Tricky subject — scents for men. Some of those most admired for their elegance wouldn’t dream of dousing themselves in any of the eaux that are so expensively packaged and marketed. Take Gordon Campbell Gray, the taste behind those chic hotels One Aldwych, Carlisle Bay and Le Gray in Beirut, who is always impeccably (but not too much so) turned out.
When I once asked him what he wore, he said: ‘Absolutely nothing. I use Cedar of Lebanon soap by Senteurs d’Orient, made with hand-picked flowers and blossoms, and when people are kind enough to say that I smell nice I tell them it is nothing but cleanliness and soap.’
But there are others for whom wearing something that smells divine, that is discreet, elegant, and — most importantly — their own is as essential to their sense of well-being as having a shower or cleaning their teeth. Without it they’d feel less than ready to face the world.
What we’re talking about here is proper scent — not that ghastly leftover from the Seventies, a thing called aftershave, which classically consists of 1-2 per cent fragrance and a great deal of alcohol. ‘In the bad old days,’ says James Craven, perfume archivist at Les Senteurs, one of London’s loveliest niche perfumery shops, ‘when men feared using fragrance might be considered effeminate, the sheer agony of aftershave and its starkly masculine semi-clinical name was reassuring.’
Today no gentleman ‘ever wears aftershave’, says Michael Donovan, another perfume aficionado: ‘After shaving, the skin needs a soothing balm or moisturiser, not a splash of alcohol.’ Creed, a 250-year-old French brand with some lovely men’s fragrances, does some hydrating and soothing creams scented to match.
Nicky Haslam, that ineffably well-connected man about town, told me that he swears by Sisleÿa for Men, made by Sisley, a French brand that specialises in using active botanical ingredients to which it adds the latest discoveries in chronobiology, genetics and skin physiology.
You can’t just hurl it on, though, says Craven. ‘A classy man never uses perfume to cover up his own lack of hygiene,’ he says. ‘Perfume should only be applied to immaculate skin, hair and clothing. A classy man should smell delicious, expensive and as though his scent is a natural secretion exuding from his own pores, not applied from a bottle.’
While he thinks a certain sort of woman can pull off a cheap and cheerful fragrance, a classy man never can. Nor should he ever wear too much, and he should especially go easy if in church, at the races, in a restaurant or at the office. Craven thinks that in these circumstances ‘there is a case for going back to the old custom of wearing it on a handkerchief rather than the person’. Our classy man must avoid anything that calls attention to himself and yet there should always be a hint — but just a hint — of la bête humaine.
SEVEN FROM HEAVEN
So if you’re wondering what to wear, here in no particular order are some of my all-time favourites.
Vetiver Extraordinaire by Frederic Malle — Editions de Parfums (£110 from Les Senteurs): Malle himself is not a perfumer, though he has a most sophisticated and educated nose. Rather, he sees himself as an editor who commissions the ‘noses’ he admires to create the perfumes of their dreams, without regard to cost or marketing briefs. The result is some heavenly perfumes. Dominique Ropion’s Vetiver Extraordinaire is a crisp, super-elegant, immaculate chypre with lots of green, woody notes. As Craven puts it, ‘It’s like diving into a cool jade-green lake or showering under a forest waterfall. A scent to wear with your most expensive tailoring, your best shoes, a £200 hair makeover.’
Bois du Portugal by Creed (£150 from Les Senteurs): Some 30 years old, it is deep, soft and velvety, smelling of summer forests in Portugal filled with fragrant woods, lavender, oak moss and touches of lemon, citrus, sandalwood and cedarwood.
Bullion by Byredo (£130 from Liberty): For those who are confident and unafraid and want to wear something spanking new rather than a grand old classic. Byredo was founded by Ben Gorham, a 6ft 5in half-Canadian, half-Indian former professional basketball player who now lives in Sweden. He aims high, using only the finest materials, and he’s a fresh new ‘nose’ worth trying. His perfumes have a cult following. This has pink pepper and black plum at the top, some leather in the middle, and down in the base are the dark woods, sandalwood and sensual musks that give it extra power.
Pour Un Homme by Caron (£61 from Escentual): This was created way back before the world of metrosexuals, 80 years ago, when the words ‘pour un homme’ were essential to reassure a chap that it was perfectly OK to dab some scent about his person. This is generally agreed to be one of the great all-time masterpieces. A cool minty lavender from Provence, it is among the most sophisticated and elegant of them all. Michael Donovan says it ‘always makes me feel like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief — I’m on the French Riviera, driving along the Côte d’Azur, the sun is shining…’
Eau Sauvage (£65 from the Perfume Shop): The great Edmond Roudnitska made this for Parfums Christian Dior way back in 1966. It was a game-changer in its day: Roudnitska played around with a classic cologne formula, refreshed and modernised it, adding shots of pine needles and rosemary as well as, famously, some hedione, a synthetic floral accord.
Geranium Pour Monsieur by Frederic Malle — Editions de Parfums (£105 from Les Senteurs): Another of Dominique Ropion’s great creations for Frederic Malle. It’s a symphony of mints and peppermints, bracing, sparkling, tingling like a morning wake-up call, a perfect one to wear in the workplace. And then later it warms up. Craven likens it to a Hitchcock blonde — all confidence and frosty magnetism which melts on acquaintance.
Castle Forbes Gentleman’s Cologne (£50 from Roullier White): A bit of a hidden gem. Created by Andre French for the small perfumery based at Castle Forces in the Highlands, this is a perfectly poised cologne, a complex blend of citrus, oak moss, lavender and pine.
These are just a few to get you sniffing. But remember, most fine perfumers reject the whole notion of buying fragrances by gender. Geranium Pour Monsieur, as we’ve seen, is perfect for a classic blonde beauty — think Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman.
But many a woman’s perfume may work just as well for a man. Choose the one you love, whoever you are and remember, always, the advice of that eminence grise of the perfume world, Roja Dove: ‘It’s not enough to quite like a perfume — you should fall madly, passionately in love with it, otherwise why bother?’
Czech & Speake’s ‘Air Safe’ manicure set (£196) is a brilliantly designed little set of nail file, scissors, cuticle pusher and nail clippers that safely passes the ‘dangerous weapons’ test at all airports so can be happily packed in your hand luggage. The secret is in the Teflon coating on all the instruments. They all come in a chic little zipped container. Genius, we say.
Simon Carter makes great cufflinks, and even the most laid-back of dressers has need of a pair from time to time. Nicest of all, though, are the octagon-shaped ones in either mother-of-pearl or onyx — elegant, understated, almost a classic.
£50 a pair from Liberty.
Uniform Wares does brilliantly simple, elegant watches. It takes much of its inspiration from industrial clocks, those found on stations and in factories. Its 152 Series Rose Gold-Plated wristwatch (£220 from Mr Porter) has a strong, vintage air about it and with its slightly aged leather strap and rose-gold plating it looks infinitely more expensive than its price.