Christian Dior famously said, “A woman’s perfume tells more about her than her handwriting.” But in 2020, the very idea of “a woman’s perfume” is a concept that looks to be on its way out.
Not that you’d know it from the fragrance departments of mainstream stores. There, the subliminal, traditional messages around scent still reign supreme. A woman’s should be pretty and floral, with curved rather than angular bottles and “feminine” names – Belle, Daisy, Sweetheart. Conversely, fragrances for men are “harder”, with darker colours, leathery, smoky ingredients and names such as Sauvage and Le Male, conjuring a Bear Grylls type who rescues women from burning buildings and singledom.
Not to marketing strategists who have used these familiar societal constructs to make the perfume industry billions. Now, however, niche brands such as Byredo, Frédéric Malle, Diptyque and Escentric Molecules are leading the revolution to overturn the stereotypes. According to Mintel, gender-free neutral fragrance launches accounted for 17% of the market in 2010; by 2018 that figure had grown to 51%, and nonconformist ideas were at the heart of some of 2019’s biggest new fragrance launches, Gucci’s Mémoire d’Une Odeur and Celine’s 11-strong fragrance line among them.
Linda Pilkington, founder of British perfumery Ormonde Jayne, quietly de-gendered her brand almost 20 years ago. “A man took me by surprise when he chose a very floral, jasmine and freesia scent,” she says. “Then another man bought our rose-scented Ta’if from a department store. I said, ‘If you love it on yourself, does it matter?’ I knew then that I had to change our philosophy of categorising by gender.”
London store Liberty takes a similar approach. “We’ve always sold our fragrances in a gender-free environment,” says beauty buyer Emily Soulsby.
Nightclubbing, £175, Celine. Photograph: PR
Maverick perfumer Geza Schoen founded Escentric Molecules, designed to respond differently to each wearer’s individual scent. Challenging society’s notion of fragrance was not without its obstacles. “Socialisation and cultural education influence where our borders are,” he says. “Women tend to be taught by their mother, and most men still wear what’s popular. People were bored. It was time to break with the traditional view.”
Unisex perfume, as it was traditionally called, has had its moment in the sun before. In 1994 the launch of CK One revolutionised the fragrance scene, blurring its gender lines with a clean but sexy citrussy scent that provided a welcome change from the ostentatious, Dynasty-esque fragrances ubiquitous at the time (think Dior’s Poison and YSL’s Opium).
CK One was everywhere, until the turn of the millennium, when fruity florals returned. But now, with identity and gender in the spotlight, a truly anything-goes approach to gender and perfume is gaining traction. For industry insiders such as James Craven, archivist at Les Senteurs, the UK’s first niche perfume boutique, this is key. “Our philosophy is that one wears the scent one loves. Gender does not enter the equation.”
Byredo’s Ben Gorham
Byredo’s Ben Gorham agrees, adding, “People are beginning to understand that our notion of what is gender-specific comes from marketing.”
Mémoire d’une Odeur, from £49.50, Gucci from John Lewis Photograph: PR Photo
Most scents are still gender assigned – be it explicitly or via advertising – because, according to gender-nonconforming artist and writer Alok Vaid-Menon, it works. “Marketing products through the gender binary is an effective strategy because men and women have been told they are supposed to look, dress, act and smell a certain way. This creates a feedback loop whereby the supply engenders the demand and the demand engenders the supply.”
Niche brands have capitalized on the mainstream’s very gendered approach by doing the opposite and “releasing conceptual scents that blur gender lines,” says Lisa Payne, senior beauty analyst at forecasting agency Stylus. The risk appears to be paying off. Emmanuelle Moeglin, founder of the Experimental Perfume Club, says, “When perfume is stripped of marketing and visual cues, men who visit my lab do not censor themselves from using traditionally ‘female’ ingredients such as rose and jasmine. The rise of niche perfumery has helped to break gendered olfactory codes.”
Following those codes has paved many a path with gold, but a sure sign that things are changing came with last month’s launch of CK Everyone, a scent that nods to the fact that CK One was the world’s first smash hit gender-free scent, but notably smells citrussy and woody: citrus has long been used in both traditionally male and female scents, whereas in the past woody notes were always marketed as “male”. Not any more. As to why any modern brand would continue to launch fragrances categorized in that way, Gorham remains baffled. “To me,” he says, “gender-specific fragrance is as absurd as gender-specific food.”
As 2021 begins …
… we have a small favour to ask. Millions are turning to the Guardian for open, independent, quality news every day, and readers in 180 countries, including India, now support us financially.
We believe everyone deserves access to information that’s grounded in science and truth, and analysis rooted in authority and integrity. That’s why we made a different choice: to keep our reporting open for all readers, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. This means more people can be better informed, united, and inspired to take meaningful action.
In these perilous times, a truth-seeking global news organization like the Guardian is essential. We have no shareholders or billionaire owner, meaning our journalism is free from commercial and political influence – this makes us different. When it’s never been more important, our independence allows us to fearlessly investigate, challenge and expose those in power.
In a year of unprecedented intersecting crises in 2020, we did just that, with revealing journalism that had real-world impact: the inept handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the tumultuous US election.
We have enhanced our reputation for urgent, powerful reporting on the climate emergency, and moved to practice what we preach, rejecting advertising from fossil fuel companies, divesting from oil and gas companies and setting a course to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.
If there were ever a time to join us, it is now. Your funding powers our journalism, it protects our independence, and ensures we can remain open for all. You can support us through these challenging economic times and enable real-world impact.
The fragrance industry is undergoing a transformative shift towards gender-free scents. Niche brands and forward-thinking perfumers are challenging traditional stereotypes and embracing individuality. By rejecting the notion of gender-specific fragrances, they are creating inclusive olfactory experiences that resonate with people’s personal preferences. As consumers become more aware of the marketing tactics used to enforce gender norms, they are seeking out fragrances that break free from these constructs. The rise of gender-neutral scents signifies a new era of choice, self-expression, and liberation in the world of fragrance.