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The Sweet Smells of Success

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

It's the middle of the afternoon, on a crowded city sidewalk. A swank, suave young Wall Street type careers by a gorgeous young lady, who faints dead away in the street. A moment later, the scenario is reenacted--same Romeo, different girl, same unsettling effect.What has caused each victim's vapors?

If you believe Madison Avenue's television hype from 20 odd years ago, it was the smell of the gentleman in question--well, more accurately his Hai Karate aftershave.

A very effective marketing scheme for its time, if only about as subtle as a martial arts blow to the head. Today, the arsenal of scents available to man in his olfactory assault on the fairer sex has not only grown, but been refined. Where once men tossed odorific grenades, they now wield weapons capable of eliciting subtle emotions. At least that's the promise of the profusion of recent designer-driven fragrances for men with names such as Envy, Extreme Polo Sport, Contradiction, Good Life and Opium.

It used to be enough to slap on some Hai Karate, add zest to your sideburns with Dad's Old Spice or dab a lemony, woodsy or soapy, but always masculine, cologne discreetly on the middle of your pocket square after the board meeting. The thinking was: real men don't smell--at least, not too good and especially not too often. Fragrance was "just the facts, ma'am"--the daily ritual normally worn as aftershave or deodorant, or, possibly, as an extravagant luxury, cologne on Saturday nights out. Now, scents for men come in a slew of different fragrances and packages.

While women have the advantage of possessing a better sense of smell than men, now they don't necessarily smell better, as the range of scented products with which men may splash, spritz, douse, roll, sprinkle, smooth, bathe, soften and pamper themselves widens. Jean Jacques Rousseau penned smell as "the sense of imagination." Fragrance can evoke memories, tickle a nostalgia for past events, people, places; it can excite and exhilarate; it can medicate the mind and soothe the psyche. Today's American man is waking up to this age-old concept.

The turning point for men's acceptance of fragrance, according to Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, which promotes the cause of good scents, came with the physical fitness revolution and the focus on sport lifestyles. "That gave a different perspective to smell and scent that was beyond fragrance, beyond sex appeal," she says. "Psychologically, men don't look at fragrance as a fashion accessory; either it makes them feel successful or energetic. Basically, men like things that do something for them."

One "something" that a scent packaged in The Gucci Envy for Men collection as a face energizer claims to do is provide a "pick-me-up for the face when there are signs of fatigue, from an all-night flight or all-night party." They were "formulated," the hype goes, "to address specific needs of men on the move." As Tom Ford, Gucci clothing designer-cum-fragrance connocter, has quipped, "Who has time? We all need quick fixes to look fabulous."

But that is not the most arcane of the promises of fragrance producers. Givenchy's new cologne, ¼, celebrates the sex appeal of brilliant men (e.g. Albert Einstein), pushing "intelligence as the new seducer." Ralph Lauren's male version of his women's perfume, Romance, credits men with an appreciation for something subtler than the old standby of male fragrance pitches: sex.

Scent has always triggered an emotion in humans and animals, much of it sexual. Marketing and advertising have long understood that and underscored the concept in a very obvious way. The Golden Rule was "sex sells." Remember "All my men wear English Leather...or they wear nothing at all!" purred by the TV blonde? That lesson hasn't been forgotten. Even as Gucci products are hawked as pick-me-ups, the com-pany reminds us that they make a "masculine fragrance that screams sex."

Fragrance has always been thought of as a sexual enhancer, something with which to attract the opposite sex. That theory actually does hold water (scented, naturally). Scientists have ascertained that all animals produce pheromones, or scents in the form of a chemical substance, designed to stimulate behavioral responses--usually some form of attraction or repulsion--within the same species. As the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed, "You could never have a relationship with someone whose smell you didn't like."

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..


A fragrance comprises three components. Top notes are released when the fragrance first touches your skin; the body reveals itself when the fragrance starts to mix with your body chemistry (about 10 minutes after application), and the bottom note, is the final expression of the fragrance as the scent becomes yours. The most popular colognes combine some of the following scents or fragrance blends:

Chypre A fragrance blend with a heavy, dry scent. Sometimes characterized as a leather scent. Typically composed of some of the following: oakmoss, patchouli, bergamot, labdanum and sandalwood. In women's scents rose and/or cassie achieve floral notes in this blend. Citrus adds a lift to fragrances with this base. May have a tobacco note, as in Cigar Aficionado cologne. Also found in Aramis, Salvador Dali and Dunhill.

Citrus Popular as top notes, with their fresh, clean, sharp citrus scents. Derived from the oils of lemon, lime, tangerine, bitter orange and bergamot trees. Found in Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet, 4711 Eau de Cologne and CK one.

Oriental Exotic smelling, oriental scents often blend nutmeg from the West Indies, cinnamon from Asia, clove bud oil from Zanzibar, bay oil from the West Indies and basil from the Mediterranean. Patchouli oil, from leaves grown in India, British Malaya, Sumatra and South America, impart a musty note and a sweet, herbaceous, spicy, woodsy-balsamic odor. Carnation, ginger and lavender are also used. Found in Jaipur Homme, Joop! for Men, Gucci Envy, Tiffany for Men, Opium for Men, Le Male and Contradiction for Men.

Fougere This fern or forest note comes from lavendar from the South of France, labdanum resin from Spain, coumarin taken from the bean of tonka trees grown in Venezula, bergamot and geranium oil from the Island of Reunion. Typically, there are also citrus and tobacco notes. Found in Canoe, Paco Rabanne for Men, Monsieur Givenchy and Kouros.

Fresh Aromatic This new blend in the fragrance world was created by adding a fresh-smelling aroma chemical called dihydromyrcenol to scents formerly found in the fougere family. Gained were soapy, watery-marine qualities, lost was the tobacco note. Pineapple, apple, and woody (from ambroxan) notes fill out this fragrance blend. Found in Cool Water, tommy by Tommy Hilfiger, Aqua di Gio, Dolce & Gabanna Pour Homme, L'eau D'Issey Pour Homme and Good Life by Davidoff.

Woodsy-Mossy Very popular for masculine fragrances, woodsy scents are typically made from vetiver from Haiti and Java, sandalwood from India, cedar from Virginia, and flamed birch. Earthy oakmoss, rosewood and fern notes accentuate this flavor. Found in Dunhill Edition, Bulgari for Men and Vetiver.

As with any grooming tool, certain rules of thumb apply to wearing, purchasing and caring for fragrances.

First, a little goes a long way. Don't bathe in cologne like Sam Malone, the superodorous barman of television's "Cheers." Your scent should not hold your office mates and fellow diners hostage, nor precede you into a room. Every individual has his own "scent circle," a radius approximately an arm's length from the body. Instead of the slathering approach, brush it across pulse points (where each heartbeat accentuates the fragrance).

For a long-lasting effect, layer scents all over the body, rather than dousing more it all in one place. Since fragrance rises during the day, apply it from the feet up in diminishing doses until you reach the head. Sense of smell is keener later in the day, so apply more liberally in the morning than the evening.

When shopping for a new fragrance, test scents directly on the skin, since each fragrance reacts differently to body chemistry. Wait at least 10 minutes to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Limit testing to three scents at any one time--your nose won't differentiate more scents. Keep your new purchases safe from extreme temperature changes, in a dry spot away from direct light. Don't store for long, and once open, keep tightly closed. --KC