Unlike making a perfume - an elusive and complicated exercise in chemistry, creativity and olfactory instinct - naming a fragrance is neither science nor art. At best, it is clever wordplay or effective sensory cue. At worst, it is focus-group marketing gone awry.
Le Labo, a niche fragrance house, is one of those that gets the name game right: It titles all its scents after the primary essence involved plus the number of ingredients in the formulation. Hence Vetiver 46, Ambrette 9, Patchouli 24. Informative yet original, right?
On the other hand, perfumer Kilian Hennessy takes the prize for most superfluous labels, as each of the nine scents in his Black Masterpiece series also has subtitled lower-case names. Two examples are Liasons Dangereuses: typical me and Cruel Intentions: tempt me. I'm waiting for Head Scratcher: confuse me.
In general, fragrance names are less a reflection of trends than a way of getting a customer's attention. To that end, many perfumers have succeeded of late, as I've found myself intrigued by a series of recent arrivals emphasizing sex. And by sex I mean gender. Dolce & Gabbana, for instance, has released The One Gentleman, which has Matthew McConaughey attached to the campaign (he was also their man in 2008). Last month, Paco Rabanne debuted the very decadent Lady Million. And the newest Thierry Mugler perfume has been christened - get ready to cringe - Womanity.
Clive Christian, the outfit behind "The World's Most Expensive Perfume," has also introduced C for Man and C for Women, veering away from a track record of neutral names such as No. 1 Perfume, X Perfume and 1872 Perfume.
What's with all the labels aimed squarely at ladies or dudes? While the market has always offered scents that are directed toward "him" or "her," an extended love affair with all things unisex has made gender-specific labelling increasingly rare until now. That's why all these sex-focused names stand out. Frederic Appaire, marketing director for Paco Rabanne, suggests that recent metrosexual and girl power moments in popular culture have made fragrances such as CK One, the once-revolutionary unisex fragrance, feel like an eternity ago, priming the industry for a labelling shift. "Fragrances have followed that evolution by becoming more gender-oriented and having more sensual, 'signed' notes for both men and women," he writes via e-mail.
To be sure, there is no ambiguity as far as the smell of these scents go. Lady Million, a follow-up to 1 Million, the men's scent housed in a gold bar-shaped bottle, is luxuriously sweet: I get grapes, bouquets of fuchsia flowers, the olfactory suggestion of a trophy wife. Womanity, meanwhile, is like tasting candy after an especially savoury meal - a reward of sweet balanced by a lingering hint of salt. It will not replace Mugler's iconic and aggressive Angel, but it's wonderfully flirty.
The One Gentleman, meanwhile, represents another interpretation of pepper this season - see also Marc Jacobs' Bang - with the addition of hints of cardamom, lavender, fennel and vanilla. These are flavours that appear in gourmet chocolates and, I suspect, would be equally delicious on a man. For the promo video, McConaughey is shown in the closing hours of a lavish party. "If you know who you are, there's nothing to prove," he says in voiceover. Compare that to Lady Million's tagline: "Lady Million is a dazzling femme fatale, creative and untamed. No man can resist her." In other words, he comes across as suave, while she's a predatory minx. This is the stuff of gender studies these days.
The Lady Million flanker (industry-speak for bottle) is shaped like a multi-faceted diamond, with an ostentatious gold-plated cap. Womanity is a pink juice housed in a long glass bottle topped by an engraved, tribal motif in a pewter-esque finish. These perfumes would look as out of place on a man's bathroom counter as a pair of Brian Atwood platform pumps in his closet. Yet at least there are no mixed messages. The problem with unisex fragrances, says James Bassil, editor of Askmen.com, is that they're not nearly as enticing for the gents as the ladies. While lifestyle publications have helped educate men about the world of scent, choices are still primarily made based on a partner's opinion or branding. Hence the importance of a name that doesn't beat around the bush. "Guys don't want to smell manly because that would be wood or axle grease," Bassil says by phone from Montreal. "They want to smell nice, but they're wary of anything wrapped up in femininity branding."
So is the great unisex-fragrance experiment pioneered by CK One over? There are still a number of strong gender-neutral scents on the market: I'd likely choose a nuanced Hermès, Tom Ford Private Blend, Frédéric Malle or L'Artisan Parfumeur fragrance in a blind sniff test over others that simplify the floral/wood formula. This latest branding - really another version of pink for girls, blue for boys - just rubs me the wrong way.
To muddy the perfume waters further, though, actress Kate Walsh has partnered with the Home Shopping Network to launch Boyfriend in November. The fragrance is intended for women, but is inspired by "the scent of a guy on a girl," according to the press release. Among young women, it may well prove a hit, although I doubt we'll be seeing Girlfriend any time soon. Married men wouldn't touch it.