The Powerhouse in the Age of the Bubble

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once observed that smells form modernity’s Other. Odours are uncontrollable and unpredictable, everything that modernity — with its dedication to order, control and self-control — intended to eradicate. One obvious solution was the deployment of artificial scents to mask disagreeable smells. Hence, detergents, fabric softener, deodorants, and of course perfume. A complex network of fragrance shields us from the stench of nature (decomposition, mold, still water with its association of disease) or anyone designated as undesirable. For some this masking is inadequate. These sensitive noses wish for every smell, including artificial ones, to be eliminated. The fragrance industry is churning out a larger number of fragrances than ever before, while controversy regularly flares regarding the use of perfume. Why has perfume become problematic?

Current life demands an ever growing sense of control, which aims at a certain neutrality, an evasion of conflict on different levels. At the same time our senses — especially sight and hearing — are being overloaded during waking hours. Moreover, communication technology encourages us to live in a bubble so cosy and self-controlled that any intrusion — even a pleasurable one — is perceived as an irritant. A future world where perfume is frowned upon or even banned is not that farfetched a vision. Lately some fragrance houses seem to have noticed this trend and pre-emptively introduced superclean colognes and perfumes. L’Eau Serge Lutens and Prada Infusion d’Homme for instance are soft smells that evoke the ideal of the freshly ironed shirt or the moment one steps out of the shower. Undoubtedly well-crafted and pleasurable scents, but also safe and, inevitably, androgynous in character.

Fragrance culture has entered an interesting period. Before the rise of the internet it used to be almost invisible. Like all subcultures fragheads and cologne guys through online connectivity suddenly became aware of each other’s existence. And like lovers of analogue synthesizers, trainer freaks or sport fans they can obsessively discuss any detail of the object, especially if brands silently change the formula of a beloved classic. One fragrance style is worn and studied by an exuberant yet slightly melancholic bunch, the devotees of the male powerhouse. Powerhouse has been settled on as the name for a rather diverse group of fragrances that exude an unmistakable aura of masculinity. These scents are dense, long-lasting and loud to the point of being rude. Obviously their presence (silage in perfume terms) makes them controversial in the era of the bubble. Yet proponents like to think of the powerhouse as the only true model of male grooming.

The golden age of the powerhouse can be dated fairly accurate, beginning with the introduction of Aramis in 1964. It peaked in the early to mid-eighties and started to fade when Balenciaga pour Homme failed commercially in 1990. Somehow the times had changed and what some consider to be the ultimate powerhouse was discontinued unceremoniously. Needless to say, nowadays Balenciaga pour Homme is something of a holy grail for powerhouse lovers. What happened? First of all, the masculine ideal changed. Suddenly powerhouse scents were loaded with associations of obnoxious macho’s who overspray what already is explosive to begin with. But these scents had to be loud for a practical reason: they should be able to cut through smoke. During the 1980s anti-smoking campaigns started to gain serious ground and with the passing of time it becomes hard to imagine that people used to smoke in offices, public transportation and cinemas. The powerhouse had to compete with layers of smoke and in some cases they would complement each other — this idea actually went back to Robert Piguet’s Bandit (1944) which was created with smoking women in mind. How ironic that the fragrance which heralded a new style of casual freshness was introduced by a tobacco company. Davidoff’s Cool Water turned out to be a runaway success in 1988 and for years its aquatic style became synonymous with male fragrance.

So why wear these nuclear scents in the 21st century? One obvious reason: they are very well-made. Powerhouse fragrances can be used privately as sensual experiments where one silently enjoys their unprecedented complexity. Then there is the advantage of going against the tide. Anyone with just the slightest aesthetic sense knows that for the most part taste entails a game of distinction, especially from mass taste. Entering a crowd nowadays one starts to understand perfume haters as your sense of smell is assaulted by whatever artless metallic-amber concoction currently resides in the top-10 at department stores. Wearing a powerhouse makes you stand out in an easy-going way, without succumbing to the puritanical extremes of denial.

As can be expected a nostalgic air surrounds the powerhouse as well. From a technical viewpoint it is argued that fragrances from a certain period were better balanced and structurally more adventurous. Or one simply longs for a certain masculine ideal. Indeed, one of the recurring questions fragheads obsess over is: what aftershave does Don Draper wear? A question that lends itself to much speculation and the scrutiny of the very few scenes in which he is seen shaving. Luckily the makers of Mad Men have kept the mystery intact, so the question remains unanswerable. A personal hypothesis is that he starts wearing Aramis in 1964. Working in advertisement he would have been aware of its launch in New York and the scent fits his practical American style. But the question also highlights an important difference. Namely, how everything in our lives has become extremely discursive. Draper is very careful about his looks and presentation but it never forms a subject of discussion. Certainly it is expected of everyone around him to look stylish. Speaking of details would be seen as obsessive. As Bret Easton Ellis recently observed, one of the very few things Draper actually admits to love is cinema, especially Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). Without, of course, ever explaining why.

Interested in silently giving off a masculine aura? Many options are still available and since they are considered outdated most powerhouses can be found at fair prices. Feeling timid and want to take it slow? In that case one should, for the time being, pass on the four big hitters: Kouros, Van Cleef & Arpels pour Homme, Quorum and Lapidus pour Homme. All great scents yet also known for a slightly dirty undertow that can put off the beginner. A great introduction is the brave hybrid Havana, which was launched too late in the game (1995), got discontinued, but recently has been reinstated as part of the impressive Aramis Gentleman’s Collection. One of the great things about powerhouses is that they can be quite eccentric; none is stranger than the affordable Yatagan by Caron (although those in the know naturally whisper Yatagan is not as loud as it used to be in 1976.) Not as polarizing and almost eternally elegant are Azzaro pour Homme and Oscar de la Renta pour Lui. In all cases a nicely designed lighter remains optional.