Discretion may be the better part of valour, but it’s an axiom that men take a while to learn, at least when it comes to perfume.
Things start to go wrong in adolescence. For, while the development of an interest in personal hygiene is generally something to be welcomed, it is rarely accompanied by the development of a sophisticated sense of smell.
The result, unfortunately, is that all too many young men come to believe that drenching themselves in industrial-strength aftershave will A, protect them from the social disgrace of BO and B, cause every female within several hundred yards to lust for them.
Luckily for everyone involved, after a while, the majority of young men wake up to the fact that the girls are swooning before them not because of their devastating sexual allure, but because of the overpowering scent they’re wearing.
This is the point when, all being well, they start to discover the classic male fragrances. Though it has to be said that, men being men, they’re still horribly susceptible to whatever fragrance is being heavily marketed at any one time, whether it smells fantastic or foul.
By the time we get to our fifties most of us, one hopes, have finally learned the value of discretion. The problem, now, is finding a perfume that is discreet without being boring, and at the same time a bit more individual than your average mass-market concoction. So here are a few suggestions.
What to wear now
Chanel’s Pour Monsieur Chanel may be the proud owner of No 5, the most famous female fragrance in the world, but some of their men’s perfumes aren’t half bad either. If it’s discretion you’re after you can’t get much better than Pour Monsieur, whose gently warm scent is as beautifully understated as its dove-grey packaging.
Then there’s vetiver, whose bone-dry, bracingly earthy smell is derived from the roots of a tropical grass. For me, it’s the scent equivalent of a dry gin and tonic – giving an archetypically masculine character to a number of classic men’s fragrances – and at its best it has fantastic staying power too: olfactory Viagra.
Guerlain’s Vetiver For many years, Guerlain’s Vetiver was the sine qua non of this type, and it remains one of my personal favourites, with its initial burst of refreshing lemon. But many experts say that earlier versions smelled even better, and English perfumer Roja Dove (who used to work for Guerlain) has just launched his own recreation of that original, also called Vetiver. It is eye-wateringly expensive, admittedly, but it’s also wonderfully refined.
Not that price is always a guide to quality. Some terrible perfumes become commercial successes simply because they are so heavily marketed. But there are also some superb scents out there that have been almost entirely forgotten about – and that, I think, is a shame.
Halston’s Z-14 Among my favourites in this category is the original Halston’s Z-14, which was launched in 1976 and comes in an alluring corpuscle-shaped bottle by jeweller Elsa Peretti. It’s a wonderfully 1970s affair, like a far more discreet version of Brut for Men (and I mean that as a compliment). Look online for the brown bottled original.
Or go even more classic. Perhaps the ultimate in discreet men’s fragrances has always been eau de cologne, which is a style rather than a specific branded perfume. Refreshing, light and almost edible, eau de colognes are characterised by a mix of lemon and lavender. There are hundreds of kinds out there – though sadly most are pretty interchangeable – and their biggest drawback is their evanescence: few of them last for more than half an hour on the skin.
Monsieur Balmain But there are one or two eau de colognes that have pzazz and staying power. A fantastic example is Monsieur Balmain, which cheers me up every time I put it on. It smells like the crushed leaves of lemon verbena – one of nature’s zingiest scents – and it lasts for hours.
Chanel Exclusifs Yet if one wanted the ultimate in the genre, I’d return to where I started, with Chanel. Its own eau de cologne, launched in 2007 as part of the Chanel Exclusifs range, may be an expensive indulgence, but for me it’s the Platonic ideal of its type. It starts like a standard, if exceptionally fine quality, cologne but develops a lovely, lingering scent of lavender and rosemary. If only more men’s perfumes were as smart. And discreet.