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When Did Perfume Stop Being About Sex?

When a new Yves Saint Laurent perfume came out in 2001, Tom Ford, the creative director of the house at the time, threw a sensational party at the Paris Stock Exchange, where he put a gaggle of practically nude models on display in a giant plexiglass container. The fragrance was called Nu, French for “nude.”

Linda Wells, the founding editor in chief of Allure and a partygoer, likened Mr. Ford’s soiree to a “human aquarium,” teeming with models “writhing about” in their underwear. It was like a ball pit one might find at a children’s birthday party, except bigger, alcohol fueled and packed with nearly naked adults.

“It was all these bodies,” Ms. Wells said. “It was all this flesh. It was like an orgy.”

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An event like that seems unimaginable today, and not just because unchecked hedonism became taboo after #MeToo. The whole marketing ideal has changed: Most designers and brands aren’t using sex to sell perfume — and people aren’t buying perfume to have sex.

For decades, the marketing around perfume made seduction a priority. Fragrance was a bottled way to help someone find a mate, a construct that feels incredibly irrelevant since we now have dating apps, a more efficient and consistent way to find a partner than having someone catch your scent and fall in love with you.

“It just feels really old fashioned and kind of offensive,” Ms. Wells said. “Now we all feel like, ‘This advertiser is going to tell me how I’m supposed to feel or that I want to have sex because of their fragrance or that I want to become an object because of their fragrance?’”

Today, brands talk about fragrance in terms of places and how it will make the wearer feel. Smaller, niche perfume brands like Byredo or Le Labo are advertised as “gender neutral.” These brands don’t play to outdated gender constructs and singular messaging about sex and sexual orientation. It’s not a competition for which perfume is the sexiest; it’s about which one can elicit the strongest emotional connection.

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According to Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and the author of “The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell,” perfume went from marketing “direct themes” like power or sex to encouraging a “personal journey.”

This journey could be one about self-empowerment or being the best “you,” which is what Glossier sells with Glossier You. According to its website, the scent will “grow with you no matter where you are in your personal evolution” because it’s “not a finished product. It needs you.”

Other fragrances take customers on a different journey. Harlem Nights from World of Chris Collins takes wearers to a speakeasy with notes of musk and rum that evoke cigars, top-shelf liquor and 1920s nightlife.

So, when did perfume stop being about sex?

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Culture, above all else, has had the most far-reaching effects on the perfume industry, especially in the last five years.

Traditionally, perfumes were designed for men or women — rarely both — buoyed by multimillion-dollar campaigns depicting traditional gender norms or hypersexualized images. Remember the Calvin Klein Eternity ads from the 1980s with Christy Turlington and Ed Burns? What about that sultry Gucci Guilty campaign from 2010 with Evan Rachel Wood and Chris Evans? Both seem heteronormative in today’s cultural climate.

A younger generation with more fluid interpretations of what constitutes gender, sexual orientation and romantic relationships is leading the conversation. “Gender neutral” and “genderless” have become mainstream concepts, integral to fashion, makeup and fragrance, and no longer on the fringes.

An uptick in unisex and genderless fragrance followed. In fact, many of the niche and artisanal labels that have gained widespread appeal have never assigned gender to their fragrances. Byredo has marketed its scents as unisex since Ben Gorham founded the line in 2006. The same goes for Le Labo, Escentric Molecules, D.S. & Durga, Malin + Goetz and Aesop.

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“Your gender, your nationality, your sexual orientation — it doesn’t matter,” said Chris Collins, the founder and chief executive of World of Chris Collins. All 12 of the four-year-old brand’s scents are genderless. “There should not be a distinction,” he said.

For global fragrance powerhouses, gender and romance are still quintessential to mainstream appeal. While Dior’s ad campaigns are not overtly sexual, the brand presents distinct feminine ideals through Miss Dior’s ladylike campaigns, which have featured Natalie Portman since 2011, as well as those gilded J’Adore Dior ads, in which Charlize Theron has channeled a Greek goddess for 18 years.

“Romance is not necessarily passé,” Ms. Herz said. It’s the representations of romance that are more abstract, she explained, because “things are less defined heterosexually” than they were a decade ago.

During the pandemic, with stores closed and limited ways to test perfume before buying, Suzanne Sabo, 45, from Levittown, Pa., “blind bought” perfume to treat herself. The first fragrance she ordered was Tom Ford Beauty’s Jasmine Rouge, which she discovered through an ad online.

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“There was nothing sensual or sexual about it,” said Ms. Sabo, a grant writer at a technical high school. “It was so basic — it was a description of the scent. I felt like a new woman just wearing the perfume in sweats around my house. I felt like a million bucks.”

Ms. Sabo’s Tom Ford fragrance collection has grown to include Lost Cherry, Soleil Blanc, White Suede and Bitter Peach. “It’s not like we live in the wealthy part of town,” she said. “We’re middle-class moms who were stressed.”

Rachel ten Brink, a general partner at Red Bike Capital and a founder of the perfume line Scentbird, saw customers start to adopt this mentality several years ago.

The top response from a 2015 survey asking Scentbird customers why they wore fragrance was “how it made me feel.” Attracting the opposite sex was No. 6 or 7, Ms. ten Brink said.

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Others use fragrance as a vehicle for self-expression. Carys Bassett, an I.T. consultant and cybersecurity specialist from Bath, England, wears perfume to stand out, like a statement coat or shoes.

“I like to have my presence lingering after I’ve left the room,” Ms. Bassett, 37, said. “I’m not that fussed by sex. I like to make a statement.”

Smaller, independent brands are often more creative in their approach to perfume making, highlighting individual ingredients and notes or using a story to attract customers. Fragrances are often stronger, bolder and more expensive than department store stalwarts synonymous with a “free gift with purchase.”

“Artisanal scents have always been more about the scent and the notes and the ingredients, and less about the image,” said Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry analyst at the NPD Group. Fragrance bottles with lemons, oranges or lavender are the “visual descriptors” drawing people in, she said. “You’re not looking at an ad that has just a man’s naked butt.”

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Dina Fanella, a 50-year-old special education teacher in Las Vegas, seeks out singular fragrances. She doesn’t like mass-produced perfume for the same reason she doesn’t like big hotels: It feels generic.

“I began to choose small, handcrafted fragrances that had more pure and exotic combinations,” Ms. Fanella said.

Her interest in fragrance predates the pandemic. She discovered independent perfume makers like the Sage Goddess and the online community House of Oshun, whose founder Lulu Eye Love, makes her favorite scent, Shut Up and Kiss Me.

For Ms. Sabo, Maison Francis Kurkdjian was her entree into the world of pricey artisanal perfume. The label, through a collaboration with Baccarat, had some viral TikTok fame.

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“Of course I have Baccarat Rouge 540,” she said, as if everyone should know that. Ms. Sabo discovered the fragrance on TikTok and bought two bottles, a $300 eau de parfum and a more concentrated $425 “parfum extrait,” because a YouTube review said that “you’ll smell this in every high-end restaurant in Manhattan.”

“At the time we couldn’t even go to a restaurant,” she joked. “We were ordering takeout from DoorDash.”

Before the pandemic, Ms. Sabo had never spent more than $100 on a perfume.

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