Androgynous, emotive and layered: How to define modern male scent

Is emotion the inspiration for the future of male scents? The National dives into how they have evolved and what's next

Henry Jacques fragrance collection. Photo: Henry Jacques
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'I abandoned the idea of classifying perfumes by gender a long time ago,” says Anne-Lise Cremona, chief executive of luxury French perfume house Henry Jacques. To the perfumer, the biology worth considering when it comes to fragrance is the interaction of a scent with one's skin – and spirit.

“A perfume that is alive, with beautiful components, will always evolve on one's skin and blend with the person's personality,” she explains.

While a trend often associated with the big scents of the 1990s (looking at you, CK One), the invention of perfume actually has its origin in scents suitable for all. Taking lessons from past trends and moving forward, the future of male fragrance isn't a one-size-fits-all scent but instead pays homage to classical masculine aromas, from oud to spice, giving them a modern twist by subtly blending them with delicate botanical oils.

Central to the evolving trend is the role of emotion in the art of perfume making. In search of the answer, The National explores the rich history of perfume, shedding light on the factors shaping the future of masculine scents.

The ancient history of perfume

Fragrance dates back to the Ancient Egyptians, who, after inventing glass, could store pleasantly scented concoctions and use them for notable religious ceremonies and burials. Such fragrances were often mixed from ingredients such as frankincense or flowers, including lily and rose. The Ancient Greeks followed, as well as the Romans, who began to use perfumes more frequently. The Romans also invented aftershave, an antiseptic and anaesthetic mixture of medicinal herbs and spices applied by men after shaving to soothe the skin.

In the Middle East, perfumes have historically performed a crucial role in culture, with references to fragrances dating back to Babylonian Mesopotamia in approximately 1200BC. Indeed, according to cuneiform tablet records from that time, Tapputi, a perfume maker who worked in Babylon, is one of the world’s first recorded chemists. She is credited with developing advanced perfumery techniques using distillation, cold enfleurage extraction and solvents. Over the years, perfumers and chemists in the region innovated the fragrance industry with new techniques and different raw materials.

Europeans finally mastered perfumery in the 14th century. One of the first notable creations was Hungary water, a rosemary-scented alcohol-based perfume thought to have been commissioned by Queen Elisabeth of Hungary in about 1370. The fragrance became the blueprint for eau de toilette, and around this time, the popularity of perfumes surged, often being used to mask bad smells.

The gendering of fragrance

Throughout history, fragrances have often been genderless and typically reserved for the more wealthy. That was until the 20th century, when modern-day marketing began to dictate that certain scents were intended for men and others for women. The first fragrance created for and marketed specifically to men was created in 1934 by Ernest Daltroff, who turned to ingredients such as lavender and vanilla with a musky amber and cedar wood base for Pour Un Homme de Caron. This was followed by an early concoction from Acqua di Parma (Colonia), designed to be sprayed onto men’s handkerchiefs.

Later, in 1955, Chanel unveiled Pour Monsieur, making it the first fashion house to create a perfume specifically for men. Chanel was soon followed by others, with Dior’s Eau Sauvage launching in 1966, Paco Rabanne’s Pour Homme in 1973 and Gucci’s Pour Homme in 1976. The men’s fragrance market was booming, but it was an industry fuelled by marketing messages and a lifestyle imagined by luxury brands that dictated the kinds of scents to which men (and women) should be drawn.

Fragrance layering is the future of unisex scents

Today, however, industry trends are reverting back to the origin of this once precious commodity, as many brands drop the “for men” or “for women” titles, portraying a less commanding message with genderless or unisex fragrances.

That said, there are certainly fragrances with a more masculine appeal than others. The key ingredients in some of the genderless lines continue to mirror those of the male fragrances from the nineties and early 2000s, but the freedom of choice and expression is a shift perhaps dictated by a more savvy consumer.

Expanding on why genderless fragrance is the go-to at Henry Jacques, Cremona discusses the brand's Essences line of strong, pure fragrances that can be layered with Les Brumes, a collection of lighter mists. “It’s the ultimate refinement,” explains Cremona, who also believes that lifestyle or moments should dictate a person’s fragrance choices, not gender. “In perfumery, we can have different desires depending on life’s different moments. Personally, I love perfume containing rose on a man’s skin.” She adds that the brand’s latest launch, the perfume Rose Azur is an ideal choice for men, despite floral fragrances traditionally being directed towards women.

In the Middle East, fragrance remains significant, with many men experimenting with fragrance layering. Talha Kalsekar, founder of UAE perfume house Noya explains, “For men, woody and spicy notes have always been popular, but we’re noticing a surge in the use of unconventional botanicals and resinous ingredients that offer a unique signature.”

In Kalsekar’s opinion, one ingredient remains a cut above the rest: “Oud, for instance, continues to reign, especially in its more nuanced formulations, appealing to those seeking depth and sophistication.” A precious ingredient that is synonymous with the Middle East, oud has caught the eye (and nose) of international perfume houses, and their creations have taken the love for this woody ingredient global.

So much so that Louis Vuitton has dedicated an entire collection to oud and the art of layering it with its latest range, Pure Perfumes. The collection features highly concentrated bottles of oud, which are designed to be layered with each other or with other essences to create a unique personalised scent. Guerlain’s oud offering, on the other hand, has long been a key part of the house’s perfume collections, while Creed, one of the world’s oldest perfume brands, recently released Royal Oud.

The new wave of botanical fragrances for men is one of the most interesting olfactory trends of today, as it incorporates elements that have previously only been seen as feminine in their appeal. Ingredients such as rose, orange blossom, lavender, geranium and neroli are being used more and more in scents worn by men, blurring the lines between feminine and masculine. Fragrances are becoming bolder and more expressive, with a shift towards complex, multifaceted compositions that transcend traditional boundaries.

“In crafting masculine scents, I like to incorporate woods, spices and aromatic herbs – these create a robust but nuanced foundation,” Kalsekar tells The National. “Lately, I’ve been experimenting with unexpected notes like metallic or green accords to introduce an edge of modernity and surprise. I’m drawn to the chypre and fougère families for their classic masculinity. The former’s earthy-mossy heart, combined with citrus top notes, offers an elegant complexity, while the latter’s blend of lavender, oakmoss and coumarin brings a harmonious freshness that’s both invigorating and refined,” he adds.

Also exploring new frontiers in the world of men’s fragrance is Delphine Jelk, Guerlain’s master perfumer. With a rich history in men’s scents, Jelk has an immense legacy to uphold. But today, she finds herself embracing a more creative approach to fragrance rather than sticking to the expected. “I don’t want to follow trends. At Guerlain we do Guerlain.

“We want to be bold and audacious. My emotions and inspiration are guided by what I find beautiful. When I want to do something, I do it. I am very free in my creation,” she explains.

More men opting for notes with a narrative

Like her industry colleagues, Jelk has recently been experimenting with what previously may have been considered feminine ingredients to create unisex perfumes that she believes will be a perfect match for men in the Middle East. “Lately, I have created a fragrance from the essential oil of the orange flower. It’s of beautiful quality, coming from Morocco. I blend it with a special extract of turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, suede and vetiver. I think this fragrance could suit Arabic men very well. I know they are not typically into freshness [in scents], but as there is this contrast between freshness and warmth, I think it’s very interesting for this region,” she says.

Jelk acknowledges that this ingredient combination will not be for everyone. In Europe, for example, there is a tendency to turn to more aromatic, woody fragrances. But, she says, “Here [in the Middle East], it’s much more open, and I think that scents are so much part of the Arabic culture that people are very aware, they know exactly what they want, and they have an amazing taste. That’s why it’s also such an inspiring region for me because it’s much more open than what we see elsewhere.”

It seems that today we’ve moved far beyond the glitzy fragrance advertisements of the 1990s and 2000s. Men, especially in the Middle East, are more aware than ever that their fragrance choices should reflect them. “Apart from the olfactory profile, the narrative behind a fragrance is crucial. It should evoke emotion and tell a story that resonates with the wearer,” says Noya founder, Kalsekar.

His thoughts are reflected by Jelk, who believes that, ultimately, it is all about emotions and the story you want to tell. “There is no rule. It’s really about what you like and how you feel,” she says. “I admire people who wear the same fragrance forever because of this faithfulness that is really incredible and gives many memories to the people around it, but I’m really into the mood of experimenting with fragrance. I think it depends on how you dress, what you are doing and what day it is, but the most important thing is to have fun, get emotional and feel good from your choice of fragrance.”

Updated: May 18, 2024, 7:30 AM