Often the very best jokes are laden with insight, and one of my favorite such jokes belongs to Demetri Martin, who says, “It’s interesting that ‘cologne’ rhymes with ‘alone’.” Zing!
The word cologne evokes images of greasy dudes in Ed Hardy t-shirts, teenage boys with more scents than sense, and clueless divorcees getting back into the “dating scene.” This was my presumption when Fashionista asked me to look into the state of men’s cologne, yet once I ventured down this particularly pungent little rabbit hole, I realized just how misguided that presumption was. Beginning with the name.
“Cologne is a marketing word that Americans have been taught to use,” says Chandler Burr, perfume critic for the New York Times. “The word ‘cologne’ in the U.S. means nothing. You should just call it ‘scent’.”
So what’s cologne? “Cologne is a very specific recipe,” Burr adds. “It’s a citrus with an aromatic effect; it’s basically lemon, bitter orange, grapefruit, bergamot, and then maybe nutmeg or cinnamon added, maybe some other spice.”
What we’re looking for then is men’s "scent," or "fragrance," which unlike cologne (perfumes based in alcohol were not invented until 1370, in Hungary), has been around as long as civilization.
As for where men’s fragrances are now, there’s no one answer: Sales are both up and down—and like the scents themselves, the devil is in the details. “The fragrance market has been in decline for several years,” says Karen Grant, Vice President and Senior Industry Analyst for Beauty at National Purchase Diary, a group that tracks department store sales.
“Men’s fragrances were picking up around the time of the early metrosexual trend: 2001 – 2002. Then we saw a dropoff…. It’s been in decline ever since.” Throughout the 2000s, a celebrity would pop up with a fragrance from time to time, Diddy for instance, which would help drive sales. But these surges were ephemeral, and now the celebrity trend has faded completely. Last year, the sales of high-end men’s fragrances (these are the scents sold at Sephora and in the big department stores, not, say, Walmart) hovered around $779 million, a 10% drop from 2008, which was 8% less than 2007.
But just because the big stores are selling less, doesn’t mean people aren’t buying fragrances. “The one area of the market where we’re seeing the most stability is in what we would call these ‘niche’ fragrances. Where it’s very special. Those could be fragrances at Barneys or Saks, or even the higher end.”
While the big market, designer brand fragrances (“commercial…shit” Burr calls it), like Acqua di Gio, are still the bestsellers, they have also taken the biggest hit. They’re losing younger customers to deodorant sprays, like Axe, and older more sophisticated clientele to the niche brands like Le Labo and Frederic Malle.
“We don’t sell much of Acqua di Gio. We don’t sell a lot of Tom Ford,” says Bettina O’Neill, VP of Cosmetics and Fragrances at Barneys New York (who, in fact, only carries the former as part of an arrangement with the Armani brand). “We find our customers don’t want to smell like anyone else. More so men than women.”
And who are these guys? (We mean the ones buying the specialized scents from the fancy shops.) “I hate to sound cliché, but I think it’s people with money and taste,” says Burr. And people with internet connections, too, it seems. With the proliferation of the web consumers’ access to information and products has influenced the market.
“The bloggers are so knowledgeable about fragrance and beauty,” says O’Neill. “They’re very much into the perfumer, they love the whole romance part of it, but they’re very educated. And everyone has an opinion.”
And people are listening, it seems, whether they’re buying these smaller scents from eBay, or a shop in Williamsburg. “Traditional channels are showing decline,” says Grant. “The smaller channels, and we’re talking really small, are beginning to show such robust activity from men who looking for information on these sites, or shopping on these sites.”
These sophisticated shoppers, whose numbers are growing, are increasingly buying scents that could be worn by man or woman, (scents that are as eunuch as they are unique, I guess). It appears that men are not wearing scent every day, saving it more for occasions, and the trend right now is for scents of the woods varieties—a further indication that men prefer something distinctive as opposed to subtle, a scent that is very much their own.
Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the main driving force behind a man’s choice of fragrance is whether it will please his partner.
With this in mind, I asked Burr what fragrances women can helpfully suggest for their significant others.
“L’Eau D’Hiver, by Ellena, from Frederic Malle; Noir Epice by Michel Roudnitska from Frederic Malle, Musc Ravageur from Maurice Roucel from Frederic Malle; I would buy Rose Barbare by Guerlain, which is marketed to women but men should wear it; I would definitely wear Cannabis Santal by Fresh; Eau de Gingembre by Roger & Gallet, which, by the way is something like 17 bucks and it’s absolutely terrific.”
But even as he celebrates these niche scents, Burr doesn’t discriminate against the bigger boys. “Terre D’Hermes is one of the greatest perfumes of the past decade,” he says. “I think it’s a masterpiece…it has a voice, and a presence and it’s fucking insanely handsome.”