Is It Better To Wear Nothing?

Should you go a day without a spray?

Cheap fragrances get a bad rap. Inexpensive formulas are invariably comprised of cheap materials, and often smell thin and fleeting, even if they smell fairly good - and that's not good enough for a lot of people. Some simply forego the act of applying fragrance if it means applying a drugstore cheapie like Aqua Velva or Brut, while others go to the extreme of posting Youtube videos to discourage the use of "interim frags." The thinking is that cheap fragrances simply don't smell that good, and everyone will know you're cheaping out, so why not opt for the even cheaper (and apparently better) smell of nothing at all?

I take issue with this. My first problem with it is that the entire premise is flawed from the start. Let's understand something about perfume: it is all cheap. I often read on other blogs and on basenotes that many formerly-great designers have "cheaped-out" on famous formulas, and have therefore degraded their fragrances' overall quality, to the point that it's no longer worth the sticker price, or even a discount price, to buy them. When you read something like this, bear in mind that its author is speculating without even realizing it. He is assuming that because a new licensing entity distributes his favorite fragrance, and a new package design has been established, the liquid inside the bottle has automatically been cheapened and degraded. There is no question mark on the end of any of this. To the sad clowns of reformulation, these changes are just more reasons to make their eye makeup run.

It is humorous, because many fragrances were never particularly natural or expensive to begin with. Take Brut, for example. Back in the sixties and seventies, Brut was a burly herbal-musk formula, a holdover traditional fougère. It commanded higher prices than it does now, but it was never a luxury product, and excluding gift sets, fell well below $30 per ounce. As the years wore on, Brut's character changed, with the biting herbal top notes tapering down from a shout to a whisper, and the hefty musks becoming crisper and cleaner. Today, Brut smells like it always did, but with manners. Yet despite the fact that it smells the same, people insist the old stuff smelled better. People say the formula was cheapened. People say a lot of things.

How do you cheapen an already cheap formula? What exactly has to happen? Do you remove the ten-carbon alcohols that comprise the herbal layer in the opening phase of the fragrance, and replace them with linalool? No, because linalool is a ten-carbon alcohol, and just as it did fifty years ago, it still smells like mint (usually lavender). Do you ditch the cheap, synthetic coumarin? You could, but coumarin is still detectable in Brut. Do you cheapen the musks? The musks were already cheap, though perhaps different; nitro musks were all the rage, and they're no longer allowed. So you find another set of low-volatility musks, of which there are dozens. That should be hard to do, except that Brut's formula is written down, and the chemists at Idelle Labs can read. Why pay them extra to change the composition when you're already paying them to make sure the cheap stuff that used to be in Brut is now the very same cheap stuff that used to be in Brut?

Brut's commercial strategy is about sacrificing profit margins per individual sales, for the greater good of high-volume sales. The $1.85 that went into the fragrance formula is buffered by an additional $6 in package fees and profit, plus tax. They don't want to sell Brut for four times as much, because they'd rather sell four times as much Brut to consumers who use it everyday like water (and they'll only use it like water if it's as cheap as water). The basis for Brut's survival rests on the cheapskate man whose entire approach to cologne is steeped in the repetitive cycle of mimicking dad, and setting an example for son. Nowhere in this equation does the idea that "Brut smells cheap" factor in. Why is that?

Let's look at Bleu de Chanel. This mediocre designer fragrance costs twelve times as much as Brut, yet smells like a spray deodorant in the Mens Section of Walgreens. The formula is no more sophisticated than that of Brut, save for a few trendier and pricier aroma chemicals that are being used in microdoses (amounting to pennies on the dollar), like iso E-super and dihydromyrcenol. Even with those, you're looking at what? Two, maybe three dollars of formula cost per bottle? Yet you're paying an additional $80 for Jacques Polge. For a magnetic cap. For all the painstaking months of color swatching it took to pick Bleu's "unique" bottle and box color. You're paying more for more of the same. Does it smell better? Let's see if Bleu is around in fifty years.

We can see that Brut's cheapness vs. Bleu's priciness holds the value of Bleu's image over Brut's smell. Brut happens to smell like a solid fougère, but according to some folks it isn't worth wearing something like Brut, because it's cheap. Its cheapness is not seen as an incentive to buy. It's considered a reason to stay away, and gravitate toward Bleu de Chanel, and its ilk.

What about the idea that cheap fragrances will send the wrong message to other people? There's the idea that if you splash some Old Spice in the morning and come to work with it, people will say to themselves, "That guy really needs to lose the drugstore dreck and visit a Macy's, or something."

It's another fallacy. First of all, every guy who warns against wearing cheap fragrances for that reason is pulling the reason directly out of his ass. People are not invested in how you smell. If you arrive smelling like Bounce dryer sheets, they think you smell laundered and clean. If you arrive with some of the leftover Febreze that you sprayed in your car clinging to your pants, they think you smell laundered and clean. If you arrive wearing some generic CVS brand aftershave, they think you smell laundered and clean. You could spritz some Pine-Sol on yourself, and ditto to all of the above.

People get invested in how you smell only when your fragrance smells good without you. Brut smells like alcoholic aftershave on paper, but Original Vetiver smells gorgeous on paper. It's just as beautiful on paper as it is on your shirt collar. Creed's approach is different from that of 99% of fragrance manufacturers, including Faberge/Helen of Troy, as it employs a minimum six-month maceration period for its formulas, prior to batching them into bottles. It's a truly beautiful, painstaking, and novel approach that almost nobody else bothers with, and you can smell a huge difference in quality, not just compared to Brut, but to pretty much any other fragrance on the market, for men or women. That's why people go apeshit whenever I wear OV. It's why they go apeshit whenever you wear OV. But with Brut, and most fine fragrance, it's a little different. People don't notice when I'm wearing Brut, because they don't identify it as a cologne, but as a nondescript, somewhat manly freshness. It just smells laundered and clean, inoffensive, and there's no reason to think one way or the other about it.

If you doubt what I am saying here, I suggest this: if you are a man, take a week to wear strictly feminine perfumes, and if you're a woman, devote a week to wearing masculine colognes. I guarantee that from Monday to Friday, any of the sugary-sweet, floral stuff you guys wear will fly right under the radar, and any of the crisp-woody stuff you ladies wear will do the same. People won't comment, because people will only notice that you're wearing perfume on the most cursory level, and as long as you don't bathe in the stuff, or blend civet oil with it, you are olfactorily transparent to them. They can't identify lavender, mint, coumarin, ethyl maltol, linalool, or musk. They just smell a whiff of "fresh" and "clean," and don't think twice about it.

If they don't think twice about it, neither should you. Wear the cheap stuff without fearing that it smells cheap. Hell, you don't even have to wear cologne if you don't want to. Just wear deodorant, even. If it's an established classic like Brut or Old Spice or Skin Bracer, you're in good company, and you'll always smell like it.


  1. A good read, Bryan, thanks!

    I have a few ultra-cheapies which I genuinely enjoy wearing and do so with zero apprehension. One is Tracy by Ellen Tracy. I'm now on my fourth bottle (pretty amazing since it was launched in 2006, and I test tons of new perfumes all the time...). My latest coup was a gift set with a 2.5 ounce bottle of eau de parfum, a tube of bath gel and a tube of lotion all for ... drum roll... $12.99.

    How does it smell? Well, it smells just as you describe above, clean and pleasant. I don't think that it is haute perfumery, but it's great for public places, and I do enjoy wearing it. Were it poured into a Dior bottle, it could go for $100, but the house appears to have adopted the large volume strategy which you describe well above.

    Probably the least expensive fragrance which I currently own is the Puig Agua Lavanda, a jug (26 ounces, I believe) of which set me back ... drum roll ... $8! I decanted it into three glass bottles, and placed them around my house to use for whatever--as a cologne, as an air freshener, to calm my cat--whatever!

    The pricing of these inexpensive fragrances does not give me a complex or make me worry that people will think that I stink. My body serves as the first filter layer for socially acceptable perfume. Truly vile and poisonous dreck tends to make me feel ill, so naturally I do not wear it. But the problem in those cases is physiological; it's not the low price. In fact, I sometimes have that same problem with more expensive designer fragrances. For me, what really matter are pleasure and wearability. I shun unwearable and unpleasant juice, at any price!

    1. hi Sher, I recall your being a fan of Tracy, and I have seen it at Marshalls - cannot remember if I tried it or not, but will if I have a chance. Nice that you're a fan and avid wearer.

      I wonder with certain fragrances if there comes a point where objectivity about its quality becomes mandatory. The key to that question (for me) is, how long has it been in "circulation" with its intended audience - I've been using Brut as an example, so let's run with that one: it's been around since the mid sixties, still going fairly strongly even today. Every drugstore in the country as a couple bottles of the stuff on its shelves, and judging from my local Walgreens, there are guys who are buying it.

      How to say this . . . I think that exits the zone of, "fragrance is strictly subjective and personal, one man's junk is another man's treasure," and enters the zone of, "this stuff is still alive for a reason - it's really good, regardless of what you think about it."

      Chandler Burr talks about perfume as art, and he'd probably be having a happy spell reading this, because it seems to contradict my feelings about perfume being design and not art - after all, if design sucks, people reject it on that basis and it vanishes. But if art is disliked, it doesn't necessarily go away - the ivory tower dwellers pump up its value and pontificate on its importance until everyone gives in and accepts the avant-garde as part of the establishment.

      I'm describing a similar phenomenon with perfume, but unfortunately the tenets of design still apply: Brut (like Old Spice and Skin Bracer - and to a lesser extent, Aqua Velva) is a good design. It performs its function of smelling good beyond the call of duty. It is unerring in that regard.

      As you point out, when you plug the economies of scale into the picture, you wind up with something as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.

    2. I'll add that, unlike art, inexpensive survivor perfumes that "perform well" like Brut rarely ever have ivory tower intellectualism pumping them up, yet they continue to impress people and move units. Art, on the other hand, simply never does that. If cheap art impresses people, it ironically moves fewer units for increasingly higher prices (as fewer and fewer people can afford it, and those who can become more calculating about which pieces to own and which to pass on), until it becomes a falsely-rarefied commodity, oblivious even to the functions of its own exchange. I wonder if someone with balls were to actually ask Chandler Burr about that . . .


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