📷 Image credit: Calvin Klein.
Remember when everyone smelled like CK One in the 1990s? Well unisex fragrance is back. And this time it’s even more democratic: exploring neutrality and fluidity in gender identity, via scents that reflect the modern mood.
Fragrance has been categorised by gender for generations: flowery, fruity scents for women, woody leathery notes for men. Stereotyped? Yes. But, as times change and equality is top of the agenda, there’s now a definite move towards gender fluid, neutral and unisex fragrance.
Going back to medieval times, scents were made with natural ingredients and worn by all, either to mask body odour or, as a form of honour – it’s thought that knights wore the same scent as their female partners going into battle. Fast forward to the late 20th century, and a clear male-female split had formed in the perfume world, with gendered marketing an obvious, easy-win for sales – think Gucci’s Envy for women, and Davidoff’s Cool Water, definitely for men. However, there were still some disruptors.
“With CK One, it is this feeling of freshness that everyone has grabbed without thinking about the distinction between men and women. It is this emotional freshness that prevails.”
In 1994, Spanish perfumer Alberto Morillas and French perfumer Harry Fremont launched CK One: with its utilitarian bottle and clean scent, it was one of the few products at the time created to appeal to both men and women. It democratized scent and, like Kate Moss, cargo pants and grunge, defined the decade: everyone smelled like CK One. “With CK One, it is this feeling of freshness that everyone has grabbed without thinking about the distinction between men and women. It is this emotional freshness that prevails,” says Morillas. The concept of a unisex fragrance does, however, raise the question of whether that means genderless? It’s a fluid definition.
📷 Image credit: Francis Kurkdjian.
Gender fluid vs gender neutral
“Unisex perfume exists already. It’s nothing new. But fluidity doesn’t mean genderless. We have to be very specific in our vocabulary,” explains French perfumer and founder of eponymous fragrance house, Francis Kurkdjian. “Gender fluidity means one to another, to be able to transition in a fluid manner. This is very very different [to a unisex fragrance].”
This non binary, flexible approach is distilled into the bottles of Kukdjian’s recent creation, Gentle Fluidity. Two eaux de parfums, with two different olfactory profiles, yet drawing on the same notes: juniper, nutmeg, coriander, musks, ambery wood and vanilla. The two formulas were created to emphasize the feminine over the masculine and vice versa by overdosing and underdosing some ingredients, shifting the balance to reflect shifts in personality and mood on any given day. A “gentle fluidity” between gender identities – it does what it says on the bottle.
📷 Image credit: Thomas Goldblum.
Kurkdjian starts planning for each new project four to five years ahead, which takes the inception of Gentle Fluidity back to the start of the #MeToo movement. During his research, he visited UCLA in Los Angeles, and marvelled at the 19 different categories for gender identification. The conversation around identity and perception – spearheaded by millenials and Gen Z – added to his inspiration. “I’m thinking of Cara Delevingne, Millennials, they’re saying, ‘I decide what I do with my body, how to identify my sexuality’.”
Fellow disruptor and founder of cult Swedish fragrance brand Byredo, Ben Gorham adds: “The personal chemistry connected to the lifestyle of individuals can have a direct effect on how a perfume smells on skin. In my opinion, to generalize it to genders is not accurate enough. I don’t usually consider who will be wearing our creations in my creative process; it is more of a personal expression to me.”
📷 Image credit: Tom Daxon.
Male vs. female
For fragrances that do still sit within male and female categories, there’s a wealth of subtle nuance that goes beyond the aforementioned gender stereotypes of floral vs. woody. “There are always feminine notes masquerading in male scents,” says Kurkdjian. “One example that not many people are aware of is orange blossom, which is so common in men’s perfume – the way the cologne accords are mixed creates a freshness that works for men. Another is lily of the valley, many men’s perfumes feature this note, but brands don’t often claim it up front. When targeting a male audience, there’s a tendency to remove the notes that might be perceived as feminine; and the same applies to fruit, for men they have to be harsher and green,” he continues.
“There are always feminine notes masquerading in male scents. One example [...] is orange blossom, which is so common in men’s perfume – the way the cologne accords are mixed creates a freshness that works for men."
Interestingly, you’ll find that women tend to lean towards wearing men’s scents: think Dior’s Fahrenheit, a distinctly assertive woody scent; or Acqua di Parma cologne-like zestiness that brings to mind linen suits, panama hats and leather brogues. Men wearing women’s scents is a little more rare, although not unheard of – perfumer Tom Daxon recalls a male friend who used to douse himself in Chanel No. 5.
Daxon goes on to say: “I always move to a clothing analogy – women wearing an old cologne is like wearing a vintage Burberry trench that might be oversized because it’s a guy’s one. Guys rarely do the opposite, it’s would be an avant garde thing. Men’s fashion moves at a glacial pace by comparison to women’s. It comes down to very small details. A shirt is a shirt to a large extent, whereas female fashion is far more adventurous. A woman might think nothing of her dad’s cologne, but the same doesn’t apply necessarily to men’s scent.”
📷 Image credit: Le Labo.
Personality vs. sexuality
Perfume has forever been linked to the concept of reflecting who you are. Or who you want to be perceived as. Whether it’s to be more desirable or powerful, to evoke the age-old interpretations of masculine and feminine, or something altogether more neutral: the scent you’re wearing will complete the overall projection. “Wearing the right scent – as wearing the right clothing or the right makeup – is you choosing what you want to be, feel, be perceived as on that particular day. And that is all about emotions,” says Le Labo co-founder Fabrice Penot.
Post #MeToo, the move away from sexualisation towards neutrality in fragrance has been clear. The mood is equal parts empowered, fresh and perhaps subconsciously, a little incognito. An olfactory cleansing of the palette?
“Wearing the right scent – as wearing the right clothing or the right makeup – is you choosing what you want to be, feel, be perceived as on that particular day. And that is all about emotions."
However, sex and attraction have traditionally played an integral role in the perfume world. American activist and author, Helen Keller once said: “Masculine exhalations are, as a rule, stronger, more vivid, more widely differentiated than those of women. In the odour of young men there is something elemental, as of fire, storm, and salt sea. It pulsates with buoyancy and desire. It suggests all the things strong and beautiful and joyous and gives me a sense of physical happiness.” It’s this sexually charged emotion which is so often captured in more masculine fragrance.
📷 Image credit: Le Labo.
Similarly, for women, certain floral notes are associated with physical pleasure and seduction – particularly tuberose, which has a complex history. In the Renaissance, young girls were forbidden to walk through the gardens at night as the scent of tuberose was thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac; the Victorians attributed tuberose with ‘dangerous pleasure’; while in the Indian Ayurvedic tradition, tuberose is thought to increase a person’s capacity for emotional depth; and for traditional Hawaiian weddings, the bride often wears a crown of tuberose.
“Perfumery has to be sexual to me, it has to create an attraction, an addiction,” says Penot. “But doesn’t need to be gender specific – we are more thinking of the souls. In fact, our Santal and Rose scents are worn by men and women, 50/50. We don’t approach gender in a traditional way at Le Labo – that’s not how we see the world, that’s not how we see perfumery.” Instead, he explains, they see perfume as art. “Would you ask an art gallery to change their layout to have better gender fluidity?”
📷 Image credit: Byredo.
So, who is buying what?
The move towards neutrality and fluidity has seen a decline in women’s fragrance launches the world over. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, between 2014 and 2018, unisex fragrances launches in Europe increased from 15 per cent to 18 per cent of the overall market; while the launch of women’s fragrances declined by 5 per cent during the same period. On a global scale, between 2014 and 2018, unisex fragrances increased from 12 per cent of overall launches to 14 per cent, at the expense of women's fragrances, which saw a decline from 66 to 62 per cent.
“People are still being ‘programmed’ by the advertising of large beauty conglomerates, so we still see a number of people approaching fragrance in a conventional way.”
“People are still being ‘programmed’ by the advertising of large beauty conglomerates, so we still see a number of people approaching fragrance in a conventional way,” says Gorham. “At the same time, I think now more than ever, the lines are becoming blurred and people are buying and wearing fragrances that they feel speak to them in a personal way.”
With this fundamental shift in our approach to fragrance, brands are set to really evolve. “What we notice now is that younger customers don’t place as much importance on perfume as earlier generations,” Gorham continues. “This will force brands to rewrite their narratives and evolve their products substantially if they hope to stay relevant.”
📷 Image credit Getty Images.
6 perfumes changing the conversation:
Francis Kurkdjian, Gentle Fluidity
Two different scents – that draw from the same ingredients including juniper berry, nutmeg, coriander and musks – balanced so that one highlights the masculine notes and the other, the feminine.
Le Labo, Tonka 25
Another masterpiece in juxtapositions of sweetness and darker tones, softness and strength – a true feminine/masculine scent.
A zesty, warm scent layering fresh mandarin and lemon over soothing musk notes to recall the hedonism of summer.
Tom Daxon, Iridium
Marrying woody musk with juniper, iris and cedar, this is a perfect contradiction of old-fashioned soft iris notes with tougher undertones.
Acqua di Parma, Cologne
The ultimate gender neutral cologne. Light citrus, lavender and rose with sandalwood and patchouli base notes.
Chanel, Les Eaux Collections
Zesty, clean scents inspired by Deauville, Venice and Biarritz, with clean citrus notes and softer florals that are light and green.
Source: Vogue Australia
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