I have known boys who never became men. But if they kept the boarding-school haircut until the very end, their hearts were old. I have never seriously considered the journey from boy to man. That arc is something I know from books. It has been described beautifully by Edmund White, James Joyce, even New Order.
All I can say is I remember trying to stay young for as long as possible. And I have never looked for a perfume that marks that journey or my attempt at stasis. I don’t even have a perfume for my own teenage years, a fragrance to suggest 1980s NME, the soap I used to spike my hair, the mohair jumper and dust of second-hand record shops. There must be people who remember with smell. I am more visual. I cannot recall the perfume of my school but I can remember the face of a boy I loved the first moment I saw him in the sixth form. And the blond teenager who died on the school climbing expedition, I remember helping him find a peg to hang his blazer. Perhaps there is some fragrance of a cricket pavilion and the mildewed boxes they used to store the antique whites. But this is distant and hard to recall.
But there is a “school” perfume. It is called Old School Bench. The perfume evokes old buildings, an antique library and hard, old desks, so it leans towards public or boarding school. There is a note of wood and wax that literally suggests a vintage chair or bench. The perfume ends with a beautiful and soft, feminine powder.
I wore it to tea with a girlfriend. “You smell like an old woman,” she said. I so disagree. But for all its boarding-school-ness, this is an exotic perfume with notes that hint at dried flowers, the dust of books and an old study or library with a fireplace. There is a sense of dark interiors and rooms hidden behind rooms. It is more of an aesthete’s than sporting-boy’s perfume. And perhaps from the way it uses patchouli there is a suggestion of black Japanese ink.
I needed help to find perfumes that would mark the journey from boy to man. I went to see James Craven at Belgravia’s Les Senteurs, a niche perfume shop (many would say the niche perfume shop), now in its 35th year. And while I have interviewed many legendary noses, I have spoken to Craven before and believe he has an unusual and rare sensitivity towards perfume. I asked him to find me a perfume that carries a memory of youth and the feminine. I wanted something for a young man who was experiencing his first love, a perfume that would carry the presence of a young girl. He produced Tomboy Neroli by Parle Moi de Parfum, a Parisan house in the Marais, the Rue de Sévigné.
“This is meant to be a modern perfume,” he said, “skirting gender.” It has a feeling of orange candy and a transparent mist of dry sophistication. I almost like the name, but decide “tomboy” sounds dated (by 50 years). But the perfume is youthful and attractive. It does not have any of the darker notes that belong to old-fashioned masculines. I could not spot cumin, raisins, brandy or depth-charged resinous woods. Instead, a sense of white cream, hazy green dust and tangy lick of hot pants. “As it dries and softens,” says Craven, “the blossom comes through more. I like the velvetiness of the petals.” Because it leans on orange blossom and has a subtle powder at the finish, it could pass for a young version of an old Chanel. It is a perfume of the south of France.
I wore it to tea and cake with a girlfriend. “You smell like a girl,” she said. I asked Craven to find a perfume that suggested the idea of a man. I wanted something to mark the moment when you first kiss or make love with a man. I wanted something to recall the shape of his jaw, the roughness of his skin and heat of his tongue. Perhaps also his forcefulness. He recommended B683 by Marc-Antoine Barrois, which describes itself, quite clearly, as being “for men”. “It is a beautiful soft leather,” says Craven. “Thoroughly grown-up and sophisticated. It is Cary Grant- like. A very refined masculinity. There is a wonderful romantic fog about the leather, as if it was shot through gauze. Misty but a very fine smoke. And you don’t smell the smoke.”
B683 hits you with perfumed leather. And follows with notes that are a little green and fleshy, almost floral. And, like many traditional masculines, there are notes I associate (probably mistakenly) with a rich, alcoholic dessert: warm cream, raisins, brandy and the wood of a private dining room. Finally, a comfortable dryness as the sensuality fades to luxurious masculine soap. I think men are more forceful. Or can be. When I was just out of my teens and with a much older man, the way he moved was forwards. “It is what I think of as a memory scent,” says Craven. “You might spray it on your handkerchief to remind you of a person.” I wore it to tea with a girlfriend. “George Clooney,” she said. “And a captain.” Captain? “Airline captain. In uniform.”
My first proper job was for a film magazine in a rundown office in Camden, north London, where the editor smoked Golden Virginia and never worked, while her deputy started every day with a bacon roll and complained that French men, who she dated, only fucked her in the arse. There is no perfume for that job, which ended when the magazine folded. I asked Craven to find me a very clean and refreshing perfume I could align with the first job I never had – a job with Credit Suisse or The New York Times. An elegant, well-paid job in a beautiful office for someone with great promise. He recommended Totally White by Parle Moi de Parfum. “It starts aqueous,” considers Craven. “Then it goes into the floral notes, which are iris, hawthorn and lilac. And bright but without colour. It’s very subtle, easily written off, but a great scent to wear. Like wearing a nice shirt. And when you get close, it’s quite embraceable. Very inviting.”
Totally White is totally hygienic and will do for modern corporate. As a perfume it is very into neutrality and smells like jasmine pressed under glass. There are outlines of flowers and it ends with a hazy orange. Also, I did not think it was obviously gendered. Its creators say it is “for women and for men”.
I wore it to have patisserie with a girlfriend. “You smell like a girl,” she said. Finally, I asked for a perfume about shaving and was given Champ d’Influence by Les Eaux Primordiales. It’s based on perfumer Arnaud Poulin’s memories of watching his grandfather shave. “Each morning before school,” explained Poulin, “my parents would drop me to my grandparents’ house. There, my grandfather, while being a farmer, still took the time each morning to soap his face, then to apply a traditional shaving cream with a vintage shaving brush, finishing that routine with an aftershave balm. I’ve always wanted to recreate this precise and peculiar fresh smell – this fougère base with lemon notes, lavender, geranium and vetiver, so typical of the odours emanating from a barbershop. A very manly fragrance… ”
“It starts,” says Craven, “as he walks across the fields. It is very thick and dewy. Then he opens the gate and goes indoors, where his grandfather is shaving. And then we can sense the dampness of the hot water, the shaving brush and the steam.”And there is (for moi) a feeling of lavender without blasting you with lavender. A kind of image of lavender. The dry down is long, green and bitter. “There’s a very clever use of these new musks,” says Craven. “Lots of galbanum. Vetiver of course. Ginger, I think, gives it heat. Also, slight tobacco notes, nutmeg and orange as well. But very experimental. Working with molecules and a lot of blending and adjusting with the different musks and spices.”
It is a modern perfume with an old feeling. I thought it beautiful and wore it (sparingly) to tea with a Japanese girlfriend. “You smell like an ojisan,” she said. Ojisan means “uncle” or man in his fifties. Perhaps not the most flattering word for “man” in the Japanese language. By ojisan she meant man in his fifties, monied, suited, into sake, young girls, expensive cars.
Some weeks after sitting with Craven I realised I never asked him to find a perfume to suggest the “boy” or boyishness of a man. I know some men keep the schoolboy hair- cut. Or keep buying versions of the same jacket. But there isn’t much boy left by the time you get to 50 (in my opinion). And I can’t imagine what traces could work in a perfume. It might be a melancholy perfume if we are talking about lost youth. I have read that the scholar Robert Burton classified the different types of sadness in his Anatomy of Melancholy. This would be a bittersweet type. But if you are at peace with the passing of youngness into whatever follows, then letting go has its own, very special beauty and strength.
All fragrances available here, with thanks to James Craven. Taken from Issue 50 of 10 Men – BOYHOOD, MAN, EVOLVE – on newsstands now.