The Sunday Times Style Magazine

Fragrances that can help you pull women?

Stephen Armstrong finds out if it’s really true

Stephen’s choice: ‘Part of a new breed of male fragrances designed to enhance the smell of the skin, not drown the nose.’ Heeley Sel Marin, Eau de Perfume

If a woman owns a scent, we will always, for the rest of our natural lives, think of her whenever we catch the slightest whiff of it. It may have been years ago, but I am still brought to a standstill – with a physical stab of yearning – if someone drifts past wearing Dolce & Gabbana. And as for White Musk from The Body Shop: please don’t wear it, I may cry.

The sense of smell evolved roughly 600m years ago and yet, for the average man, our most creative deployment of this sensory pheromonal arsenal is farting under the duvet and seeing if it makes her giggle. This is clearly a waste. Because surely the standstill effect must work both ways, right? Right. “Women love being surprised at how great a good-looking man can smell up close,” says my friend Deni. “We love a signature scent, rather than something fashionable that everyone else smells of. We don’t want to taste it on you, so apply below the collarbone and use it discreetly. I love it if I can’t smell it when l’m standing next to a man, but when l’m kissing him, I can.’

The problem with that, of course, is the word “discreetly”. Most men discover aftershave at the same age we discover cider, and we cane it just as hard – Kouros when I was a kid, but I’m guessing the boys use Lynx these days. After a few years spent drenched in knockoff Paco Rabanne Pour Homme or Christmas box sets of Joop!, we stagger out of the sickly haze and swear off the stuff for ever. Although there is a bit of a class divide – college-educated, antifragrance twentysomethings recoil at the manual labourer’s crop-dusting levels of Dior Homme. Indeed, one way to tell you’re in a rough pub is by the number of young men in small groups wearing overpowering brands of aftershave.

So, when it comes to fragrance, we still don’t know what we’re doing. We are like teenage girls discovering make-up – we trowel it on, scrape it off, stare in the mirror and shrug helplessly.

Because we can’t turn to our friends and say, “Mate, tell me, how do I smell?”, we overreact to even the slightest hint of guidance. I once wore Hugo Boss for an evening out – my grandmother had given me a Boss fragrance set for Christmas, thinking it was a chemistry kit. That night, one girl- one! – said, “Mmm, you smell nice.” I wore Boss every day for nine months and didn’t get laid once.

There is evidence, however, that we’re getting curious. A recent Mintel report says sales are soaring for men in their late twenties – 80% of them use fragrance and one in four owns four or more bottles. There is also the word-of-mouth effect about brands such as Kiehl’s, which seems to be run by evil alchemists. Men press Kiehl’s shaving cream into my hand with tears in their eyes, warning me that I’ll be an addict within the week. Others knowingly pat my raddled chin and whisper: “King of Shaves menthol face balm, mate. That’ll sort you out.”

And so, it seems, we’re finally opening up to grooming, although the industry needs a better word. Grooming happens in internet chat rooms. If a man says to another man, “Here’s my grooming tip,” he’s about to be arrested.

With fragrance, though, where to begin? Every man has heard of a hormone-based aftershave that makes women gasp and cry: “You, stop where you are, don’t talk, not a word. Just take me to your bed and love me.” I was told about that when I was 14, but I still can’t find the thing.

The smart move would be to ask a woman. They’re the only reason we wear the stuff, after all. Men don’t dress for each other unless they’re football hooligans. So I put it to the ladies of the office, who, after repeating that “the first rule of fragrance is dont wear too much”, explained that every fragrance smells different on different people.

So, we hauled in a vast selection, starting with Davidoff Champion, which looks like a dumbbell and could certainly knock people out. Paul Smith has a promising aroma, but if Monica Bellucci nibbles my ear and asks what l’m wearing, I don’t want to answer “Optimistic”. Boss Orange wasn’t good in confined spaces, and Issey Miyake drew applause, but the bottle looked like a tropical aquarium.

In the end, I made a lonely mission to Les Senteurs, the Belgravia perfumery and home to artisan fragrance lines such as Tauer. This is where it ail came together. James Craven, head nose at the shop, behaved like a sommelier at a wine tasting – “You notice the after-notes of leather, sir?” – and had me breathe in a lungful of coffee beans between samples to clear the palate.

We settled on Sel Marin by James Heeley, a Yorkshire lad with a philosophy degree and a design studio in Paris – what’s not to like? He has managed to put sea salt, lemon, bergamot, moss and cedar into a bottle, and somehow it works. It’s a skin scent, Craven explains, part of a new breed of male fragrances designed to enhance the smell of the skin, not drown the nose in a wall of whiffs. It’s like a hotel room after your lover has left, a vague hint of something half-forgotten at the corner of your mind.

I road-tested it that night. “It’s very discreet,” my friend said with a smile, as she leant in to take a sniff. Then she leant in to take another, and it ail started to make sense.

Article: Stephen Armstrong