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I don’t wear fragrance. In fact, I don’t even use the word fragrance. It’s not like I’m walking around with a stink cloud surrounding me like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown; it’s just that I normally stop thinking about how I smell after putting on deodorant in the morning.
So when I was asked to test out three men’s colognes and write about the experience, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Once I got around to opening them up to take a whiff, things got worse, as the overpowering scent of flowers escaped from each.
It’s not like I was expecting the manly musk of Sex Panther, the fictional cologne worn by Paul Rudd’s womanizing character in Anchorman, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for this.
I asked myself: When did men’s fragrances start borrowing from the girls? And do guys really wear this stuff?
Tommy Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer, has been wearing Kai Perfume Oil, a women’s perfume that smells like gardenias, for a decade. And the designer Tom Ford’s favourite scent from his eponymous line of fragrances is Violet Blonde, which smells exactly as it sounds. Now, I’m no fan of Tommy Lee (or Tom Ford for that matter), but I decided to take the plunge nonetheless.
Up first was Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fleur du Male. Encased in a bottle shaped like a naked male torso, its mix of orange blossom and coumarin – a chemical compound that smells like fresh hay – made a brash and ambiguous statement.
If they ever made a Smell-O-Vision version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Fleur du Male would be wafting into Basil Hallward’s studio. I thrust my neck at my wife, asking for her opinion. “Too weird,” she said. My daughter, who is 3, told me I smelled like strawberries and polka-dots, which I took to be a wonderful compliment because, to her, strawberries and polka-dots are beautiful things that make her happy.
David Teeter, Holt Renfrew’s divisional vice-president of cosmetics, traces the cross-pollination of men’s and women’s fragrances all the way back to 1994, when unisex scents like the enormously successful ck one first hit the market. Since then, everyone from D&G to Comme des Garçons has released fragrance collections targeting both guys and gals.
And even sports stars are getting in on the action. Last year, Lamar Odom, forward for the Dallas Mavericks, joined forces with his wife, reality-star Khloé Kardashian, to launch Unbreakable. Redolent of African geranium, Italian bergamot and cedar, it’s meant to represent the “unbreakable” bond of their relationship and smells like an overly fragrant bridal bouquet.
Like Odom, it seems a lot of guys are ready for a bold upgrade from the mossy Brut of their fathers and the earthy Drakkar Noir of their adolescences. And now, thanks to the rise of the metrosexual, men aren’t as hung up on an older generation’s ideas of what is considered manly.
Consider the success of the ostentatious-sounding and -looking (it’s packaged to resemble a gold bar) 1 Million by Paco Rabanne. Since launching in 2008, it has sold more than 15 million bottles; though it smells like leather at first, a distinctive burst of rose forms its heart.
I sprayed it on one night before a family dinner and worried that my dad and father-in-law would grill me about why I was wearing my wife’s perfume. But by the time we arrived at the restaurant, there was no need for concern. Like a lot of floral-based scents, 1 Million comes out of the bottle strong, but its petals, as it were, drop off after about an hour, allowing its deeper notes – in this case cinnamon and patchouli – to take over.
Similarly, when I decided to dandify a day at the office by wearing Lacoste L.12.12 Blanc, the delicate notes of tuberose and ylang-ylang – more common in women’s scents than in men’s – were rendered fresh and light thanks to notes of rosemary, cardamom and olibanum (a.k.a. frankincense). It came across as sporty as the brand’s iconic polo shirt itself.
It’s the bottle I reached for most often; it was also my wife’s favourite.
Out of the three I tried, only the Fleur du Male was unabashedly girly. The others had heady floral notes too, but after the dry-down (when the top notes lift to reveal the base ones), anyone close enough to smell you won’t think you reek of perfume.
An important rule for any cologne, floral-based or not, is to be kind to your neighbour. Nahla Saad, creative director of Noor, a fragrance boutique in Toronto, recommends three squirts: one on the neck and one for each wrist. It should be like wearing a flower in your lapel – the person standing five feet away from you shouldn’t be able to smell it.
In the end, I discovered a surprising self-confidence when I wore these scents. Any man can douse himself in leather or moss; it requires a certain amount of swagger to spray on a flowery scent. Maybe not Tommy Lee swagger, but swagger all the same.