Is scent sexist? Increasingly so. After 20 years of the fragrance cognoscenti veering towards unisex democracy, whisper it – no, shout it! – “his and hers” fragrances are back on the radar of niche perfumers. Boundaries between the sexes are once more being asserted by traditional perfume ingredients – hyper-feminine armfuls of creamy white flowers and a testosterone-charged mix of shower-freshness, leather and tobacco.
Fronting this resurgence is Creed Aventus for Her (£120 for 30ml EDP), a mouthwatering jasmine bouquet juiced up with golden hints of pineapple that accent the house’s original woody-fresh male classic, Aventus (£105 for 30ml EDP). At Penhaligon’s the mythical passion of the moon goddess Selene for the son of Zeus is played out with dazzling citrus notes, jasmine and cool fir balsam in Luna (£128 for 100ml EDT) and notes of suede, leather and incense in Endymion Concentré (£128 for 100ml EDP). Both fragrances are exemplars of their gender.
Men and women have always cross-dressed scentwise, often as a statement of rebellion. It’s said that as far back as 1889, Guerlain created fresh, spicy Jicky for men, but its sensual rose and jasmine heart captivated women too, as it does to this day. During the feminist 1960s and ’70s, women wore Christian Dior’s lemon-laced Eau Sauvage for men, a phenomenon that later inspired Calvin Klein’s CK One, the first “out there” androgynous blockbuster, launched in 1994. “Colognes are squeaky clean and shower-fresh rather than exciting and sensuous,” observes scent svengali Frédéric Malle. “Not only do they work for both sexes, but all ages.” Whatever the reason, androgyny became an intellectual choice and a powerful marketing trope.
Latterly, an increasingly globalised niche perfume market has made sense of scents sans frontières: when Linda Pilkington was asked to create the jubilant jasmine and amber-laced One (£235 for 120ml EDP) for Ormonde Jayne’s Bespoke Parfum Collection at Selfridges, the brief was both universal and unisex. Thanks to the Middle Eastern appetite for sweet, woody-rose fragrances that has so influenced perfumery for a decade, western men have ditched the stigma that once came with wearing overtly floral scents. Why, then, against a backdrop of unprecedented gender fluidity, are niche scents leaning to the binary once more?
Frédéric Malle cites commercial imperatives: sheer growth and stiff competition within the unisex market are forcing changes, he says. “When you make so many fragrances that apply to both genders, collections can lack variety. You push it because you don’t want to repeat yourself.” Given the freedom, perfumers often prefer to take sides, Malle adds. Alongside pioneers such as Serge Lutens, Malle’s own “master perfumer” collection, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, launched 16 years ago, helped swell the niche revolution; yet against the grain of other niche scents, it included openly male and female fragrances from the start. The most recent in the stable, Monsieur (£120 for 50ml EDP) is perfumer Bruno Jovanovic’s rummy tribute to patchouli, leavened by mystical frankincense and caressed by cedarwood and amber. The muse for this magnificence was film director Luchino Visconti. “Associating a fragrance with a person or image helps both me and the perfumer to stay on track,” says Malle.
When Lyn Harris, aka Perfumer H, was formulating Patchouli H (£260 for 100ml EDP, in a handblown bottle by Michael Ruh), the male muse she kept in mind was a modern sophisticate, equally comfortable in suits, trainers and his own skin. Peppery elemi and juniper add élan, while humid green moss and a laid-back woody background conjure an easy aura. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood could well have inspired Cowboy Grass (£98 for 50ml EDP) by husband and wife team DS & Durga. Prairie notes of sagebrush, switchgrass and thyme are mixed with vetiver and ambergris, which hint at well-worn saddles and horny, slept-in boots.
For sheer magnetic virility, few ingredients can rival the leather notes in male fragrances now. Redolent of both squeaky, venerable clubroom chairs and the hay-and-tumble of the tack room, these ingredients suggest an insouciant masculine power. For Parfumerie Générale’s 6.1 Vétiver Matale (£81.50 for 50ml EDP), perfumer Pierre Guillaume blends suede and yerba mate for an easy-in-the-saddle gaucho riff, while Alberto Morillas polishes feisty Spanish leather with accents of orange blossom in Mythique Vetyver (£165 for 100ml EDP) for his Mizensir collection. Cuir Blanc (£75 for 50ml EDP) from Evody’s Collection Première signals masculinity as easily as tanned feet in a pair of pale suede sneakers. Byredo Cuir Obscur (£135 for 100ml EDP) is more challenging; here, black leather soused with amaretto has the shiny, fetishistic whiff of a back room at a bootmaker’s.
As a counterpoint to the down-and-dirty leather boys, a crisper, cleaner category of male perfumes is staging a comeback. Based on aromatic notes of lavender, geranium and oakmoss, fougère fragrances – so named because of their cool, fernlike freshness – are the classic “shave and go” scents redolent of traditional barber shops. The 1980s gentleman often wore Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir, yet it’s doubtful he would recognise the spirited new generation it has inspired. Aventus and Endymion are ultra-modern fougères, as is S&X Rankin (£95 for 30ml EDP) from The Perfumer’s Story by Azzi. In a collaboration between perfumer Azzi Glasser and fashion photographer Rankin, known for his arthouse nudes, a carnal rush of amber, leather and faintly faecal castoreum subsides to allow an Earl Grey tea freshness to wash over. Similarly, Chanel’s Boy (£130 for 75ml EDP) from its Les Exclusifs collection encapsulates the affair between Coco Chanel and Arthur “Boy” Capel, the English polo-playing love of her life. Inhouse perfumer Olivier Polge juxtaposed fougère’s lavender and minty geranium with No 5’s jasmine and May rose to evoke the scent of a man on a woman’s skin and to infer this scent can be shared. It’s an audacious move: the fougère accord, however rosy, is masculinity’s last bastion, one that many women are reluctant to storm.
Fougère’s polar opposite is tuberose, perfume’s femme fatale and an ingredient so explicitly hormonal that men of any sexual persuasion would likely find it difficult on their own skin. This creamy, waxy bloom, heaves with the indole, a chemical also released by sexually aroused skin. In India, where tuberose is harvested, young women are barred from the fields at night, lest its erotic power lead them astray. From Germaine Cellier’s 1948 seductive masterpiece Fracas to Giorgio Beverly Hills (so overwhelming some LA restaurants banned it), this compelling ingredient has always remained sexually unambiguous. Now, this poster-flower for power perfumes of the 1980s is shouldering its way back onto the scene. Roja Dove celebrates this “harlot of perfumery” in Roja Parfums Tuberose (£345 for 50ml EDP), a fruity, ample-bosomed creation, its sweetness tempered by lemony greenness. “What I love about tuberose is that you can’t believe you’re smelling a flower. It’s too animalic, too sexual,” says Dove. “Once on skin, it gets bigger and bigger.”
Jeroboam’s Hauto (£80 for 30ml EDP) laces tuberose with pineapple and musk to reference high-kicking cancan girls of the 1920s given to perfuming “every hill and valley”. Daniela Andrier gets steamy with Heat Wave (£195 for 100ml EDP) from Prada’s provocative Olfactories collection. This humid vignette of after-dark decadence sees tuberose caressed by heliotropes and breathy iris. In Louis Vuitton’s Turbulences (£180 for 100ml EDP) tuberose is joined by voluptuous jasmine (also blessed with its fair share of indole) and soft leather, which perfumer Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud obtained by extracting the essence of the blond calfskin used for the maison’s trunk handles. Meanwhile, the jasmine and tuberose message in Bikini Questa Sera (£215 for 80ml EDP) from Christian Louboutin’s new collection is as explicit as vertiginous stilettos.
Seduction is, of course, the bottom line of scented intention. And a fragrance that amplifies both your sexuality and personality seems only logical. So what makes a scent sexy? “From a clichéd point of view, animalic, oriental and musky notes are the most sensual. But there is also an evolving equation between a smell and the object of desire. On the skin of someone you love, citrus could be the sexiest smell in the world,” says Andrier. Dove too maintains the alchemy of scent on skin is the clinching ingredient. James Craven, perfume expert at Les Senteurs, stresses the importance of finding an intimate signature. “Perfume is what you make of it. You’re searching for something to make you irresistible, but it has to turn you on first,” he points out. “It should free you up, so that your body language changes and you feel you can achieve anything. Supreme confidence is the sexiest thing in the world.” Bottle that.