Long before the iconic CK One and the age of gender fluidity, the French perfumer thought that a scent should be like a work of art: for anyone and everyone.
Do you consider sweet, fruity and floral scents to be feminine, and woody, musky, and tobacco odors to be masculine? Most of us automatically designate specific types of fragrances with a gender without even giving it a second thought, but fragrance has no specific gender; it’s actually gender neutral or genderfluid.
“Gendering perfumes—dividing them into so-called ‘feminines’ and ‘masculines’—is a marketing mechanism that was created by American marketers in the 1950s purely as a way to sell scent to straight American men,” wrote Chandler Burr—the journalist, museum curator, and fragrance expert who authored books like “The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York” and “The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession.” “Everyone in the industry knows — although they can’t say it publicly because their clients, the brands rely so heavily on it—that there is no male or female scent anymore than there is male or female music or painting or architecture. It seems real because we’re so used to it, but it isn’t real. It’s psychological marketing.”
When CK One debuted in 1994, the scent, made with notes of bergamot, cardamom, fresh pineapple, papaya, jasmine, violet, rose, nutmeg, and musk was one of the first fragrances to be marketed as unisex, but back in 1968, Diptyque created one of the world’s first genderless fragrances that was simply named L’Eau—a scent modeled after a pomander, an orange studded with cloves. L’Eau consisted of notes of green mandarin, cinnamon, ginger and benzoin, making for a fruity, spicy and sensual fragrance. This year Diptyque celebrates the 50th anniversary of L’Eau, the storied French fragrance house’s first scent. “Diptyque’s founders [painter Desmond Knox-Leet, set designer Yves Coueslant, and Christiane Gautrot, who was working in an architecture firm] were artists,” said Diptyque CEO Fabienne Mauny. “They were not necessarily business people, or they were not necessarily perfume creators. It was really about the pleasure they had to create beautiful products and beautiful fragrances. They didn’t want to put a fragrance into a box and say oh this fragrance is going to be a young or urban woman—because for them it’s like a piece of art. A piece of art is not for a specific public, a piece of art is a piece of art and you like it or you don’t, whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Now with terms like “genderfluid” and “gender neutral” being more commonplace, fragrance houses hold pride in not marketing their scents to a specific gender. Take for instance Le Labo’s Santal 33, the cult fragrance loved by the fashion industry, scented with notes of cardamom and sandalwood with leather, earthy Iris and musky ambrox. There’s also Byredo, which has fragrances like Sunday Cologne—a mix of bergamot, cardamom, star anise, geranium, incense, lavender, moss, patchouli, and vetiver—and the fresh and floral Inflorescence—pink freesia, rose petals, lily of the valley, magnolia and fresh jasmine. Ulrich Lang New York also offers scents that are gender free: there’s apsu, a perfect-for-summer cocktail of crunchy greens, cilantro, violet leaves, bergamot, white tea, dewy jasmine petals, water lily, pimento berries, iris, white musk, cedar wood and amber, and the light and powdery lightscape, made from galbanum, Sicilian lemon, violet leaves, iris, rose, violet flower, cyclamen, cedarwood, ambergris, tonka bean, cashmere wood, musk, and ambrette seeds.
Mauny, who said that L’Eau being unisex is just as relevant now as it was 50 years ago, asserts that all Diptyque fragrances—the house released Tempo, a sultry mix of patchouli, bergamot, violet leaf, clary sage, mate, and pink pepper; and Fleur de Peau, a light blend of musk, rose, iris, pink pepper and ambergris this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of L’Eau—is free of any designated sex. “They are all unisex,” he said. “They are all gender-free.”