In the course of my thirty year experience as a perfumer, firstly as an owner of a perfumery in Rome, and eventually as an artisan perfumer of fragrances by Officina delle Essenze and Bottega Profumiera, I often come across with the questions regarding the gender-connotation of fragrances.
“Is this perfume for men or women?” or “I’m looking for a feminine perfume for my girlfriend”. Every time it’s like finding yourself in front of an inaccessible mountain peak. There is a great number of people that are used to assign gender to perfumes. “It’s a feminine fragrance” and “it’s a masculine fragrance”, just like it happens with underwear or shoes.
This quite common belief is actually hard to dispel as it comes from a commercial concept that has been bombarding us since the 80s. However, when we talk about fragrances, especially artistic and niche perfumery, we must free ourselves from this concept. An artist who is ready to create a fragrance, often and willingly starts with a mixture of one, two or three raw materials or an olfactory theme at most. It might even be a highly valuable essential oil that was discovered by chance thanks to a new supplier.
The emotion that hides behind the creation of an authentic fragrance takes the aroma as its protagonist. Its combination with other scents together with all nuances that come out of this mixture. We can compare the art of a perfumer with the art of a writer, where aromas become words. When a story takes shape, a good writer doesn’t think about gender of his readers, on the contrary, he lets himself to be guided by the emotion of the story.
The same is for a perfumer, who in order to create a fragrance, starts his journey that won’t necessarily take him to where he exactly thought at the very beginning. That’s why it’s crucial to let the emotion, coming from your own perception, take you over. And it makes no difference if it takes 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 years or even more. The most important is to have ambition to create something that hasn’t seen the light of day before. This means to interpret an olfactory note in an original way and experiment ingenious paths.
You’ll consequently understand why it’s vital not to limit yourself with the distinction among masculine, feminine or unisex perfumes. Besides, we should also consider, especially in the case of artistic fragrances, that aromas speak with the emotional sphere of individuals and become ambassadors of emotions that vary from person to person.
Perfumes are made for people. And the attempt to assign a specific gender to a fragrance presents an improper way to relate with it right at a very intimate level of its perception.
Locking a fragrance in boundaries of male/female gender, away from multiple facets, doesn’t only diminish the fruit of a creation but somehow prevents from exploring numerous possibilities that the emotional sphere of each one of us perceives inside that perfume. In other words, it would be like affirming that the adventure book is an exclusive privilege of a male audience, while we all know that the reality is quite different.
In addition, we can say the interactions between the scent and the skin of each person are unique. The same fragrance can take different shades on the skin of another one and it makes even more useless to categorize perfumes.
I believe that every fragrance is like a journey. A discovery that needs to be explored without bias or limitations. My suggestion is to pay attention to the emotions that the aroma evokes, understand what it reminds you of and what it inspires you with.
At this point, I guess I must answer the question that you may ask yourself and which I’ve mentioned at the beginning of the article. If perfumes are truly gender-free, why do we daily get bombarded with messages that tell us the exact opposite?
The answer is quite simple: marketing! Starting from the ‘70s the perfumery underwent a process of industrialisation to the disadvantage of craftsmanship. The perfume market had to be enlarged and it was opted for among other numerous ideas to assign gender to fragrances. Addressing mass audience meant making more money and that’s why this path was taken.
Needless to say that the market expansion and its industrialisation had introduced tools that a certain type of marketing used in order to push sales and profits. Guiding a consumer to his choice is a key factor to beat competitors and create buying habits. And that’s where gender stereotypes step in, for example “sour and woody fragrances are for men” and “sweet and floral perfumes are for women”. Just one of the ways to pave the path right to easy and immediate choices!
To emphasize this concept even more, I’d like to quote one of the greatest perfumers of the last forty years, Jean Claude Ellena, who states in one of his interviews: “my talent was not to follow the market. I managed not to be influenced by the economic process. Economy is like an ogre that loves having always the same meals and offers always the same dishes”.
The task of a perfume creator is to break stereotypes inside fragrance lovers. If the economy changes the approach to fragrances, the art should suggest an innovative approach to its creation. Many independent perfumeries have opposed to the standard approach. They try to enhance exploration of the individuality in perfume.
In fact, fortunately, many people over the years have refused this form of standardisation. For example, a lot of women have been always using perfumes promoted as masculine, simply because they love woody notes, which are certainly absent in fragrances indicated as feminine.
My little piece of advice is to approach perfumes with the purity and innocence of a child. Have a desire to discover on your own the emotions that come from your soul and not mind. It is people who wear a perfume and everyone should make a choice in a gender-free environment.