Back in 2004, when men’s and women’s skincare and skincare products were strictly divided into a male vs. female dichotomy, and the packaging was blue or pink to prove that point, Andrew Goetz and Matthew Malin they released Malin + Goetz. The unisex line had clean, nondescript packaging and the focus was on the efficacy of the products, not who was using them.
“As we built our business, we looked at how we could remain unique and fill a gap in the market, and part of that had to do with the fact that most beauty was focused on women,” says Malin. “There was a small and growing segment at the time focused on men. There was nothing living in the genderless or unisex space.”
Eighteen years ago, this genderless approach to personal care was a game changer. But now, the aisles are less and less divided into “masculine” and “feminine,” and it’s unisex scents that have stolen the spotlight.
The future of fragrance is gender.
Until recently, “masculine” fragrances tended to be aquatic and woody scents represented by a campaign that featured a tough man steering a sailboat, while women were expected to smell like delicate florals or sultry and sexy.
“In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, fragrances became gendered because they were used as a seduction tool, more specifically, a heterosexual seduction tool,” says Steve Mormoris, CEO of Scent Beauty, which partnered with The Phluid Project to launch a line of gender-inclusive fragrances in fall 2020. “…But what’s interesting now is that consumers use fragrances to create an individual signature. It’s similar to getting a tattoo or wearing a a special piece of jewelry or an item of clothing that belonged to a grandparent or an ex-lover, it’s just another signature item.”
The idea of ”everyone” fragrances may seem new, but it’s actually rooted in a centuries-old beauty tradition that goes back long before Calvin Klein released its unisex CK One perfume ($65) in the ’90s. to apothecaries 100 or 200 years ago, you didn’t walk in and say, ‘I’m a man, give me a man’s treatment’ or, ‘I’m a woman, give me a woman’s treatment.’ Malin says. “You walked in and said, ‘Here’s my problem,’ and the chemist mixed something up for you in a bottle. That was what we were trying to communicate with our back-to-basics approach.”
Now, traditionally masculine notes like patchouli and leather are featured in women’s perfumes, while classic feminine notes like rose and white flowers are found in colognes, and people in general flock to the scents that elude gender expectations. Case in point? When Malin and Goetz launched their Strawberry Eau de Parfum ($95) in 2021, the founders had a hunch that the scent would be more popular with women than men. But they were met with a surprise: it was an even split.
This shift to gender-neutral fragrances comes at a time when the world, far beyond the beauty industry, is rethinking its approach to gender: A 2021 study by advertising agency Bigeye found that 50 % of Gen-Zers and 56% of millennials consider traditional gender roles and binary gender labels outdated. And as consumers have begun to challenge stereotypical “masculine” and “feminine” ideologies, perfume offerings have stepped up to satisfy them.
“We use the word ‘gender,’ which is the opposite of genderless,” says Matthew Herman, the founder of Boy Smells. “That can be very neutralizing and it’s like we don’t recognize that gender exists at all. I like ‘gender’ because it shows a wholeness about masculinity and femininity and celebrates gender diversity. People are using ‘genderfluid’ more for brands: I also really like that word”.
How brands develop fragrances that feel like they’re for everyone
Formulating fragrances that transcend gender expectations is not without its challenges. “It’s like music: our perfumers are like songwriters trying to avoid the pop clichés or classical music refrains they grew up with, so they had to think outside the box to create a scent combination that would conjure up something completely different.” to ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’ in a traditional sense,” says Mormoris.
“We’re based on the idea that we can reconstruct gender ideas and stereotypes, and part of the reason why Phluid is spelled with ‘ph’ it’s because each of us can find balance…in masculinity and femininity and all the attributes that come with being masculine and feminine,” adds Rob Smith, co-founder and CEO of Phluid.
Boy Smells, which launched in 2016, was designed with a similar spirit in mind. “When we decided to do Boy Smells, we called it ‘Boy Smells,’ but we put it in a pink box, and it’s a statement of ‘I love the color pink, there are aspects of my identity that are feminine, but I’ve been saying I should remove that from my identity because I’m a man,” says Herman. “For me, it was reclaiming space to create these candles and fragrances that mix traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine to reflect the complexity of a much more modern identity than the previous one”.
Ultimately, everyone, no matter where they are on the gender spectrum, is invited to the perfume party, and there is much more nuance when it comes to gender and scents. “Our fragrances reflect the identities of my friends, the people I follow on Instagram, and the people who are important to today’s culture,” says Herman. “Identity is a much more diverse, layered and interesting canvas than it used to be. The fragrance is reaching that level of diversity and hopefully feels more inclusive.”
Shop our favorite gender inclusive fragrances
Boy Smells Cashmere Kush — $98.00
With top notes of fruits and flowers (rhubarb, tulip and wild lily) and woody bases (vetiver and cashmere woods), this fragrance gives you the best of both worlds. “He’s very wild and untamed,” says Herman. “But then the powdered musks give it that softness and luxury. That unbridled sophistication is great.”
Malin + Strawberry Goetz — $95.00
Strawberry is rounded out by top notes of bergamot and pink pepper; a heart of jasmine and green forest leaves; and a base of cedarwood, oakmoss, captive musks, and orris root for an unexpected interpretation of a favorite summer fruit.
“When you look at the name, there’s something inherently clichéd about it,” says Goetz. “The first thing people think of is something cloyingly sweet with vanilla, you know, a teenage girl from the suburbs. When we called it Strawberry, we knew perfectly well and it was very intentional, because when you discovered this fragrance, it was the exact opposite. There is nothing sweet or cloying about it. It’s actually incredibly sophisticated with green notes. When we called it Strawberry, we were making fun of the world in general and being a little cheeky.”
Byredo Gypsy Water — $196.00
Byredo’s unisex scents span perfumes, home fragrances and body care, and the brand’s combination of thoughtful chemistry and Scandinavian design have elevated it to peak popularity. This mystical fragrance is an homage to Romani culture and has gained a following for its mix of woody notes like juniper berries and pine needles juxtaposed with lemon, pepper and vanilla.
The Phluid Project Transcend Eau de Parfum — $55.00
“Transcend is much more of a gourmet fruity floral fragrance because it’s about breaking barriers, breaking boundaries and establishing yourself as an individual despite all the stereotypes you grew up with,” says Mormoris. By combining light florals and fruits with earthy notes like Palo Santo, the resulting blend delivers the kind of aromatic harmony you’ve come to expect from all Phluid products.
Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540 Eau De Parfum — $325.00
Elsewhere in the beauty world, Rihanna has been working to make products feel less gendered (when she launched Fenty Skin in 2020, she tweeted, “Whoever told you skincare has a gender, he lied to you!”), so it makes sense that his signature scent is similarly unisex. A real eye-catcher, this fragrance has been a crowd favorite ever since. Maison Francis Kurkdjian and Baccarat decided to celebrate the crystal maker’s 250th birthday by creating a delicious woody-amber fragrance.
DedCol Fragrance 01 Teasing — $90.00
DedCool founder Carina Chaz created the brand’s first fragrance, Taunt, as a way to feel more comfortable in her own skin. “The vanilla mixed with notes of amber really helped me explore my feminine side,” she previously told Well + Good. “When creating the Dedcool concept, Fragrance 01 Taunt and Fragrance 02 were the first two to launch as I envisioned women using masculine scent profiles while breaking down that gender construct.” The scent is now part of a larger line of fragrances, all of which strike the perfect olfactory balance.
Off-White Paperwork Solution No. 1 — $185.00
Although bergamot has traditionally been a staple in floral and “girly” fragrances, Off-White reinvents its potential by blending it with vetiver and patchouli for a result that must “smell like sand.” It launched this summer alongside three other perfumes and a gender-inclusive makeup line marking the brand’s first foray into beauty.
Le Labo Santal 33 — $215.00
Le Labo’s Santal 33 was designed to evoke a sense of personal freedom. Although it blends woody, musky, spicy, and leathery notes, which have traditionally been associated with masculine fragrances, the final product feels as genderless as the brand intended.
Snif Collection 3 Fragrance Pack — $150.00
Snif’s line of gender-inclusive fragrances is so delicious, it’s hard to pick just one. This three-pack includes Burning Bridges, a blend of sweet, smoky vanilla and tobacco; Natural Talent, an earthy yet bright fruity scent that mixes apricot and soft suede; and Show Pony, a spicy floral. The brand lets you sample its products before committing to them (you’ll only be charged for what you decide to keep), but you’ll almost certainly want to keep these three signature-worthy scents in rotation.
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