Artemisia, galbanum, lavender, bergamot, black pepper
Sage, jasmine, cyclamen, basil, rose, cumin
Leather, costus, tonka bean, oakmoss, amber, civet, musk
The last time I was in Paris you could still buy Jules. That was almost a decade ago, though, and even in reformulation I doubt that it was destined to remain very popular. Jules is just too intimate, too husky and sensual, to appeal to the fashionable common man.
The gravest mistake in contemporary men’s perfumery is the conflation of masculine and macho. Almost any scent released onto the market these days that is targeted at homo erectus is fuelled with clichés. Granite-jawed, gym-locker hardness: wooden aggressions with slim concessions to ‘freshness’ (immaculate, GQ grooming); the latest spice; ozone; citrus. And though these perfumes can occasionally work on a subcellular level as Pavlovian lust-flaggers (the heterosexual woman, the homosexual man responding with their pituitary gland in a spike of involuntary sexual arousal), on the aesthetic, and more importantly on the spiritual level, they surely evoke emotions more akin to disdain .
I was at Helen’s house in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago, sitting with the kids and looking out into the garden and the park beyond, the big trees that stretch their arms out across the wide, March skies. We were there for a while, talking, catching up and relaxing, when Helen’s partner Steve arrived back from his studio in the city centre after a bike ride in the evening air.
As he passed by us through the kitchen, Steve left the most troubling, imperceptibly resonant scent in the air around him: part fresh, clean sweat; part vintage Jules. A scent I recognized immediately because I own a small bottle myself, but mostly because it has, along with Loewe’s darkly coniferous Esencia, over the years, become his own signature. It suits him perfectly.
In scent terms, Steve and I are opposites, as we are in several other ways. He is cautious: I am a car crash. He loves comedy: I can’t stand it. He is meticulous: I am a slob. And while he would smell ludicrously wrong in anything even remotely vanillic, sweet or balsamic ( I am personally not convinced he can even carry off the bottle of vintage Guerlain Vetiver they have hidden upstairs in their bathroom – though that is partly because I want to get my hands on it myself), it is equally true that I myself just smell indelibly wrong in any scent that is even slightly redolent of a forest. Pine, fir, myrtle, juniper are of course all beautifully spruce, natural essences that I like aromatherapeutically (though I will admit that I do find them slightly depressing), but for some reason, on the skin, they remain to me too morbidly sylvan, too starkly prickly, rough and alive.
While Duncan is also drawn to these herbaceous, fir tree formulas and smells good, if a touch tightrope, in Christian Dior’s most animalic scent (and I smell horrible in it, like someone’s sweaty crotch), Steve’s skin chemistry – pale skin, black hair – works with this subtle yet penetrating scent in completeness. I hadn’t smelled this scent in a very long time, but my sensors were immediately prickled ( I would say he had sprayed some on just a few minutes before), the air in the room suddenly tingling for me almost on the genetic level; imbued with an ionized, sensating clarity of the veins (the outside air; the body chemistry; the sage, cyclamen, artemisia laden, sour herbaceousness over finely calibrated animalics), all of which essentially summed up for me what I love so much about perfume: that a scent can speak for you, enhance you, enlarge you, and, most importantly, affect another person in a way that can only be described as psychotropic. This smell was, in the most elegant and understated way, pure sex.
There is a blooded, bodily, leg-haired, at-ease-with-himself aura that surrounds Jules. Interestingly, the perfume was created by Jean Martel, whose only other creation seems to have been Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, another easy-going, indefatigable classic that I wear myself sometimes as I love its warmth and aromatic balminess. While I don’t often go for ‘pour homme’ type scents these days, there is something special, real, lovable, about Paco Rabanne, as there is about Jules, a scent that doesn’t feel that it needs to brag. Steve, a brilliant portrait painter incidentally, is kempt, handsome, but not overtly ‘sexual’ in that boring, eyebrow-raised, current manner. He knows who he is, takes care of his appearance, but isn’t in any way a peacock (though it has to be said that anyone who wears Jules may have such strutting tendencies subcutaneously….)
In recent times though there has been an exponential, narcissistic, looks-obsessed gym culture in which males – no matter their gender or sexual persuasion – are expected to be gazing constantly; defiantly, into the void of beauty. With their slender, calorie-counted, machine-toned musculature, assiduously cared for facial hair and coiff, theoretically I suppose I should probably be lusting after them now that I have entered my middle age (or so I am told), while in truth such paragons of manhood leave me completely, and utterly, sexually cold.
Actually, come to think of it, this has nothing to do with age – I have probably always been that way. When I lived in Rome, I was pursued by a couple of classically beautiful Armani models who, much to the great consternation and disbelief of my friends, I just didn’t fancy, no matter how hard I tried to. Immense regularity of feature; straightness of leg, neatness of garment…….. er, no grazie. Give me unselfawareness, a natural body, let the testosterone flow more surreptiously, uninhibitedly, in the veins.
And going even further than the prissy, coutured preeningness that turns off all sexuality in my body, there is even, currently, particularly among gay men – and thus probably in the straight male population as the unstoppable metrosexualisation of the male goes unabated – a very big trend for shaving and depilation that makes me just want to take the first flight to Iraq. In this world of hard, trained, orange crustaceans and fresh, mascara’d young chickens, one must keep one’s nether regions trimmed, neat and plucked – despite the ubiquitous hipster facial beards that also bore me to death – (creating the visual illusion of size, supposedly), but to me, these prim, men’s-magazine-influenced approximations of maleness couldn’t be physically less attractive. I personally like hair, softness, snuggling animalness, not this diamond-cut, gleaming sculpture of white-teethed vacuousness. Add a scent, be it your high street Armanis, your Dolces, your Adidas, whatever sports scent to go on top, or else your Monocle-approved prickly, ‘directional’ oud or glistening high quality citrus, and you then have a pore-closed fortress of a person, preened and ready for the selfie: infallible, no remove for manoeuvre: the direct, chemical, all-at-once scent (which, unfortunately has no real basis), suturing the whole image up so damn neat and tidily (I have a horrifying image, actually, of meeting, if I were single, one of these unimpeachably turned out individuals, self-approvingly grinning on a blind date in some bar, dressed up in Vétiver Extraordinaire or some other nifty niche men’s choice, and me there choking to death claustrophobically in the perfection of our smiling, android mate calls; desperately wondering, eyes darting about the environs, how I could possibly make an exit….)
Because, you know, in truth, many, or probably most of these crisp, sharp nothingnesses that we are exposed to these days as ‘scents for men’, despite their puffed male credentials, have no balls. It’s all flash, synthetic woods, industrial lime, and easy, friendsome, laundry musks.
Scents like Jules , while somewhat outdated I suppose in some regards I will admit – unless you happen to be lucky enough to be able to meld with them perfectly and carry them off winkingly (but not too ironically), treat sexuality in a far more erotic, genuine, gently manipulative manner. Their subliminal urinousness (which needs to be kept subliminal in order for the perfume to obtain its mysterious power), derived from the clever infusion of animalics with piquant plant essences, creates an intriguing aura of warm stealth: tentative yet resolute, attractive yet a touch dangerous, that hovers, flirtatiously but good humouredly – and this is the key – about the person.
I am very sensitive to these internal machinations within perfumes, and on Steve the other day there was a definite, immediate change of atmosphere seconds after he had entered the room: a hunted fox; some predatory, shallow-breathing maleness that I experienced personally in my own body physically. Just a sniff: hanging on the air, but libidinously…..deep rooted, carnal : : : the smell of a man.