How Unisex Fragrances Have Disrupted The Industry

Perfume knows no gender

by Tamim Alnuweiri

In my childhood I shared a double washroom with my older brother. One of the most vivid memories I have from that time is of the iconic Versace Blue Jeans Cologne bottle. I’m still not sure which one of us it really belonged to, but it was my first experience using perfume, and a male-marketed perfume at that. This was undoubtedly the seed for my attraction for what are typically thought of as "masculine” fragrances, because other than a quick dalliance with Marc Jacobs’ Daisy, I never did get into women’s perfumes, usually finding them too floral, sweet, or overly potpourri-ish.

So I tended to think of perfume in a male-female binary way for some time; it wasn't until my sophomore year of college that I was introduced to the concept of the unisex perfume. I was interning at Into The Gloss where I got a crash course education in niche, minimal, and beautiful perfume brands. I was introduced to brands like Ex Nihilo, Regime des Fleurs, and Byredo, which immediately turned into a money-sucking blackhole of an obsession. After finding my signature scent (Byredo Gypsy Water), I bought every iteration of it available—perfume, lotion, body wash, hair perfume, and more. 

Part of the obsession with a unisex scent is its simplicity, not least their always aesthetically pleasing minimal and utilitarian designs. These fragrances felt intelligent. They did not condescend to some outdated idea of femininity; there were no heart-shaped bottles that can’t stand upright; no overpowering and overly floral notes in an attempt to punctuate their gender.

As the founders of Regime des Fleurs, Alia Raza and Ezra Woods, elegantly explained to me, the appeal of the genderless fragrance is that “perfume can seem fussy or complicated when it’s attached to rules and etiquette, but it doesn't have to be that way. A fragrance is simply meant to be enjoyed and appreciated—anyone that likes it can wear it.”

The genderless trend has felt omnipresent in the last couple of years. Fashion and cosmetics companies have began to revaluate themselves and their gender divisions to better match our (hopefully) post-gender binary world. Perfume brands have been grappling with this concept for a little longer. As Ex Nihilo co-founder Benoît Verdier pointed out, unisex as a marketable beauty concept really started with CK One in the '90s, which was “an amazing and disruptive case—it was such a powerful concept.”

Although brands like Byredo, Regime des Fleurs and Ex Nihilo started out as industry anomalies, their entirely unisex and genderless model is slowly becoming the norm among niche and major brands alike. For Raza and Woods, the inspiration for their line of genderless perfumes had to do with “thinking about certain men we knew when we made Water/Wood, but we knew from listening to our friends that plenty of women would want to wear it. We make what smells good and let the fragrances tell their own stories.” All of the time and energy devoted to feminizing or masculinizing a scent ends up better used as a space to create complex stories that evoke memory and sentiment. 

Ultimately, the unisex perfume feels especially timely and relevant in our current socio-political landscape. Genderless perfumes are another small act of rebellion and affirmation of our space and progress. As Verdier phrased it, “unisex fragrances are a positive symbol of society’s evolution and progress. Breaking social norms and barriers and opening your mind to other scents, materials, and sensations is very motivating. Perfuming yourself while disregarding predisposed cultural constraints can also be quite disruptive.” 

If you’re new to the genderless perfume landscape here’s what you need to know: According to Raza and Woods the most common notes in unisex perfumes are iris, sandalwood, neroli, lavender, rose and amber. If those scents appeal to you, you'll have tons of options. And if you’re looking for specific recommendations, I’d suggest Regime des Fleurs Glass Blooms, Byredo Bal D’Afrique and Ex Nihilo Bois d’Hiver, but luxury companies such as Rag & Bone and Louis Vuitton have recently released their own lines of genderless fragrances too. Basically just remember: Any perfume is a genderless perfume, if you dig wearing it. It's a wide world, there are no rules.