The sense of smell is the first to fully develop in a baby, and perhaps as a result of that, it’s also one of the first to be influenced by notions of gender and identity. Florals for the girls, dark woody scents for the guys. So it goes in most perfumeries -- the gender binary is alive and well in many beauty departments worldwide. It’s been that way for decades, really, and perfumers are educated into traditionalist dichotomies where roses are for women, and musk is for men.
Sound outdated? Kilian Hennessy, the founder of By Kilian fragrances, thought so too. So when he completed his education on scents at Sorbonne and created his own line, he decided to mix it up.
Hennessy pulls no punches. “To be honest, the state of the industry is in very bad taste. Dior is still pushing J’adore, which came out in 1999!" he tells me. "But the paradigm is shifting, and all the classic players have to realize and readapt into a new realm.” Where gender-dictated scent characteristics and culture were once evenly divided, the niche perfume market has blossomed to tip the balance right down the middle into a unisex market where everything -- and every smell -- is up for grabs. Take notes. (Perfume pun! Probably not the first. You've been warned.)
The change comes in new note stories, ones marketed not quite “for men” or “for women,” but more as elaborate tales in which you can take part. Take, for example, Hennessy’s bestselling fragrance, Straight to Heaven. It’s a rum, patchouli and cedar base, with a cedar accord -- no citrus, no florals, no freshness to be found. “It’s as rough and as masculine as one could think of, if you were educated about scents in a classical way," he explains. "But what’s interesting is that it’s my number two seller amongst women. I sell as many of this scent to men as to women. And it’s not classically feminine at all. Which shows, if you don’t say 'for men,' or 'for women,' on the packaging, people choose according to emotion the scent gives off -- and they choose differently.”
From the perfumer’s nose to the sales floor, unisex scents are disrupting the paradigm. It’s making less sense (scents? Ah, sorry!) to market perfumes by gender when the consumer is becoming more versed in notes and their storylines. A quick look on the top performing perfumes on fragrance site luckyscent.com will tell you “unisex” fragrances are top sellers.
Niche perfume houses are becoming more and more popular for their unexpected take on notes and marketing, and we're seeing more mainstream unisex launches now, too. Pharrell Williams's Girl and the new Diana Vreeland range are both being touted as "genderless." (Obviously CK One paved this unisex mainstream path long ago.)
So can these still be considered niche if they’re slowly overtaking traditionalist smash hits at Sephora? I’ll have to chew on it some more, but until then -- here are my top picks for unisex scents from niche brands. While some of them are marketed to men, if you’re a woman trying them out yourself, we promise we won’t tell.
Love, Don’t Be Shy By Kilian, Net-a-Porter, $260
The prominent notes at first application are neroli and honeysuckle, orange flower absolute, caramelized sugar and vanilla with white musk. It smells like baked goods, candy and caramel, with florals to keep it from being too much.
Solaris Eau de Parfum by Agonist, Neiman Marcus, $195
Smells like oranges, grapefruit and black pepper to me -- fresh and vibrant and warm. Most fresh scents I like feel very cold. Not so with Solaris.
Santal Majuscule Eau de Parfum by Serge Lutens, LuckyScent.com, $150
This is for those who love sandalwood and little else. The first notes are rose, to cocoa powder, then tonka to a finish of sandalwood. And more sandalwood.
Tobacco Vanille Eau de Parfum by Tom Ford, Nordstrom, $215
This is classified as an “oriental spicy," with notes of ginger, tobacco leaves, anise, clove, fruit wood sap, benzoin, vanilla and tonka. It starts off airy and moody and gets darker and very rich. A beautiful fall fragrance, sullen, just the way I like ‘em. It smells like a library and a hot, fictional nerd I want to make out with.
Terre d'Hermès Eau de Toilette by Hermès , Sephora, $119
This is a citrus-wood -- it opens with oranges and grapefruits in something tart and fresh, and turns woody fast. It smells fresh and smart throughout -- it’s a scent you can wear anywhere, really, through all seasons. It’s not obnoxiously powerful, either. It doesn’t try too hard. It doesn’t have to.
Coal by Andrea Maack Parfums, LuckyScent.com, $135
Those with avant garde perfume preferences will like the thought behind this one. It's inspired by one of Maack’s drawings made with black coal. “It captures the smudge of the fingertips, the coal falling down the white paper as the hand moves creating a pattern and the broken pieces at the bottom of the page.” Okay. In any case, it does actually smell like drawing paper and coal. Peppers and woods, papyrus and coal. Very creative, wonderfully executed.
Volutes Eau de Toilette by Diptyque, Barneys, $90
Here you'll find honey, iris and tobacco on a bed of vanilla and benzoin. It settles into a darker, powdery moment that’s very comfortable and very sexy.
Patchouli 24 by Le Labo, Barneys, $265
Le Labo always manages to bottle the unexpected in the best ways. This might say "patchouli" but it smells more like burning wood, melting rubber, leather and tobacco. Some might find this combination revolting -- but the weirdos will find it intoxicating. Luca Turin (my favorite fragrance chemist) compares the smell of this to the smell of a Russian scientific library filled with weird potions. The smell of a mad scientist? Please let me bathe in it.
Rien Eau de Parfum by Etat Libre d’Orange, Sephora, $90
Love it or leave it. I love it. It smells like a femme fatale who drives a motorcycle better than everyone else in the world and knows six languages but only shows it when she’s mad at you and starts cursing in five of them. Think rubber, smoke, metal, leather and oak. It smells synthetic and edgy and rude and seductive and with a potent attitude that moves beyond gender. A statement. A growl, even.
Djhenne No. 22 Eau de Parfum by Parfumerie Generale, LuckyScent.com, $100
Pierre Guillame, the founder of Parfumerie Generale, described the intentions of the smell as evoking an oasis: fresh accord surrounded by hot sand. The notes are as follows: grey lavender and mint surrounded by cocoa beans, wheat absolute, myrrh and blonde leather. It smells really versatile and soft, malleable and warm.