Some time ago I was interviewed in a beauty magazine about unisex fragrances. This is a topic that is always interesting as labeling affects many fragrance choices made out there. So I have translated the whole conversation between me and the journalist (not all of it was in the article) so I can share it with you and hopefully you will share your thoughts on this with me.
How would you say that unisex perfumes have evolved during this and the previous century?There have always been perfumes and fragrances that are not categorized as masculine or feminine, while at the same time compositions have been created that do have that categorization. What is perceived as a masculine or feminine note is influenced by many factors, for example culture and zeitgeist. A time and society that is more rigid about gender roles is also more attracted to the labeling and to perfume note overdoses that affirm it.
When perfumers and perfume users start experimenting all sorts of interesting things happen. Cologne is a good example. Cologne used to be for men and in the US people (mainly men) still sometimes use the word “cologne” when they talk about “perfume for men”. Today we have fragrances such as Neroli Portofino, which has much of cologne tradition but more longevity, which is completely unisex. Another example is L’Etrog by Arquiste, which could be seen as a balsamic cologne. The uplifting mind-sharpening fresh quality of a cologne can just as appealing for a woman as for a man.
Fragrances such as CK One have been significant because they made fresh and long-lasting popular and widespread. They also questioned gender-focused mass-market perfume marketing.
How does today’s society affect the unisex trend?
That of course depends on which society we are talking about. If you and I take a look at our part of the world we can see that several systems of categorization exist simultaneously. You can present yourself as man or woman but also choose to define yourself in other ways, highlighting other things. When we let go of stereotypes we open up for more free, aesthetic and sensory paths to choices such as fragrance. We should not forget that the effect of a fragrance is the result of the meeting between the fragrance and the person’s skin, temperature and personality. Chanel no 5 is different on different people. So is Voyage from Hermès. Both could be perceived as very masculine or very feminine depending on who wears them, how and where. Yes, there are men who wear Chanel No 5.
I don’t see unisex in fragrance as a trend at all. Fragrance that is not specifically for men or women has always existed. But we are living in a zeitgeist that is attracted to discourse about gender roles.
Do you think that there are particular criteria for a perfume that is labeled as unisex?
Not really. There are many reasons why you would want a label like that. But, looking at all the things you can say about a perfume, e.g. how it is created and why… I would say this is one of the least relevant aspects when you talk about creativity or personal preference. And those two are the key aspects if you ask me. An overdose of some notes can make a perfume less attractive for a man or a woman, but those notes are not as many as those notes and compositions that can be interesting for both.
Some critics say that the unisex label is only a marketing tool. What do you think about that?
I would say that there are many perfumes labeled as masculine or feminine for marketing purposes, and that is a bigger problem because it causes consumers to miss out on great experiences. If someone markets a perfume as unisex I mainly see advantages with that. Let your skin and nose decide.
Do you think unisex fragrances appeal to men and women equally?
I think the fragrance mass-market feeds consumers with too many stereotypes and too little knowledge and insight. A person looking for a fragrance, and all the wonderful inspired perfumes that exist out there, deserve a more respectful approach with more knowledge and genuine personalized guidance. Generalizations can be so boring and they increase the risk of missing out on amazing personal choices.
I find it interesting that many niche perfume brands create unisex fragrances that are supposed to suit everyone yet are vey particular and not adapted to the majority. Do you see a contradiction in that or how would you explain it?
Many niche perfume brands create unisex fragrances, yes. They leave it open for us to explore without excluding, and many of these fragrances have so much character, gutsy creativity and idea in them. This is what I think: I think the mass-market has created an unfortunate illusion that a good perfume is a perfume liked by many. If you apply such reasoning you would have to make enormous amounts of compromise in the creative process. I would say that many niche perfume brands compromise less. It is easy to find 20 mass-market perfumes that will smell very nice on you.
But “smelling nice” is a very basic level. The real experience comes when you find something that smells right. Right on you, right to you. Something that really reflects who you are, and your preferences. You may not find 20 of those from one and the same niche brand but when you find your perfect fragrance you don’t care. I work entirely independently when I do consultations and one the values for my clients is that the process is detached from the market. I look at each individual and the matches between person and fragrance are never the same, it is so interesting, also for me.
What is your prediction for the future of unisex fragrances?
I believe the future of fragrance will include more knowledge and confidence for consumers and more generosity from perfumers and perfume brands in terms of sharing their knowledge. I therefore also expect that categorization of fragrances will be more pragmatical and less sales-oriented. Personal preference and curiosity will guide. I hope so.
Do you have any personal favorites among unisex fragrances?
Many high-quality fragrances can be unisex if you ask me. When I categorize other aspects are more significant for my work. Notes, sillage, nose and things like that.
PS: If you want to read a little bit more of my thoughts on this topic you might enjoy this older post.