).
Their scents are 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 and strawberry shirts are fairly true to their names, but the blackberry one evokes the flavor of grape gum. But how many people know what blackberries smell like, anyway?
There are many other questions, of course. Why these scents? Why now? How long is the scent good before it fades, and who's going to pay $590 to find out? And, at that price, why isn't shipping included?
Scratch-and-sniff is a technology derived from the experiments Matson conducted at what was then known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.
One of his first tasks after joining the company was to refine the practice of producing ink copies of documents without the use of 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 (Matson suggested "fingernail pressure"), releasing their scent into the air.
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 then, forms of microencapsulation have been used for everything from preserving attractive colored stripes in toothpaste to creating the mysterious liquid crystal substance inside mood rings. Today, a common application is masking the bitter taste of pharmaceutical drug ingredients, not to mention the creation of scratch-n-sniff stickers, stamps, wallpaper, album covers and, now, T-shirts.
Matson died in 2004 after more than 30 years at the company.
"He loved working at 3M," Matson's son Tim recalled. "I never got to see where he worked, because it was in a secure location. 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 Matson microencapsulated in his Minnesota laboratory were "My Sin" and "Arpège" — fragrances created for Lanvin in the 1920s.
The burden of ownership
The thing about a $590 T-shirt is that, upon acquiring one, you immediately become the human assistant to it. Besides the basic maintenance of the shirt — which involves ironing out the stubborn creases formed in its cardboard journey across land and sea and hand-washing the cotton to preserve the scent of the fruit cartoon, there is an additional component of mental exhaustion.
There is the temptation to remove the shirt before eating, engaging in light physical activity or even 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 then throw it in the washing machine and end up with a $590 no-longer-cherry-scented very-short-sleeved T-shirt with a faint indelible enchilada sauce stain on the front.
There is something poetic, at least, in the shirts' concept.
"Smelling is a proximity sense. You have to be in the same room as something to smell it," said Nadia Berenstein, a flavor historian. "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."
But does that make a scented T-shirt a $590 experience?
"I would be really surprised," Berenstein said, "if the cost of putting these aromas onto these shirts is more than a couple of dollars."
For those waiting for a sale, a banana-scented T-shirt will be available from Lanvin in January. It will retail for $350.