When did perfume stop being about sex?


When a new Yves Saint Laurent fragrance was released in 2001, Tom Ford, the house’s artistic director at the time, threw a sensational party at the Paris Stock Exchange, where he exhibited a slew of near-naked models in a giant plexiglass. container. The perfume was called Nu, French for “nude”.

Linda Wells, the Allure’s founding editor and party animal, compared Mr Ford’s evening to a “human aquarium”, full of models “wiggling” in their underwear. It was like a ball pit you might find at a children’s birthday party, except it was bigger, fueled with booze, and filled with nearly naked adults.

“It was all these bodies,” Ms Wells said. “It was all that flesh. It was like an orgy.

Such an event seems unimaginable today, and not just because uncontrolled hedonism became taboo after #MeToo. The whole marketing ideal has changed: most designers and brands don’t use sex to sell perfume – and people don’t buy perfume to have sex.

For decades, perfume marketing has made seduction a priority. Perfume was a bottled way to help someone find a mate, a construct that seems incredibly out of place since we now have dating apps, a more efficient and consistent way to find a mate than having someone ‘one who catches your scent and falls in love with you.

“It seems really old-fashioned and a bit offensive,” Ms Wells said. “Now we’re all like, ‘This advertiser is going to tell me how I’m supposed to feel or that I want to have sex because of her scent or that I want to become an object because of her scent?'”

Today, brands talk about perfume in terms of places and how it will make the wearer smell. Small niche perfume brands like Byredo or Le Labo are advertised as “genderless”. These brands don’t play with outdated gender concepts and singular messages about gender and sexual orientation. It’s not a contest for which perfume is the sexiest; it’s about which one can elicit the strongest emotional connection.

According to Rachel Herz, neuroscientist and author of “The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell,” perfume has gone from marketing “direct themes” like power or sex to encouraging a “personal journey.” .

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That journey could be one of empowerment or being the best “you,” which is what Glossier is selling with Glossier You. According to its website, the fragrance will “grow with you no matter where you are in your personal evolution” because it is “not a finished product. It needs you.

Other scents take customers on a different journey. World of Chris Collins’ Harlem Nights takes wearers to a speakeasy with notes of musk and rum that evoke cigars, high-end liquor and 1920s nightlife.

So when did perfume stop being about sex?

Evolution of gender ideals

Culture, above all else, has had the most profound effects on the fragrance industry, especially over the past five years.

Traditionally, fragrances were designed for either men or women – rarely both – supported by multi-million dollar campaigns depicting traditional gender norms or hypersexualized imagery. Remember the Calvin Klein Eternity commercials from the 1980s with Christy Turlington and Ed Burns? What about that sultry 2010 Gucci Guilty campaign starring Evan Rachel Wood and Chris Evans? Both seem heteronormative in the current cultural climate.

A younger generation with more fluid interpretations of what constitutes gender, sexual orientation, and romantic relationships is leading the conversation. “Gender neutral” and “genderless” have become mainstream concepts, becoming an integral part of fashion, makeup and perfume, and no longer on the fringes.

A slight increase in unisex and genderless fragrances followed. In fact, many niche and craft labels that have grown in popularity have never assigned a gender to their fragrances. Byredo has marketed its fragrances as unisex since Ben Gorham founded the line in 2006. The same goes for Le Labo, Escentric Molecules, DS & Durga, Malin + Goetz and Aesop.

“Your gender, your nationality, your sexual orientation – it doesn’t matter,” said Chris Collins, Founder and CEO of World of Chris Collins. All 12 scents of the four-year-old brand are genderless. “There should be no distinction,” he said.

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For global fragrance powerhouses, genre and romance are still the epitome of mainstream appeal. Although Dior’s ad campaigns aren’t overtly sexual, the brand showcases distinct feminine ideals through Miss Dior women’s campaigns, which have featured Natalie Portman since 2011, as well as those gilded J’Adore Dior ads, in which Charlize Theron channeled a Greek goddess for 18 years.

“Romance isn’t necessarily outdated,” Ms. Herz said. It’s the depictions of romance that are more abstract, she explained, because “things are less heterosexually defined” than they were a decade ago.

Why we wear perfume now

During the pandemic, with stores closed and limited ways to test perfume before buying, Suzanne Sabo, 45, of Levittown, Pennsylvania, “blind-shopped” perfume to indulge herself. The first perfume she ordered was Jasmine Rouge by Tom Ford Beauty, which she discovered through an online ad.

“There was nothing sensual or sexual about it,” said Ms. Sabo, a grant writer at a technical high school. “It was so basic – it was a description of the scent. I felt like a new woman just wearing the perfume sweating around my house. I felt like a million bucks.

Ms. Sabo’s Tom Ford fragrance collection has grown to include Lost Cherry, Soleil Blanc, White Suede and Bitter Peach. “It’s not like we live in the wealthy part of town,” she said. “We are middle-class moms who were stressed out.”

Rachel ten Brink, general partner at Red Bike Capital and founder of the Scentbird fragrance line, saw customers begin to embrace this mentality several years ago.

The top response from a 2015 survey asking Scentbird customers why they wore perfume was “how it made me feel”. Attracting the opposite sex was number 6 or 7, Ms ten Brink said.

Others use scent as a vehicle for self-expression. Carys Bassett, an IT consultant and cybersecurity specialist from Bath, England, wears a scent to stand out, like a coat or trendy shoes.

“I love that my presence lingers after I leave the room,” said Ms Bassett, 37. “I’m not that obsessed with sex. I like to make a statement.

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The rise of artisanal perfume

Smaller, independent brands are often more creative in their approach to creating fragrances, showcasing individual ingredients and notes or using a story to draw in customers. Fragrances are often stronger, bolder and more expensive than department store mainstays synonymous with “free gift with purchase”.

“Handcrafted fragrances have always been more about the scent and the notes and the ingredients, and less about the image,” said Larissa Jensen, beauty industry analyst at The NPD Group. Perfume bottles with lemons, oranges or lavender are the “visual descriptors” that draw people in, she said. “You don’t watch an ad that only has a man’s bare butt.”

Dina Fanella, a 50-year-old special education teacher in Las Vegas, is looking for unique perfumes. She doesn’t like mass-produced perfumes for the same reason she doesn’t like big hotels: it sounds generic.

“I started choosing small, artisan scents that had more pure and exotic combinations,” Ms. Fanella said.

Her interest in perfume predates the pandemic. She discovered independent perfumers like the Sage Goddess and the online community House of Oshun, whose founder Lulu Eye Love, makes her favorite perfume, Shut Up and Kiss Me.

For Ms. Sabo, Maison Francis Kurkdjian was her entry into the world of expensive artisanal perfume. The label, thanks to a collaboration with Baccarat, has had viral fame on TikTok.

“Of course I have Baccarat Rouge 540,” she said, as if everyone should know. Ms. Sabo discovered the perfume on TikTok and bought two bottles, a $300 eau de parfum and a more concentrated $425 “perfume extract” because a YouTube reviewer said “you’ll smell this in every restaurant high end of Manhattan”.

“Back then, we couldn’t even go to a restaurant,” she joked. “We were ordering takeout from DoorDash.”

Before the pandemic, Ms. Sabo had never spent more than $100 on perfume.

The post When did perfume stop being about sex? appeared first on The New York Times.


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