A Dying Art

Words by Justin James
Photo by Indea Vanmerllin


It appears the definition of masculine fragrance has evolved in recent years. Historically, the remit for male scent primarily featured strands of woods, ambers, musks and a dash of lavender. In recent times, this long-standing approach has been somewhat abandoned with the introduction of fruit or vanilla notes as the foundation of the majority of male fragrances. Masculine scents are noticeably resembling their feminine counterparts, while female fragrances are becoming increasingly sweeter – sometimes to a sickly extent.

The movement of fruit-based masculine fragrance originates from South America – a region where heat is at a constant high with a need for airy and saccharine smells amongst its people. The times when once London, Paris and New York were the frontrunners of scent have somewhat dissipated as Brazil is now the fastest growing fragrance market in the world. Their impact on the world of scent is undeniable; with the creation of full-flavoured scents, leaning dangerously close to food smells, and “yummy” being the word du jour. Previously, fruitier odours were mainly reserved for summer edition flankers of major fragrances. However, the last ten years has witnessed major brands go sweeter, while their seasonal flankers have become garish renditions of their original design.

The times when once London, Paris and New York were the frontrunners of scent have somewhat dissipated as Brazil is now the fastest growing fragrance market in the world.

One fragrance launch I paid close attention to was 2012’s Spicebomb by Viktor&Rolf (the avant-­garde fashion house created by designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren). After the success of their women’s fragrance Flowerbomb in 2005 and male Antidote fragrance in 2006, Spicebomb was its long awaited follow-up which was completely justified. A solid cast assembled to bring the scent to life; Viktor&Rolf collaborated with perfumer Olivier Polge (the nose behind masterpieces like Boisee by Kenzo and The Beat for Men by Burberry) to create the scent, while renowned designer Fabien Baron crafted its signature hand grenade flacon. Fronted by the smouldering model Sean O’Pry, the fragrance achieved in capturing power and a blend of masculinity in its notes. 

Spicebomb is a study in hot and cold. Described as an “oriental extrovert”, it invites with bergamot and grapefruit, followed by elemi and pink pepper in the heart, while leather, tobacco and vetiver are in its base. It is the initial freshness and warmth which is key. The bergamot is dominant in its subtle glow, which is chased closely by the added punch of pink pepper. However, it is the base of Spicebomb that particularly intrigues in how it embodies a sweet, yet primal masculinity. Its final notes rouses the image of a gorgeous man raising the blankets letting you into a warm bed; there’s no question that this is a masculine scent. Yet, somewhere along the way this aesthetic has faded in the last decade, with Victor&Rolf’s Spicebomb being one example of a powerful and intricate scent being overlooked. It begs the question: Are we blindly following the trends being sold to us?

Fragrance is an international multi­billion dollar industry which sees a large proportion of designer brands and celebrities penetrating and cashing in. The problem? The use of fragrance as a marketing vehicle is one way in which the art of perfumery is diminishing. It seems as if a fear exists in wearing perfume which is unusual or left-field. Can it be that, much like clothing fashions, we need confidence when wearing something “different”? 

Spicebomb is a study in hot and cold.

While testing my own creations for JAMES&CO I found that wearing an experimental fragrance required a need for extreme confidence – like wearing a pair of bell bottoms or skinny jeans before they were trendy. Like fashion, a thick skin is required when experimenting with fragrance given the diversity of societal and personal attitudes. It feels as though only the brave trendsetters and fragrance aficionados are the ones bold enough to play with artistic niche perfumes.

As for mainstream fragrances, which are typically backed by a marketing machine; some scents sell, and some extremely well, but where is the artistry? One cannot help but wonder what happens when all fragrance compositions are simply being remixed repeatedly with an updated branding idea to make you believe it’s different to its former? How can scents made with discipline and mastery, such as Annick Menardo’s Black for BVLGARI or Isabelle Doyen’s L’antimatiere for LesNez, stand amongst their heavyweight competitors? These scents, although worlds apart, encapsulate the magic of fragrance experimentation and demonstrate how the seemingly unconventional can also sell well.

I have begun my journey in creating scents for both men and women, with the aim of rekindling the imagination of fragrance composition. I have used notes and accords that recall days gone when men smelt of ambers, leathers, musks and smoky spices. While my female-directed creations will take a whole new stance on sweet, fresh florals. Presumably though, we will always have niche perfumeries who will endeavor to create avant-garde and forward-thinking scents regardless of how many bottles sell in the shops. These innovative creators may also have the potential to influence the norms of mainstream fragrance – supporting the smaller-scale, niche companies may ensure that the art of perfumery will never die out.

Justin has a multidisciplinary design background and is the creative force behind the recently launched JAMES&CO. He is a self-taught perfumer and sees fragrance as art. You can find him at jamesnco.com

This article appeared in ODOU issue 4
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