2/8/17

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.



14 comments:

  1. I have to say Bryan I for one really enjoy wearing those typical(and some might say boring) 'business scents' to work in the office. It could almost be its own little sub-genre and there's some pretty great ones to choose from. Fragrances like Van Cleef and Arpels PH, Bottega Venetta(an underrated gem), Quorum, Polo, Grey Flannel, Bowling Green, Original Vetiver, Royal Mayfair, Aramis, Dunhill Edition and Icon, Terre D'Hermes, Grey Vetiver to name a few that fit the bill. They all have gravitas, smell sharp, classic, feel professional and just feel RIGHT!
    I personally would never wear Joop to work.. Unless I was a professional clown.

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    1. Interestingly though there are a few on your list I would never consider "business scents." Bowling Green? Original Vetiver? Royal Mayfair? Beene's scent is Saturday at the mall (granted, in 1987). OV is a lunch date on the French Riviera, the height of "fresh player" bottled for fresh players. And if Royal Mayfair is where Windsor wound up, I'd advise against wearing that scent anywhere. Even Quorum, with its intense blast of cigar tobacco and near-overbearing bite of burnt herbs and lawn clippings would be a no-go in today's office, although I can at least see it. Terre D'Hermes, Grey Flannel, and Grey Vetiver are obviously safe conservative choices for the office. Polo . . . Part of me wants to agree, but the other just sees an odd correlation with high school guys at church with their parents on Easter Sunday. I guess YMMV with that one. VC&A PH smells like Dial Gold soap, right down to the cheap rose note, although I can definitely see that one at the office.

      If you would personally never wear Joop! to work, fine. That for you is a constant condition. Adding that you might if you were a professional clown introduces a variable, which leads to the obvious question: Do you know what clowns wear? If so, how?

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  2. One dilemma I often think of (and judge away, as I'm sure that this speaks volumes about me) is that the moments at work when I'm apt to heat up -- out of exertion, temper, embarrassment, etc. -- are ones when I am likely going to be quite close to others, in such a way that the scent no doubt released by this heat will mingle with my own apprehension of myself as in the heart of my work (the heart of art teaching is a cocktail of awkwardness and passion?) Whatever the scent is has to work well with that...intensity. Probably the best recent experience of this was when I'd put on Guerlain Vetiver about ten minutes before a meeting for which I was fifteen minutes late. After sprinting four blocks I proceeded to try to control my gasping for air while pitching an art exhibition proposal to a gallery director. It felt as if we were both sitting on the bottom of an aquarium filled with vetiver, and everything was just fine.

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    1. Think about it this way - not all conservative compositions like Guerlain Vetiver are "business scents," to use Western parlance. (I don't know about oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia.) Vetiver is a very spare, fresh, "French" fragrance in a mid 20th century style. It makes perfect sense that it would feel good and relaxing on the job. It has a sunny Meditterannean aura that doesn't go too far in any direction and always hits the spot, particularly if you're a vetiver fan.

      Would you have felt as good in the meeting had you been wearing Derby? I know I'd take Vetiver over Derby any day of the week, including Casual Friday.

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    2. Oh me too, by a mile. There is something just so easygoing and chic about Vetiver that, despite its linearity and relative seriousness/classicism, it always seems cool to me, like Albert Camus and his 'invincible summer.' I have a funny theory about vetiver as a note, which is that what it conjures or suggests as 'nature' somehow outweighs the baggage it brings along as 'culture'... I can think of a lot of notes (a lot of patchoulis, a lot of lavenders...) that really never escape the profiles they ride into town on. Some very nice scents (say Eau Sauvage or Paco Rabanne) seem to sit right in the middle of this equation, while others (say, Habit Rouge, which I admire a lot) feel more like a complex and lovely display of olfactory heraldry. This latter is not really a problem, but if I'm under stress, I don't want to be sending complicated discursive messages, I want to feel like you, me, and the problem (whatever it is) are in the midst of a cool balmy moment that's just happening of its own accord, a sure sign that things will be alright before long.

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  3. I would add Guerlain Vetiver to that list for sure. The only one on that list of mine that's abit daring as to what's not overly typical imo is the Royal Mayfair although for me it works and does indeed have that 'businessy' feel. As for your opinions on the others I beg to differ. Bowling Green, OV, Quorum and Polo can all work fantastically. As for the Joop joke, don't take it too personally it wasn't meant as an attack on your taste or suggestion. Just to me it would be a huge no no. Maybe some people just prefer to smell abit more conservative that's all which I think is fair enough in a business setting.

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    1. If you're saying that things like Bowling Green, OV, and Polo can work in a business setting, then I totally agree. I just meant that to me they're not really slam-dunk business scents. And as you pointed out, for you Joop! Homme is not a business scent. (I was kidding about the clown. But I'm still curious.)

      This is part of the dilemma. You mentioned conservative work scents as being their own genre in a way, and that's an interesting comparison. However I do notice that the ones you mentioned are older, much, much older, some older than me. Not to flog a dead horse, but I'll pull this out again just for context: imagine that Joop! Homme was a "new" scent and we were discussing it alongside things like Bleu de Chanel EDP and Sauvage by Dior. Of those three, I would totally get considering a sweet sandalwood floral like Joop!, which is also unabashedly synthetic - and blatantly intends to smell that way - is just for bachelor parties, and nothing else. But by the standard of old-school, Joop! Homme isn't as obviously corny as you may think. Most guys have an issue with over-applying it, and my number 1 complaint about it is that it's notoriously difficult to use, because even one full spray can, in many social scenarios, be "too much." But if you do get it right, Joop! Homme smells exactly like what it is: an old-school 28 yr-old masculine with notes that current fragrances have all but forgotten about. But I completely understand why it's not for everyone, and why you might not want to wear it to work, because after all, everyone's taste is different! Thanks for your comments, I appreciate you.

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  4. Hmm.......most of my years spent working in a "real job" were as a healthcare professional. Working with patients who may be hyperallergic/asthmatic/prone to migraines/whatever pretty much limited my choices to discreet scents that could have easily been mistaken for soap. Expensive soap perhaps- but soap. Some of my favorites were: Fresh Fig & Apricot, Mugler, EA 5th Avenue, Yardley's Olde English Lavender, Victoria Principal's White Violet, Tea Rose, Crabtree & Evelyn Florentine Freesia, Kai, FE's Madhurai Jasmine, Il Profumo Musc Bleu, Hermes Pamplemousse Rose. Actually all Hermes are so watery & wan you could probably get away with wearing them in a medical setting.

    An interesting aside - go into any US upscale dept store and ask for a womem's 'work appropriate' fragrance and they'll recommend Coco Mademoiselle.

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    1. I work with a woman who wears Coco Mademoiselle and I must admit she always smells great. She's Ukranian and the only woman who wears real perfume at my job, the Americans wear nothing at all or body mist crap that universally smells of raw alcohol and maraschino cherries.

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    2. How come no one ever complains about that gawdawful Bath & Body Works crap? I can't think of any line of fragrance that's more overtly obnoxious in terms of being synthetic smelling around in the US. The overwhelming plasticky vanillas, overpowering ethyl maltol bombs, and the fake fruit/starburst/skittles/koolaid/jolly rancher overload. I usually walk way around that store in the mall because of the stench. When I had a coupon I braved actually going in the store to buy my sons some of their men's collection. AAAK! My eyes were watering. Anyhoo, their men's stuff was ok, simply weak dupes of popular men's scents. The rest of the store was like Fruity Pebbles on crack. The only fragrance I found that was decent for women was the now discontinued Wild Madagascar Vanilla- a decent full bodied and multifaceted vanilla. The rest were so obnoxiously hypersweet (and I can take a lot of sweet! I wear CSP's Vanille Abricot, Pink Sugar, & straight musk ambrette) and cloyingly nasty with synthetic fruit they made me gag. The only saving grace of B&BW scents is they tend not to last too long after application. Oh yes, that reminds me- B&BW's recommends you buy the body mist, lotion, hairspray, hand cream, body powder, air freshener and whatever else comes in that same scent to prolong it. I don't want to buy 7 different products in the same scent! I don't want to buy, store, or apply 3-4 products to enjoy a scent for 7-8 hrs. I want to apply 1 scented product and that's it!

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    3. Next month I will try to remember to write up a post discouraging American women (and all women) from using B&BW mists, or any other mists for that matter. Six years ago I dated a woman who insisted on wearing them, and I'm pretty sure it's one of the reasons we broke up.

      My guess on their popularity is that they sort of hit a commercial and social sweet spot for the average middle class woman. They're all basically "fresh" and "clean" and "sweet," which are three characteristics that Americans covet in scent, especially females. In fact, I recently watched a YouTube video of a guy (who named his channel "Gent Scents" or something like that) giving his wife blind tests of his fragrances. He made her smell about ten different scents off strips without telling her what they were, and she overwhelmingly preferred the cheaper, fresher fragrances to the expensive oud-riddled niche stuff. One of Tom Ford's oud scents got a "meh," and she basically said she wasn't crazy about it, which pissed him off. Then he thought he'd be clever and have her smell Aspen. Turned out, she loved Aspen, and plainly told him so. It was interesting to watch his head explode on camera. The $400 niche scent was unimpressive; the $10 drugstore purchase had her asking for more. Women like fresh, direct scents.

      The problem with the mists, is that they're made very cheaply, but worse yet, very BADLY.

      Aspen is cheap, but it's made well. It uses a harmonic pyramid of notes that complement each other perfectly, and it's surprisingly well balanced. It really doesn't smell "cheap" in the literal sense. But the body sprays smell like they were made badly, using the cheapest possible materials, and as few materials as humanly possible. The perfumers throw maybe - *maybe* - six or seven aroma chemicals together, shake them up in a test tube, dilute them with grain alcohol (well ok, denatured alcohol, but it might as well be jungle juice), and these mall firms like B&BW, The Body Shop, they suck them up and slap a 200% profit margin on them. Want to smell like "Cherry Blossom" for five minutes? Here you go! Want "Vanilla" for ten minutes? Presto, easy-peasy.

      They are affordable, they smell "friendly" in the most generic sense of the word, and they're short-lived. No commitment, no fuss, no room for complaints. One problem: They smell godawful. They smell like Febreeze. They smell like laundry soap. They have a naked alcohol odor accompanying their essences like a pale shadow. And for god's sakes, it's not like buying something like Vanilla Fields or Emeraude would break the bank. Sure, they're pretty cheap and no longer brilliant compositions, but anything is better than a body mist. Quite literally anything.

      That was me complaining about the body mist crap, just for you, Bibi.

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    4. HAH! Thanks, Mr Ross.
      Umm.....I actually think Febreeze & laundry soap smells better than most of B&BW's crap. At least you're spared the obnoxiousness of ethyl vanillin/ethyl maltol overload with Febreeze & laundry soap. You might at least get a hint of herbaceous lavender (in the form of linalool) or the floral note of lily of the valley (hydroxycitronellal) in laundry soap & Febreeze. There appears to be some overlap now in products though, I understand you can now buy laundry detergent & fabric softener in Apple Mango Tango & Apple Berry Twist (Sounds awfully B&BW to me). What's next? Pumpkin Caramel Latte Laundry detergent? YUK!

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  5. I enjoyed your post very much. Sadly, the topic is academic to me, as I work from home these days, if I work at all. ;)

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  6. One curious offshoot of this question (Bibi's comment made me think of it), is an entirely different dilemma, which is the move to make workplaces scent free. While I realize the concerns, it seems sometimes like an easy target, given how much scent is applied to all kinds of household products (the newest version of Gain is an absolute bomb). But I expect that the etiquette surrounding that question is one for another post entirely (what's too much, why it's too much, how to respond as the inflicter or inflictee of unwanted chemical intimacy, etc.)

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