I’m having a busy week. We have very close friends staying with us, it’s seed planting time, and there’s work. So today I’m recycling on the blog. Climate change and all that.
In January, a journalist contacted perfumeposse wanting some copy for an article to be published in the Spring / Summer edition of GQStyle, on scents and masculinity. As butchness personified, I leapt at the chance. And so, apparently little ole me is quoted alongside perfume legends such as James Craven of Les Senteurs. What follows is the copy I sent to the journalist – I’ve yet to see how much made it into the final version.
“1) Do you think it’s scent/ingredients or preconceptions that makes a fragrance masculine?
I think it’s both. First of all, there are ingredients, generally in specific combinations, that work as markers of masculinity, because they have been pretty ubiquitously used that way. Vetiver and tobacco for instance, in Guerlain’s eponymous scent. Or at least they have been in a certain time period. Therefore we come to think of them as masculine. The classic ‘masculine’ scent is the fougere, a somewhat catch all category that generally includes notes like lavender, bergamot, oak moss and coumarin. They generally have a barbershoppy buzz, without too much bright citrus stuff going on. A great recent example is Narciso Rodriguez – archetypal man juice. But, but, but, what is typically male varies historically and geographically. So, sniff Dior’s Eau Sauvage or Hermes’ Equipage, and you’re getting a vision of bourgeois masculinity in the 60/70s; shift to the late 70s and early 80s and Drakkar Noir, Paco Rabanne, Quorum and Azarro seem like stereotypes of the time – all hair and medallions, or shoulder pads and kipper ties. In contrast, the 90s (remember ecru? Sheesh) was washed out minimalist new man – overdoses of calone in Aramis’ New West led to an explosion of aquatic scents, and the unfortunate rise of Hugo Boss as a power player in men’s fragrances with its bland blap. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, men are wearing jasmine and rose, much as they always have done (and as they did here in the nineteenth century). And, at the same time as all this is going on, there are always perfumes worn by men that are resolutely idiosyncratic and buck the most obvious trends.
So, that’s a pretty roundabout way of saying that there’s a complex web of stuff going on in the construction of scents – there are trends that emerge through the creation or extraction of synthetics (calone, coumarin – and perhaps an iris synthetic in Dior Homme) that become markers of masculinity in certain time periods; there are accords that seem more solidly masculine for longer periods (such as in fougeres), and then there are scents which don’t easily fit in to the trends of the time. Like Dior’s Fahrenheit – creosote and honeysuckle – 1988. You know the real reason why I think so many men’s scents go with the flow and fit with the mainstream trend rather than doing a Fahrenheit? The teams who commission them don’t want to take risks, have tiny budgets for perfume development (most goes on the campaigns) meaning the perfumers can only go for cheap ingredients, choose the safest mods from the perfumers and water down any quirks or edges in those. So we end up sniffing the same thing, altered a little bit, time and again, in the men’s section. But hey, it’s what the consumer wants – they’ve used focus groups and everything!
There is some evidence of change occurring though, but that’s probably question 2.
2) In men’s perfumery, the 80s as you mentioned were characterised powerhouse scents, the nineties all those ozonic/water scents etc, and I’m wondering if you are noticing a new masculinity appearing with today’s men’s fragrances? If so, how would you sum it up and how does it differ from previously?
I think to some extent it’s more of the same. Though the extremes of the aquatic movement are disappearing, it’s still very much there. Acqua di Gio shows no sign of diminishing in popularity. Interestingly though, younger scent wearers seem drawn to sweeter, occasionally more gourmand fragrances, just as younger women are. It’s where the impact of Mugler’s ethyl maltol rich Angel meets the 90s citruses. And it’s the influence of JPG’s Le Male, a scent, that whilst not a favourite of mine, bucked the watery lemon mode of much of the 90s. So Paco Rabanne’s Black XS has a surprisingly fruity sweet accord, yet it’s marked out by the throaty rasp of some masculine aromachemicals – the only things really that indicate masculinity. Likewise with Clinique’s Happy, which could be entirely unisex if it weren’t for the same hint of growl.
More interestingly, there’s a fairly recent exploration of softer scents for men in mainstream releases (I’m not going to go on here about niche scents which are generally not targeted by gender, and have been doing all this stuff for a while longer) – so JPG’s Fleurs de Male and Dior’s Fahrenheit 32 are both milky orange blossom scents, although clearly screaming ‘I’m synthetic’ rather than ‘I’m a natural flower child, gender neutral’. For me, the most exciting is Dior Homme, though I think this might be a one-off rather than a trend (cf. Fahrenheit). It blends a bergamotty opening onto a wonderful synthetic iris and uses gourmand notes with subtlety and flair. Wonderful work by Oliver Polge. Where masculines go will very much depend on how much perfumers voices are heard, rather than those of designers – Hedi Slimane seems to have given a lot more creative freedom to Polge than most designers do. And that’s why we get something that breaks the mill the others continue to run on.
Get back to me on this one if I haven’t answered your question!
3) What are your favourite men’s fragrances? (You can be as personal or objective here as you like!)
Can I give you some favourites by time period?
Favourite early men’s scent – Jicky by Guerlain (1889). Named after Guerlain’s nephew, not an Englishwoman as Guerlain the company would lead you to believe. Go for the parfum de toilette if you can find it. Startlingly contemporary with a gasp-inducing use of animal notes which make this scent hover between the cleanliness of citrus and lavender and the dirtiness of your dark desires…
Chanel pour Monsieur 1955 (perfumerHenri Robert) – suited elegance, bottled.
Eau Sauvage by Dior 1956 (perfumer Edmond Roudnitska)- a wonderful citrus accord balanced against the use of hedione, a synthetic jasmine note. Classically male, yet pretty similar to his women’s Diorissimo.
Favourites from the 70s, 80s, 90s:
Jules by Dior (1980) – thrusting virility done right. It may smell a little dated, but this leathery rich beast is somehow mellow and understated rather than in-your-face. But don’t over-apply!
Fahrenheit (1988) – a unique scent that you’ll always remember once you’ve smelled it. Sublime.
Lolita Lempicka au Masculin 2000 perfumer Annick Menardo A chilly but sweet gourmand scent that moves from aniseed to more familiar woody territory as it dries down.
Terre d’Hermes 2006 perfumer Jean Claude Ellena – cedar, vetiver and grapefruit alongside some strange mineral accord – a contemporary classic. Perfumeposse writer Patty calls it crack in a bottle.
Dior Homme 2005 perfumer Oliver Polge – 21st century elegance. Some men say it smells like the inside of a handbag, but that might be why women love it on men… 😉
Oh, and just one niche – Le Labo Patchouli 24 (available in Liberty) by perfumer Annick Menardo – smells like someones baking a vanilla cake in a car mechanic’s garage whilst a bonfire’s fumes are blowing in through the open window. Awesome stuff.”
Now, share with us your favourite men’s designer scents. Let’s have a range of options up for us all to choose from…