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Mémoire d’une Odeur campaignPhotography Glen Luchford

Smells right: Why fragrance is the next step in the gender-neutral frontier

Thanks to demand from savvy Gen Z consumers, major luxury brands like Gucci, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton are now creating perfumes they’re marketing as genderless – but who does it actually benefit?

Recently, fragrances that don’t subscribe to traditional gender labels have been on the rise, with brands offering perfumes that focus on elevating the power of scents instead. For example, in August 2019, Harry Styles teamed up with Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele to launch the brand’s gender-neutral fragrance, Mémoire d’une Odeur. With notes of chamomile and jasmine, the fragrance comes in a green glass bottle while the campaign also featured Harris Reed, a young designer who identifies as genderfluid in addition to other creatives.

Regarding the campaign, Reed expressed to Teen Vogue, “My own interpretation of the campaign was all about a complete and utter sense of inclusivity. Pushing what it means to be an individual and be different in 2019. It never felt like we were cast for this, it felt like we were really hand-picked by Alessandro to really support the message. We were truly part of a new family that stood for… acceptance and inclusivity.”

According to the brand, Mémoire d’une Odeur was its first “universal fragrance” or in other words, “a perfume not assigned to a gender or a time.” While that same month, a Vogue article argued that “you can argue that any fragrance is gender-neutral” – this is something that could be seen as a natural reaction to the ways in which gender roles are currently shifting and the fact that younger generations are calling for more queer acceptance. 

Gucci is just one of many companies that are now offering gender-neutral fragrances. Just a few weeks ago, Fendi introduced a scented bag with its FENDIFRENESIA, a genderfluid scent that pushes the envelope by mixing art, fashion, and beauty while also allowing the consumer to fully express themselves using various outlets. Other brands that offer gender-neutral scents include Louis Vuitton, Bon Parfume, and Clean Reserve. 

But why is this trend happening? “People no longer want to be labelled whether its gender, age, ethnicities and instead want to be recognised for their individual wants and taste,” says Melissa Hago, vice president of beauty at trend forecaster Fashion Snoops. “We are seeing this in all categories, fashion, beauty, and now in fragrance.” According to her, consumer demand comes from Generation Z who is calling for more options while also championing gender fluidity. 

According to Meloney Moore, a professor of beauty and marketing at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), part of the reason we’re seeing an influx of gender-neutral fragrances is because today’s consumers have grown beyond the old narrative that uses stereotypical gender cues to attract the opposite sex via scent. Instead, consumers are latching onto other factors that go into making the products they buy. “They want to understand the ingredients, the provenance, and the craftsmanship behind the products they buy,” she says. Additionally, consumers are becoming more independent, meaning that they enjoy co-creating their product experience with the brand. A neutral fragrance that puts scent first offers them exactly that – with genderless beauty brands rising, including companies like Fluide, Jecca Blac, and Noto Botanics, gender fluid fragrances are the next and natural item to enter the market.

“Fragrance, like fashion, is a form of communication, and just as people are demanding more expansive language – for example, the word “they” was Merriam-Webster’s word of 2019 – scents that are for everyone, regardless of their gender identity, are becoming more common”

With this, Moore thinks gender is becoming less relevant for a more sophisticated consumer who doesn't want to be put into a box. “They may not want a brand telling them what they should wear based on their gender. They also may not agree with that brand's interpretation of gender,” she says. Therefore, instead of being told what one can smell like according to their assigned gender identity, consumers want to buy from brands that allow them to decide what scents they can choose regardless of their gender.

To better cater to Gen Z’s affinity interest in pushing the boundaries of beauty, in 2018 the university announced the first beauty and fragrance business degree program with Moore, a former Estee Lauder marketing executive, at the helm. Accordingly, the relationship between gender and scents is just one of the connections students at SCAD are addressing in their studies and creative projects. For example, a student by the name of Diesel Ambuter developed a gender-neutral fragranced called Moonchild, which is visible upon application and meant to serve as a progressive fashion statement on the skin,” while another student named Justin Ashwell developed a gender-neutral fragrance specifically for the annual Coachella music festival.

Closely tied to memory, fragrance is a very emotional category while our association of different scents with the female or male gender is still very subjective believes Moore. “Throughout history florals have operated on both sides of the gender line. A person's association with various fragrances notes can change based on when and where they were born while life experiences or trauma can influence one’s categorisation of certain notes.” Similarly, some fragrances may not trigger an association with gender at all. For instance, she says that Yankee Candle's A Calm & Quiet Place implies a fresh scent with hints of green or marine facets. However, the mind does not naturally categorise the candle by gender – it’s the industry’s marketing efforts that have dictated to us what scents belong to who. 

Fragrance, like fashion, is a form of communication, and just as people are demanding more expansive language – for example, the word “they” was Merriam-Webster’s word of 2019 – scents that are for everyone, regardless of their gender identity, are becoming more common. “The fragrance industry is definitely having a revamp from being pushed to being more transparent with their ingredients to creating more non-binary scents that speak to everyone,” argues Hago. 

While it’s nice brands are offering more diversity with their products, it’s also worth noting how the selling of gender-neutral fragrances could also be a marketing ploy in which brands that do divide their products by gender are trying to capitalise on the rise of inclusion, instead of putting in work to make their brands more inclusive from the ground up. “It’s easier for brands like Jo Malone, Diptyque, Bryedo, and LeLabo to speak to this consumer because they are not grounded to a gender-based apparel line unlike other fashion houses including Gucci or Fendi,” offers Moore. 

So, while it’s natural that as equality between genders is increasing and genderfluid acceptance is rising, and there are in turn greater options, consumers will need to go beyond the face value of these products and hold more brands accountable so that the market doesn’t become muddled with rainbow capitalism. And this is especially true for a brand like Gucci that has become famous for its genderfluid aesthetics in recent years. If these brands truly want to be queer allies and break down the barriers of an industry that’s long relied on gendered attitudes, they’ll need to think beyond the products they put on the market and releasing inclusive ad campaigns. This means hiring more queer executives and making sure their voices are front and centre when making business decisions like releasing a gender-neutral fragrance.