During the lecture I recently delivered at Brasenose College’s Arts Week, I presented several olfactory expressions of female and male identity over the years. I confess it was with a desire to shake things up a little that I decided one of my masculine scents would be YSL’s Kouros. Composed by Pierre Bourdon and released not long after the brand’s industry-redefining Opium, it took its place amongst what we now, with the benefit of hindsight, realise was a long-running trend for testosterone-heavy, gym-going, perspiration-soaked visions of unashamed butchness. Dior’s Jules was in a similar vein, as were, to some extent, Chanel’s Antaeus, Guy Laroche’s Drakkar Noir and several other hairy-chested beasties.
Fond though I am of many of them - especially the Chanel, which is amongst my all-time, personal favourites - I cannot deny that Kouros occupies a very special place in perfume history. A civet-laden, woody, musky fougere, heavy on the jaw-clenched bitterness of artemisia, it is a unique marvel of olfactory art. Somehow both divinely clean - like a disinfecting tussle with a bonfire - and sacrilegiously filthy, it’s monolithic, recognisable and detailed. Depending on the distance at which it’s encountered, it almost operates as three different scents that every now and then align to form a coherent whole, from the arrogance of the outer perimeter to the more fragile intimacy of the core. Like the cliche-riddled shoulder pads and power suits of the decade of its birth, it may be ripe for mockery, but there's no denying that it successfully and convincingly sums up the spirit of a particular age. I know of nothing else precisely like it.
But what of the students at Oxford? Well, as though they were following a script, they all turned up their noses when the Kouros-infected blotters made their way around the lecture room. “Did people actually wear this stuff?” their horrified expressions seemed to say. “It’s like toilet cleaner. Or just… toilet.” But what if it was a person, I asked. If they had to imagine someone whose smell this would be, what would come to their mind. A brief pause, and then one of the students took a deep breath and said, “An older guy at a club, pretty sleazy, trying to chat up someone a lot younger.” And of course, everyone else agreed. And I couldn’t help thinking that maybe some things are better left to yesteryear.
[Review based on a sample of eau de toilette obtained by the author in 2011.]
PS Many of you have asked for more details about the scents I used in the lecture. For ‘femininity’, I presented Chanel No 5, Chanel No 19 and Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire. For ‘masculinity’, in addition to Kouros, I used Caron Pour Un Homme; I’d planned to show Armani Code Absolu, but we ran out of time. To showcase perfumery’s potential for almost narrative-style, artistic self-expression I chose Ashoka from Neela Vermeire Creations. To convey the notion of perfume as a ‘disruptive’ entity, I reached for Amouage’s Interlude Woman and Comme Des Garçons Tar. To make more general points about contrasts between certain scents, I used Odin’s 02 Owari and Bentley’s For Men Absolute.