Gender-Neutral Fragrances Are Next Wave of Gender Identity Politics

Perfume - Main - P - 2016
Joseph Shin

With 950 out of 1,000 new niche launches gender-free, gender-specific fragrances are starting to smell passe: "Traditional sexist messaging just does not resonate with younger consumers the way it has previously."

Last week, Barney’s launched its latest fragrance, the unisex scent Phuong Dang Leather Up ($300 for 50ml), with a soiree at Rockefeller Center. "I try to capture the human spirit in liquid form and to transform how you feel; we all have masculine and feminine within us," said Dang.

This is the new normal according to Jennifer Miles, the store’s vp/ divisional merchandising manager for cosmetics. "We really carry only true niche fragrance brands, so most of our brands would be considered gender neutral or gender anonymous," she says. "We are giving a lot of these brands prominent exposure in both the women’s and men’s fragrance areas in all stores."

At an age when one of the country’s most legendary male athletes became a woman, the White House unveiled its first "gender-neutral" bathroom and Target proudly removed "boys" and "girls" signage from its toy departments, it should come as no shock that the line between male and female cosmetics is blurring, and gender-specific fragrances are starting to smell a bit passé.

"There is a global trend to genderless beauty in the higher end of the market," reports John Demsey, group president of the Estee Lauder companies. "It’s born out of Asia and makeup artist brands like MAC. In Asia, there is a whole notion of boy beauty; men use tinted moisturizers and concealers and Gen Z feels very comfortable with that. Mac was conceived for makeup artists, but 15 to 20 percent of their customers in L.A. and N.Y. are now men. Many are male actors and newscasters using product on TV, and there is probably not a political candidate in this country that isn’t using MAC. I would have to assume Trump’s man tan comes from someplace."

Adds Sharon Garment, a global beauty product development consultant: "It’s no longer just 'men wearing women’s products.' Now everyone just wants to present his or her optimal self."

The barrier-shattering trend can be traced back to the ‘90s when Calvin Klein launched the unisex fragrance CK1, which became a runaway marketing success (the company’s recent effort to reignite that fire with CK2 fell a bit flat because the industry has gone so much farther in that direction). And while recent MAC ads used the sons of model Stephanie Seymour, Harry and Peter Brandt, sporting stained lips, earth tone shadows and brow gels to look as pretty as their mom, fragrance is the arena where the trend is the most prevalent. "Five years ago there were fewer than 200 new niche fragrances, but last year alone there were over 1,000 new launches, and probably 950 of them were gender free," observes Amy Bourne, International Flavors and Fragrances’ regional marketing director for North America. "That market is up 24 percent since last year and it's growing double digits."

Ben Krigler, fifth-generation perfumer of the niche brand that bears his family name, says it was Hollywood that helped establish strong masculine and feminine fragrance marketing. "In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people would come to our boudoir and we would ask what they liked; it was not linked to gender," he maintains. "Then in the '40s, fragrance companies worked with movie studios, and very strong men like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne helped to promote masculine fragrances." Krigler says fragrance names impact gender perception. His company presented Extraordinaire Camellia 209 to Princess Charlene of Monaco, but when they sell it to men, they refer to it simply as "white tea," one of the more masculine-sounding ingredients. Chateau Krigler was long perceived as feminine because Grace Kelly wore it to the Oscars when she won for The Country Girl and referenced it in her acceptance speech. "Now, we call it simply Number 12, and men love it," he says.

Eric Korman, CEO and president of PHLUR, which makes only unisex scents, feels time-honored marketing techniques can be offensive to current clientele.

"We were trying to depart from the tired messaging of the fragrance category for the past 70 years, which was entirely laced in sex, the objectification of both genders, and an almost carnal misogyny," he says. "Traditional sexist messaging just does not resonate with younger consumers the way it has previously."

See gender-neutral fragrance options below: 

Atelier Cologne

Earthy wood notes layered with subtle floral and spice make the brand’s Emeraude Agar Cologne Absolue soft and wearable; $250, at Neiman Marcus, Beverly Hills.

Jo Malone London

The new Basil & Neroli fragrance has the eponymous notes, along with vetiver and cedar, for something fresh and clean; $130, at Jo Malone London, Beverly Hills.

Ex Nihilo

The Parisian perfume house’s Amber Sky Eau de Parfum has notes of nutmeg, vanilla and amber; $525, at The Scent Bar, L.A.


Kabarett Krigler 216 — an ode to 1920s Berlin — melds fruity florals and clove, coffee and saffron into a warm, spicy melange; $355, at The Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles, Beverly Hills.

Phuong Dang

Carrot seed, whiskey, carnation and leather? In the perfumer’s Leather Up, it all adds up to a confident albeit unique spritz; $300, at Barneys New York, Beverly Hills. 


The brand's Eau Parfumee Au the Noir is inspired by millennial Chinese black Tea;  $97,