When Did Perfume Stop Being About Sex?
Its hold on the global fragrance industry, which has lasted for decades, is weakening. You can thank the way people think about sexuality and gender changing.
When a new Yves Saint Laurent perfume came out in 2001, Tom Ford, who was the creative director of the house at the time, threw a big party at the Paris Stock Exchange and put a bunch of almost-naked models on display in a big plexiglass box. Nu, which is French for “naked,” was the name of the scent.
Linda Wells, who started the magazine Allure and went to Mr. Ford’s party, called it a “human aquarium” because it was full of models “writhing around” in their underwear. It was like a ball pit at a kid’s birthday party, but it was bigger, adults were drinking, and there were a lot of them.
Ms. Wells said, “It was all these bodies.” “This is all flesh. It felt like an operation.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine something like that happening, and not just because #MeToo made unchecked hedonism a no-no. The whole idea of marketing has changed. Most perfume designers and brands no longer use sex to sell perfume, and people don’t buy perfume to get laid.
For many years, seduction was a big part of how perfume was sold. Fragrance was a bottle that could help someone find a partner. This seems very out of date now that we have dating apps, which are a better way to find a partner than having someone smell you and fall in love with you.
Ms. Wells said, “It just seems really out of date and kind of rude.” “Now we all feel like, ‘Is this advertiser going to tell me how I’m supposed to feel or that I want to have sex because of their fragrance or that I want to become an object because of their fragrance?'”
Today, brands talk about where a scent will take you and how it will make you feel. Smaller, niche perfume brands like Byredo or Le Labo are advertised as “gender neutral.” These brands don’t use outdated ideas about men and women and only send one message about sexuality and orientation. It’s not a contest to see which perfume is the sexiest. Instead, it’s about which one can make you feel the most.
Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and author of “The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Mysterious Sense of Smell,” says that perfume marketing has changed from focusing on “direct themes” like power or sex to promoting a “personal journey.”
This journey could be about self-empowerment or being the best “you,” which is what Glossier sells with Glossier You. According to its website, the scent will “grow with you no matter where you are in your own personal evolution” because it’s “not a finished product. You’re needed.”
Different places are taken by different scents. The song Harlem Nights by World of Notes of musk and rum in Chris Collins’ perfume remind people of cigars, top-shelf liquor, and the nightlife of the 1920s.
When did perfume stop being about sex?
Evolving Gender Ideals
Culture has changed the perfume industry more than anything else, especially in the last five years.
In the past, perfumes were usually made for either men or women, but rarely for both. They were sold with the help of multimillion-dollar campaigns that showed traditional gender roles or overly sexualized images. Remember how Christy Turlington and Ed Burns were in the 1980s Calvin Klein Eternity ads? What about that sultry Gucci Guilty ad from 2010 with Chris Evans and Evan Rachel Wood? In today’s culture, both seem like they are for straight people.
The conversation is being led by younger people who have more fluid ideas about what gender, sexual orientation, and romantic relationships mean. “Gender neutral” and “genderless” are no longer fringe ideas. They are now important parts of fashion, makeup, and fragrance.
After that, there was a rise in unisex and genderless fragrances. In fact, many niche and artisanal brands that have become popular have never labeled their scents with a gender. Since Ben Gorham started the company in 2006, Byredo has advertised its scents as being for both men and women. The same is true for Le Labo, Escentric Molecules, D.S. & Durga, Malin + Goetz, and Aesop.
“It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from, or how you feel about yourself,” said Chris Collins, the founder and CEO of World of Chris Collins. All of the brand’s 12 scents, which have been out for four years, are unisex. He said, “There shouldn’t be a difference.”
Gender and romance are still very important to the success of major fragrance brands around the world. Even though Dior’s ads aren’t overtly sexual, they do show clear female ideals through Miss Dior’s ladylike campaigns, which have featured Natalie Portman since 2011, and those gilded J’Adore Dior ads, in which Charlize Theron has been playing a Greek goddess for 18 years.
“Romance doesn’t have to be old-fashioned,” Ms. Herz said. She said that the way romance is shown is more vague because “things are less defined heterosexually” now than they were ten years ago.
Why We Use Fragrance Now
During the pandemic, when stores were closed and there were few ways to try perfume before buying it, 45-year-old Suzanne Sabo from Levittown, Pennsylvania, bought perfume “blind.” The first perfume she bought was Jasmine Rouge by Tom Ford Beauty, which she found through an online ad.
The grant writer at a technical high school, Ms. Sabo, said that there was nothing sexual or sensual about it. “It was so simple—it just talked about the smell. I felt like a new woman when I wore the perfume around my house in sweats. I felt like a million bucks.”
Ms. Sabo has added Lost Cherry, Soleil Blanc, White Suede, and Bitter Peach to her collection of Tom Ford scents. She said, “It’s not like we live in a rich part of town.” “We are moms from the middle class, and we were stressed.”
Rachel ten Brink, a general partner at Red Bike Capital and the founder of the perfume line Scentbird, noticed that customers started to think this way a few years ago.
In 2015, when Scentbird customers were asked why they wore perfume, “how it made me feel” was the most common answer. Ms. ten Brink said that getting the opposite sexe was No. 6 or 7.
Others use scent as a way to show who they are. I.T. consultant and cybersecurity expert Carys Bassett from Bath, England, wears perfume to stand out, like a coat or shoes that make a statement.
Ms. Bassett, who is 37, said, “I like to leave a mark after I leave the room.” “Sex doesn’t bother me that much. I like to make a statement.”
The Growth of Hand-Made Perfume
Smaller, independent brands often have more creative ways of making perfume, like putting the focus on each ingredient and note or telling a story to get people interested. Most fragrances are stronger, bolder, and more expensive than the “free gift with purchase” staples of department stores.
Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry analyst at the NPD Group, said, “Artisanal scents have always been more about the scent, the notes, and the ingredients, and less about the image.” She said that things like lemons, oranges, or lavender on perfume bottles are “visual descriptors” that draw people in. “You’re not looking at an ad with just a man’s naked butt.”
Dina Fanella, a special education teacher in Las Vegas who is 50 years old, looks for unique scents. She doesn’t like mass-produced perfume for the same reason she doesn’t like big hotels: It’s too generic.
Ms. Fanella said, “I started to choose small fragrances that were made by hand and had more pure and exotic scents.”
Before the pandemic, she was interested in scents. She found independent perfume makers like Sage Goddess and the online community House of Oshun, whose founder, Lulu Eye Love, makes her favorite scent, Shut Up and Kiss Me.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian was Ms. Sabo’s first step into the world of expensive artisanal perfume. Through a partnership with Baccarat, the label got a lot of TikTok attention.
She said, “Of course I have Baccarat Rouge 540,” as if that was obvious to everyone. Ms. Sabo found out about the scent on TikTok and bought two bottles, a “eau de parfum” for $300 and a “parfum extrait” for $425, because a review on YouTube said that “you’ll smell this in every high-end restaurant in Manhattan.”
At the time, she joked, we couldn’t even go to a restaurant. “We used DoorDash to order food to go.”
Ms. Sabo had never spent more than $100 on a perfume before the pandemic.