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Making sense of gender-neutral scents

“For Him” and “For Her” fragrance counters could vanish from department stores in the near future with more perfumers taking a gender-neutral approach towards scent. As a growing number of fragrance enthusiasts reach for perfumes sans gender associations, MiNDFOOD talks to Carlos Huber, founder of Arquiste, who’s mixing up the fragrance industry by returning to the roots of perfumery.

Making sense of gender-neutral scents

Unlike the vast majority of contemporary fragrances, all of Arquiste’s scents are technically unisex. “It’s outdated to create a fragrance and just say: ‘Let’s sell it to this person,’ and put an image of a beautiful woman in the advertisement and think this will sell to a woman who wants to be like her,” says Carlos Huber, founder of Arquiste. Huber explains that it was his desire to transport people to a moment in time – the cargo of a 16th century Japanese samurai ship sent to negotiate with Spain inspired his most recent creation, Nanban – that resulted in Arquiste fragrances being gender neutral. “I wanted to use the most exquisite ingredients, and these days people don’t want to be told who a fragrance is for; they don’t want to be told: ‘This is not for you,’” Huber says.

Despite today’s widespread separation of his and hers fragrances, deciding on a perfume wasn’t always determined by gender. Historians and anthropologists have traced the division of perfume by gender back to the early 19th century and the rise of the middle class – up until the late 18th century it was common for men and women to wear the same scents. According to cultural historian Constance Classen, as the middle class grew, perfume became seen as an extravagance, and scent grew more entwined with gender. Women were seen as not only frivolous but also sweet and innocent – characteristics that were associated with floral and sweet scents. Citrusy and woody scents, on the other hand, were deemed acceptable for men.

Although the division of scent by gender dates back more than 200 years, Huber says it’s hard to ignore the impact that advertising has had on how we think of fragrance; he believes the golden age of advertising and real life Mad Men are to blame for reinforcing the way we associate certain smells with masculinity or femininity. “Before advertising, fragrances weren’t image-based; they were woody, floral or green. It wasn’t about a visual interpretation of gender,” Huber says. Instead of consumers being swayed by glamorised ideals of femininity and masculinity portrayed in advertising, Huber explains it was simply about scents smelling good. “You had to go to a perfume store and choose because you loved the scent. You weren’t choosing because of an ad.”

Huber believes the current shift in fragrance is simply a reflection of wider change that’s happening regarding the way we think of gender – just look at the runway to see how androgynous fashion has surged in popularity over the past few years. “Things are changing. We’re seeing women who are more ambiguous about their tastes and men who aren’t embarrassed to embrace fashion, the arts and now grooming,” says Huber, furthering his point about gender lines becoming more blurred.

While the shift towards gender fluidity in the beauty industry is impossible to ignore, and more women are favouring notes that are often considered masculine, Huber admits creating a floral scent that men will love isn’t easy. “How do you make a skirt masculine? That’s difficult. How do you make pants feminine? That’s not so difficult. It’s harder for a man to wear floral notes without feeling feminine – it speaks to our insecurities,” Huber says. That’s why Huber tends to push woody, citrusy and green notes. “You have to push it to the masculine side. Even today sweetness and powderiness are scents that people identify as feminine,” he explains.

At the end of the day, however, Huber says you never can guess how people will react to different scents, and he is confident fragrances that are free from gendered labels give people the freedom to express themselves. “Maybe you’re too afraid to experiment with clothing, but you’ll perhaps be less afraid to experiment with fragrance. It’s about the person choosing the fragrance and whether it feels right for them.”

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