Polo (Ralph Lauren)

There's a theory being held by some of my male brethren that wearing the right fragrance will get you laid. The times being what they are, most resort to wimpy aquatics and sugary gourmands when going out on the town. Sometimes an oriental is thrown in the mix, but usually aquatics are at the forefront of their preferred stock. What amazes me about aquatics is their cultural tenacity - stuff like Acqua di Gio, CK One, and Nautica Voyage is still selling like hotcakes, and still considered fashionable to the non-connoisseur. As to why . . . your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps it all boils down to the point I made in an earlier post about how no one really wants to smell like anything anymore, and so the soft ozonic scent of your garden variety aquatic is the least threatening, and therefore most popular choice.

What interests me even more is the connection being made in male minds between smelling salty-clean and having sex. To me, the best fragrances conjure images from scent, and with those images comes a certain feeling. It's scent association, mixed with a (sometimes) gentle form of sensory coercion. Sex, by most accounts, isn't something people associate with being "clean" or "watery." Let's face it, sex is about getting very happily hot and sweaty. But we want sex with another person more if that certain someone looks and smells hygienically clean. Likewise, we feel more comfortable engaging in intimate acts when we know we're at our cleanest. Therefore, our preferred physical state before sex is to be a clean, blank canvas, upon which the act of sex throws a dirty brush. In post-coital mode, most healthy adults feel very good, despite knowing in the back of their minds that they are no longer physically clean. It's a yin and yang thing.

So back to aquatics - where the hell do they come into play? They're meant to accentuate, through scent, one's state of cleanliness. This makes sense to the playboys I've met. The ladies they pursue seem to like being chased by testosterone and Acqua di Gio. To them it works. Everyone's happy.

Except me.

I'm sick of the whole dynamic here. For one thing, I'm not pre-programmed to consider sweet citrusy water scents sexy. The beach is a nice place to visit, and I'm always happy to breathe salt air, but its scent association suggests whitecaps and steerage, not bedroom play. Furthermore, I have a system in place for being and smelling clean. It's called a shower, shave, and deodorant. As long as those habits are maintained, I have no complaints, and neither does my girlfriend. But just coming out of the shower and toweling off doesn't make me Spanish Fly, either. I find myself to be a rather common specimen, post morning ablutions. The definition of ubiquitous. No degree of fancy skinscent from strong soap, or pleasantly pungent underarm protection, has ever yielded extra attention from the fairer sex. They don't hurt, mind you, but they're not really a kind of social initiative. For that, I need something that accentuates my personality, not my body.

Enter Polo by Ralph Lauren. Carlos Benaim's 1978 formula was never intended to be a skirt-chaser's crutch. It wasn't meant to amp up one's "clean" factor, or convey to women a sense of impeccable personal grooming. Mr. Lauren's first major masculine scent was specifically designed to be a magnifier of one's inner macho. The idea here was that by tailoring to a man's image of unshakeable personal convictions, inner sturdiness, and unambiguous sexual drive, a scent could become the ultimate illusion - it could actually seem like a part of him.

The proof is in the pudding. Sniffing Polo today, I'm immediately flooded by imagery of tough guys, silent types, heroes. That sort of guy is automatically sexier than the man-boys who trawl the clubs, trailing their insecurities behind them in clouds of calone and white musk. He also has the added benefit of being attractive to mature, independent women. The ladies who look his way are the ones who fantasized about being with Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, and Bruce Willis when they were growing up. They thought Tom Cruise was a weirdo long before he foot-pounded Oprah's couch in a Katie Holmes fit. And they never understood how Brenden Fraser became a star. To them, a man wears blue jeans, a plaid shirt, and smells like an approximation of how their grandfather and father smelled - i.e. dark, green, spicy, and manly.

Polo captures this essence perfectly. It's a leathery chypre, bordering on freshness, but truly ensconced in an earthy rawhide. The incredible opening of basil, caraway, pine, artemisia, and patchouli is so indelibly green and earthy, it makes my mouth water. The greenness is enhanced by a very pronounced patchouli note, which hoists the pine needles and degrading leaves over its shoulders of dry soil and spice. After a while, the bitter greens begin to recede, and the fragrance becomes a leathery affair. This leather is full of the aromatic riches that come with vetiver, sage, bergamot, and oakmoss. The mossy notes eventually dominate the sideshow, flanking the leather until the furthest reaches of the drydown. The whole show is truly beautiful, understated, unforgettable.

It's also a little menacing. Polo is like Yatagan, but with all the shadows and none of the bite. Nothing leaps out and shakes you, but the arrangement of evergreen, herbs, spices, discreet floral naunces, and mosses leaves its mark in one's scent memory. By aquatic standards, this doesn't smell good. This is the definition of smelling bad, of smelling uncouth and dirty. But I don't live by aquatic standards. I live by masculine standards, and I reserve the right to maintain my sexiness while smelling of fresh-cut grass and tree bark.

And that's just it - Polo deals in the smells men follow: cut grass, tree clippings, gloves, stale tobacco, the great outdoors. Sure, it's 2011, and there are millions of metrosexuals out there whose last encounter with a pine cone was back when the Macintosh II was released. But every woman I know here in Connecticut refuses to cut her own lawn, and expects the man of the house to take up that chore. As far as I'm concerned, the way I smell after that chore is the way I want to smell, the way I should smell, and the way she expects me to smell. Polo conjures scent associations of a strong, physically healthy guy, a conscientious man who always follows through, a true adult. Images of drama-less masculinity, like the Marlboro Man, abound.

That kind of smell comes from inside, not outside. It's a desire to be active, to be outdoors, to be communal with nature in practical and spiritual ways. A man's inner strength comes from how he views himself in relation to the world around him, and the degree of success with which he connects to that world. Work, relationships, and personal wisdom are serious things, and it takes a mature male to navigate them. Real maturity comes from a man's mistakes, his mother's lessons growing up, and the bond he feels toward the woman and children in his life. That doesn't smell like sugared pineapples. It smells like it sounds - solid, and natural.

On a superficial level, Ralph Lauren's brand has moved far beyond the original Polo, and committed the multiple sins of its Blue, Black, and Double Black flankers. But make no mistake - Polo is never going to fade into irrelevance. The scent is a piece of American culture, American identity, and is sometimes overbearing, often difficult, but always part of the conversation. Ladies, the next time you pass a bottle on a tester shelf, give it a spritz. The earthy, dark scent that it produces will transport you back into the arms of a lover from long ago, one you may have temporarily forgotten. Hold onto that feeling, and remember it whenever some detergent-scented, gel-haired mimbo leans in to give you some cheesy line. You'll find yourself wanting to turn back the clock and make love to the man of your memories. And you'll be the better for it.


  1. I appreciate what a ranging review this is, and can't imagine reviewing this fragrance without having to switch tacks several times, such is its complexity and ambition... I just picked up what I immediately knew was an old gift box of this at the Salvation Army I routinely haunt. From what I can make of the batch code, it's around 2002, with the Cosmair sticker on the base of the little bottle (unused) and a pristine stick of deodorant alongside. May I rhapsodize for a moment... About deodorant? This is the least irritating, most marvellously fragrant, vetiver-rich deodorant I have ever used, at least since my vintage Fahrenheit wearing days in the early nineties. Anyway, gosh what a scent. While I expect that it might have degraded a bit, longevity & sillage are good, maybe very good, and the opening is still a heady, bewildering and brash affair that makes my eyes water. A couple of questions though... I definitely notice an aromatic undertone that buoys along the darker opening notes (the bitter old tobacco pipe clamped between the teeth): mint - or is the minty facet of patchouli?- grassy artemisia & basil, the aforementioned vetiver, and something - something- almost like the caramellic aspect of lavender. Do you get that latter at all? It's lovely, whatever it is. When I was a kid, Polo was some kind of punchline and the joke was Reagan-era soft-core class war in which we despised the yuppie, the preppie and the shopping mall (if only one knew what was coming!)... Now I just shake my head at the incredible artistry of floating a scent like this all over middle America, as anthemic, surely, as watching your life flash before your eyes at a Springsteen concert (or something.) Anyway, a humble man in a humbler era (I hope) I put this on, grab a suit jacket and head off for work shaking my head at it all.

    1. Probably the patchouli giving that brighter edge to the scent. One of the downsides to having a blog go on for several years is that you return to older reviews and reconsider everything written in them. In this case I have to say with some reservation that I think the newer Polo is a bit different from the older stuff, but ultimately it's Polo Crest that wins the day, a superior composition that is as difficult for me to wear as the original, but more affable and somewhat better made. Glad you found a good deo stick version. It's a shame - I recently bought a vintage bottle of Azzaro Pour Homme in a set with a deo stick, but the stick was destroyed, shriveled into nothingness over the years, and had to be thrown out. You're a lucky man! Polo is a classic.


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