A man’s taste in fragrance is a lot like his taste in music – a subjective affair influenced by everything from where and when he grew up to who he hangs out with. Much like some men prefer Grunge over Grime, some fragrance lovers are going to prefer Gucci Guilty over Givenchy Gentleman.
But in the same way that every decade throws up a few classic albums everyone seems to appreciate, each decade of fragrance has gifted its own olfactory Sgt. Pepper, Parklife or Purple Rain.
Many have achieved hallowed status by being truly groundbreaking, while others have done it a la Ed Sheeran and earned their place in the fragrance hall of fame through sheer number of sales. Others, like Dior’s Eau Sauvage and Hermes’ Terre d’Hermes, have achieved classic status simply because they’re so damned good (think of them as the Prince and Bowie of the men’s grooming world).
The fact that certain scents rise to the top in this way is a godsend for fragrance lovers because it makes wading through the thousands on offer that much easier, narrowing down the field and making it easy to populate your fragrance wardrobe with sure-fire winners. To find the right one for you (or as a gift for someone else) all you have to do is rifle through the back catalogue of greatest hits below.
Fragrances are often judged by their longevity on the skin. In reality, however, it’s their longevity on the shelf that marks them out as winners. A company has to have very deep pockets to keep unsuccessful scents in production so there’s a reason fragrances like Mäurer & Wirtz‘s 4711 (a superbly light and fresh citrus cologne that’s over 200 years old) and Aqua di Parma’s Colonia, launched in 1916, are still exciting nostrils today. The latter, a sprightly blend of Mediterranean citrus fruits and herbs, with a warm, woody base, is one of the most versatile scents on the market and one that every man should own at least once in his life.
Other pre-1960s fragrances regarded as true classics include Caron’s Pour un Homme de Caron, an aromatic lavender-based fragrance from 1934, which counts Tom Ford as a fan; Houbigant Fougère Royale, whose genre-defining, foliage-like greenness laid the foundation for modern men’s perfumery; and Guerlain’s Mouchoir de Monsieur, a dandyish spicy-floral fragrance often touted as the first fragrance aimed specifically at men, which dates back 1904. Wear any of these classics and you instantly signal your scent smarts to the world.
And let’s not forget good ol’ Old Spice. Though no longer popular with anyone under 50 (at least not outside of the US) it remains one of the most enduring men’s fragrances of all time. Give it a sniff next time you’re shopping and you’ll see why – its spicy-floral fusion of cinnamon, carnation, vanilla and musk has an old-world charm akin to that found in an Ealing comedy.
Stalwarts of the sixties
The modern men’s fragrance industry as we know it didn’t really come into its own until the sixties, when rising incomes gave men more spending power and advertising hit its stride, so it’s no surprise that some of the fragrance world’s most enduring classics come from this decade.
Dior’s Eau Sauvage – a superbly crisp, versatile scent combining fresh notes and sensual ones – remains one of the greatest citrus-based scents ever created. It was the first fragrance to use a (then new) synthetic ingredient called hedione, which scientists have since discovered stimulates a part of the female brain associated with the release of sex hormones. Great for both night and day, it’s a real workhorse of a fragrance.
Guerlain’s iconic Vetiver is a must-try too. A grass native to India, vetiver gives fragrances an earthy-but-sweet “green” quality and is a mainstay of men’s perfumery, but few scents have used it as deftly as this perfect-for-evening classic.
The legendary Aramis, meanwhile, broke new ground as the first prestige men’s fragrance to be sold in department stores. Its rich, heady combination of leather, jasmine sandalwood and amber means it smells as exotic and as distinctive today as it did when in launched in 1964, though it remains a scent that better suits older guys who are self-assured enough not to allow it to wear them.
Olfactory action heroes
With hyper masculinity back in vogue the 1970s was awash with herbaceous, barber-shoppy fougère fragrances (fougère means “fern” in French). Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, launched in 1973, helped modernise the category, blending herbaceous notes of rosemary and sage with geranium, clove, oak moss and tobacco. Though it smells dated to modern noses, it’s an undisputed classic crying out for hipster rediscovery.
Givenchy Gentleman also launched in the middle of the decade and remains one of the best patchouli-based fragrances there is – few modern perfumes can match its muscular, sexy-as-hell earthiness.
You only have to see an old episode of Top Of The Pops from 1984 to know that everything was from hairstyles to shoulder pads were big in the 1980s – and the decade’s best fragrances were no different.
If big, ballsy statement scents that people can smell before they see you are your bag then Creed’s Green Irish Tweed (a sophisticated but ferociously powerful evocation of the greenery of the Emerald Isle) is worth a sniff, as is Dior’s brilliantly quirky Fahrenheit (a fusion mandarin, violet leaves, patchouli and leather that some how smells like creosote) and the bombastic Joop! Homme (a sweet, floral fragrance with jasmine, honeysuckle and vanilla that took men’s fragrances into a whole new, less traditionally “masculine”, direction).
Calvin Klein’s iconic Obsession For Men, meanwhile, may have fallen out of fashion but is also a great option if you like upfront spicy, sexy fragrances with heaps of “nuzzle factor”.
Fresh thinking for the Nineties
If you’re a fan of light, fresh or “marine” fragrances, or are looking for something perfect for the office, then the 1990s is the decade to look to for inspiration. As is often the case with fashion trends, for every action there is an opposite reaction, so the heavy, bombastic scents of the eighties were swept away in the nineties by a wave of uber-light citrus and marine fragrances that were understated and minimalist.
The trend was heralded by Davidoff’s best-selling Cool Water at the very end of the eighties – a classic which popularised the use of calone: a synthetic ingredient which lent a sea spray freshness to fragrances. Other enduring launches from this period include Acqua di Gio Pour Homme, one of the most successful and versatile fragrances of all time; Issey Miyake’s ode to olfactory minimalism, L’eau d’Issey Pour Homme; and 1994’s iconic CK One, which established a blueprint for the gender-neutral fragrances currently gripping the industry.
Also emerging from this decade was Boss Bottled. Though its status as a “great” fragrance is disputed, it deserves a namecheck based sales alone. A fantastically wearable concoction of fresh, fruity notes and warm woody ones, it’s sold well over 60 million bottles to date and remains a global best seller 20 years after its release. Think of it as the Coldplay of eau de toilettes.
The noughties is often seen as a bit of nondescript decade, but it threw up a number of fragrances lauded for their originality and wearability. Hermes’ Terre d’Hermes – a spicy and woody fragrance with mineral and flint notes – is a true contemporary classic, loved by pretty much anyone who sniffs it. Dior Homme, launched a year earlier, redefined notions of masculinity by taking a floral scent and making it feel inherently masculine and sexy.
Chanel’s fresh and spicy Allure Homme Sport from 2004, meanwhile, is arguably the best “sport” fragrance ever created and is a testament to the skill of master perfumer Jacques Polge, who managed to create a fresh scent that also has bags of sex appeal.
And then there’s YSL’s M7, created under the auspices of the fashion house’s then creative director, Tom Ford. It may be less well known with the public than it is with connoisseurs, but it’s widely regarded as one of the most influential (not to mention sexiest) fragrances of modern times – effectively kick-starting the oud wood trend that is still going strong today.
What about right now? What hits of today could become classics of tomorrow? Paco Rabanne’s wildly successful 1 Million, Dior’s Johnny Depp-fronted Sauvage, and Chanel’s Bleu de Chanel might yet claim their place in the fragrance hall of fame, like Boss Bottled, thanks to stratospheric sales alone.
Elsewhere, Tom Ford’s sunshine-in-a bottle Neroli Portofino and his perennially popular Oud Wood, Creed’s Aventus, and Dunhill’s acclaimed interpretation of modern masculinity, ICON, probably deserve a place on artistic merit.
As is the case with music, though, it often takes years (or decades) for a fragrance to garner the approbation it needs to be considered a bona fide classic. Is that brand new Dolce & Gabbana number you’re wearing right now a Springsteen… or a Steps? Only time will tell.