The Dilemma Of The "Work Fragrance"

Occasionally I get questions by email and in comments on this blog from readers wondering about my opinion of the "work fragrance," and what qualifies as a worthy scent for the workplace. My general rule of thumb in giving advice is to recommend counterintuitive action. That is, if you work in a formal setting, replete with business suits, corner offices, "power lunches," and never-ending deadlines, you should wear something casual and objectively fun. Likewise, if you work in a relaxed environment, where Casual Friday happens everyday, and where offices are the exception, not the rule, you'd be well served to button up in your fragrance choice.

My reasoning for this is one of balance. If you carry a briefcase to work and suffer the constant indignity of having your secretary micro-aggressively question your every move, a little levity, even in the low hum of something like a half spray of Joop! Homme, is a welcome reminder that you belong to the human race. Your coworkers will register that you're wearing something peppy and sweet, but their emotional well-being is circumstantially aligned with yours, and their subconscious reaction to your saccharine sillage will echo approval. In a crowded business meeting full of grey-faced politicians and soul-destroying accountants, who can argue with an invisible signal of one's inner mirth? You may not be allowed to tell a vintage Sam Kinison joke in front of the account execs, but your fragrance can signal in a non-threatening way (when applied judiciously) that your inner scream is primed and ready for action.

My reasoning for the inverse applies accordingly, but I want to address the reader who says in frustration, "But what if you work in a place that is not obviously formal or casual?" I work in just such a place. My line of work requires me to do tons of paperwork and manage a dozen different kinds of documents, tracking dates, data, line graphs, and the explicit directions of mental health professionals. It's an oddly anachronistic job, especially given the i-Times we are currently in, and I often think that I should wear a visor and smoke cigarettes while engaged in these clerical tasks. In this regard, my job is bizarrely formal.

There is a caveat to this, though. Quite frequently a sizable portion of my day brings the mental and physiological tightrope act of intentionally lighthearted banter with coworkers between physical altercations with people who momentarily wish me bodily harm. I must summon at a moment's notice a cool-headed comment designed to deflate another person's potentially dangerous attitude problem, while giving an implicit and even-handed promise to overlook whatever harm might be done.

Where I work, emotions and tensions can run sky high, but I often have days where 90% of my interactions are easy and not at all demanding. I drive into work every day saying to myself, "Bryan, you'll either drive home at four o'clock, or an ambulance will drive you," and I'm fine with that. What the hell should I wear in a place like this? Should I even wear anything at all? Would going scentless be the "safe" way of handling these professional, social, and cultural ambiguities?

Over the last seven years, I've devised an answer to that, with a few tiers. First, as far as the question of "should I" goes, the answer is clear: Yes, fragrance is appropriate. My environment is subject to many unpleasant odors, many due to bodily fluids, unpleasant secretions, filthy clothing, and just plain bad hygiene. For me to bring a waft of something that smells at least relatively "good" is something more than merely prosaic - it is fundamentally useful. I realized pretty early on that my coworkers actually appreciate an occasional olfactory reprieve, even if only in the form of a good personal fragrance. In many instances my body is in close quarters with someone else's, and I have yet to receive a complaint. I often receive compliments.

However, I'm careful to use a unique tactic: I mix it up. There is no straight line in how one's temperament should adjust in my workplace, and thus no reason to be linear with my fragrance style. Some days it's formal; some days it's a casual fragrance that works best. I have some scheduling indicators that signal what sort of day I'm most likely to have at any given point of the work week, and I wear my frag accordingly. Usually my scents are a bit more formal, and while that is largely due to my personal taste (and not coordinated to effect my working environment), it is also a tertiary benefit of working with people who need to differentiate your impact on their day from the impact of the environment around them. Become too repetitive and too thematic, and they begin to expect you. Stay fresh and new, and expectations aren't formed on that subconscious level, beyond knowing I will smell at least relatively "good."

I tend to stay away from pure perfumes, very strong extraits and oils. There are certain frags that simply feel "wrong." They're too bombastic, too heavy, potentially offensive, even to me. Common sense prevails. Likewise, I see little point in habitually donning light, evanescent colognes like 4711. On a tough day, I'll sweat that out in the first hour, and then it'll be like I never sprayed anything at all. No fun. I like the happy medium of full-bodied EDTs, generally from the last thirty years, and usually trending toward the "woody" end of the masculine spectrum. Coworkers are taken aback at the seemingly endless variety of fragrances, but if someone hands you a steaming turd, you'll gladly take my love of the Caron line over the ecrement.

My suggestion is to go with your gut, but don't be afraid to go against the proverbial grain. Ditch the business scent if you're a businessman - it's redundant. Stay away from watermelon B&B Works crap if you're a lifeguard. Believe it or not, Kouros works better in sand and sun than Acqua di Gio. And yeah, going full Gordon Gecko and wearing Patou Pour Homme to the 116th floor on the day of the Taiwan deal is just asking to end up in a Robert Longo painting.

Be fresh in your heart, and your work will follow.


Photo (Karl Lagerfeld)

The Eighties Called: They Want Their Fougère Back.

As a disclaimer, I should clarify that I've never smelled the current formula of Photo. I've only ever smelled the original version from the early nineties, back when Lagerfeld Parfums and Benckiser was packaging it in a black "camera film" package with yellow-green lettering. If it should win any awards, it's for package design; Lagerfeld's cans generally suffer from boring graphics and forgettable color schemes, but Photo's was exceptionally good. Too bad I can't say the same for what's inside.

I'm the sort of person who appreciates vintage and newer formulas of old fragrances, although as you probably already know, I tend to view the value of vintages as something highly relative and variable. I assess each scent, with its period's zeitgeist, juxtaposed against its current reviews and reviewers. That said, it's important to note that Photo's release year was 1990, so it was developed in the late eighties (no pun intended), but formulated to match the trends of the early nineties.

In some ways, it's groundbreaking in that regard. Photo's basic structure is an aromatic fougère. Its lavender and coumarin are unmistakable and aggressive, but they're sunken into a familiar Laz-Z-Boy of floral, herbal, and woody aromatics, which flesh out the fern accord, and create an ambery hybrid-oriental tone of their own. The lavender note is fresh, bolstered by what may be the tiniest dab of Calone, lending it an almost aquatic, salinated aura that presages the "melon" trend of the nineties. You really have to strain to notice this, though. And Photo's problems begin to outweigh its little victories as it dries down.

Within a minute of application, it becomes clear that Photo is derivative, and copies from two major eighties masculines: Drakkar Noir and Xeryus. Again, I must post a disclaimer and say that I've never smelled the vintage version of Xeryus, but if the reissued Les Parfums Mythiques version is any guide, Givenchy's fragrance was the primary template for Photo, just as Laroche's was the template for Givenchy. Drakkar Noir's treatment of lavender carried down the line before coming to rest in Lagerfeld's scent, and any changes were negligible.

Photo's ingredient quality is on par with Drakkar, but not with the reissued Xeryus, which smells more coherent and balanced in comparison. What this tells me is that contemporary perfumery has moved on from vintage Photo and produced a very similar fragrance that smells measurably better. While affable enough, Photo's notes feel somewhat "blurry" and clumsy; its lavender is a bit too "gummy" (and also resembles the cheap lavender in vintage Bleu Marine), its woody notes are a little too sweet, and perhaps the scent's age is to blame, but the musk in its base smells like a chemical fabric softnener ingredient, like being downwind of Bounce dryer sheets.

LPM Xeryus has cleaner, crisper note separation, with nothing "spiking out," and a much less obvious musk in its cool, ambery base. And if I want an air-conditioned lavender note, the massive herbal blast of Drakkar Noir is still more satisfying than anything else. All things considered, I should have some love for Photo, and I certainly appreciate it as an indicator of where the eighties left off and the nineties began, but find little truth in reviews exalting the vintage version. Maybe I'd enjoy the reformulation more, but I prefer to satiate my appetite for "fougerientals" elsewhere.