Ralph (Ralph Lauren)

My apologies for referencing The Guide so frequently lately, but it's the natural result of having finally taken the time to read it all the way through. There are some pivotal talking points in there that I either agree with, or can relate to, and I'd like to apply them to my own experiences with fragrances. One of the ideas that Luca Turin posited was that feminine perfumes change, with time and reformulation, into masculines. That's an interesting notion. I partially agree, and partially disagree, but I'm entirely on board with it as a plausible theory that deserves investigation.

The problem with Turin's analysis is that he couches it in essays about perfumes that could have been masculines during their heyday. Time and reformulations are beside the point when discussing massive florals and chypres like Joy, Mitsouko, Arpège. These fragrances had, in their youth, the same boldness and heaviness that they possess today. Men were not culturally inclined to smell of flowers back then, unless those flowers were lavender, geranium, maybe carnation. But it's not such a leap to imagine a heterosexual city boy, a dandy, wearing Mitsouko in the 1940s. I could see that happening without stretching credibility. And The Great Gatsby could have easily worn Joy. This idea that they're more masculine now, as opposed to then, seems to be based on a false premise: contemporary masculine perfumery is aligned with current formulas of old feminine classics.

However, I think it gains traction when applied to more recent perfumes. The fragrances of the late 1990s and early 2000s were often eclectic, strange, sometimes wildly misguided and mis-marketed. Don't believe me? Guys, give the feminine flanker for Cool Water a day of your time. Go ahead, it won't kill you. You'll be surprised by how incredibly unisex it smells. Yes, there are some fruity-floral elements, but they're behind a flowing wall of coolness, like viewing a matronly gift basket through a waterfall. That aquatic aspect neutralizes any perceptible girlishness. What was staunchly feminine then is surprisingly unisex now, when archetypes are dead.

Ralph Lauren's 2000 feminine fruity-floral, comically named "Ralph," is another good example of this gender trick. Ralph is a simple little fragrance, built on a single accord of green apple, chemical freesia, and a little nuance of peach. It's very sweet, and what I mostly smell is an apple note. Apples figure into postmodern fresh fougères, like Cool Water and Aspen, but in a very slight, peripheral manner, and are never the center of attention. Ralph nods to this aspect of masculine fragrance, borrows it, and inflates it into a nuclear mushroom-cloud fruit note. This is no ordinary apple. It's big, it's bright, it's loud, it's neon-green. I should by all rights hate it. I do not.

Why does it work on me? Why can I see myself wearing something so utterly "girlish" and banal? Because in all actuality it doesn't smell very feminine, nor very banal, but rather refreshing, pleasant, very happy, and with such a dominant apple note, unique. One of my quibbles with classics of masculine perfumery is that they tend to sway toward the grim end of the spectrum. Things like Drakkar Noir, Quorum, Polo, are very dark, ominous, full of foreboding pines and tobaccos and sexual repression. They're perfect for the quiet desperation of modern man, but they're also a bit "Eau de Bolshevik." You can rock Polo and Grey Flannel all you want, and smell incredible wearing them, but if you're the kind of guy who watches The Three Stooges, you might feel a little dissonant, and others could justifiably perceive you that way.

It behooves today's men to beware of smelling overly serious. This is hard to manage when current masculines trend so far into Angel territory, full of sweet gourmand notes and heady musks. There are several thousand guys who could do without their Le Mâle flankers, and try Quorum instead. But at the same time, a man could get lost in the woods, literally and figuratively, and go overboard with sugarless chypres and fougères of yesteryear. It's not such a bad thing for a man to smell sweet, fresh, light-hearted. This is possible to do without "sprouting a ruffled apron."

If you're a man who is interested in something that doesn't take itself too seriously - and you don't take yourself too seriously - give Ralph a try. Its delightful little apple and fresh-floral construction is just what the undertaker ordered.