Yesterday I launched into a diatribe on the issue of gender in scent, then sold myself out immediately after by describing some of the best, or at the very least efficacious, ‘babe magnets’ (which in reality some of these scents actually are.)
On the whole, I really do personally wish that people, male or female, would smell better: more appealing, interesting, ambiguous: mysterious. How often does this happen? There is a dreadful, unthought out obviousness to most fragrance, sliced as they are into the two zygote divides between fruity, candied slags and their boorish hooligan boyfriends. I hate this.How a person smells really says a lot about them, and men who choose to spruce themselves in these harsh, baseball-bat scents are basically making aggressively masculine claims on the surrounding world’s attention that can seriously get in your face. I was on the train this summer on my way from Birmingham to Shrewsbury and was pummelled to death, olfactively speaking, by a loud-mouthed, greasy gob-shite who not only had quite shocking B.O, but who also tried to drown it out in Paco Rabanne’s insufferable One Million. There was not an ounce of space to move in with this scent: it was like being clobbered over the head for an hour by a concentrated essence of stupidity.
It does not have to be like this. There is no inevitability, no preordained evolutionary ordinance in men having to smell this way. In Islamic and other cultures, florals – orange blossoms, roses, jasmine, are considered eminently suitable, and venerable, as men’s scents, as are spices, incense, loukhoum. To me, to be sitting next to a saffron or flowering-wearing man is significantly more erotic and intriguing to the senses than a highest-common-denominator, endlessly market-tested fragrance such as Armani Code or Bleu du Chanel. Which are dependable, and borderline acceptable in that standard format kind of way, but so dull and typical I could weep; as though you were only ever willing to show 30% of your personality, and the part that you do choose to show were nothing but a platitude.
When I went to Kuala Lumpur several years ago there was a wonderful perfume market in the centre of town where men were jostling to try the various (fantastically cheap) wares of the vendors, including sandalwood/rose attars, oudhs, vetiver khus, and exotic flowers. They would sample them with relish on their skins, spraying here, rubbing there, because they wanted to get something that smelled nice, to enjoy on themselves. At least that’s it how it looked to me. Not just some Boots Christmas set of the latest Hugo Boss from aunt Brenda containing a gift-wrapped pile of crap, a nasty little ‘weapon’ to spray on mindlessly every Saturday before another all night session down All-Bar-One.
The recent and current bromide combos of pepper, citrus, ‘woods’ and pugnacious synthetic ambers are so aggravating to my spirit I can’t even talk about them without my temperature rising. As I have said, I would rather smell anything but ‘masculine’ templates on men that pass by on the street (which make me feel like I am being assaulted). Sometimes a Japanese boy will walk past smelling of hair gels, body sprays and a hint of strawberry bubble gum and smells like sheer heaven in comparison. Lighter. Happier. And infinitely more sexy.
But it is a well-known fact in the perfume industry that men, on the whole, are uncomfortable with the whole idea of ‘perfume’ to begin with: it must be called ‘after shave’, and the man in question shouldn’t really even be able to remember what it is called. I know I can’t expect my desperate desire for olfactory liberation to really come to fruition, and I also know that most people really do like their men to smell, well, manly.
There are some institutions in the Ladykillers’ Hall Of Fame that have been around for years, even decades, which is saying something considering how quickly new perfumes are released and disappear these days. These are good: balanced, have quality ingredients, and do what God intended. I was in Fujisawa station a couple of weeks ago and there was a businessman walking along trailing the classic Aramis behind him, and he smelled quite amazing, actually- sexually prolific, but elevated : it really did put his whole persona into sharp focus, and was undeniably engaging. I couldn’t help following in this trail, my morning torpor dissipating in its wake.
Below are some scents in a similar vein; some which to me tread that precarious divide between male and crass with style, others, like the Tsar and Safari we looked at yesterday, which fiercely overstep the line into macho pig; but as always, this is always all simply a matter of personal taste.
BRUT / FABERGE (1964)
One day, when I was still in the first full-blown throes of my olfactory mania at the age of about fifteen, I was passionately raving to my cousin Sue about the things I had recently been trying (Armani Pour Homme, Kouros, Xeryus….) and wondering about her own tastes. I had always really looked up to Sue as something of a rebel (she had a long-haired rocker boyfriend called Boo, and was the most fantastic baby-sitter, letting my brother and I stay up late every time, bouncing on the bed with us to our favourite records) so I was highly disappointed, shocked even, when she said (with some embarrassment)
‘Actually…… I really like Brut.’
To me, Sue was cool, but Brut was anything but. It just smelled mundane and shabby. Of the humdrum morning shaving ritual (the smell of Gillette still in the air on dark Monday mornings when you had to go to school); white, foamy shaving-cream and razor-nicked adult men’s faces.
Of Match Of The Day, and rainy Saturdays with the football and its deadening green screen that polluted and befouled my brain. It is all these things, incorrigibly nostalgic, and will smell of Dad for thousands of my generation.
But this scent, a powdery, mossy geranium-lavender fougère, also has a quiet confidence, an ease with the body that many of the overdone, uptight modern scents can only dream of: this man can walk around without this shirt on not giving a shit what anyone thinks. Michael Bywater, in his fascinating paen to what has gone, ‘Lost Worlds’, says of Brut that it was ‘not so much butch, despite the name, as aggressively suave, with an unctuous oiliness as smooth as a seducer’s leer; women, it was said, were ineluctably captured by its smell.” Sue was certainly not alone in finding it sexy.
It has not been actually lost, even if the current formula is not as intense as it might have once been. But it is still one of the most unpretentious, un-self-aware scents out there, and a nostalgic monument to unspoiled virility.
ARAMIS / ARAMIS (1965)
The reason that Aramis is still so popular more than forty years after its release is simply that it is excellent, distinguished, and on the right person, extraordinarily sexed. But will you like it? It depends. For a large majority of the young male demographic it will smell, frankly, like piss. Like Kouros, Aramis has a sour, ruinous aspect (lemon, bergamot, clary sage and myrtle) – sharp, citric, with quite dirty animal/ clove/ patchouli undertones that will not appeal to the CK One generation.
What it doesn’t smell is cheap. Aramis has a stately rich grandeur; conceited, in compelling manner. It smells of gold watches, expensive white bathrobes, and five star hotel lobbies. It needs good clothes, self belief, and a physique to match, though its purpose really is to blind the ladies to any shortcomings in that area.
ANTAEUS / CHANEL (1981)
Brutishly compact and solid, this spiced-wood black onyx ashtray starring headstrong cedar and a troubling absolute of beeswax really is a man, and one of the blatantly virile scents available (it smells like bulging black jeans). Yet it also has a quiet, Chanel confidence, understated while firm, that is beautiful.
Very 1981 but still eminently wearable.
POLO / RALPH LAUREN (1978)
Ralph Lauren has always been about class. His moneyed, public-school style is more English than the English in its uniquely American conservatism, but the conspicuous consumption of his Russian roots is also firmly intact (a Ralph Lauren clone never looks effortless, but always pristine: brand new; and ready to be photographed by Herb Ritts).
Wearing Polo, which is a true classic in masculine perfumery, is like entering the Ivy-League’s world, its perfect lawns. So much green before you; the hills and forests of Autumn at different stages of growth, and the solid mahogany furniture from which you see it. It is an enduring staple that is the only Ralph Lauren perfume really deserving of classic status, along with his (bipolar) First Lady, Lauren.
Polo is patrician, authoritarian, but no dumbskull. This is a man, definitely (his women love how he smells), but he has also read a book or two. The clever accord of oakmoss and minty, herbaceous greens (pine, juniper, artemisia, marjoram, thyme), is both reassuring and arousing; like the lure of old money, but also with an element of the sadness that such a life sometimes brings.
PLATINUM EGOISTE / CHANEL (1993)
Platinum Egoïste may not be subtle, but it has an manful austerity and sharpness that works. It is very assertive initially, almost too much so, cutting through the air like an unsheathed blade. The sensation of platinum – a silvery, freshwater zing – is achieved with silver-birch, lavender, tarragon and citrus notes over a potent base of treemoss, labdanum and cedar, giving a bodily texture that lasts for hours.
There is not a note of sweetness in Platinum Egoïste: it is harsh, vigorous, and not for all – but dosed strategically (say one spray on the collarbone, another on the abdomen) it can be a huge seducer. It also somehow has the added bonus of having a certain ‘everyman’ quality, as if you are not trying too hard (which itself is a big plus point in the attraction stakes).
NB The aftershave lotion is a good alternative if you prefer this scent more subtle (you should: the eau de toilette is too strong when all is said and done. The same is true of Kouros and many of the scents in this section.)
POUR HOMME / AZZARO (1978)
The classic French lover, and still one of the top-selling masculines in Europe, Azzaro is a simple scent in some ways, but the principle notes – lavender, anise/basil, woods and patchouli/ambergris – are played in perfect harmony like a quartet for strings. Suave and very good-humoured, Azzaro is an attractive and resolutely male scent that has good construction, and unlike a lot of new men’s fragrances seems designed to actually go on your body.
(Tip: smells amazing when you chew Wrigley’s spearmint at the same time, which I did one night in a club in Birmingham; the compliments about how amazing I smelled really were flowing in.)
I also recently read an engrossing and brilliant article last week on The Silver Fox about this perfume, an account of a summer-long love affair that was completely bathed in this Azzaro. It is very highly recommended, as is the whole website.
DRAKKAR NOIR / GUY LAROCHE (1982)
Drakkar was famously once commandeered by lesbians for a good few years as an invisible handshake which made it scary in some people’s eyes ( I think it is brilliant), but it still sells well all over Europe and beyond and is something of a classic.
It’s sleek. It’s macho, and it smells good. It is old school, severe, and not for artistic types, but it works, and is definitely deserving of its prowess credentials, but I recommend doing it on the quiet: in stick deodorant, for subtlety, rising up from the body unexpectedly, it is probably irresistible.
DUNHILL EDITION / DUNHILL (1984)
In the standard ridiculing of the eighties, it is usually the female’s perfume that gets most of the stick. But that bastardization of the feminine, made grotesque and huge-haired by the sickly sweet mushroom clouds you could smell half a mile away (Giorgio: I’m talking to you) had its masculine counterpart in scents like this. It isn’t fair to only single out Dunhill, but though it is true that a lot of women do fall for this sinister aggravation (so bear that in mind if you take the babe magnet thing seriously, this really is one of them), nowadays, in my opinion, you really have to wear tiny amounts to avoid smelling ridiculous – or be a member of the Gun Lobby. Charleton Heston would have loved this. In today’s climate, scents such as Dunhill, the most business-like of business man scents, almost amount to drag: olfactory Viagra to bully up your declining powers. If that sounds like what you need, Dunhill is perfect in many ways: in all sincerity, it is a very well crafted, classic blend; sharp and citrusy (lemon, petitgrain, clary sage, basil); spicy: (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg), and woody (sandalwood and cedar); traditional, and conservative in the extreme. It has the gravitas that will suit the kind of man who dreams of being able to say ‘Yes, Mr President’ on a daily basis.
Other magnetic after-shaves:
GRIGIOPERLA / LA PERLA (1991)
A similar idea to Rive Gauche Pour Homme (which is an excellent modern take on the classic fougere in my view) but perhaps even better. Discreet, fresh, dry and manly (an intriguing, crystal-sharp sage/basil/lavender) it is perfect as an office scent, and doesn’t give everything away at once (if only more fougères had this quality!). Can be found very cheaply online, as well as in the Harrods Perfumery.
BOUCHERON POUR HOMME / BOUCHERON (1991)
Perturbingly sexy, Teuton-tinted fougère with a brutish sheen. Scary, but worth trying.
SEX APPEAL / JOVAN MUSK
Still available, and coming with the following inscription:
“Now you don’t have to be born with it. This provocative, stimulating blend of rare spices and herbs was created by man for the sole purpose of attracting women. At will. More than the usual promise in a bottle, it’s more like a guarantee.”