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The scent of a man

Men's fragrances try to distill the essence of masculinity in a bottle. Celebrities such as Chris Evans and Matthew McConaughey are enlisted to help sell them.

November 27, 2011|By Adam Tschorn | Los Angeles Times
  • "If a guy is putting on the amount [of fragrance] he thinks he should be putting on, its probably too much," says Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation.
"If a guy is putting on the amount [of fragrance] he thinks he should… (Getty Images / PhotoAlto )

What should a man smell like?

This is not an inquiry to be undertaken lightly — particularly at this time of the year when the gantlet of parties, events and mixers that stretches from Thanksgiving into the new year is destined to put the fragrance profiles of near strangers beneath our noses as surely as stockings dangle from the fireplace mantle.

It's a timely question for other reasons. According to the NPD Group, a market research firm, one-quarter of all annual sales in the prestige fragrance category (defined as the scents sold at the department store level and higher) take place the two weeks before Christmas.

And if you consider that the men's side of that fragrance business is growing faster than the women's (12% compared to 9%, according to an NPD report on sales from January to October, 2011) and that Gucci Guilty Pour Homme topped the list of fragrance launches this year, then all attempts to divine the olfactory essence of dudeness become a matter of both dollars and scents.

So, one way to answer the question is to look at what men (or the people who shop for them) are actually buying. NPD says that during the first 10 months of this year, the five bestselling men's fragrances were Giorgio Armani's Acqua di Gio Pour Homme (in the No. 1 spot), Chanel's Bleu de Chanel, Gucci Guilty Pour Homme, Armani Code and Dolce & Gabbana's Light Blue Pour Homme.

What do all of these fragrances have in common — besides abundant references to the color blue and things aquatic? They all have scent profiles grounded in a combination of wood (including but not limited to forests full of cedar, sandalwood, juniper, oak moss and musk wood) and spice (practically an entire rack full of Szechwan pepper, ginger, bergamot, coriander and pink peppercorns).

Pull the common elements from those bestsellers, says Mark David Boberick, managing editor for the online fragrance publication the Perfume Magazine and a guy can start to get a whiff of what America's everyman most likely smells like. "Nowadays, it's all about the aquatics mixed with the woods," Boberick said. "Scents like Bulgari Acqua are a good example. It's aquatic but has a woody base. And Bleu de Chanel is the same way."

Does that mean Gucci Guilty Pour Homme (which we found redolent of cedar-planked orange slices dipped in glacier water) became the bestselling fragrance launch of the year because its chemical cocktail approximates quintessential manliness in some unique and different way?

Boberick doesn't think so. Gucci Guilty Homme "smells like a lot of other men's fragrances, with maybe a slight twist," he said. "It's good stuff but it's not groundbreaking. What probably put it on the list was an exceptional advertising campaign and a designer luxury label."

The designer luxury label is the Italian fashion house of Gucci, of course, and the exceptional advertising campaign he's referring to includes a fever dream of a commercial directed by writer-artist Frank Miller (who wrote the comic-book series "300"), which features a leather-jacket wearing Chris Evans ("Captain America") roaring through darkened city streets on a fire-belching motorcycle on his way to bed Evan Rachel Wood ("The Wrestler," "Ides of March").

Gucci's ad campaign is just the latest to rely on serious Hollywood firepower to promote a new men's fragrance. When Chanel's Bleu de Chanel launched in 2010, commercials starring French actor Gaspard Ulliel had none other than Martin Scorsese in the director's chair and a Rolling Stones song on the soundtrack. The video on Chanel's YouTube channel has been viewed nearly 1.25 million times since it was posted 15 months ago, and the scent has become the second-best-selling men's fragrance of 2011.

Celebrity affiliation — via advertising campaigns or full-on celebrity-branded product — has long been a key way to create the emotional connection and resonance needed to sell consumers on pretty bottles of scented liquid. Matthew McConaughey doffs his shirt for Dolce & Gabbana's the One for Men; James Franco was the face of Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme; and country singer Tim McGraw had a hit with his own branded fragrance, to mention but a few.

"A celebrity endorsement is a shorthand way of saying it's a scent of significance," Boberick said. "In this age of the Internet and the fixation on celebrity, for someone who isn't thinking too much about it, the idea that they might smell like a celebrity — or what a celebrity wears or puts their name on — is an easy way out. It's acceptable."

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