Bottling Masculinity: Understanding Men’s Scents From Le Male to Axe

When Jean Paul Gaultier launched his Le Male perfume in 1995, the fragrance represented a daring take on masculinity for its time. The male in question is an object of campy eroticism, thanks in large part to its bottle: a headless torso decked in JPG’s signature marnière look with ambitious nether regions (no Ken doll groin here, thank you). Its advertising was, appropriately, cartoonishly hypersexual, selling both Le Male’s allure to women and a homoerotic sailor fantasy.

Does the actual scent of Le Male capture a decidedly male essence? That depends what you think a man should smell like. There is no scent or note that is inherently masculine or feminine, and our conception of what smells are appropriate for men versus women is more dependent on changing cultural norms than a fixed standard.

But gender can be a crucial overlay that brands can play with to tell a particular story or reach a particular market. Sometimes that results in a blockbuster fragrance like Le Male. And sometimes it results in Yankee Candle’s 2012 Man Candle collection, which included scents like “Man Town” and “Riding Mower” that “even the manliest, masculine man will enjoy.” (Yankee Candle did not return HYPEBEAST’s request for comment.)

“People smell with their eyes and their brains before they smell with their nose.”

“People smell with their eyes and their brains before they smell with their nose. And so much of what you perceive when you smell something is driven by what you see,” fragrance developer Ann Gottlieb told HYPEBEAST. Gottlieb has worked on fragrances for almost every corner of the market, including iconic designer perfumes like Marc Jacobs’ Daisy and Calvin Klein’s CK One, and mass-market creations for brands like Victoria’s Secret.

All scented products, ranging from mass-market deodorant to high-end perfume, use names and packaging to convey a message of gendered expectations. But as notions of grooming are already feminine by default, “men’s” products often have to push their gender to the forefront to get the menfolk on board. Or, as Twitter user Ron Iver says so eloquently, “Women get to smell like real things (vanilla, lavender) but men have to smell like concepts. What the f*ck is ‘cool sport rush.’” But the concept is as much the point as the smell. 1 of 4

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In addition to creating designer fragrances, Gottlieb has also worked extensively with Unilever, where she’s developed scents for one of the most entrenched male grooming brands out there: Axe. Axe might seem to exist in a world of its own with its infamous advertisements and association with high school locker rooms. But, as Gottlieb explains, the deodorant and grooming brand takes many of its cues from niche and high-end perfumes, and translates them into an approachable scent that feels at home in the drugstore aisle. “What has had tremendous impact on the fragrance market in general is the niche market, which is so heavy in the woody, oriental area,” she says of the evolution of male fragrances.

“Axe has always been a trickle-down concept, where all of the fragrances are based on fragrances in the men’s market,” Gottlieb adds. But Axe’s young consumers need a bit of easing into the more daring scents at the high-end of the perfume world. “The younger you are, the less you are eager to be an early adapter. So you want something that’s comfortable. Which is why as you go down from BYREDO, let’s say, to Axe, you see them getting easier and easier,” she says. And even when Axe does go for the daring concept, like its Sneakers & Cookies deodorant and body spray, Gottlieb says the mix of rubber with a baked good is safer in execution than the name would imply.

But back to Ron Iver’s question: what is cool sport rush? What does that, or the standard male smells like a prototypical Axe spray even smell like?

“There are two ingredients that are found in almost every single classic [Axe] scent. One of them is called dihydromyrcenol. And the other is called coumarin,” Gottlieb explains. “If you smelled dihydromyrcenol on its own, it would immediately take you to the men’s counter, because so many fragrances have it as a note. And the younger the consumer, the more important that those ingredients are represented, because it’s a very comfortable men’s fragrance.”

Coumarin is a sweet, warm fragrance compound sometimes used to evoke a tonka bean note, and is found in everything from Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle to the aforementioned Le Male, and Axe’s Apollo. Dihydromyrcenol meanwhile is the more bracing citrus-like note you’re likely familiar with if you’ve smelled any popular men’s fragrance of the past few decades, like Dior Sauvage or Bleu de Chanel, or Axe’s Phoenix.

But the conception of what a comfortably male fragrance is, or the idea that scents might be marketed separately to women and men at all, is a fairly recent invention. “When you really dig into the history of gender and perfume, whether it’s men’s perfumes or women’s, it’s a history of gender fluidity no matter where you look,” explains Barbara Herman, author of Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume and founder of ERIS PARFUMS.

Herman says most scent historians point to Guerlain’s Jicky, an 1889 release which was one of the first fragrances to use synthetics, as the first modern perfume. Guerlain initially marketed the complex scent, with citrus notes like bergamot followed by tonka bean and an overdose of civet, to women, but it was male consumers who took to the unusual and powerful scent. “You could say it was the first gender-fluid fragrance. And then from the popularity of Jicky, Guerlain and other brands started realizing, you know, maybe we should just start making separate perfumes for men. The more you can make in different categories, the more money you can make.” Herman says.

“When you really dig into the history of gender and perfume… it’s a history of gender fluidity no matter where you look.”

Jicky’s success inspired Guerlain to launch Mouchoir de Monsieur in 1904, this time marketed explicitly to men. The inspiration for the scent (whose name translates loosely to “Mister’s Handkerchief”) was the 18th or 19th century dandy figure, who typically sprayed his handkerchiefs with perfume, somewhat the equivalent of the modern idea of a metrosexual. “This was somebody who put a lot of importance in clothes and perfume, and the way they looked and aesthetics,” Herman says. “So one of the first masculine fragrances on the market was inspired by kind of a queer figure.”

And it wasn’t only men’s scents of the early 20th century that challenged modern gender notions. Take Chanel’s powerful leathery scent Cuir de Russie, for example, which was launched in 1924 and marketed to the woman who cares more about smoking cigarettes and riding horses than seducing men (or maybe she just really likes the outdoors and hanging out with her lady friends).

Citing research from perfumer Antoine Lie, whom she works with on her ERIS line, Herman says the latter half of the 20th century saw a shift in how scents were sold to men. “There was a shift in marketing in the 20th century from fragrances for men being about aftershave and cleaning and wellness and all that, to being more marketed as a seductive thing that you could put on,” she says, noting Guerlain’s 1965 Habit Rouge, as the first oriental marketed to men, with spicy and floral notes that today are more associated with women’s fragrances.

“It’s not like they’re using notes that aren’t in women’s perfume. They’re just amping them up. And bulking them up. They’re like women’s perfumes on steroids.”

“It’s more in the ’70s and ’80s that the idea of what a macho fragrance is gets amped up and I think determines what we think of as masculine,” she says. “You get these really intense aromatic, woody, leathery, spicy fragrances, but it’s not like they’re using notes that aren’t in women’s perfume. They’re just amping them up. And bulking them up. They’re like women’s perfumes on steroids.”

That idea of powerful scents transforming men into objects of desire is still alive and well, perhaps most predominantly in Axe, whose ads often turn women into sexual pursuers driven mad by men’s overdose of fragrance (though it’s also launched ads that more explicitly challenge toxic masculinity, such as its above “is it ok for guys…” campaign). And certainly there’s no shortage of fragrance ads that turn women into the sexual pursuit, either. But there’s selling sex along a gendered divide, and then there are fragrances that take the notions of gender and sex to their most extreme and literal conclusion.

Earlier this year, Gwyneth Paltrow blessed the world with her This Smells Like My Vagina candle. Made in collaboration with perfume brand Heretic, the candle mixes floral notes like geranium and rose with bergamot and cedar. It was followed by the This Smells Like My Orgasm candle (a fruitier concoction with grapefruit and cassis) this summer, and even a This Smells Like My Vagina rollerball perfume.

But provocative names aside, Gwyneth’s candles, with their sophisticated but familiar notes of neroli or ambrette seeds, are rather tame when compared to Etat Libre D’Orange’s seminal 2006 creation: Sécrétions Magnifiques. Created by Antoine Lie, the eau de parfum aims to bottle a post-coital smell of blood-pumping adrenaline, sweat and, yes, semen. It is, as one reviewer put it, the Pink Flamingos of perfume: you love its subversive depravity or you want to wash its memory from your brain. Lie and Etat Libre D’Orange followed Sécrétions Maginifique with 2007’s Tom of Finland perfume; made in collaboration with the late artist’s foundation, the fragrance has similarly erotic inspirations though it makes male sexuality a touch more palatable, with aldehydic and leathery notes and our old friend, coumarin.

Are these scents for men? Maybe, but who cares? Niche brands like Etat Libre D’Orange are less inclined to market their products strictly by gender. But that doesn’t mean niche houses don’t use concepts of masculinity and femininity to develop their creations.

In 2017, Herman and Lie launched Mx. for ERIS PARFUMS, named for the nonbinary title. The perfume doesn’t aim to be devoid of gender, but mixes notes that play across the spectrum.

Eris Parfums

“With unisex fragrances, there’s this idea of neutrality, right, like, ‘Don’t make anything that’s too feminine or masculine,’ or that’s not coded as feminine or masculine so that anyone can wear it,” Herman explains. But Mx. uses both codes, with spicy notes like saffron and ginger with woodsy cedar and vetiver, and a touch of gourmand in the form of cacao and an animalic note of castoreum. “[There’s] the sense that it was not neutral, but playing all sides.”

But can notes coded as feminine ever cross over fully into the masculine realm? As the nose behind Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, Francis Kurkdjian knows his way around masculine perfumes. His newest creation, for his namesake brand Maison Francis Kurkdjian, returns to the rose note at the heart of his popular 2014 release À La Rose, but presents the classically feminine flower as a men’s scent. The result is L’Homme À La Rose, which launched earlier this month.

“The notes themselves do not define the gender of the fragrance. It is all about how you blend them to each other.”

“I wanted to create a rose scent for men that was truly recognizable as a rose, and defining my interpretation of what masculinity means right now,” Kurkdjian says of the scent, which features both damask and centifolia roses, as well as grapefruit and an amber woodsy accord.

The French perfumer often experiments with variations on the same notes to create a men’s version and women’s version, like with Amyris femme and Amyris homme, or to express the concept of gender fluidity, as with his Gentle Fluidity line. “The notes themselves do not define the gender of the fragrance. It is all about how you blend them to each other,” Kurkdjian explains. “Think about silk as a fabric and a material. It is either feminine or masculine depending on how you cut it: a dress, or a tie.”

Maison Francis Kurkdjian

It’s not as though men’s scents never used rose before, he adds, but the note is often obscured by heavier scents like oud or leather. But L’Homme À la rose, in both its composition and its name, doesn’t try to hide its rosy core. “It is all in the name,” he says. “This is the first step in my process, before I start creating the fragrance. The name of the perfume is more than half of the job, it’s very important.”

Would men be willing to try a rose-centric scent if the “L’Homme” name didn’t give them permission? Perhaps, but only time will tell how perceptions of fragrance change overtime. Gottlieb cites a lecture she attended from a former head buyer of fragrance for Macy’s, back when in-person events were still the norm, on how the industry may evolve. “In 10 years, she envisions that there would be one big fragrance counter that would appeal to everybody,” Gottlieb says. “And certainly had COVID not happened, and looking at the way fragrance is going, that seemed like it could have been a reality.”

But wherever our gendered perceptions of smell go, part of the fun of fragrances is the ease with which they allow for gender-bending. Herman shares that macho icons Marlon Brando and Keith Richards both allegedly wore scents designed for women: Balmain’s Vent Vert and Jean Patou’s Joy, respectively. And we must say there’s something delightful about picturing Brando bathing in ultra-feminine jasmine and rose, rather like imagining what a sailor in a skin-tight striped shirt might smell like.
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