It takes a certain bravery to try something new. The ‘requirements’ for men’s perfumery are so entrenched, so unbudging, that it would be impossible to overemphasize how tired the whole enterprise often feels. Mainstream fragrance is often conservative at best, only inching very slowly, trendwise, in unchartered directions, sometimes even exacerbating already exaggerated masculine tropes – Dior Sauvage, Paco Rabanne One Million – to the point where an entire gender becomes shackled.
H24 is the first Hermès men’s fragrance release in 15 years, the last being the innovative, now-modern-classic Terre D’Hermès, a flinty, grapefruit, mineralistic vetiver suspended in Jean Claude Ellena’s minimal, but very tenacious, central concept that in the unfolding years has become highly popular. I personally find it tiring, but when it first emerged on duty free shelves back then it was very original – there was a new refinement and elegance; a toned silhouette with less brute muscle, more sinew.
Christine Nagel’s brand new creation for Hermès is entirely different to its predecessor, and even more groundbreaking: a futuristic take on freshness; green and clean, both alien and human, without a traditional masculine edict in sight. I am trying to imagine ‘your average man’ picking this up from the shelf in a department store or airport from the huge selection available and selecting this one as their first choice rather than a much safer bet : to a large extent the public’s scent receptors have long been formed on what is current, what they smell around them. If the norm for women is endless percolations of the candy florachouli, years, even decades, of Angel, Coco Mademoiselle, La Vie Est Belle, Flowerbomb, and all of their imitators, anything outside those socially accepted parameters becomes perilous and risky for the average consumer. People like to sink into their comfort zones. Men even more so.
Christine Nagel, the intrepid nose at Hermès, was adamant, nevertheless, that such widely accepted clichés would not form the basis of, nor even appear in, the new addition to the house’s collection, expressly avoiding the inexorable aggro-ambers that form the basis of the vast majority of men’s fragrances. Instead, she worked with the designer for the Hermès men’s collection, Véronique Nichanian, to capture the more evaporative but stimulating concepts of ‘workshop steam, cashmere, and botanical extracts’ through an unusual combination of clary sage, rosewood, a ‘co-distillation’ of narcissus, and a synthetic called sclarene that smells of metallic, freshly ironed steam. The result, at least on first play, is like nothing I have ever smelled before – in itself a wonderful thing.
The top notes of H24 are what make me nervous about the perfume’s commercial potential. There is a sharp, almost sour, fruity piercing of sap and light in the opening accord that is unplaceable (because it simply has never existed before) which, despite or because of its oddity, feels immediately optimistic, futuristic. Even dazzling. I do think that there will be an immediate divide between those who are put off by this novelty and unfamiliarity – the sensation of synthetic photosynthesis; a scything away of the funge of the past; mind-clearing — and by those who are attracted to its pristine newness. The middle section, green, perhaps more feminine, and for me with strange, distant echoes of the piquant verts of the seventies and eighties like Lauder’s Private Collection (the perfumer has referred to H24 as a ‘high tech chypre’), has a dreamy, almost melancholic interplay with the proactive energy of the main, and this is my favourite part of the scent: there is a vague nod to the past, in some distant galaxy – but with a fresh, youthful poise. The final accord is a more placid, metallic musk fused with the constant, but pleasant, leaf – like haze that is there throughout the perfume’s duration, with less impact on the senses and emotions, a little flat, a touch unmoving perhaps – yet as a holistic whole, I know I would still very much enjoy smelling H24 on a new generation of younger, more boundlessly emancipated beings.