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The Sweet Smells of Success

Men's Colognes Have Grown Up and So Has the Way They Sell the Smell
Kimberly Cihlar
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

(continued from page 1)

Historically, there's a fairly recent reason American men may have veered from fragrance in the past. In the early days of puritanical America, soap, water and fragrance were considered reprehensible and condemned by the community. If you follow your nose back to when fragrance first became part of society, however, you'd probably find the primordial version of today's aromatherapy being exercised around the cave man's campfire. That was when oils and animal fat became recognized for their skin-healing capabilities; almond, olive and sesame oils all provided a pleasing aroma, as well as therapy.

As man progressed, so did his desire for scent. Some historians claim that wars have been caused by antagonistic friction between cultures with "incompatible smells." Scent is referred to throughout the Bible, most often as incense. It may have weighed in as the first Christmas present as the Three Wise Men of the East traveled afar to bestow the gift of frankincense and myrrh on the Christ Child. The Egyptians and Greeks believed perfume cured illnesses. And a popular Latin proverb translates as, "Never think of leaving perfume or wine to your heir. Administer these to yourself and let him have your money."

The birth of the classic fragrance form--cologne--can be traced back as far as the early- to mid-1700s. Legend has it that a certain Johan Paul Feminis, traveling from Italy to Cologne, in what is now Germany, ran across a down-on-his-luck monk, took him to Cologne and nursed him back to health. The monk gratefully gave him the recipe for eau admirable, supposedly the precursor to eau de cologne, a formula Feminis manufactured and sold in Cologne. Of course, there are--as there always are with legends--other versions. One involves Johann Maria Farina, a spice and extracts merchant from Cologne, who supposedly spilled a collection of essential oils and created an appealing, if serendipitous scent.

In the nascent days of cologne, a typical formula mixed lemon, bergamot, lavender, and citrus oils to achieve its nose. Similar recipes remain today. The scent 4711, which is still sold, was created in 1772 as "the original eau de cologne refresher." It combines "sandalwood oil from India" for an exotic note, attar of roses from Bulgaria and vetiver oil from Haiti for a "delicate spring-grass freshness."

Cologne was adopted by French troops fighting in Germany in the eighteenth century. They brought it home to the great approval of their famously soap-and-water-phobic countrymen. Scent reached a saturation point with the mid-eighthteenth-century court of Louis XV, when men and women switched their scents several times a day and even dipped their hankies in them as a refuge when the odious odors of everyday life deluged them. Supposedly, Napoleon slapped on some 60 bottles of cologne each month and always went to battle with supplies of his favorite fragrance. Across the channel, a London-based barber had established a thriving fragrance business for his clientele, introducing his Penhaligon's Hammam Bouquet in 1872. This status scent is still made today from his original formula, available only at exclusive retail shops.

Enlightenment of the scents for the American man came with the introduction of Canoe ("Can You Canoe?"), Old Spice and Dunhill for Men in the 1930s. While these were all rugged scents, the delicate trap was set and men liked the bait they smelled. From 1949 on, fragrant gentlemen gave off whiffs of fresh chypre from English Leather, and citrus and spice from Givenchy. In the '70s, designers began addressing the male counterpart of the fragrance market, and macho scents like Halston Z-14, Geoffrey Beene's Grey Flannel and Ralph Lauren's Polo were hits. Aramis turned men's fragrance marketing in a more sophisticated direction with its depiction of smart banter between Ted Danson in evening clothes and a forgotten beauty at an elegant party.

As designers stuck their noses into the fragrance business, scent and marketing trends evolved. Among the most recent ones were the shared, or unisex, juices, created so you and your spouse could spritz the same scent (although scents smell different on each individual due to unique ph levels and oil concentrations). Now fragrance has gone the full locker-room, boys-club route with sports-influenced male fragrances.

Furthermore, these new trends are smelling sweet to the industry as a whole. The U.S. men's fragrance business is airing expected sales figures for this year near $1.5 billion in sales from the approximately 35.3 million men, according to one study, who buy and use fragrance. And that, as the saying goes, makes scents.

Kimberly Cihlar is a freelance fashion writer who lives in New York City..


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