The Black Narcissus, like most contemporary perfume writing, takes the stance that there is no gender in scent.
You wear what you like.
In these hopefully more enlightened times, ‘only’ in high street department stores and duty free are the genders still strictly segregated with that boring sense of olfactory apartheid, that limiting, tedious pink and blue. Practically every niche brand makes no distinction (Lutens, Editions de Parfums, Le Labo, L’Artisan, Diptyque) and this has vastly expanded the options in scent for the thinking male or female. If, in one of these boutiques you were to ask which perfumes are for men or women, though the staff’s eyes will remain fixed and forward staring, inside they’ll be rightly sneering ‘neanderthal’.
H E R E I S T H E M A N I F E S T O:
A MAN OR WOMAN CAN SMELL ATTRACTIVE IN ANY SCENT IF (S)HE LIKES IT.
(let it be sung and chanted out throughout the land!! let interesting smelling people roam freely on the streets and public transport, let all that suppressed yearning out my people………!!)
Think for a moment. This is more revolutionary than it seems. The vast majority of Europe and America, and Japan come to think of it, smells so damn predictable, so in your face ‘male’ and ‘female’. So mating season. Perfume as nothing more than an invisible extension of invisible future reproduction. Which has its place. After all, the human race must prevail.
But perfume, an artform, for godssake, can be so much more….
When you embrace this liberating fact, it vastly changes the olfactory landscape. No more skin-oppressing stereotypes. Freedom from these boring, outmoded dictates. Whole new aromatic worlds open up.
My own ‘turning point’, where I saw the light if you like, was when I met my friend Peter in London one late evening many years ago and he smelled incredible. We were strolling down Islington high street and the leathery, sultry scent he gave off (which reminded me of the fantastic original Sure deodorant for men) stumped me. What was it?
‘Shalimar, in edp’.
To be honest, this was quite the revelation for me, but not long after I had ‘plucked up the courage’ (how ridiculous!) and plumped for Kenzo’s ridiculous vanilla-licorice-spice-monster Jungle L’Elephant on one return journey to Japan from Duty Free. The reactions I got from it (practically a stampede one night in an Australian bar in Yokohama – and from girls) made me realize that the arbitrary parameters laid down by the industry are sheer bullshit.
However, if we are complely honest, the majority of the niche perfume makers are preaching to the converted. Yes, perfume is art, or at the very least an elevated craft whose pieces one should consider in and of themselves as olfactory abstractions. But in reality, despite some contentions to the contrary in the world of the critics, perfume, for the majority of people, actually really is about sex. Denying this is like claiming that clothes, shoes, jewellery and all the other accoutrements that human beings spend their money on are all about their functionality, or are bought for their intrinsic beauty alone. No: you wear them to make you more attractive.
The aficionado has risen above all this. The man on the street has not – he wants something phwoooar to help him pull, and some of the best, and obviously male scents do literally elicit this reaction – we are animals after all. So, though I am directly contradicting everything I have just written above, I am going to now enter this other world of gender. Because having spent the last twenty five years surveying what is out there, having worn several of them, and knowing the reactions to these classic men’s scents from countless female (and male) friends, and deciding, for a moment, to just enter that outmoded, bullish, way of thinking, l know I can help. I can already feel her leaning in closer on her bar stool…
What smells masculine?
There are many categories in perfume that are fine from the traditional viewpoints of virility. You can’t go wrong with citrus (simple and fresh); vetiver (elegant, unforced); incense (mysterious, though dependent on your target’s religious beliefs); sandalwood, patchouli and all wood blends. The oceanics and brain-drilling, sporty ozonics were made specifically for the modern man ( I could cross out that last word and write idiot), but for the more confident and self-assured there are also the leathers, which I highly recommend for a hint of raunch; ambers, spices, in the manner of the flamboyant Arab male; and I suppose you might even try the mens’ gourmands (Dior Homme, A*Men), though here we are definitely crossing into metrosexual territory.
Truth be told, though, despite the trends of the last twenty years, the masculine genre par excellence is, and always will be I imagine, the fougère. French for fern, the fougère is a category of perfume that has been around for almost a century yet seems to show no sign of losing popularity. The basic structure of this type is an accord of coumarin, lavender and geranium, woody notes such as sandalwood and patchouli, and animalic musks for that added vroom. But the structure is pliable and there are endless variations on the theme, the one constant being that the results are extremely male. This can sometimes be the fragrance equivalent of a dog rubbing his balls up against a tree, and is what some Japanese women call ‘otoko no kusai’ – the stench of men, but in reality there are surely far more of the species (me too, sometimes), who seem genetically preprogrammed to go weak-kneed and pliant in the presence of such obvious testosterone.
This series, then, ignores recent high-street fragrances of the pink pepper/ ‘fresh woods’ twink variety and looks at the classics of the genre – the ‘real men’; the ‘babe magnets’. At a later point I will deal with the more thoughtful (more intelligent, he whispers arrogantly) aromatic fougères such as Hermes Equipage: :::::::::not every woman wants her man to parade his meat quite so openly.
GREEN IRISH TWEED/ CREED (1985)
This sensation by Creed has the reputation as the ultimate woman-bait. Centered on a triad of bitter-green violet leaf/verbena, Florentine iris/ sandalwood, and a magnificent note of ambergris that smooths the fragrance in ways you don’t get from the cheapo stuff, the fragrance grows in strength and character as the day progresses, yet never sinks to the chest-beating of some eighties colognes (it manages the feat of smelling both classy and highly sexed). Unavailable in most high street fragrance departments, and rather expensive, it has the cachet of being a scent for ‘those in the know’. Originally created for Cary Grant, it is also loved by such screen royalty as Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, as well as one David Beckham. Its credentials thus assured, it is nevertheless, despite its balance of ingredients and good taste, lacking in humour or ambiguity. Green Irish Tweed just gets on with the job: dressing the man to pull in the prey.
I wore this once to my company’s annual opening ceremony, and felt ridiculous. I was enjoying the beginning, but as the manliness became rampant I felt like the Hulk, that my chest might rip open. Before I went to the Yokohama Sheraton, feeling more Alpha Male then I ever have before or since (quite interesting in a sense, like method acting), I had a Japanese lesson. Ms Hiramura was quite disturbed by my ‘change of atmosphere.’
FAHRENHEIT/ CHRISTIAN DIOR (1988)
Up until the early 1990s, Dior still had the imagination to produce genuinely groundbreaking perfumes, and this was one of them; a virile, almost violent, fougère. The futuristic shock of violets, honeysuckle, hawthorn and a powerful metallic note like oil and gasoline (which had my mother scream when I doused myself in the stuff in my early twenties) dries to an erotic and arid cedar/ lavender heart; a styrax/ leather fox that has potent striking power and really gets you noticed.
A couple of months ago I passed some American sailors waiting in Yokohama station on their way to the Yokusuka navy base, and one of them had this on. It has that flip-your-gut ability that supercedes the rational.
CERRUTI 1881/ CERRUTI (1990)
Nino Cerruti, he of the Italian sharp suits, who dressed Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in the archetypal 80’s TV series Miami Vice, released this ‘lethal weapon’ at the conclusion of the decade. It has endured. Many of the scents in this section have a louche brutality – the hirsute intentions very clear from the start, as if you have already started unzipping your trousers. Cerruti 1881 is a different kind of fuck-machine: chiseled, jaw clenched, fastidiously clean; an action man fresh from the shower. Extremely sharp, it begins with a herb/citrus blast of tarragon, cypress, rosemary, lemon, bergamot, basil and juniper, dries down to a taut, woody finish.
KOUROS/ YVES SAINT LAURENT (1981)
A killer. Some hate its vulgarity (hooligans are naturally drawn to it), its dirt (a hint of the urinal is never far away), but many more love this classic from YSL. Chandler Burr states that the animalics of this type are ‘now categorically unwearable except by the French. Today, Kouros will get you expelled from a restaurant. It is brutally not en phase (of the times.’) Yet, it is among Yves Saint Laurent’s best sellers all these years later; I know women who are helpless under its spell, and it is quite simply legendary – it even featured in a Destiny’s Child song. I can see why many hate the thing – on the popular Basenotes website this currently gets 80 negative reviews (mostly in response to its prominent genitalia), against 176 positives (those who revel in its exhibitionism, including myself) – so expect varied reactions.
To me, Kouros is a beautiful Mediterranean hunk of a specimen, and pure sex. The first time I encountered it was when I was seventeen in Crete, on holiday with my family, and a man walked out from somewhere in the building behind us into the main square of Heraklion. The scent he left behind him, lingering in the air, was so unspeakably erotic I’m sure I blushed.
An explosion of scent: brightly spiced orange and lemon; rose; woods, resins, incense and fougère, in a sea of animalic vanilla, castoreum (beaver gland), civet, honey and musk, the whole brilliantly blended so that it is still somehow gentlemanly and suave (until the more extravagantly sensual ingredients gradually blend with the skin, at which point those so far seduced are ready to pounce). When worn right – it really doesn’t suit everyone – this is one of the best mens’ scents ever created – though I emphatically recommend wearing it on clean, post-shower skin, and at small dosage. On hot days, when it is wrong or overpowering, it is unadulterated skank.
JAZZ/ YVES SAINT LAURENT (1988)
In the eighties it seemed to me that from around 1986 everything split in two. Until then the radio was ripe with pop, the fashions were cool, but fun. After that, the schism occurred. Stock, Aitken and Waterman pillaged the charts, Starship landed, the Thatcher/Reagan years reached their soulless nadir. As a confused, hypersensitive seventeen year old, there was a stark choice: be one of us, or one of them. ‘Them’ was Sharon and Kevin, who went to the Ritzy and liked Phil Collins & Whitney Houston. She wore Red Door; he wore Jazz. When he walked by, the smell that lingered – stubbornly – summed up, better than words ever could, the self-centred nastiness in the air. Until the 1980’s scents had had some ambiguity – the 70’s especially, when leathery androgyny was the key. Rick Astley changed all that. It was perfumes that smelled of cerese for the women, and of hoary granite-grey for the men; square-jawed, blockhead as Schwarzenegger. In those days this represented everything a vegetarian Goth (who secretly loved Janet Jackson) despised, and I loathed it more than I could express.
I still hate this smell but two decades later I see that Jazz, which is a very big seller and something of an institution in male grooming, is a very well-made fougère with good balance (better than Tsar, say, which it is similar to). It is less crass than most, very manly, and I see why many women find it very sexy. Definitely in the magnet top 10 and something of a safe bet.
TSAR/ VAN CLEEF & ARPELS (1989)
I can look at this from two points of view: the rational, and the irrational.
First the rational.
Tsar is an enduring success that men still buy (or their wives for them) with a deep, commanding presence: dark and rich as teak. An uncompromising severity, with the finality of a stag head nailed to the wall.
Irrational: sums up everything I loathe about the smug, white patriarch: the vile sense of entitlement these rhinos feel. Probably the most republican scent in the world, and a scent I loathe with fervour.
SAFARI / RALPH LAUREN (1992)
Painful. What I hate so much in Tsar, that worship of the stale armpit of macho, is strengthened to unfathomable bitterhood. This safari is surely of the ladies.
Watch them run; lasso, gun’em; harpoon them with the hard-enamelled phallus. Round up’em as trophies. Pin’em down. Subject them to your ash-mottled clichés.
Some women like it.
POUR HOMME/ PACO RABANNE (1973)
But manliness needn’t be such hard work.
Timeless is not a word that can be applied to many scents, especially the limited clichés that make up the men’s fragrance market. But the word can probably be applied to Paco Rabanne; a herbal-green animalic fougère that somehow resists the trends of each decade and comes out smelling good.
In 1983 as a teenager this was one of the scents the more ‘grown up’ girls were talking about in my classroom (the other being the more recent Kouros), and even now this inviting, aromatic blend has something of a womanizing reputation – in an episode of mafia drama The Sopranos, Paulie, about to go out on a date, asks if he’s got enough cologne on. The reply ‘You’ve got so much on you’d think Paco Rabanne had crawled up your ass and died’ pretty much sums up its credentials.
The reason this scent has survived all these years is that it doesn’t have the preposterone swagger of many fougères. It isn’t trying to prove anything, unlike some of the scents I’ve described here (which seem to be covering a lack). It has a warm, effortless confidence, and that is the source of its power – it smells trustworthy. The overall smell of Paco Rabanne is green and soapy clean (laurel, sage, rosemary, geranium) with moss, honey, amber and some soft animalics. While perhaps not an out and out masterpiece, Paco Rabanne is nevertheless a classic that I imagine will be around for many more years to come. I certainly do hope so.
SKIN BRACER/ MENNEN (1931)
Probably the cheapest scent in my collection (a pound, or even a dollar), I’d nevertheless rather smell this than eighty per cent of men’s scents. The peacock syndrome in my, and I imagine a decent percentage of heterosexual women’s opinion too, just isn’t sexy. Most of today’s fragrances are the worst combination of cheap and overcomplicated. Just too much fuss.
Skin Bracer is a truck driver in light blue jeans – the type with good personal hygiene. Simple, manly, probably a real scent when first released but now just a drug store bargain. Nevertheless, it’s a clean, mentholated fougère, with a denim-like vanillic cling that beats most other things here hands down.
Volume 2 coming soon……