Calvin Klein famously invented the idea of unisex perfume in 1994 with cK One (still decent, incidentally), but there is no defining factor that makes perfume masculine, feminine – or both. There’s just powerful marketing and our own conditioned perception to provide us with cues. We’ve been taught that spice, smoke, wood and leather notes are manly; and that flowers, fruit, carnal musk, soft vanilla and scents that smell like puddings (shudder) are intrinsically feminine. These associations are too entrenched to ignore completely, so what we’re probably seeking in a unisex perfume is a little from both column A and column B, regardless of target market.
Diptyque’s L’Ombre Dans L’Eau (£58) is ostensibly made for women, but I prefer its sharp, slightly sour rose and blackcurrant on a man (men seem to like the packaging, too). Escentric Molecules is a brand that prides itself on ignoring gender barriers and treating smell as a more individual affair: its latest offering, 03 (£38), fulfils that brief and is my favourite in the range so far. It has that classic unisex ingredient, vetiver (fresh, green, clean but soft: always a banker), and combines it with sharp lime and warm, rich ginger. It’s gorgeous, surprisingly long-lasting and perfect if you prefer your fragrance to act as background artiste rather than scenery-chewing star of the show. Likewise, Acqua di Parma’s Colonia Club (£60), an elegant blend of warm musks, bright mint and vetiver. More potent and traditionally blokey is Balmain’s wonderful Carbone (£53.10). This hangs its hat on masculinity (the PR says things like “driven” and “performance”; dearie me), but I disagree. It has the most wonderful blend of sharp and mellow, sweet and sour, and I’d happily wear it anywhere (even with heels and a frilly frock).
One fragrance category with great unisex appeal is oud, or perfumes made from the resin of mould-infected Asian trees. These have become hugely popular in recent years but I can’t, in all honesty, recommend any: I seem to be allergic to the smell, which makes me bilious and upset (my boyfriend is forbidden from wearing oud in my vicinity). I am, however, a fan of woodiness generally, and can confirm that Le Labo’s Santal 33 smells soft, refined and very sexy on men and women alike. It also comes in a solid form (£55), making it extremely handy for the well-travelled or accident-prone.