Ask a man-about-town what fragrance he is wearing and nine times out of ten, he’ll mention a fashion brand.
He’ll probably be wearing Northampton-made shoes. If especially prosperous, he will have a Savile Row suit and he might even sport a niche timepiece made in Glasshütte.
“I don’t really do brands” he will say, smugly “I always buy from specialists.”
Except, he does do brands. Because he’s wearing Bleu de Chanel.
“Oh but that’s fragrance” he will retort. “And anyway, Chanel is a fragrance specialist.”
Err, no. It’s not.
Fragrance Dominated by Fashion Brands
The domination of the fragrance market by fashion brands is a victory of marketing, nothing else.
That said, it’s a pretty overwhelming victory.
They line the over-lit shelves in airport duty free, the untidy bins in inner city short-lease discount stores; the rotating advertising on bus shelters and the cinema trailers for romantic movies; the in-flight magazines and department store concessions.
Brands such as Chanel, Calvin Klein and Armani have pulled off one of the greatest branding coups in history – and one of the most profitable.
Big Fashion IS all ABOUT Marketing
Even though Armani and CK’s ready-to-wear street cred is now deader than Elvis, they manage to suck in fragrance buyers on the strength that they are ‘reputable’ luxury brands and that they are ‘good fragrances.’
Many of them are certainly competent, but rarely are they unique or extraordinary. In fact, it seems like they’ve often spent more on the models in the photoshoots than developing the ‘juice’ in the bottle.
Not that that’s not impressive; it is, it’s incredibly efficient from a product development point of view. It just isn’t very good.
The Backlash AgainsT ‘Superbrands’
There’s been a bit of a backlash against this genericism in the female fragrance market. Superbrands like Dior and Chanel have combated it by releasing ‘exceptional’ fragrances, in an attempt to appear artisanal and experimental – and more like a real, contemporary fragrance house.
But the one thing I have always found most incredible, and frustrating, about the scent market is the obsession with the new. Black-suited store assistants with alarmingly perpendicular hair and poised with bottles full of chemicals ready to fire, interrupt your quiet wanders through department stores by telling you about the “new” Tom Ford or the “new” Dior.
“Have you tried it?” they ask, with an irritating sense of cheer.
No. I don’t want to, and I don’t need to.
Most New Fragrances are uninteresting
For one thing, new isn’t always good; in fact, newer fragrances are often poorly composed and designed to sell to the lowest common denominator based on the brand alone. They are replete with artifice and faux-sophistication. Not to mention their ridiculous names that sound more like varieties of prophylactic rather than scents.
And, much like in fashion and music – the best has already been done.
So take our hypothetical man-about-London, pacing Jermyn Street in his leather-soled shoes and fine worsted suit. In many ways, he is a man of a former world; highly invested in old-world craft and heritage brands. He likes his Goodyear welted shoes, he admires the hand-stitching on his suit, and he adores the fine, unshowy craftsmanship of his German watch – so rarely seen these days.
So why the hell is he happy with a spritz of some sickly-sweet puff that smells like a deodorant from the late nineties?
The shame of it is that the very street he walks possesses some of the most admirable old-world fragrance sellers, makers of scents which smell as meaningful, elegant and attractive as they did when they were launched, some of them over two centuries ago.
LONDON’S TRAD MEN’S GROOMING BRANDS RULE
When you don a Glen Urquhart flannel suit with chestnut semi-brogues, you surely can’t be thinking of Calvin Klein’s sophomoric ‘Be’ or Paco Rabanne’s vile ‘Million.’
Take a tweed suit, worn to the races with a vintage tie, fur felt fedora and burgundy wingtips – are you really going to wear Acqua di Gio?
So why haven’t many of these supposedly resourceful and focused chaps discovered the likes of old barber shops and 19th century cologne peddlers. Places where the scent comes first and the brand a distant second?
For a start, they’re a actually more masculine. There’s something cloyingly girlish about ‘designer brand’ fragrances – they’re usually littered with overly sweet top notes and depressingly ordinary base notes.
And don’t get me started on that typical one-hit-wonder nonsense that designer brands do – creating about seventeen slightly different versions of the same fragrance (Sport, Intense, Fraiche, Prive, Extra XS, Sport Fraiche…) because they’re terrified of creating something new.
Old fragrances recall different eras, locations, the herbs and oils they contain. They are honest and true. ‘Contemporary lifestyle’ scents be damned; a man needs a vintage powerhouse fragrance.
There’s something weighty and reassuring about a fragrance that has made countless generations of men and women swoon, whether they are wearing a silk top hat, felt fedora or baseball cap. You know it has been around the block – and then some.
In Part 2, we will explore these fragrances and the esteemed St James’s houses they come from, which still call this grand and genteel part of London their home – spiritually or literally. ML