Nosing in on the scent of the South
BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — Call Alabama native Benn Johnson a Southern Ralph Lauren. While Lauren likes Americana, Johnson relishes the South.
Johnson so cherishes the region's ways of life that he trademarked his research - "Seven Signs of Southernness" [sic] - as well as a perfume of the South.
Johnson calls himself a "Southern enthusiast" and says he has captured Dixie's elegant essence in a bottle.
At his Southernness company in Birmingham, Johnson has created a woman's fragrance from lush botanicals native to 12 Southern states, including Mississippi's magnolia, Arkansas' Ozark amber, Virginia's Shenandoah lily, Texas' antique rose, and Georgia's white peach. For men, he created "12 Rivers" made of herbs and botanicals from a dozen Southern rivers.
"It's all the things we rolled around in as children and that wafted through our windows," says Johnson. "It's what makes us feel comfortable, warm, and cozy and at home."
Johnson founded his company three years ago after searching throughout the world for a scent that reminded him of his family's flower garden.
"There was something about childhood, that smell, that made me want to hold it in a bottle and savor it," says Johnson. "And I knew other Southerners wanted to be able to recapture that."
His quest, though, ended without a fragrance. But that didn't stop Johnson, who took it upon himself to replicate and bottle the floral fragrance he recalled.
Created under the direction of master perfumer Phillipe Lorson, the Southernness fragrance line - bath oils, sachets, and lotions - are hand-blended in the old-fashioned French tradition as they are ordered and hand-packaged in his parents' Greek Revival house in Birmingham.
"So many people focus on Southern food, I thought it was time to center on another sense that the South can provide pleasure for," Johnson says.
For 20 years he worked as a freelance market researcher studying the tastes of affluent Southern women. He interviewed more than 100,000 women. With volumes of research, if anyone knows the 21st-century Scarlett O'Hara, it's Johnson.
"I worked on a multimillion dollar study for a large private company researching what it would mean to be Southern in this new century," says Johnson.
From his work, he discovered that a true "Southern spirit" reigns in the land of belles and gents. Southerners, it seems, thrive on a dreamy fantasy from the days of yore.
"Regardless of age, race, gender, socioeconomic levels, people were proud of being Southern and delighted to be here," says Johnson. "And we all have seven traits in common. You don't find [all of] these in other parts of the country."
The seven signs of Southerness are: expressing, time-weaving, rooting, accommodating, gathering, embracing, and twining.
*Expressing articulates being open, telling stories and stating opinions.
*Time-weaving encompasses the Southerner's need to relish the past and its traditions.
*Rooting is a tie to the land and enjoying the outdoors.
*Accommodating is about Southern hospitality.
*Gathering refers to a Southern devotion and allegiance.
*Embracing represents the ability to welcome diverse groups.
*Twining is the ability to seek out fun and be carefree.
True, these traits appear to perpetuate the myth of magnolia and moonlight, but as Southern historian John Shelton Reed says, "Maybe we've been brainwashed by 130 years of Yankee history, but Southern identity has more to do with food, accents, manners, and music than the Confederate past."
Johnson echoes that sentiment, saying that people clamor for the "Gone With the Wind" fantasy. With that knowledge, Johnson isn't stopping with fragrances.
"I like blending all the elements of the South into one entity," he says. He recently launched another perfume called OneSun that encompasses multicultural scents from the South's various ethnic groups - African, native American, French, Anglo, and Spanish, for example.
Johnson's sister, Dr. Mell Johnson, who has a doctoral degree in higher-education administration and teaches literature at an Alabama college, works with her brother on his business ventures. She has written a book called "Mind-Expanding Grits," a book of quotes from Southerners.
The two are also creating Southernness Hospitality - a blend of dried vegetables and herbs gathered from the same 12 states as the fragrance line that adds a zest to soup or dips.
Johnson says that Southerners should stop being embarrassed by the region's past and savor its unique qualities."
"People too quickly stereotype us as moonlight and magnolia (types) or else Appalachian rednecks or hillbillies or racists," he says.
"But we're deeper than that, more complex and interesting, and I certainly want people to know that. We will keep history alive by keeping things from the past as we move forward."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society