What does a night out in L.A. really smell like?

City of Stars perfume bottle, for Image magazine, issue 10 - What does an L.A. summer night smell like?
(Zen Sekizawa / For The Times)

This story is part of Image issue 10, “Clarity,” a living document of how L.A. radiates in its own way. Read the full issue here.

Every time I left and came back, it was the same. A ritual that felt necessary. As soon as I saw the downtown skyline — driving north on the 110, or south coming down the 5 — I’d roll down all my car windows, take the deepest breath I’d taken all day and utter the words: “Smells like L.A.”

What, exactly, was I smelling? Scent and sense of place are interconnected. Los Angeles is such an expanse of diverse geographies, microclimates, neighbors, businesses, cultures; the city smells like a lot of different things, at different times, in different places, to different people. A person’s house can have a specific scent; oftentimes, it goes unnoticed day to day, but some days — when a person returns after a long time away, when a friend walks through the door for the first time — the smell announces itself. There is something distinct about the air.


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It’s not simply cleaning products or candles; smells can trigger memories, ideas, conversations, specific experiences. Today, when I burn Nag Champa incense, my eyes water — and not just from the smoke. The aroma transports me back to Gardena, to the apartment I shared with my best friend eight years ago, and the memory of being on my own for the first time, being heartbroken for the first time, feeling free for the first time. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly, but it’s there: the smell of home.

L.A., as a city, has its own version of this — smells that remind us where we are.

If you were to craft a perfume of the L.A. that exists in memory and experience, the top notes probably would include the sour hit of someone’s blunt on a windless day when the air is hot and thick, leaving the smoke to wrap around you like a hug; the smokiness of mezcal on breath when you’re on to your fourth deep conversation of the night; the dank of still water at Echo Park Lake.

The heart notes would be jasmine from peak-season walks with your dog through East Hollywood after sundown; summer fire season; freshly cut flowers — or, more specifically, fumbling out of a warehouse party in the early morning, the sun barely peeking out, and walking home through the Flower District. There would be a mix of Suavitel wafting out of the 24-hour coin laundromat on Adams and consomé from the L.A. Birria truck parked right in front of it.

At the base: the runoff from Phillips Bar-B-Que on Crenshaw; the cigarette smoke on your friend’s hair when you hug them goodbye after the rave; remnants of veggie tacos on your fingertips from the Crazy Tacos truck that’s sometimes parked on 9th and Main; late-night Korean barbecue; the polarizing stench of Le Labo Santal 33.

Not all L.A. smells are linked to rose-colored memories evoking a messy night in your 20s, of course. The more insidious scents of this city — the mounds of feces downtown; the assault of car exhaust on the freeway; rotten, wet trash lining the curbs of the sidewalk; the dusty chalk of various construction sites; the putrid aroma that plagued the Dominguez Channel last year, which residents likened to “the stench of death” — all function as hazardous warnings.


You wouldn’t choose to wear the scent of dilapidation or urban decline or gentrification or environmental racism. And you might not want to smell like you came off a grill outside Dodger Stadium. But you might choose to wear a scent that makes you feel like you belong to the narrative of a place. Maybe you desire to wear a scent that empowers you to remake a place as you see fit. Or maybe there’s a feeling worth coming back to that you might want to wear forever.

Louis Vuitton’s new fragrance, City of Stars, is the latest attempt to bottle up Los Angeles — the idea of it and what it inspires. It does not smell like structural failures. Nor does it smell like a romanticized night of bad decisions. There are no hints of bacon-wrapped hot dog topped with grilled onions and peppers, no traces of burnt air from fireworks. The City of Stars energy is more aspirational, idealized, sanitized, but essential nonetheless. Manufactured scents like perfumes also can anchor us to the present. And City of Stars grounds you in awareness of a moment — and, most important, serves as a reminder that it’s fleeting.

On skin — at least on my skin — City of Stars reacts to the body’s chemical output naturally. It evolves and unfolds in the same way a day or night in L.A. should: unexpectedly. The scent starts as one thing and matures until it is another scent entirely. There are multiple variations to choose from on the palate: the citrus quintet of blood orange, lemon, red mandarin, bergamot and lime with Tiaré flower and sandalwood. The fragrance hits you with a heady brightness that’s sweet and feminine (from the citrus and flowers), then over time reveals other layers (musk and sandalwood) that are dense, grounded and almost spiritual.

Youth, or the illusion of a life free from the drags of adult responsibility, has a distinct punch. It feels celebratory and hopeful, mainly because there’s so much in front of you, so much left to experience. In this way, City of Stars captures the romantic lust of hanging on — lingering in the parking lot after a date because you don’t want it to end, heading to the afters because you’re not ready to step back into the real world yet. Let’s celebrate the night, City of Stars says. Or rather, as its creator, Louis Vuitton’s master perfumer Jacques Cavallier Belletrud, explains, “Let’s stay together like this forever.”

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The City of Stars box features an image of a lone palm tree against the Hollywood Hills. The time of day is presumably the evening — the sunset is burning bright, the city’s lights twinkle. The cylindrical bottle has a cork top and mirrors the ombre gradient of the sky: diffused magenta, burnt orange, blue and purple melting into each other. The POV is clearly one of being in motion; the view is through your windshield as if you were driving into Hollywood from Mid-City.

The packaging, designed by L.A. native artist Alex Israel, oozes understated elegance and $30 craft cocktails, glitzy art parties and TikTok’s “clean girl aesthetic” (neutrals, slicked-back buns, minimal jewelry). It’s less Hollywood Boulevard and more Hollywood.

L.A. is emotional code for authenticity and cool, to be sure. Many come here searching for that feeling, along with a sense of limitlessness, freedom, nostalgia and romance. Louis Vuitton reminds us: “In a rhapsodic Los Angeles, City of Stars recounts a night of promises, of ardent emotion and the soft sensuality of darkness opalizing in morning’s first light.” This promise is part of what makes wearing City of Stars so enticing.


When I got my hands on it, I wore it every day for weeks. I applied lotion first, then spritzed the perfume on my pulse points and hair. Sometimes I sprayed it in my studio apartment, in my car. I made my friends smell it on me, then sprayed it on them. I attempted to intertwine the perfume into my life so deeply that I forgot it was there; I was only reminded of its presence when someone complimented it, noting that I smelled different than I had a month ago.

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But did I smell like Los Angeles? To my nose, I never did evoke the suffocating warmth of laundromats, the savory intoxication of birrierias and the sweet death of car exhaust — probably for the better — but the fact that I was wearing the perfume everywhere created a strange effect: I started to associate City of Stars with all these things. The scents of L.A. overpowered my own. I smelled like my experience in this city. City of Stars complemented the visuals of my immediate existence — the Craftsman homes I saw every day on my street, the handpainted signs I stopped to take pictures of, the colored mood lighting that caught my attention as it beamed out of high-rise windows in downtown.

And yet it didn’t make me feel like I was living in a different city, which is inevitably what the perfume promises to those who don’t live here. Wearing City of Stars, I felt connected to L.A. like I always do. Maybe an L.A. fragrance becomes an L.A. fragrance when someone who lives in L.A. wears it.

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