I've dogged Tom Ford's perfumes. I'm not a great fan of his eponymous perfume line, but on smelling Gucci Envy for Men, something clicked. The Gucci perfumes of the Ford era were a first rate line of designer perfumes and are a testament to the value of art direction.
Gucci Rush is a pitch-perfect modern example of the pursuit of beauty in classical perfumery. It's gorgeous, it stops you in your tracks, it makes you think.
I have a love-hate relationship with Gucci Envy, but then again I hold ambiguity in very high regard. A perfume that polarizes opinions points to a strong artistic voice. One that splits an individual’s own opinions is ingenious.
Gucci pour Homme I (Michel Almairac, 2003) was a thoughtful, beautiful perfume released at a time of big perfume ad campaigns followed by even bigger yawns. I doubt that a Gucci perfume was launched without a high degree of gloss, but in this case the proof was in the pudding. In fact, whether GpH I started the trend of beautiful woody incense perfumes for men, it certainly became the leader of the trend mainstream market.
Gucci Eau de Parfum and Gucci Eau de Parfum II reflect a brilliant strategy of letting the blandness of the market serve as a backdrop. Seen against a group-think market of women’s perfumes in the 1990s, they stand out both for ingenuity and for their beauty.
Gucci Eau de Parfum is a strikingly simple floral Oriental writ large that rose above the monochromatic mob of syrupy gourmands. It offered an old-school animalic quality to women who had been lead to believe that the height of beauty was to smell like a cupcake, sprinkles and all.
Gucci Eau de Parfum II was a subversive little beauty that infiltrated the fruity-floral genre, skipping the spoonful of sugar in favor of a tart woodiness. Gucci edp II has none of the frivolity and triteness typically associated with the genre. Its pokerface and assuredness give it a character more like a classic woody such as Jean Patou 1000.
Envy for Men didn't bust down any walls, and unless quality comes as a surprise to you, it doesn't shock. It's the spicy, woody, resinous perfume equivalent of a Russian male choir. A large range is covered, but the rumbling bass is what I remember. A lot has been made of its nutmeg and ginger notes being its defining attributes, but like Givenchy Insénsé, whose floral notes have been touted as the reason for the perfume's failure to breech the men's market, the note isn't the coup de grace. Beauty is.
Many men fear unadulterated, or better, unmodulated beauty, and despite its nominal set of 'masculine' notes (lavender, cedar, incense, amber...) Envy for Men is luxuriously beautiful. It's like many of the Amouage masculines such as Gold Man (1983) and Dia pour Homme (2002) where the goal is explicitly for a man to smell beautiful. The litany of questions that often curtail men actually wearing a perfume are irrelevant. (Is it an 'office scent'? Does it broadcast easy identification with your cohort? Could it be perceived as feminine?). If you look closely, Envy for Men easily passes masculine muster, and should assuage the fear behind these questions. It should simply have been seen as a handsome, distinctive entry into the market. But men's deep-seated fear of appearing beautiful trumps the rest, and, despite something of a cult following, Envy for men has gone the way of much of the other Ford era Guccis. It's been discontinued.
Perfume fans follow the work of individual perfumers. Why not branch out a bit and follow the work of the art director? If the perfumer can be likened to the director in film, the art director is somewhere between the film producer (eg. Serge Lutens) and the art curator (eg. Frédéric Malle.) Larger-scale commercial perfumery relies on a consensus model that defines creativity very narrowly.
The Gucci line of the Ford era is similar to the Estée Lauder perfumes made during Lauder’s time. The ridiculous lie of the Lauder line during Estee Lauder's lifetime was that she made each of her perfumes herself. Lauder was known for producing a spectacular line that didn’t shy away from polarizing opinion. Azurée, Knowing, Aliage, Estée. And her perfumes for men, principally in the Aramis line, are still the best compilation of masculine fragrances from a large commercial cosmetic/perfume producer. If she had openly proclaimed herself as an art director of the line, she'd have beaten Lutens and Malle to the punch by decades.
If you're interested in looking at perfume from the perspective of the art director instead of the perfumer or an entire line, take a look at the Gucci perfumes by Tom Ford. Some are discontinued, and some are still in production, but they're all fairly easy to find.