Perfume used to be made for people to wear, but young people changed that

Perfume used to be made for people to wear, but young people changed that

In 2001, at the launch of a new fragrance by Yves Saint Laurent, the creative director of the house, Tom Ford, threw an exciting party at the headquarters of the Paris Stock Exchange, showing a bevy of semi-naked models in a giant acrylic container. The name of the fragrance was Nou (the meaning in French is the same as in Portuguese).

Linda Wells, the founding editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, attended the ceremony and compared the Ford production to a human aquarium full of glistening mannequins in lingerie. It was like a ball pit of the kind you see at kids’ parties, only bigger, fueled by alcohol and full of semi-naked adults.

Wells said, “It was all those bodies, a lot of skin in sight. It was like an orgy.”

An event like this seems unimaginable today, and not just because unfettered hedonism became taboo after the #MeToo movement. The marketing proverb has completely changed: today most creators and brands don’t use sex to sell perfume, and people don’t buy perfume for sex.

For decades, perfume marketing has prioritized seduction. Perfume was a packed way to help people find mates. It’s a construct that seems pretty irrelevant today, since we have dating apps – a more efficient and cohesive way to find a partner than waiting for someone to smell you and fall in love with you.

“It feels really old and even insulting,” Wells said. Nowadays we think, ‘Do you mean that this advertiser is going to tell me how I should feel or whether or not I want to have sex because of his perfume, or if I want to become a thing because of his perfume? “

Nowadays, brands talk about perfumes in terms of places and how they will make a person feel when wearing them. Small, niche brands like Byredo and Le Lago are promoted as “gender-neutral”.

These brands do not promote outdated gender constructs or unique messages about gender and sexual orientation. It’s not a competition to see which perfume is the most attractive – it’s to see which one can evoke the strongest emotional connection.

For neuroscientist Rachel Herz, author of The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Mysterious Sense of Smell, fragrance has transcended “direct marketing themes” like power and sexuality. To encourage a “personal journey”.

It can be a journey of self-empowerment or becoming your “best self,” an idea that Glossier is promoting with its Glossier You fragrance. According to the company’s website, the fragrance “will grow with you, no matter where you find yourself in your personal development” because “it’s not an end product. It needs you.”

Other fragrances take the consumer on a different journey. Harlem Nights by World of Chris Collins takes you to a Prohibition-era bar, with aromas of musk and rum evoking cigars, liquor hidden on a high shelf, and the nightlife of 1920s bars.

So when did perfume stop referring to gender?

The evolution of gender ideals

Traditionally, fragrances have been created for men or women—rare for both—and promoted through multi-million dollar campaigns that highlight traditional gender norms or hypersexual imagery.

Who remembers Calvin Klein’s Eternity fragrance ads in the ’80s, featuring Christy Turlington and Ed Burns? And the sexy Gucci Guilty campaign with Evan Rachel Wood and Chris Evans from 2010? In today’s cultural climate, both seem heterogeneous.

The debate today is led by a younger generation, with looser interpretations of what constitutes gender, sexual orientation, and romantic relationships. “Gender-neutral” and “sexless” have become mainstream, staple concepts in fashion, makeup, and perfume. They are no longer on the sidelines of the discussion.

This was followed by an increase in unisex fragrances and genderless fragrances. In fact, many of the niche and artisanal brands that have achieved wide popularity have never dedicated a genre to their perfumes.

Byredo has been promoting its fragrances as unisex since Ben Gorham founded them in 2006. The same goes for Le Labo, Escentric Molecules, DS & Durga, Malin + Goetz, and Aesop.

“Your gender, nationality, sexual orientation, none of that matters,” said Chris Collins, founder and CEO of World of Chris Collins. All 12 fragrances by the four-year-old brand are gender-free. He noted that “there should be no discrimination”.

For the big international names in perfumery, genre and romance are still key to attracting a mainstream audience. Dior’s campaigns aren’t overtly sexual, but the brand brings out clearly feminine themes in Miss Dior campaigns, starring Natalie Portman since 2011, as well as gold J’Adore Dior ads in which Charlize Theron for 18 years embodies a Greek goddess.

“Romance isn’t necessarily outdated,” Herz said. It is the representations of romance that have become more abstract, she explained, because “things are less defined by heterosexual” than they were a decade ago.

Why do we wear perfume today?

During the pandemic, with stores closed and few possible ways to test the fragrance before buying it, Susan Sabo, 45, of Levittown, Pennsylvania, took to buying perfume “blindly” to treat herself. It was the first fragrance that Jasmin Rouge ordered from Tom Ford Beauty, which he discovered in an online ad.

“There was nothing sensual or sexual in it,” said Sabo, a writer at a technical college. “It was very basic. It was a description of the fragrance. When I was wearing the perfume at home, wearing my sweatpants, I felt like a new woman. I felt great.”

Today’s Tom Ford fragrance collection also includes Lost Cherry, Soleil Blanc, White Suede and Bitter Peach. “We don’t live in an upscale neighborhood,” she commented. “We are middle-class mothers who have been stressed out.”

Rachel Ten Brink, partner at Red Bike Capital and founder of the perfume line Scentbird, saw that customers started adopting this mindset a few years ago.

In a 2015 survey where Scentbird customers were asked why they wear perfume, the first answer was “How do I feel when I wear perfume.” Attracting people of the opposite sex was the sixth or seventh most common response.

Smaller, independent brands are often more creative in their approach to creating fragrances, highlighting individual ingredients and scents or using a story to attract consumers. Their fragrances are often stronger, bolder, and more expensive than department store fragrances.

“Craft perfumes have always been more focused on scents and ingredients and less on image,” explained Larissa Jensen, NPD Group beauty industry analyst.

She said perfume bottles featuring lemon, orange and lavender are the “visual descriptors” that draw people to her. “You don’t look at an ad with a naked male donkey.”

Translated by Clara Allen

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