Most men’s fragrances are depressingly bad. Worse than that, they all have a tendency to smell the same. Perfumers are divided on the reasons for this but the broad consensus is that this is due to what I call the Masculine Paradox. On the one hand, we say that men are beginning to use fragrance, no longer regard it as un-macho to smell of something other than sweat, and have become metrosexuals.
This sounds great when you read about the evolution of the modern male in magazine features. But the truth is that with the passage of time, men are actually going anti-fragrance. If you want an illustration of this paradox, go to any duty free shop at any airport. A worrying number of the men’s fragrances will call themselves something like ‘Sport’ or ‘Fresh’ or ‘Turbo’ or will be named after motorcars, bikes, cigars and pipe tobacco.
The fragrances themselves will have a ‘clean fresh scent’ that men will regard as suitably masculine. Perfumers know why these smells are regarded as ‘clean’ or ‘fresh.’ They emanate from the same synthetic molecules used in detergents, soaps and shampoos.
Subliminally we link the smell of a freshly laundered white shirt with cleanliness. We associate the smell of shaving cream or shampoo with freshness. In modern perfumery, synthetic molecules are widely used. But respectable perfumers are hesitant about using detergent molecules in serious fragrances – there are many other, more exciting synthetic molecules.
Sadly, men are nostalgic for the smell of clean laundry and basic shaving foam. The result is a batch of fragrances that smell ‘cool’, ‘fresh’, ‘aquatic’ or ‘sporty’ without actually smelling of very much at all. Sometimes, these synthetic molecules can yield influential fragrances (the original Cool Water for instance) even if they overdose on dihydromyrcenol (the molecule behind many detergents) or Calone (recognisable in Polo Sport but most famously used in the first Issey Miyake fragrance which owes its instantly recognisable melon-aquatic note to this synthetic molecule).
In the hands of a skilled perfumer, even cheap molecules from the detergent and toiletries industry can be combined cleverly. Alas, most perfumers lack the skill to create magic from these smells. Nor do they need to. Men simply love the smell of Surf. The problem for serious perfumers is this: if the entire men’s market is dominated by fragrances that smell of detergent or soap-on-a-rope, then how much room is there for creativity and innovation?
The answer is that while mass market fragrances (especially those directed at the Asian market) can be terrible, a whole new sector of niche perfume houses (such names as Serge Lutens, L’Artisan, Annick Goutal, Miller Harris and even Jo Malone before it became a mass-market Estee Lauder brand) has grown in popularity.
Their fragrances use the best ingredients and cost twice as much as duty-free shop scents. But they are also fragrances made by perfumers for the approval of other perfumers; the scents they want to be judged by. For most fashion houses who do not make their own fragrances, this sector is of no consequence. But its growth has irked Chanel, one of the few fashion houses to have an in-house perfumer (the great Jacques Polge) who creates the house’s fragrances. (Polge is the third Chanel perfumer. Ernest Beaux did No. 5 but Polge has created such successes as Allure, Chance, Coco etc.)
A few years ago, Chanel decided to introduce its own niche fragrances. Sold only in Chanel stores (as far as I know, the only place in India where you can buy them is the store at Delhi’s Imperial Hotel), they cost twice as much as the normal scents, but then, the bottles are double the size (200ml) so the price is well worth it.
To create the boutique fragrances (called Exclusifs), Polge hired a collaborator, Christopher Sheldrake (a Brit, born in Madras who has lived in France for over 20 years) whose principal claim to fame was his work on the niche Serge Lutens fragrances (which use Middle Eastern ingredients and Asian spices to devastating effect for many of their signature scents).
Polge and Sheldrake have created, what to my mind, is the best niche fragrance range in the world. My own favourites include the Cologne (you will never smell a better cologne), Sycamore (gorgeous vetiver note), and the astonishing Coromandel (which reminds me of the Lutens range so perhaps Sheldrake had more to do with its creation). How do perfumers like Polge and Sheldrake who have achieved such success with quality fragrances approach the mass market again – especially if it is the vast wasteland of men’s fragrances they need to target?
A few weeks ago, I met Polge and Sheldrake at Polge’s office in Paris and asked them about the new Chanel masculine (called Bleu) which they have created and which will be launched globally from August onwards.
Chanel already has classic masculines in its range. Pour Monsieur is a fragrance that, like Habit Rouge, Monsieur de Givenchy or Eau Sauvage, is timeless. Antaeus is little talked about but its woody scent is terrific.
Then, the situation gets more complex. Polge created Egoiste as a modern take-off on classic French accords. It smells to me of Provencal herbs, lavender, fruits, sandalwood and various delicious scents. Unfortunately, it is strong and so has fallen out of favour with men who want to smell as though they have just stepped out of the shower and hate assertive scents. Polge has done a lighter reformulation (Egoiste Platinum) which is nice too but lacks – according to my nose – the distinctive character of the original though it is more commercially successful.
Almost as though he was making up for the failure of the original Egoiste to set the market on fire, Polge then created the more ‘contemporary’ (i.e. commercial) Allure Homme. Nothing Polge does is ever less than excellent so my criticism of Allure Homme is only that it is not a breakthrough but is recognisably in the tradition of Cool Water and other modern men’s scents.
There are many flankers to Allure Homme, including Allure Homme Sport and the more recent Allure Homme Edition Blanche which I think is the most instantly appealing of the lot though Sheldrake told me that in blind testings, the original Allure Homme outperformed all the flankers. (Perhaps they tested in France. Asians like the Edition Blanche.)
There is also a secret Allure flanker that I almost never see on sale, perhaps because the name is too complicated: Allure Homme Sports Cologne. It is subtle but I like it a lot because it is more Cologne and less Cool Water.
So, how do you add to so disparate and excellent a range? My sense is that the new masculine (Bleu) marks a break for Polge and bears some of Sheldrake’s imprint. It is not as old-fashioned and heavy as Egoiste nor as obviously commercial as Allure Homme. Rather it is light (grapefruit, ginger etc.) but anchored by slightly heavier notes (vetiver, labdanum and sandalwood).
I like it a lot because it marks a rare attempt by two of the greatest perfumers of our times to create a fragrance that is simple, classic but different and notable – and yet will smell good at airport duty free shops.
It bridges many tastes – if you like Cool Water, you won’t be put off by Bleu. On the other hand, if you like the Exclusifs, you will know that this is also the work of master perfumers. And in a perfume industry where millions of dollars are spent trying to create bad clones of the same detergent-type fragrances, it is nice to see creativity finally triumph.