The first scent I ever truly fell in love with was Schiaparelli’s Shocking, made by the great Jean Carles, and I came across it because my father wore it. I still remember the shock of pleasure when that first light floral note hit me, then the sense of surprise as the herbs, sandalwood and honey began to emerge, and finally it became sexier and more earthy as the oakmoss and what I now know to be civet took over. I remember, too, old-fashioned child that I was, that I thought it strange that my markedly heterosexual father wore a scent that seemed so voluptuous and so clearly aimed at women. Today, nobody would think anything of it.
Speak to connoisseurs of perfume and as one they reject the notion of male and female scents. As Roja Dove, éminence grise of the perfume world, puts it: “For years floral notes were associated with feminine perfumes and – since men were considered strutting, predatory things – woody, mossy, earthy materials were linked with masculine ones, but the boundaries nowadays have become much more blurred. A rose, after all, has neither a penis nor a vagina – a rose on a man is a masculine rose, a rose on a woman is a feminine rose.”
Violet, a note that one would have thought was largely feminine, was much beloved by Italian dandies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was an overdose of violet that made Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel (£45 for 60ml EDT, to which much-respected perfume scholar Luca Turin awards five stars, calling it “a masterpiece”) such a success when it was launched in 1975. Chanel’s Pour Monsieur (£48 for 50ml EDT) has large quantities of jasmine and rose, while Dior’s Eau Sauvage (£48 for 50ml EDT), made by the eminent “nose” Edmond Roudnitska, owes its originality to a naturally occurring isolate found in jasmine.
Chandler Burr, once the perfume critic of The New York Times and now curator of olfactory art at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, says, “The division into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ scents is completely artificial, a pure marketing tool created to give heterosexual American men psycho-emotional permission to wear scent.” Today, heterosexual American men have, it seems, grown up psycho-emotionally, and the new mantra is “wear what you like”. And while some houses used to feel the need for explicitly masculine signage, such as Pour Homme or Pour Monsieur (Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Givenchy, Gucci, Guerlain, Ferragamo, Valentino), today top niche-market houses such as Byredo, Frédéric Malle and Serge Lutens seldom make any reference to gender. Even Malle’s Géranium pour Monsieur (£155 for 50ml EDP) and Portrait of a Lady (£145 for 50ml EDP), which seem to be overtly intended for a specific gender, are, in fact, no such thing, being aimed, Malle tells me, simply at those who fall in love with them. Many a man falls in love with Portrait of a Lady (in particular Dariush Alavi, who writes the perfume blog Persolaise), while certain women (most notably Jasmine Hemsley, of the famous foodie sisters, who was completely distraught when Liberty temporarily ran out of it) adore Géranium pour Monsieur.
And yet… and yet… something is afoot this autumn. There’s a hint of something edgier, more animalistic in the air, as though some houses have said, “Enough of these gender-blurring scents – we want something so dangerous, so earthy that it will scare off most of the female sex”. So there is a flurry of fragrances that, to use the words of perfume connoisseur Michael Donovan, “smell of a hostile takeover, that growl, that are full of masculinity”. Musk and civet, castoreum and rock badger dung are used abundantly (though these days the notes are formed from molecules), while Alessandro Gualtieri, the man behind the cutting-edge Nasomatto fragrance house, even uses horse urine (again in molecular form) in his new Orto Parisi collection (it works rather well).
Gualtieri in fact leads the charge with his five new fragrances all inspired by his belief that scents have become almost too clean, that they are “washing away a piece of our souls”. Our natural human scents are attractive and should be celebrated, he believes. Emblematic of his thinking is Brutus (£128 for 50ml EDP), what you might call an elegant but untamed blending of a fine patchouli with bergamot and mandarin, supported by an animalic undertone.
Ulrich Lang is a German who lives in New York and whose twin passions are photography and perfume. About 12 years ago he started developing his own fragrances inspired by contemporary photography. Launching this autumn is Aperture (£125 for 100ml EDP), sparked by a photograph of a sunset taken by Olivia Bee, a 20-year-old photographer who is something of a sensation, having shot a campaign for Converse trainers when only 14 years old, as well as having worked for Hermès and The New York Times. With Aperture, he wanted to create a male fragrance that was “just the right side of dirty” – a tricky thing to bring off and which he does by dint of a large hit of civet and musk. The result is warm and powerful with a strong hint of danger – it is indubitably modern and very, very male.
A new British brand called Electimuss takes much of its inspiration from ancient Rome, where perfume was a necessity not a luxury, and its wonderfully powerful Incitatus (£130 for 50ml EDP) is an olfactory ode to all things equine, reeking of a thoroughbred’s stable, of hay, the leather of the saddle and the animal itself. Incitatus, classicists will remember, was emperor Caligula’s stallion, which he allegedly planned to make a consul. Plump with bergamot, hay, laurel, frankincense, opoponax, tar and leather, it is immensely evocative for anybody who has ever been near a stable or put a foot in a stirrup. All dark, brooding and robust (very male, very Heathcliff or Mr Rochester) is its Venti (£130 for 50ml EDP), which contains patchouli and myrrh. It’s how many a woman would like her man to smell, but few women would love it enough to want to make it their own. As Donovan puts it: “To use the wind analogy – venti being Latin for winds – this is not a summer breeze but a full-blown tempest, full of drama and power. And power, remember, is addictive.”
Then we have the new Nassak from Thameen (£145 for 50ml EDP), which is animalistic, warm and extravagant. It does have some rose (Taif rose, the rarest and most expensive), but it is paired with saffron for a rich and shamelessly indulgent opening, and then you get the plum, the fizz of sandalwood and finally vanilla, tonka and musk, with a touch of ambergris.
Ben Gorham, founder of Byredo (his not-so-new Mister Marvelous cologne – £185 for 250ml – is a new favourite of mine), takes the tiniest, most delicate flower that grows in the most inhospitable environment of the Mojave Desert to create his Mojave Ghost (£88 for 50ml EDP). First we have a fragile floral that appears soft and tender, but in the drydown a strong sandalwood comes through, revealing it to be tough, resilient and mighty.
And Burr loves another new “manly” scent that, as he puts it, “fits with the American masculine trope and yet is great to wear” – to wit, Guy Laroche’s Drakkar Essence ($48 for 1.07oz EDT), “a terrific 21st-century sports citrus, like a guy who has just showered with Coast soap, drinking SanPellegrino pamplemousse soda while standing on just-crushed fresh, green geranium leaves”.
These, then, are just some of the best of the new animalic scents coming through this autumn, all made in the light of a new appreciation of a more natural masculinity among men who are secure enough to be metrosexual, who thoroughly enjoy being male but also aren’t afraid of their masculinity.
But while many love the new and the innovative, it is also perhaps illuminating to see what some men who are interested in the subject currently love to wear. Most of them, because of their passion for delicious eaux, don’t stick to one but have what we have learnt to call a “wardrobe of fragrances”. Burr, for instance, wears a huge variety, including Thierry Mugler’s Cologne (£31 for 100ml EDT), Terre d’Hermès (£76 for 100ml EDT), Tom Ford’s Oud Wood (£142 for 50ml EDP), Chanel No 18 from its Exclusifs range (£115 for 75ml EDT) and Diptyque’s Eau de Lierre (£55 for 50ml EDT), as well as Guerlain’s Samsara (£25 for 30ml EDT) and Rose Barbare (£160 for 75ml EDP) – both of which, he notes, are marketed as feminine.
Persolaise’s Alavi (whose wife so loved Portrait of a Lady that she pinched it from him) likes Guerlain’s Habit Rouge (£45 for 50ml EDT). Devised by Jean-Paul Guerlain, it was the first oriental for men (“I love the fact that all three facets of what makes a man are there – a ruggedness, a wonderful dryness and a soft romanticism represented by the orange blossom”). He is also enthusiastic about Lonestar Memories from Tauer (£87 for 50ml EDT; “the leather and birch tar that smell like a liquid bonfire remind me of a cowboy who spends the day doing rough, masculine things, but then washes that off and reveals the soft, tender core that lies beneath the toughness”) and Chanel’s Antaeus (£48 for 50ml EDT), “which is a big 1980s perfume, loud and bold and yet elegant. Though I’d never wear it for work, I’d use it in the evening, when I love its hint of danger.”
According to Donovan, AA Gill wears Baudelaire from Byredo (£88 for 50ml EDP) and George Clooney Mediterraneo from Carthusia (£50 for 50ml EDT), while Frédéric Malle prefers his own Vetiver Extraordinaire (£115 for 50ml EDP), for which Dominique Ropion (the “nose” who created it) used something like 25 per cent vetiver, about three times more than is usual for vetiver scents. It’s perfect for him, having the air of the Left Bank, of the sophisticated intellectual. Roja Dove wore Guerlain’s Mitsouko for about 30 years, but doesn’t think it smells the way it used to, and so when he’s not wearing his own newest scent, Reckless pour Homme (£345 for 50ml extrait de parfum; a chypre with a big spice note, a lot of black pepper, a touch of leather and some balsamic), he loves Caron’s Tabac Blond (£105 for 50ml EDP).
But if you are a woman wondering what to give your nearest and dearest, there is one perfume said to be beloved by fashion designer Hedi Slimane and a whole host of connoisseurs, and that is Pour un Homme de Caron (£48 for 75ml EDT). Created by Ernest Daltroff, it is 80 years old this year – so a venerable old-stager. Here is what Alavi has to say about it in his book Le Snob: Perfume: “1934’s Pour un Homme remains hard to beat. Despite being advertised by hirsute rugby players, it is that most peaceable of scents: a sweet lavender. There’s more to it, of course (pepper and rosemary offer a hint of intrigue; vanilla suggests an oriental leaning; civet adds a measure of testosterone), but essentially, it is an unfussy affair for times when you want to smell interesting, but uncomplicated. Long may it stay with us.” On the perfume blogs, fans wax lyrical about it. “This one somehow melted my heart,” says a certain Bouddha Bleu on Fragrantica. And connoisseur Donovan sees it as “Cary Grant to a T – cool, minty lavender from Provence. It always gets a compliment and epitomises a gentleman who doesn’t have to try too hard.”