From Kristen Stewart running to a soundtrack of Beyoncé for Chanel’s Gabrielle, to Margaret Qualley’s riotous Spike Jonze-directed dance for Kenzo’s World, this year’s fragrance campaigns spoke loud and clear – the stereotype of passive women in perma-states of orgasmic ecstasy is well and truly passé. So, could it be that sex simply isn’t selling?
Certainly, ‘sexy’ as we know it has changed. Push-up bras replaced by comfy lace styles, the death of the lad mag trope of attractiveness and individuality finally being championed by brands – an inevitable reaction, some might say, to the free-flowing porn and pushy hypersexualised images Generation Y grew up with.
Sex has changed too – in the sense we’re not having as much of it. Even today’s teenagers don’t seem to be sleeping together; staying chaste for longer and fooling around far less than teens in previous decades. Strange then, that two brands vying for the Millennial Pink Pound would launch new fragrances designed to make women smell like their ‘boyfriends’.
“I want it to smell like your boyfriend’s neck after he has been wearing cologne for eight hours,” Glossier Founder Emily Weiss said of the brand’s first perfume, You. Victoria’s Secret also riffs on the boyfriend theme – the latest addition to their army of scents, Love, includes a ‘Boyfriend T-Shirt’ accord (we’re told it’s a blend of traditionally ‘masculine’ aromatic notes and a watery freshness). At a time when more people are single than ever, it seems slightly ironic.
But creating women’s fragrances with traditionally ‘masculine’ notes – masculine in the sense they were once the reserve of men’s cologne – is an astute business move. Niche brands have long since unsubscribed from the concept of gendered scents, and with huge success; unisex perfume houses By Kilian and Le Labo have been snapped by Estée Lauder. While a recent survey of 66,000 people found that 70% of scents favoured by women were typically ‘masculine-smelling’.
Glossier’s borrowed-from-the-boys notes (chosen by noses from Le Labo, no less) are only part of You’s appeal. It’s fitting that Weiss would bring her “skin first, make-up second” philosophy to fragrance – and You is designed to be a “skin-like” scent with a “human-y” aroma. To perfume novices, it may all sound rather Silence of the Lambs, but simply means it’s heavy on the base notes; a melding of creamy musks, soft whispers of salt from the ambrox and the snuggly warmth of ambrette. Like many ‘skin scents’, the base and heart are delicately bridged with orris root, giving a powdery softness that conjures up memories of clean, bare skin from somewhere deep in our subconscious.
This is not a scent designed for seduction, nor to smell as overtly of sex as filthed-up florals like Fracas and the smoky, showy oriental, Shalimar. At first glance you could almost accuse Glossier of reaching peak individualism – You is meant to be enjoyed in “your own space”, it “smells like you” and you “are the first ingredient” – but the juice itself tells another story.
Powdery, warm, musky-yet-fresh – it’s no longer sex we want to smell like, it's human connection. And Glossier isn't the only brand getting in on the action. Chanel’s Boy recreates the "mark of a man on the skin of a woman”, Lazy Sunday Morning by Maison Margiela Replica "captures the sensation" of fresh sheets and soft skin, and Escentric Molecule’s Molecule 02 is an addictive reimagining of animalic ambergris. Comforting baby bonding memories are selling scents too. The Library of Fragrance’s Baby Powder cologne (that smells, quite literally of baby powder) is their universal bestseller, and Le Labo’s Ambrette 9 was originally made for new mothers and babies, but is now a cult hit with all types of customers – especially those in Japan, Le Labo told us.
British perfumer Roja Dove believes scent has always reflected the state of society, that fragrance and culture are inextricably linked. He explained to us how Jean Patou's extravagant Joy was a defiant response to the Wall Street Crash; how Yves Saint Laurent’s 1971 scent Rive Gauche embodied the spirit of women’s liberation – from its ‘power woman’ campaign to its, then, revolutionary all-aluminium bottle; how Calvin Klein’s stripped-back 90s scents – aquatic and clean – brought a sense of purity to a world devastated by AIDS.
And today? With screens replacing social contact, a ‘silent epidemic of loneliness’ affecting Brits of all ages, it’s no wonder we’re drawn to aromas with the power to evoke what we lack – real intimacy.