Boy Smells?

A thoughtful discourse on the intricacies of men's fragrances today.

A bottle of men's perfume on the beach
Words by Haydn Williams
Oct 11, 2022 

Haydn Williams is a freelance writer, blogger and podcaster. He writes regularly about fragrance and gifting for titles such as Grazia, Closer and Rakes Sense. In 2022 he launched a podcast about fragrance, grooming and self-care aimed at men called ‘Man In The Mirror’. Haydn was the recipient of the ‘Rising Star’ award at the 2022 Fragrance Foundation Awards.

Explore the world of men's fragrances and how to navigate an increasingly complex layer of marketing being deployed by many popular fragrance brands today.

It used to be a lot simpler, didn’t it? Our Dads had soap-on-a-rope and a bottle of Brut, and they were all set. All that ‘fancy stuff’ in the bathroom and on the dressing table was the domain of women. Things changed irrevocably in the 90s. It was the era of the ‘new man’, of caring more about our appearance, of Beckham in a sarong and CK One. Since then the pendulum has continued to swing back and forth, rejecting what went before and forging something new. So where are we now?

Oli Wheeler wearing men's perfume for Humanery

Hopefully in 2022 we are in a more accepting and enlightened place. Things that would have been frowned upon or marginalised in previous decades are beginning to be accepted as part of the mainstream. People are more free to be who they want to be, regardless of sexuality or gender - but where does that leave us in terms of how brands frame masculinity, especially in the context of fragrance? Is the categorisation of men’s and women’s scents becoming redundant, or are we still divided along gender lines and reliant on outdated marketing messages and advertising tropes?

One thing that has developed over the last twenty years is the growth of the niche fragrance houses like Frederic Malle, Maison Francis Kurkdjan and Le Labo. These players have changed the game and are generally less prescriptive in terms of gender - leaning more on the quality of the raw materials, narrative and uniqueness. This ties in with other areas of our lives such as food, clothing and other beauty/grooming products where we want to know much more about the provenance, the producer and sustainability. The idea that ‘scent has no gender’ has gained traction in recent times. Even a brand like Acqua di Parma, which might seem very male-oriented, studiously avoids defining their products by gender. Instead they focus on the highly appealing nature of the Italian lifestyle, luxury and craftsmanship.

What role does gender play in fragrance?

We’re a long way from gender disappearing from fragrance altogether and there are some niche brands that still differentiate in a binary way. For example, ’Aventus’ from Creed definitely (and very successfully) targets men - and the description is all about a celebration of ‘power, strength and success.’ There are also U.K. brands such as ADAM Grooming Atelier, Murdock London and Captain Fawcett that have made the successful move from grooming into colognes and fragrances. It makes sense for them to aim predominantly at men, as their origins and expertise are in barber shops and hair & grooming products.

One look around a high street chemist or department store would certainly confirm that the ‘designer’ fragrances are still categorised as men’s OR women’s - and kept in sections that never the twain shall meet. I can’t see these fragrance aisles going ‘gender neutral’ any time soon, for the simple reason that the brands are often the trigger to purchase, rather than the scents themselves. We know what to expect from designer houses like Ralph Lauren, Chanel and Diesel as most of them have their roots in fashion and popular culture. The brands and the marketing often sit in front of the ‘juice’, taking the lead and giving us our cues. 

It’s worth saying that fragrance is a tricky thing to advertise and market. You can’t smell it through the screen, the page or via the packaging. I mean, I’m not saying anything new here, but there is a massive challenge in encouraging consumers to buy something that they can’t see and can’t experience unless they sniff it. It’s notoriously difficult to find the right words to describe scent, and when brands do, their temptation is to launch into florid prose that can end up saying and meaning nothing. There’s a hilarious Twitter account called @PerfumeAds that satirises the genre perfectly, and is well worth checking out to prove that point. 

Brands fall back on things that we can easily understand - Hollywood stars, models, fancy locations, sports cars, wild animals - visual shortcuts that signify quality, luxury and good living. Does this work anymore? In an era of hyper-personalisation and user-generated content - is my definition of a cool, successful man the same as yours? Probably not. So, I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the brands trying to navigate this ever-changing and treacherous landscape. 

Brad Pitt for Chanel No 5

Image Source: Entertainment Weekly

Fragrance should be a celebration of sensory pleasure and enjoyment

There’s also the issue of what the brand is actually trying to say to us men. Again, if you go back 30 or 40 years the marketing messages were disarmingly simple: Man wears aftershave, man attracts woman, woman falls for nice-smelling man, sparks fly, the end. You can see why this might be trickier territory now. It’s (quite rightly) problematic to link scent with sexual allure, and it also risks narrowing the lens onto just heterosexual couples. However, the byproduct of this is that modern marketing communications often end up being so bland or obscure that they are rendered virtually meaningless. 

I’m not advocating the end of gender in fragrance - that would be unrealistic and probably as likely as the end of gender in clothes! There are consumers that feel confident and engaged enough to buy bottles based on fragrance notes or favourite perfumers and that’s great. But, there’s a big section of the market who buy infrequently or who buy as gifts, and they are looking for helpful signals based on packaging, logos, visuals and advertising. What I would like to see is the end of the tired formula of A-listers and male models on TV ads making generic proclamations like “I’m free!”? Couldn’t we hope to see people in the campaigns that are a better reflection of our diverse society, telling stories and using visuals that actually mean something, and speak of human connection? I, for one would love to see a more nuanced depiction of what it means to be a man today - and one that doesn’t just fall back on limiting ‘alpha’ type characteristics of manhood.  

Perfume should celebrate sensory pleasure and enjoyment, not snobbery, elitism or discrimination. It should be for everyone. If wearing ‘Aventus’ makes you feel good, then that’s the one for you. Equally, if you love the smell of roses and want to wear a floral fragrance then more power to you. It’s time to (ahem) think outside the box - and the advertising. It’s 2022, it’s simple. If you like the smell of it - wear it.

Featured Products In Humanery's Curated Fragrances Collection

Haeckels Reculver / GPS 12’ 0”E Parfum
Haeckels Reculver / GPS 12’ 0”E Parfum

Haeckels Reculver / GPS 12’ 0”E Parfum

Natural Scent with Salty-sweet Floral Notes + Long-lasting
£160.00
Acqua di Parma Sandalo Eau de Parfum
Acqua di Parma Sandalo Eau de Parfum
Acqua di Parma Sandalo Eau de Parfum
Acqua di Parma Sandalo Eau de Parfum

Acqua di Parma Sandalo Eau de Parfum

Long lasting luxurious perfume with notes of sandalwood and bergamot
£163.00
Acqua di Parma Colonia Futura Eau de Cologne
Acqua di Parma Colonia Futura Eau de Cologne
Acqua di Parma Colonia Futura Eau de Cologne
Acqua di Parma Colonia Futura Eau de Cologne

Acqua di Parma Colonia Futura Eau de Cologne

£116.00
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum
Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum

Captain Fawcett Maharajah Eau De Parfum

Award-Winning Fragrance with Exotic Scent, Inspired by India
£68.00
Saunders & Long Q Eau de Toilette-Humanery
Saunders & Long Q Eau de Toilette-Humanery

Saunders & Long Q Eau de Toilette

Luxury Scent Set nfused with Notes of Pepper, Vetiver and Patchouli
£195.00
Haeckels Botany Bay / GPS 26' 3
Haeckels Botany Bay / GPS 26' 3

Haeckels Botany Bay / GPS 26' 3"E Parfum

Fresh, Light Fragrance + Inspired by the Kentish Coast
£160.00
ADAM Grooming Atelier Eau De Parfum Anatolia-Humanery
ADAM Grooming Atelier Eau De Parfum Anatolia-Humanery
ADAM Grooming Atelier Eau De Parfum Anatolia-Humanery
ADAM Grooming Atelier Eau De Parfum Anatolia-Humanery
ADAM Grooming Atelier Eau De Parfum Anatolia-Humanery
ADAM Grooming Atelier Eau De Parfum Anatolia-Humanery

ADAM Grooming Atelier Eau De Parfum Anatolia

£75.00
Pomp & Co. No. 17 Parfum
Pomp & Co. No. 17 Parfum

Pomp & Co. No. 17 Parfum

The Signature Scent
£49.60

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