Neil Chapman Gender Fluidity and Perfume
Would you please comment on the rise of gender-fluid fragrances these days? What do you think of the trend?
The rise in the popularity of gender-fluid fragrances is a natural response to changes in society in which many people are not content to be limited by traditional gender roles in all areas of their lives, from the way they carry themselves to the way they dress. Fragrance is an inevitable extension of this as a form of self-expression: like choices in fashion, for those wishing to experiment with the new forms of gender, a new perfume is a way of testing the boundaries you are comfortable with. This trend can only be liberating.
Tastes in fragrance are changing. There is a growing openness to new directions in perfumery, related partly to the rapidly expanding changing world of fragrance surrounding us. In the last decade or so, there has been a marked increase in the use of scented fabric softeners and ambient fragrance for the home. As a result, men have become much more accustomed to floral, fruity fragrances or ‘clean’ smelling laundry musk type smells than in the past, and this has influenced how they view perfume and what constitutes a pleasant smell. Flowers, especially rose and white florals, now feel more familiar. Likewise, the rise in popularity of incense and woody fragrances for the home (as well as global smash hits like Le Labo’s Santal 33, which totally redefined how women should perfume themselves) has had an effect on how women view scent: many are no longer content with the stereotyped, ‘cute’ floral gendering of the old fragrance binary as it simply doesn’t reflect their inner nature and how they feel about themselves.
Clean, and stripped-down fragrances appeal to a new generation who value subtlety and understatement: houses like Maison Kurkdijian have capitalized very cleverly on this trend by producing quality haute parfumerie that takes some inspiration from the trend for smelling freshly laundered but takes it to higher levels: the Aqua range from Maison FK is the apex of such perfumes: Aqua Universalis, an appealingly hale and clean scent full of optimism, and Aqua Celestia – la blue glacier of waterfall freshness have expanded the concept of what perfume can be. Rather than simply worn for sexual attraction, these perfumes smell comfortable, more ’loveable’ than purely erotic, without the predatory elements of more obviously ‘seductive’ perfumes. Tokyo Brand Tobali’s Innocent Love, another example, is a stunning neroli: like light glinting on water, it is a new generation of cologne with notes of bright citruses, lavender and jasmine that goes the extra mile. It makes you feel that you can rise above anything no matter how you gender-identify. One of the keys to this trend is that the perfumes make you happy first: only then, in my view, will you be attractive to other people.
How do you define the notion of gender-fluid in perfume?
The word ‘fluidity’ is usually seen as a positive attribute, similar to a feeling of flowing and creativity, something that is always in flux, like a river. We are all a combination of feminine and masculine, in a balance that differs from person to person but also at times even within one person. Fluidity is something that is not fixed, like some outdated notions of the ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ typical fragrances. Rather, a gender-fluid fragrance is a scent that a person of any gender feels at ease wearing, one not instantly marcated by the usual recognizable man vs woman traits (ie. aggressive woody fougères for men, sweet and sugared vanillic florals for women). With these new, more ambiguous perfumes you can just smell like yourself – not another person’s definition of how you should smell. Gender fluidity to me means being free to do whatever you want, unshackled by predecided cultural cliché.
Do you think there are some common characteristics or penchants in so-called ‘gender- fluid’ frangrances? If you do, please tell us what they are.
Gender fluid perfumes often combine elements that are considered masculine and feminine within the same perfume (for example woods and flowers). Your own personal skin type, your ‘canvas’ if you like, will then bring certain aspects of the fragrance to the fore. You personalize the fragrance with your own DNA so it becomes your very own, with more of a sense of mystery than with the more stereotyped fragrances where your social role smells pre-defined.
The new, more youthfully uninhibited perfumes open up new landscapes of possibility, exploring nature: forests and woods; flower gardens; herbs and spices, fresh air and the sea. Oceanic, salty aerated perfumes remind us of light glittering on waves and are very uplifting: after a year stuck inside, we need such fragrances. A fragrance like Louis Vuitton’s On The Beach can be enjoyed by anybody – zestful notes of yuzu and neroli combine with solar notes that smell like sun-kissed skin on hot sand: like the suntan oils we all share by the ocean, this kind of perfume is suitable for anyone. A breath of positive air.
Similarly, though herbal, aromatic perfumes have traditionally been considered masculine, green and herbaceous notes are very gender-versatile. Most people enjoy spices and herbs in a culinary context – so there is no reason these ingredients can not be experienced in fragrance also. Chanel’s Les Eaux De Chanel Paris-Edimbourg inspired by Coco Chanel’s frequent trips to Scotland where she would go for tweed-suited walks on the Scottish Highlands, is perfectly androgynous. This scent takes the green and herbaceous notes of a vivacious cypress and juniper heart accord, brightened with bergamot and lemon further than would ever be expected in a standard feminine release, but also making the woodier undertones of cedar and vetiver less aggressive than in a typical masculine. The result – if you are attracted to the idea of a foresty fragrance, like a stroll in nature – is a new departure in how genderless perfume is marketed. I hope this is a trend that continues as it really opens up new possibilities for everyone.
Spices are also eminently suitable for any individual, and have been used for millennia by men and women in most human cultures. Whether you are drawn to spicier fragrances is more a question of personality and temperament than your gender. The new warm, and welcomingly gingery sandalwood-ambroxan blend that is My New York by Bond No 9 celebrates this inclusivity without the heavy, ‘fur-coated diva’ of spiced orientals from the past. Lighter, spice perfumes such as Serge Lutens’ comforting nutmeg and clove-studded orange perfume Des Clous Pour Une Pelure or Heeley’s uplifting and zingy Gingembre, focus on one or two spices in a drier, less cluttered context that can suit any gender. Likewise, incense is wonderfully genderless because of its original, unearthly spiritual connotations: by its very nature, incense is unbodied – a perfume for the mind.
Long before the rise of gender-free notions, there were frangrances like CK One which can be worn by both men and women.
What do you think is the difference between these old-school unisex fragrances and the current gender-free fluid frangrances?
CK One was revolutionary in that it was a direct and controversial challenge to what had come before (the granite-jawed macho fragrances for men and the sweet, florid, big-haired glamorous silhouettes of women’s fragrances of the eighties). It scythed through the past and represented a brand new era with its clean, crisp, tropical fruit and synthetic musks that smelled of linen. You could almost argue it was anti-gender – making everyone smell like a freshly washed t-shirt.
The term ‘unisex’, in my view, feels slightly more limiting than ‘genderless’ or ‘gender fluid’, as unisex seems to mean something ‘meeting in the middle’: one sex — something that doesn’t offend anyone and is suitable for everybody. A fragrance that is ‘safe’. On the other hand, ‘gender fluid’ feels more adventurous and unafraid. You wear what you want, when you want, and it can cover a much wider range of olfactory characteristics. Men can wear flowers. Women can wear drier, darker olfactory accords based on woods and incense and spice.
I think the main difference between what has come before and the new genderless fragrances is that they don’t necessarily have to smell of citrus. Eaux de cologne such as Guerlain’s Eau De Cologne Impériale, created in 1860 and still in production – have always been considered unisex from the very beginning, bergamot, lemon, rosemary and neroli naturally suiting almost anyone. Audrey Hepburn is said to have worn Acqua Di Parma on a handkerchief: women are often erroneously assumed to want to smell of flowers, but in the 1960s, the men’s classic Eau Sauvage – a woody citrus chypre with notes of basil and jasmine – was so popular with women that Dior felt compelled to create a ‘female’ equivalent, Diorella – which I personally prefer and wear. The two are in some ways almost interchangeable.
I think it is important to remember that the last century’s gender divide in perfumery is a relatively recent phenomenon and is culture specific. Gender-free perfume has been the norm in many places around the world for millennia: flowers are for everyone. The very origins of flowers are bi-
gendered: In ancient Greek myths, many flowers – the narcissus, hyacinth, anemone, orchid, and dianthus (carnation) sprang from males being transformed into blooms, while the rose and the iris were female. In India and in Arab cultures, florals are considered entirely appropriate for men to wear; women have long worn perfumes based on oud, vetiver, and sandalwood. In a sense, in many countries, most perfume has naturally been gender-fluid without needing to be labelled as such.
Are there any up-and-coming genderless fragrances that you’re keeping your eye on? Please tell us your pick from the new products.
I am looking forward to smelling Dior Eden Roc on the air in Tokyo. This new release from Maison Dior is a very cool and atmospheric, saline scent that smells like sea air, with the faint scent of distant flowers floating on the breeze of the promenade. It is elegant and calming, and perfect for hot weather.
A Drop D’Issey is a tranquil flower – very pure and white as a freshly opened magnolia flower.
Diptyque’s Orphéon, celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the famous French perfume niche house – who have been ungendered in their perfumery since their first launch, L’Eau in 1968 – with gentle tobacco notes and cedarwood is very relaxing, almost like the hinoki soap you get at the onsen – the soft powdered ‘savon’ effect with wood; comfortable and grounding.
Another intriguing and enigmatic woody perfume that is perfect for a particular personality type than a gender (someone who is thoughtful, complicated, possibly slightly melancholic) is Byredo’s Mixed Emotions, which takes a fruity and hight pitched blackcurrant/cassis accord and blends it with smoky black tea notes, gradually deepening to a very distinctive woody note that really lingers in the mind.
Realistically speaking, here in Japan, people love traditional floral scents like Miss Dior. Would you please give you advice to the aspiring fragrance lovers in Japan, who are determined to take a step forward, how to make a smooth transition from these floral scents to the gender fluid ones? (ie to start wearing a new fragrance on specific parts of the body while still using the older one on other parts)
The first step is to go to the perfume counter with an open mind. Base your choices on your true instincts, not on what you think others expect of you. One definition of gender fluidity is the fact that you feel differently about yourself in relation to gender and how you want to present yourself depending on the day and your mood. At some times you might feel more feminine, at other times more masculine or simply human. Thus, it is not a question of having to give up your cherished, classic feminine or masculine favourites if they still work for you on particular occasions,
but expanding your scent consciousness and building your scent wardrobe to include the newer gender-free scents when you are feeling in the mood for something different.
It is not always necessary every time to actually put the perfume on skin if you are not completely comfortable with wearing perfume or worry about it being too strong. To experiment with this, I advise spraying some scent on a tissue, cotton wool or a handkerchief and putting it in the inner pocket of a coat or jacket or shirt, or even discreetly tucked away in an inner trouser pocket. This way, the scent still diffuses in the air around you subtly when you get on or off the train or are walking out in public, but you can also remove it when necessary if you feel it is too insistent.
In terms of layering, it can be quite interesting to mix and match, to play with scent and gender a little: for instance, wearing a woodier oud or patchouli on the body – perhaps a crème or oil or other product of your favorite scent under clothes, and then a complementary, lighter scent like a rose blend on the neck and wrists so that you emanate both simultaneously. By doing so, you are taking the concept of your own ‘personalized’ smell to another level as it will be completely your own.
To have more control over the timing and effect of your perfume, rather than spritzing on alcohol- based perfumes, which sometimes take a while to ‘settle’, a tip I would recommend is using roll-on balms, such as those available at Le Labo, which you can just touch on the back of your hand, the wrists, the collar bone, or the back of the neck before meeting someone for an immediate, but subtle, burst of scent. Bergamote 22 is a multifaceted and mood-boosting woody citrus that is an almost guaranteed crowdpleaser for last moment ‘touch ups’.
Lastly, what specific role do you think scents are playing the world during this COVID-19 pandemic?
It has been a stressful time, but perfume has been a form of escape. It is a proven fact that scent is mood-altering: sometimes we need to be taken out of ourselves when our circumstances are not ideal; to let our minds ‘float’ somewhere more fragrant and idealized – this is important in helping us to change how we feel. You can create your own ‘private space’ with a scent that you love, one that soothes frayed nerves and stimulates positivity. Also, as you can’t dress up as before or use make up in the same way (with most of the face covered), perfume is a way of still being able to express yourself when you do go outside, of augmenting your aura to appeal to to others. It’s a form of silent communication. Given the stress and fear of illness that have been felt by so many worldwide, smelling healthy – green, crisp scents, like the new gender-bending Hermès 24 with its bright notes of narcissus, rosewood and clary sage – are perfect if you want to present a fresh face to the world. They represent a new start. A refresh button.