If you've been in an elevator lately, you've probably been assaulted: A guy walks in carrying a cloud of cologne so potent that by the time you reach your floor, you smell like a burning forest, too. Whereas older European men were once to blame, now cute hipster boys (eager to broadcast their masculinity and sex appeal in the post-metrosexual age) are just as likely to be overdosing offenders. So imagine my relief when I recently found one male specimen who was refreshingly underscented — smelling like shampoo and skin, not an overpowering perfume.
With the visceral power of scent memory and the slow evolution of men's scents, it's no wonder I find so many men repellent — subconsciously, they all remind me of an old boyfriend who wore Gaultier's Le Male, that groundbreaking vanilla Oriental. "Like the previous Drakkar Noir trend, we're now seeing a whole bunch of fragrances spawned by Le Male," explains fragrance consultant Ann Gottlieb, who helped create the iconic Calvin Klein scents (Obsession, Eternity, CK One, Euphoria), as well as the now-popular Axe Dark Temptation.
But I'm not alone in my aversion — women in general are becoming more odor-conscious these days. Because of all the fragrance overload in the world today — freshness-renewing dryer sheets, scented room sprays, aromatherapy bed linens — there's been a backlash in female perfume, with women wearing less of it themselves, according to Gottlieb. However, the opposite is true with guys. "Ten years ago, men would've shied away from all the body-care products that are in the market now; they would've considered them too fragrant. But now, especially in the younger generations, they're used to all this sensorial stimulation," she says.
Sold under the guise of performance (such as covering up body odor for 24 hours or attracting the opposite sex), highly scented grooming products like body spray have changed the way guys shop for fragrance. "Axe is not a perfume, it's a deodorant. Young men are buying it for themselves," says By Kilian perfumer Kilian Hennessy. And they're so enthusiastic that the aerosol deodorant has a television commercial and website instructing users how much is actually appropriate (the "Double Pits to Chesty," which also inspired a motocross maneuver), emphasizing that asphyxiating re-application isn't necessary — ever.
Perfumers are betting that one day, these enthusiastic teenagers will grow up to be loyal fragrance connoisseurs. "Axe scents are created by the same people who work for the luxury brands," says IFF perfumer Christophe Raynaud, father of the current men's global best seller, Paco Rabanne's One Million (launching in the U.S. this fall). Consider the body spray as a starter perfume: "When boys have more money, they progress to buying fine fragrances."
According to Raynaud, One Million's appeal is in its diffusiveness, or how much it can be smelled. "Men like that it's so powerful because they want value for money. It's really important that a scent is long-lasting because otherwise they're taking that $100 and buying an iPod," he says. Hence the success of the macho Old Spice guy urging men to "smell like men."
Now here's the catch: Hennessy also reveals that half of men's fine fragrances are still received as gifts — from women. And men won't wear a fragrance if their girlfriend doesn't like it. So if you don't love the way your guy smells, speak up or go shopping for something new.
Thankfully, appealing to feminine tastes, the next wave of men's fragrances emphasizes freshness. Even Axe's new Twist is a clean citrus. "There are new synthetic notes that smell ultrafresh," says Raynaud. "Even leather will smell lighter. We're calling it suede." As for my rare fragrance-free guy? Well, he stuck around. But the last time he went to the drugstore, his signature Unscented deodorant was sold out. So now he's using Old Spice Swagger, and, surprisingly, I like it. But next time I see Unscented sticks, I'm stocking up.