Every Christmas, I get to watch my brothers participate in a familiar ritual. Among the gifts they unwrap there will always be a men’s fragrance, selected for them by my mother or my sister, and usually purchased “as a set” at a department store. The set means they not only have their new fragrance as an eau de toilette, but also as a body lotion and an after-shave. And nearly every year, my brothers open the gift, sniff the cap, and mumble their gratitude.
I am positive that men all over the country are bound to participate in a similar ritual this holiday season. After all, fragrance is easily one of the biggest gift categories there is—right up there with candles and ties. But the bigger question is: Do any of you actually like what you’re unwrapping?
There has to be a better way. For more, I talked to Frédéric Malle, the founder of Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, and a master of modern perfumery. His brand, now celebrating 20 years with a new book by Rizzoli, is famous for diverging from the industry’s norms around the holiday season. In two decades, Malle has never released a “special holiday scent,” nor has he created gift boxes complete with limited edition lotions or after-shaves for “added value.” Instead, he’s maintained that the scents in his collection speak for themselves. So I figured he was appropriately skeptical—exactly the right person to talk through this dilemma.
First, know that giving a fragrance is risky business. You can still choose a less-fraught gift—it’s not too late! “A perfume says a lot about who you are, and it’s important to affirm your personality,” Malle says. The men who merely use what they are handed, he adds, are giving something up by not asserting their tastes in this department. “It’s like saying, ‘My wife dresses me.’”
If you’re dead-set, when thinking about buying a fragrance for someone else, he recommends thinking about scents as like adding to someone’s watch collection. “Sometimes you buy a sports watch, like a Rolex,” he says. “And you can wear it with a tuxedo, too. It’s not conventional, but it would show an aspect of your personality. There are certain perfumes just like that.”
To extend Malle’s analogy, let’s say you want to give the Rolex of fragrances. A Rolex is a luxury purchase, so you’re thinking of a guy who wants the finer things—but you don’t like your shit to be too precious. Maybe you want to stay old school and swing for a super classic OG scent, like Eau Sauvage by Christian Dior or Sisley’s Eau de Campagne.
Alternatively, you could go for a newer luxury scent, like Malle’s own Bigarade Concentrée, a gentlemanly mix of bitter orange and cedar. Either way, you’re probably staying in the fresh, aromatic woods and citrus category—meaning you can wear this to work or on date night, and it’s equally appropriate and sexy.
On the other hand, some guys like to get right to the point. Maybe these guys are the type to always be fresh from the barber with the right flash of diamond-encrusted Hublot on his wrist. “There are certain perfumes that are for seduction,” Malle says. “So if you want to be in this sharing mood and say, ‘my body smells like this when I take my clothes off,’ you’ll need something a bit more specific.” Often, fragrances in this category are described as “musky,” which is a little bit of a misnomer since pretty much every perfume out there contains at least a hint of musk—but it gets the point across just fine. These typically veer towards the musky and edible, or could give you musky, leathery, and spicy. For the former, few contenders are as much of a unisex knockout as Musc Ravageur from Malle’s line.
For the latter, try Byredo Sellier Night Veils or Tom Ford Oud Wood.
Then, there’s the always-in a suit-with-a-Cartier-watch kind of guy. This is the traditionally masculine category, for someone “super dapper and super sophisticated.” What chest hair smells like under a Charvet shirt, you know? Malle designed Monsieur, a patchouli blend, with exactly this in mind—but another blend you might consider is Sartorial by Penhaligon’s.
And lastly, there’s the modern update to this category. Malle designed Vetiver Extraordinaire for him, and indeed, Vetiver feels like the right ingredient for this kind of a guy—Vetiver is a green grass that is herbaceous or woodsy, depending on how the perfumer plays with it. You can find a whole host of interesting twists on Vetiver at the market, but Guerlain’s is the slightly more classic approach. Either way, it is quintessential and timeless.
The best thing about perfume, though, is that it’s not anywhere near as expensive as a Rolex. (Yes, even for a bottle of Malle’s exclusive concoctions.) You’ll have more success if you think about adding a little variety rather than coming up with someone’s new signature scent. If one day he’s feeling like James Bond, he can try a dash of vetiver. And if one night he wants to surprise with a skin scent that screams “we’re not falling asleep until morning,” he can top off his t-shirt with a splash of something musky. As Malle explains, perfume says a lot about a person—but it doesn’t tell the whole story. And rarely are any of us the exact same from day to day—let alone from day to night.
Especially when we’re all inside for another couple of months at least, it’s the little things—like fragrance—that can really help make you feel like one day is different from another, like you give a damn. “Each perfume has a purpose, it does something to you.” Malle says. “It generates a feeling.”