The essence of masculinity

Stars, manly overtones and sex appeal all play a part in the men's fragrance game, writes Adam Tschorn.

What should a man smell like?

This is not an inquiry to be undertaken lightly - particularly at this time of the year, when the gauntlet of parties and events that stretches from December into the new year is destined to put the fragrance profiles of near strangers beneath our noses as surely as stockings dangle from the fireplace.

It's a timely question for other reasons. One-quarter of all annual sales in the prestige fragrance category take place in the two weeks before Christmas, according to the NPD Group, an American market research company.

Consider that men's fragrance sales are growing faster than women's (12 per cent compared with 9 per cent for the first nine months of this year over the same period last year, according to NPD). And that Gucci Guilty Pour Homme topped the list of both men's and women's fragrance launches this year. Clearly, attempts to divine the olfactory essence of masculinity are a matter of both dollars and scents.

One way to answer the question is to look at what men (or the people who shop for them) are buying. The five best-selling men's fragrances between January and October of this year were Giorgio Armani's Acqua di Gio Pour Homme (in the No.1 spot), Chanel's Bleu de Chanel, Gucci Guilty Pour Homme, Armani Code and Dolce&Gabbana's Light Blue Pour Homme, according to NPD.

What do all of these fragrances have in common - besides abundant references to the colour blue and things aquatic? They all have scent profiles grounded in a combination of wood (including but not limited to forests full of cedar, sandalwood, juniper, oak moss and musk wood) and spice (practically an entire rack of Sichuan pepper, ginger, bergamot, coriander and pink peppercorns).

Pull the common elements from those bestsellers, says the managing editor for online fragrance publication The Perfume Magazine, Mark David Boberick, and a guy can start to get a whiff of what the everyman most likely smells like. ''Nowadays it's all about the aquatics mixed with the woods,'' Boberick says. ''Scents like Bulgari Aqua are a good example. It's aquatic but has a woody base. And Bleu de Chanel is the same way.''

Does that mean Gucci Guilty Pour Homme (which I found redolent of cedar-planked orange slices dipped in glacier water) experienced the best-selling fragrance launch of the year because its chemical cocktail approximates quintessential manliness in some unique and different way?

Boberick doesn't think so. Gucci Guilty Pour Homme ''smells like a lot of other men's fragrances with maybe a slight twist'', he says. ''It's good stuff but it's not groundbreaking. What probably put it on the list was an exceptional advertising campaign and a designer luxury label.''


The designer luxury label is the Italian fashion house of Gucci, of course, and the exceptional advertising campaign he's referring to includes a fever dream of a commercial directed by writer-artist Frank Miller (who wrote the comic book series 300). It features leather jacket-wearing actor Chris Evans (Captain America) roaring through darkened city streets on a fire-belching motorcycle on his way to an assignation with Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler, The Ides of March).

Gucci's ad campaign is just the latest to rely on Hollywood firepower to promote a new men's fragrance. When Chanel's Bleu de Chanel launched last year, commercials starring French actor Gaspard Ulliel had none other than Martin Scorsese in the director's chair and a Rolling Stones song on the soundtrack.

Celebrity affiliation - via advertising campaigns or celebrity-branded product - has long been a key way to create the emotional connection and resonance needed to sell consumers bottles of scented liquid. Matthew McConaughey doffs his shirt for Dolce&Gabbana's The One for Men; James Franco was the face of Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme; and country singer Tim McGraw had a hit with his own branded fragrance, to mention but a few.

''A celebrity endorsement is a shorthand way of saying it's a scent of significance,'' Boberick says. ''In this age of the internet and the fixation on celebrity, for someone who isn't thinking too much about it, the idea that they might smell like a celebrity - or what a celebrity wears or puts their name on - is an easy way out. It's acceptable.''

Another way to answer the question of what a man should smell like - at least when the goal is attracting a mate - is to determine what smells cause the greatest increase in sexual arousal. This is what Dr Alan Hirsch and his colleagues at the Chicago-based Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation endeavoured to do in the mid-1990s.

The odour that resulted in the highest level of arousal among females was a combination of sweets and cucumber, according to its findings. (Men, it found, responded best to a combination of lavender and pumpkin pie.) But Hirsch says those findings come with some caveats.

''There are certainly trends in scents,'' Hirsch says. ''So, yes, it's possible that something else - say, the smell of cotton candy or the new iPhone - could cause greater sexual arousal. You also have to realise that humans can detect anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 different odours. Clearly we couldn't have even begun to test all of them, so it is a distinct possibility that other odours would have an effect - maybe even a greater effect.''

We may not be any closer to answering our inquiry about what a man should smell like but Hirsch offers some guidance about what a man probably shouldn't smell like: ''Cherries, charcoal barbecue smoke and men's cologne were the things found to be the biggest turn-offs to women,'' he says.

LA Times