Looking for a last minute Christmas gift? Here are five new fragrances worth a sniff.

As someone who writes about male grooming for a living I’m often asked for gift suggestions around this time of year. Fragrance, of course, is one of the best gifts there is, partly because the average bottle will last for months – or years if it’s only worn for special occasions – making it the gift that really does keep on giving. Question is: which fragrance do you buy? 2017 saw some great new launches, some distinctly average ones and a few that I’d happily spray onto a radiator to get rid of the smell of cooking fish but not onto my actual skin. But since nobody’s interested in buying something ‘meh’ and conventional room sprays are available for hiding the honk of your haddock, here are a few fragrance launches I really rated this year. If you’re stuck for a festive gift idea you could certainly do worse than one of these…

Good for grown ups: Gucci Guilty Absolute

Gucci Guilty Absolute shocked me a little when I got a sneak preview of it earlier this year, mainly because it eschews the overt, hyper-commerciality of the other Gucci Guilty fragrances in favour of something altogether more grown up and gentlemanly. The work of perfumer Alberto Morillas (whose track record includes Ck One) and Gucci Creative Director Allessandro Michele, it’s woody, earthy and ludicrously leathery, has been designed to smell the same after a few hours as it does the moment it’s applied, and also has excellent staying power on the skin. The real beauty of Absolute, though, is that you get something akin to a niche creation for a mainstream fragrance price. If that doesn’t convince you to give it a go I can report that, out of all the fragrances I’ve worn this year, it’s the one that has elicited the most ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’.

The everyday workhorse: Joop! Wow!

The arrival of Joop’s latest fragrance for men earlier this year took industry bods like myself by surprise, mainly because it was so damn good. That isn’t to say that Joop! doesn’t have form in producing great fragrances (1989’s groundbreaking Joop! Homme became one of the most popular men’s fragrances of the 90s) but that the brand had become a little tired, had lost its way and become – let’s be honest here – a little ‘bargain basement’. Wow! however is a genuine return to form, blending woods, spices and creamy vanilla notes with a touch of bourbon to create a boozy, woody and comforting fragrance that’s both commercial and sensual without being pedestrian. Cool bottle too.

The premium perfume: Tom Ford Private Blend Fucking Fabulous

Few fragrances divided beauty world opinion this year quite like Tom Ford’s unisex Fucking Fabulous. Half of the industry thought it was, well, fabulous while the other half thought it was the olfactory equivalent of one of those headline-grabbing pop videos which feature buttocks quivering like jellies and debased and cheapened one of the world’s most famous luxury brands. I must say, I was firmly in the pro camp and can only assume that those who thought it somehow ‘off brand’ had forgotten about all those controversial nude fragrance ads Ford is famous for.  The fragrance, too, has sharply divided opinion: people seem to either love its woody, almondy powderiness and underlying leatheriness or hate it. (One reviewer described it as ‘one of the skankiest perfumes I’ve ever smelled’). Personally, I think it’s well worth a sniff, though do check it out first: at £205 for 50ml it’s a pricey mistake if you don’t think it’s, you know, f-ing fabulous.

The fresh alternative: John Varvatos Artisan Pure

Discovering John Varvatos’ fragrances through his latest one is like stumbling on a rock star via their latest album and realising they have a whole back catalogue of wonderfulness. Unusually for a fragrance released at the back-end of the year (it popped up as a Selfridges exclusive last month and won’t go nationwide until January) it’s a deliciously light and sparkling citrus floral affair (lemon, orange, bergamot, petigrain, coffee tree flower and jasmine are some of the notes) with a piquant spiciness and a solid cedarwood base. Perfect for those who don’t like sickly sweet, cloying gourmand fragrances or heavy oriental ones it’s a breath of fresh air and the bottle –  a reworking of the hand-woven bottles for which the Arisan range is now known – is fab. Try it, and then explore Varvatos’ other fragrances – you won’t be disappointed.

For the connoisseur: Etro ManRose

After mandles and manbags it was inevitable that perfume would eventually be subject to a masculine portmanteau in order to butch it up a little, which is the case with Etro’s ManRose – a masculine floral launched in the spring. All fragrances are essentially genderless, of course –  and more men than ever are thinking out of the box and beyond the usual woody affairs – but for those who are just dipping their toe into florals this one if perfect. Delicate, commercial and suedey, with the almost edible Turkish rose note dirtied up a little by patchouli, pepper and leather, it’s a delight. A man still needs a certain amount of confidence to carry off a distinctly floral fragrance like this but for the bold and daring it’d make the perfect Christmas present.

 

Dunhill ICON: a fragrance of diminishing returns

I love Dunhill ICON. When it was launched back in 2015 I named it as one of my favourite fragrances of the year, even going so far as to call it a future classic. And if you look at the reviews of it around the time of its release I was not alone – it was almost universally praised, which is no mean feat for a new men’s fragrance these days. Wasting no time in capitalising on this success, a reworked version, Dunhill ICON Absolute, complete with differentiating gold-coloured flacon, was launched that same year. It too, was a pretty good fragrance, though as is often the case with hastily thrown out flankers, it wasn’t quite as good as the original. Then, in 2016, came ICON Elite (are you keeping up?). The original award-winning bottle, jet black this time, was as wonderful as ever – it truly is a work of art  – but the fragrance itself was a little less impressive than both of its predecessors.

Thankfully, we were spared an ICON Elite Absolute but the brand is back this September with yet another ICON variant in the shape of Dunhill ICON Racing (it was originally called Racing Green from what I can gather but the Green bit seems to have been dropped). And, following the downward trajectory of the ICON concept it’s, in my opinion at least, the weakest of the bunch so far. A woody oriental with notes of Volcanic Red Orange (your guess is as good as mine), bergamot, saffron, clary sage, leather, vetiver and patchouli it moves things ever more mainstream and predictable. Whereas the original ICON was one of Dunhill’s most complex and intriguing fragrances ever, Racing revels in blunt, unsophisticated mass-market simplicity. It’s sweet and soapy and although the dry down is pleasantly woody it’s simply not a patch on the fragrance whose DNA it (now only vaguely) shares.

The problem here I think is once facing many fragrance companies at the moment –  Tom Ford and Jo Malone amongst them unfortunately – and that’s that there are simply too many launches in too quick succession. Obsessed by newness (it’s what the customer wants these days I’m told) houses like Dunhill are signed up to a release schedule that feels like it’s on speed and there’s little time to pause for thought or grow loyalty to one particular fragrance or another.

Maybe, pressurised by such a release schedule, the perfumers themselves don’t have the time or creative breathing space to come up with something truly amazing, (though it’s more likely they have soul-destroying mass-market briefs to contend with) but what I do know is that with each successive version, ICON gets weaker and weaker. When you truly love a fragrance – as I do with the original ICON – this is terribly sad to witness and, although I’m sure the company won’t pay a blind bit of notice to what one reviewer like me has to say, my message to them anyway would be to take a deep breath and slow down a little. More haste, less speed – that’s how to create an icon.

Dunhill ICON Racing launches in Harrods next month and nationwide from October 2nd, priced £63 for 50ml EDP