If teen spirit smelled like anything in the ‘90s, it was CK One—the Calvin Klein fragrance that defined the decade with its fresh, citrus-forward notes. When it launched in 1994, it was marketed as a scent for everyone. “A fragrance for a man or a woman,” read the tagline in an ad that featured both male and female models in various stages of undress. Democratic in principle and aggressively nonaggressive in spirit, it deeply resonated with its consumers, going on to rake million by the mid-‘90s. As simple of a concept as it was, CK One has been heralded as the first unisex fragrance of its kind, shattering conventions in the eau de parfum world.
And yet, in the 25 years since, no other brand has come close to achieving the same kind of inclusiveness at a mainstream level (Le Labo’s ubiquitous Santal 33 might just be the exception). Fragrances, by and large, have been divided, catering to a specific gender.
“It has more to do with marketing the product rather than the customer’s taste,” explains Sylvie Ganter, co-founder of Atelier Cologne. “For a brand, they’re asking, ‘Who is my ideal customer? What does she look like? And how do we appeal to her?’ A lot of it is driven by a desire to sell.” Ganter likens it to the food industry, offering up cereals as an example: Some are marketed to children with fun flavors, cute shapes, and a rainbow of colors (think: Lucky Charms and Trix), while adults are given health-conscious options (Raisin Bran, Special K). “There’s a divide because it’s a way to sell to a larger audience,” Ganter says. “It’s a symptom of the economy—this need to sell more.”
The genderization of fragrances is evident from the packaging alone. Traditional perfumes that target women are housed in bottles shaped in super-girly motifs like hearts, lips, and tiaras, and colored in pinks or purples. Colognes for men, on the other hand, display a hard, masculine exterior: simple and broad-shouldered, void of any embellishment. But Ganter argues that fragrances shouldn’t be separated, there shouldn’t be a differentiation between men’s and women’s scents—and they certainly shouldn’t be packaged differently. It’s why the fragrances that she and her husband and co-founder Christophe Cervasel have developed for Atelier Cologne are not only gender-fluid, but they’re all bottled in the same clean-cut vessel—in much the same way as CK One’s minimalist packaging. “It’s like wine,” she continues. “All wine bottles look the same—there isn’t wine for women and wine for men—so why should it be different for perfume?”
Though when it comes to the fragrance itself, notes have also been historically classified as masculine or as feminine. “The perfume industry, with the rise of the marketing, has developed classification and olfactive family that are slightly different between men and women (the fourgère family, for example, is classified for men),” says Diptyque’s Myriam Badault, explaining that the French fragrance house doesn’t assign genders to its scents. “And somehow, for reasons that I do not know, there was less fantasy and freedom in the raw materials palette that we used to work with. It’s detrimental because [scents are] link to your senses. Do we classify tastes, sights, the sense of touch by gender?”
But it’s hard to break out of our olfactory biases—we’ve been conditioned to believe florals are strictly for women and woods and musks are for men. With that thinking, there are preconceived notions when it comes to scents that are traditionally deemed as feminine, like vanilla and rose.
“The minute you say rose or vanilla to men, they immediately shut down—by disclosing the name of the scent, they judge it before they smell it,” Ganter says. “I don’t believe perfume has a gender. You can give it a gender by the way you dress it or arrange it. But when you prescribe roses for women and woods for men, you’re missing so much.” In the end, it all boils down to how these scents are “dressed.” By loading up a rose with more florals, Ganter says it becomes a “caricature of a floral perfume, so of course it’s going to smell more feminine.” (Atelier Cologne’s Rose Anonyme scent, for example, uses wood and patchouli to achieve a smokier, darker effect.) It’s up to fragrance brands to strike a balance that appeals to more than one gender.
Now, 25 years since CK One, there’s more attention on inclusivity than ever, especially with the national spotlight on the spectrum of gender identities. It’s given birth to genderless beauty brands from the outset and driven legacy beauty brands to bring gender-neutral fragrances to market.
In February, when ready-to-wear brand Vince ventured into fragrances for the first time, it did so with a trio of scents that were for all genders. Earlier this year, Carine introduced her namesake genderless perfume line called 7 Lovers, which was inspired by lovers from the editrix’s favorite cities across the globe. Michelle Pfeiffer, too, released five genderless scents with the launch of her clean fragrance brand Henry Rose that are deeply rooted in personal memories. Around the same time, gender-neutral skin care brand Non Gender Specific also rolled out a fragrance called Flooid. Emerging fragrance brand Kierin markets its perfumes to all genders. And Pheroe has created unisex travel-sized fragrances for those who are always on the go. And last month, Gucci released Mémoire d’une Odeur, the luxury brand’s first perfume that’s “unassigned with a gender or a time.”
All of this points to a shift in the fragrance world—one in which fragrances are dictated by a mood or a personal connection, and not by gender. “Perfumes are so emotional,” Ganter says. “And I don’t think it’s the job of a brand to decide if a scent is for a man or woman.”END
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