The Black Narcissus, like most contemporary perfume writing, takes the stance that there is no gender in scent. That such thinking is an outmoded, and very limiting approach to fragrancing which in the modern world of liberated, even poetic perfume, seems like some form of restrictive, gendered apartheid.
You wear what you damn well like.
Perfume is perfume. Smell is smell. It is personal: instinctive.
In fact, there is no reason why anybody needs to smell as they are expected to smell. I had a Japanese male colleague come round for dinner the other day, and, his eyes widening when he saw my collection, having no idea where to start, I suggested he just give me a smell descriptor, a scent he loves in life, in nature. And to my delight (and great surprise) the one word he came up with, hesitating for a moment, was “Kuchinashi”. Gardenia. So off I went on a white floral mission, getting some gardenia/tuberoses for him, perfumes he had had no idea existed, that he loved on himself, and couldn’t get enough of. And he smelled beautiful. Just starting from instinct, and natural inclinations, from memory, and experience, rather than the dictates of the flavor conglomerates and the vulgar meat market dating circuit, where scent is exclusively used, and marketed, as a come-on to begin the process of dating in the crassest manner imaginable.
No. In the world of Lutens, Malle, L’Artisan, and all the myriad of other creative and imaginative niche perfumeries, the possibilities are endless: the potential to override these limiting and depressing barriers of spirit, enormous. Only in high street department stores and the soul numbing miasma of Duty Free are the genders still segregated in the old manner: men and women smelling blindly, uselessly, as they are guided around the juices by pancaked, lipsticked, high-heeled assistants wielding nasty little sprays that pollute your journey all the way from Tokyo to London and beyond if you are unfortunate enough to have your skin maimed from a few stray drops…
If you are reading this now, chances are you know this already. All true perfumists know the segregrated approach to perfume, the pour homme/pour femme old dictate, is pure nonsense.
However. Let’s face it: the majority of the niche perfume makers, with their ever more expensive wares, and their curious and innovative combinations of aromatic materials, are preaching to the converted – ready-made for the pilgrims ever searching for the holy grail. 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 fragrance world and the domain of the scent critic, perfume really is, throughout most of the world, still about sex. Denying this is akin to claiming that clothes, shoes, jewellery and all the other accoutrements that human beings spend so much of their money on are all about their functionality, or are bought for their intrinsic aesthetic beauty alone. I don’t think so. They are bought to make you attractive.
The afficionado has risen above all this. The man on the street has not : he wants, basically, to find a scent to help him pull: a babe magnet. And why not? An attractively made scent, one made with vision, acuity and artistry, can be that extra deciding factor that lets a date go the way that you want it to; clinch the deal. And so, having spent the last thirty years constantly surveying what is out there in that world and knowing the reactions to men’s scents from countless female friends, let’s see what we can do. Let’s find that ladykilling juice that will have her melting, helplessly on to the bar room floor.
So. What smells masculine?
There are many categories of perfume that are fine from the traditional viewpoints of virility. You can’t go wrong with citrus (simple, elegant, fresh); vetiver; incense (though this might depend on your target’s religious beliefs): sandalwood, patchouli and all woody blends: the oceanics, ‘sports fragrances’, and ozonics. For the more confident man there are the leathers, which I highly recommend; ambers, spices, in the manner of the flamboyant Arab male; and you might even want to try the new mens’ gourmands (Dior Homme, A*Men), though here we are definitely crossing into metrosexual territory.
These categories of masculine perfumery notwithstanding, truth be told, despite the modernizing trends of the last twenty years, the masculine genre par excellence is, and always will be I imagine, the fougere. French for fern, the fougere 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 of scent, immediately recognizable as a ‘man’, is formed with an accord of coumarin – derived from the tonka bean – with a main core of lavender and geranium, as well as potent woody notes such as sandalwood, vetiver, cedar and patchouli, and animalic musks in the base for that added vroom revealed later in the sack, usually cleverly concealed at first beneath a fresher top accord of citrus, spices and herbs. The structure is pliable, though, and there are endless variations on the theme: the one constant being that the results are very male. In truth, this can sometimes be the fragrance equivalent of a dog rubbing his balls up against a tree, and is what some Japanese women refer to as‘okotoko no kusai’ – the stink of men. There are probably far more females of the species, however, who seem preprogrammed to go weak-kneed and pliant in the presence of such obvious testosterone: a modern but timeless variant of Me Tarzan: You, Jane.
GREEN IRISH TWEED/ CREED (1985)
This sensation by Creed has the reputation as the ultimate woman-killer. I can testify to its probably being true. Centered on a triad of bitter green violet leaf/verbena, Florentine iris/ sandalwood, and a magnificent note of ambergris which smooths the fragrance in a way you don’t get from the cheap stuff, the fragrance grows in strength and character as the day progresses, yet never sinks to the cheapo chest-beating of some eighties colognes (it manages the feat of smelling classy and highly sexed). Unavailable on the high street, 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, rather 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, the violet leaf greenness, but as the manliness began to become rampant I felt like the Hulk, that my chest was about to 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, method acting), I had a Japanese lesson. Ms Hiramura was quite disturbed by my ‘change of atmosphere.’
RIVE GAUCHE POUR HOMME/ YVES SAINT LAURENT (2003)
For the straightforward, fashionable young gent looking for that knee-weakening after-shave, this sly creation from Yves Saint Laurent will quite nicely do the trick. Svengali of seduction, ‘dreamy’ Tom Ford oversaw its development, wanting a modern masculine that referenced the past but smelled new. Most of the crap you find in department stores just doesn’t smell good up close – it is harsh, citric, too synthetic – no one wants to kiss you and taste acid on their tongue. Rive Gauche Pour Homme is smooth as a freshly shaven face.
You’ve smelled Rive Gauche before. There is a familiarity there, a Greatest Hits-Of-Male-Grooming rolled into one: shaving foams, hair gels, deodorant sticks, a certain barbershop straightness. To me it is a young well-dressed man in finance: in the City after work in a bar somewhere off Liverpool Street, London. As an olfactory chat-up for a girl at the bar it is slick and clever ; a rehash of old school fougeres (rosemary, lavender, patchouli) represented in newer, sleeker mode. It is very sexy, of obvious quality, quite beautiful, but like its bottle, a touch monochrome.
KOUROS/ YVES SAINT LAURENT (1981)
A killer. Some hate its supposed vulgarity (hooligans are naturally drawn to it), its indisputable 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 Yves Saint Laurent’s best seller 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 Basenotes website this gets a lot of negative reviews (mostly in response to its genital intimations), against the flurry of positives – those who revel in its fully fledged masculinity). It certainly isn’t for everyone.
To me, Kouros is a beautiful Mediterranean hunk of a specimen: pure sex. When I was seventeen I remember being in Crete on holiday with my family, and a man walking out from behind in the cool of the shadow and into the sun of the white square of the island’s capital, Heraklion. The scent he left behind him, hanging in the air, suggestively, was unspeakably erotic, and I am sure that I must have blushed.
This perfume is an explosionof scent; spiced oranges and lemons; jasmine, rose; woods, resins, incense and fougère, in a sea of animalic vanilla, castoreum (beaver gland), civet, honey and musk. All of this is brilliantly blended so that it is still fresh, somehow gentlemanly and suave (at the beginning, anyway). The citrus notes and the crisp spices adorning the irrepressible main theme create a fresh sensation of the outdoors for a time initially before 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 doesn’t suit everyone, so the perfume must be checked out thoroughly first), this is quite simply one of the best scents ever created – diabolically sexual – though I emphatically recommend wearing it on clean, post-shower skin, and at small dosage. On hot days, when it is wrong or overpowering, this scent is unadulterated skank.
Summer remixes of the Kouros theme are often released, and many are quite good: cleaner scents with less animal. If you like the basic theme of Kouros there is also Creed’s Orange Spice, which is similar but has perhaps more taste.
PLATINUM EGOISTE/ CHANEL (1993)
Like Kouros, Platinum Egoiste is not subtle, but has a masculine austerity and sharpness that really works. It is cold, very assertive at first, cutting through the air like a blade that, when unsheathed, is a head-turner. The sensation of platinum – a silvery, freshwater zing – is achieved with silver- birch, lavender, tarragon and citrus over woody notes and a potent base of treemoss, labdanum and cedar, giving a bodily texture that lasts up to twenty four hours on the skin.
There is not a note of sweetness in Platinum Egoiste: it is harsh, virile 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 has the added bonus of having a certain ‘everyman’ quality, as if you are not trying too hard (which in 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 edt is too strong when all is said and done. The same is true of Kouros.)
POLO/ RALPH LAUREN (1978)
Ralph Lauren has always been about class: estates in New England; the American thoroughbreds. His neo-public-school style is more English than the English in its uniquely American conservatism, but the conspicuous consumption of his Russian roots are firmly intact (a Ralph Lauren clone never looks effortless, but rather always pristine and brand new, ready to be photographed by Herb Ritts.)
Smelling Polo is like entering the Ivy-League world and their perfect lawns: a scent, and a ‘lifestyle’ you won’t ever forget. So many facets of the colour green before you, like the hills of forests in Autumn at different stages of growth, and the solid mahogany furniture that you see this from. I would say that Polo is the only Ralph Lauren perfume really deserving of classic status, along with his (depressed) First Lady, Lauren, the smell of sorority girls and their gleaming, freshly washed hair. The men’s variant, Polo is patrician, authoritative, but no certainly 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 (which lingers for days) and minty, herbaceous greens (pine, juniper, artemisia, marjoram, thyme )is both reassuring and arousing; like the lure of old money, but with a sense of the sadness too that such a life sometimes brings.
JAZZ/ YVES SAINT LAURENT (1988)
In the 1980’s 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 red or cerese for the women, and hoary granite-grey for the men; square-jawed 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 can see that Jazz, which is still a very big seller and something of an institution in male grooming, is a well-made fougere 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.
FAHRENHEIT/ CHRISTIAN DIOR (1988)
An entirely different kind of man to the above – young, flash – ready for a night on the town, Fahrenheit is an original scent that is extremely striking. 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, violet-themed fougère. The futuristic shock of the aforementioned 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 arid, cedar, lavender heart; a styrax/ leather fox.
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 was wearing Fahrenheit. It has that sexed, flip-your-stomach ability that supercedes the rational.
POUR HOMME / AZZARO (1978)
For Luca Turin this is the archetypal Saddam Hussein hairy chest. For me it is too soft-hearted for that: more a protagonist from a Truffaut film; confident, a bit gauche, sweatered – a classic French ladies’ man. It 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 well scored 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 great when you chew Wrigley’s spearmint gum at the same time, in a club: quite devastating.)
ANTAEUS/ CHANEL (1981)
Solid as a black onyx ashtray; brutishly compact; a spiced-wood scent starring smooth, headstrong cedar –and a troubling absolute of honey, Antaeus really and truly is a man and one of the most blatantly virile scents available (the olfactory equivalent of bulging, tight-fitted jeans), but, crucially, it also has a quiet, Chanel confidence that is beautiful.
Very 1981 but still eminently wearable.
BRUT/ FABERGE (1964)
I remember when I was entering the first full-blown throes of my olfactory mania at the age of fifteen and I was talking to my cousin Sue about all the latest things I’d been trying, and wondering what her own favourites were. Ten years older than me, she had been the most fantastic babysitter, letting us jump on the beds and stay up late, but more importantly was someone I looked up to (she had a scary rocker boyfriend called Boo and she was my mentor of pop: being baby-sat to the limited edition Human League’s instrumental album ‘Love and Dancing’ is one of my best memories from my childhood). So I was really quite disappointed when she said (with some embarrassment)
‘Actually, I really like Brut.’
To me, she was cool, but Brut just smelled of Dad, of Boots in the seventies, and an absolute, and utter, lack of elegance. Of the morning shaving ritual (the smell still in the air on a dark winter Monday morning when you had to go to school); white, foamy shaving cream and razor-nicked adult men’s faces. The horror (for me) of Match Of The Day – hideous rainy Saturdays with the football on continually, with its deadening green screen that polluted my brain. It is all these things, incorrigibly nostalgic, and will smell of dad for thousands of my generation. But it 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 his shirt on and doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks. Michael Bywater in his brilliant paen to what has gone, ‘Lost worlds’, writes 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 lost, even if it is not as intense as it might once have been. But it is still the most unpretentious, un-self aware aftershave out there. Unspoiled virility is a precious thing these days.
CERRUTI 1881/ CERRUTI (1990)
Nino Cerruti, he of the Italian sharp suits, and 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, and dries down to a taut, woody finish.
UNGARO I/ UNGARO (1991)
The first time I encountered this was when I was twenty and not quite ready. Yet even then I knew. Something murky, sweaty, dangerously seductive. I remember recoiling, but then going back immediately, to this rich stew of a scent that touched some primal sex nerve. My first visual image: businessman, real man, after a hard day’s work – maybe he forgot his deodorant – and this was the smell beneath, just waiting to emerge; taut, impulsive, musclé.
This was the genius of Ungaro. A scent that harnessed sheer, brute masculinity and fused it with style and elegance in a manner only the French could master.
It is, for me, possibly the ultimate fougere. A deep, rough patchouli, fused with woods, geranium, wormwood (absinthe), musky animalics, and a sticky vanilla-honey that is almost salivatingly good. In fact I have a dressmaker friend, Rumi, who came to my house for the first time recently. We watched Almodovar’s Bad Education, drank a lot of red wine, and got to the perfume collection. Once I had realized her tastes, I went in a patchouli direction (Givenchy Gentleman, Magie Noire) which had her coiled like a cat with pleasure. The pièce de resistance was Ungaro, which I saved til last, but which she said was like sexual torture.
ARAMIS/ ARAMIS (1965)
Aramis is an aftershave of legendary status that is still heavily promoted by Lauder (its parent company) worldwide. The fact that it 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, urinous aspect (lemon, bergamot, clary sage and myrtle together) – sharp, citric, with quite dirty animal/ clove/ patchouli undertones that will not appeal to the CK One or Aqua di Giò generation. I myself highly rate it.
What it doesn’t smell is cheap. Aramis has a stately rich grandeur. Conceited, in a compelling manner. It smells of gold, of 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.
DRAKKAR NOIR/ GUY LAROCHE (1982)
Though it was commandeered by the lesbians for a while (an invisible eighties codeword), why not go for Drakkar?
It’s taut. It’s sleek. It’s manly, and it smells good. It is old school, severe, and it isn’t for the artistic type, but it works. Definitely deserving of its prowess credentials, but I recommend doing it on the quiet: as a stick deodorant, for subtlety – rising up from the body unexpectedly, it’s probably irresistible.
DUNHILL EDITION/ DUNHILL (1984)
In the standard ridiculing of the eighties, it is usually the female’s perfume that gets the most stick. Admittedly, many were ridiculous (Senso, 273, Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion), but at least they were fun. But that bastardization of femininity, made grotesque and big-haired by the sickly sweet mushroom clouds you could literally smell half a mile away (literally) most certainly had its masculine counterpart in scents like this. Perhaps it isn’t fair to only single out Dunhill (there are also Tsar, Jazz, Drakkar and many others not mentioned here), but though it is true that a lot of women do fall for this bitter aggravation (so bear that in mind if you take the babe magnet thing seriously: this 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 definitely have loved this.
In today’s climate, scents such as Dunhill, the most business-like of the business man scents, almost amount to drag: olfactory Viagra to bully up your inevitably declining powers. If that sounds like what you need, Dunhill is perfect in many ways: in all sincerity, it is very well crafted, classic masculine blend; sharp and citrusy (lemon, petitgrain, clary sage, basil); (spicy: clove, cinnamon, nutmeg), and woody (sandalwood and cedar); traditional, 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.
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 as teak: rich as velvet. An uncompromising severity – the finality of a stag head nailed to the wall.
Irrational: sums up everything I loathe about the smug, white patriarch: the stench of the boardroom, the arrogance, the oil; and the vile sense of entitlement these rhinos feel. Probably the most right-wing scent in the world. A scent I will loathe with fervour, forever.
SAFARI / RALPH LAUREN (1992)
Perhaps even more painful. Detestable. What I hate so much in Tsar, that worship of the stale, rotten armpit of macho, is strengthened, here, to unfathomable bitterhood.
This safari, this cold-hearted hunt, 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 ashtray-mottled clichés.
Some women like it.
POUR HOMME/ PACO RABANNE (1973)
Timeless is not a word that can be applied to many scents, especially the limited clichés that make up the men’s fragrance market (trust me, it really is limiting, and boring, just to smell of a given template). But the word can probably be applied to Paco Rabanne; a herbal green animalic fougere that somehow resists the trends of each decade and still comes out smelling good.
In 1984 as a teenager this was one of the scents the girls were talking about (the other being the more recent Kouros), and even now this inviting, aromatic blend has something of a womanizing reputation – in an episode of 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 macho credentials.
Yet the reason this scent has survived the best seller lists all these years is, I think, that it doesn’t have the preposterone swagger of many fougeres. It isn’t trying to prove anything, like some of the scents I’ve described here (which seem to be covering a lack) – and has a warm, effortless confidence that is the source of its power – a trustworthy scent – soapy clean and green (laurel, sage, rosemary, geranium) over 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.
SKIN BRACER/ MENNEN (1931)
Probably the cheapest scent I have ever described (a pound, or even sometimes a dollar), but I’d nevertheless rather smell this, personally, than ninety (nine?) per cent of men’s scents out there. 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 in the beginning but now just a drug store bargain. Nevertheless, It’s a clean, mentholated fougere, with a denim-like vanillic cling, soothing, erotic, that beats most other things hands down.
BOUCHERON POUR HOMME/ BOUCHERON (1991)Perturbingly sexy, Germanic fougere with a brutish sheen. Worth trying.
SANTOS/ CARTIER (1981) Yet another spicy fougere in the Tsar mode, but better, with a certain dark-grey, severe, commanding presence.
HUGO/ HUGO BOSS (1995) A scent for the baser instincts, to be worn down All Bar One on a Saturday night. You will fit in, get compliments, and pull.
REALM FOR MEN (1993) Not a strict fougere, but a desperate plea formed with human pheromones. Please don’t buy this: it is repellent.
BUSINESSMAN/ PANOUGE All powerhouses, sadly gone. Probably available still from specialist online retailers.
SEX APPEAL/ JOVAN MUSK This is still available, and comes with the following inscription written on the box:
“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.
More than the usual promise in a bottle, it’s more like a guarantee.”