I distinctly remember where and when I had my very first hit of Aramis. I was in Browns of Chester (now Debenhams) and I was a callow 17-year old. Back then I had hair – lots of it, given that it was the mid 80s – and, looking back on it, a surprisingly grown up taste in fragrance.
Remarkably, at that point Aramis had already been around longer than I had and, even more remarkably, thirty years later we’re both still here, though for sure the fragrance has aged a little better than I have.
In a world where the average lifespan of a men’s fragrance isn’t much more than that of an X Factor winner, Aramis is a true phenomenon. Along with an elite bunch of classic men’s fragrances like Givenchy Gentleman and Dior’s Eau Sauvage, it is the envy of many fragrance houses, who can only dream of its trans-generational appeal and trend-defying commerciality.
As a member of the ‘chypre’ family of fragrances – a category traditionally based around citrus notes, oakmoss, spices and woods – it is, like all chypres, a bit of a contradiction: crisp yet warm, refreshing yet sensual. Citrusy, piney, leathery and woody, Aramis evokes images of gentlemen’s clubs, leather-bound books, spice markets and forest floors. This is a fragrance with all the staying power of a marathon runner.
“Aramis was the first fragrance to marry up fresh cologne notes with sexy alpha male ones and that’s what’s made it truly iconic,” says perfume designer Azzi Glasser, whose father wore it when she was growing up, thus ensuring its pride of place in her olfactory memory bank. “It has a timeless formulation that exudes a magnetic sophistication, richness and confidence.”
Created by perfumer Bernard Chant, it was launched in 1964 by Estée Lauder and her husband Joseph and broke new ground by being the first prestige men’s fragrance widely available in department stores, allowing men (and women shopping for their men) easy access to fine fragrance and pretty much opening up the market for it in the process. In fact, you could say that without Aramis the huge selection of fragrances available at your local Boots or John Lewis simply wouldn’t exist.
Of course, by launching in department stores it needed to have broad appeal to both men and women, be memorable and – as is the case with all fragrances – to be sexy too.
It clearly ticked all these boxes – and then some – because the classic version is now sold in 120 countries across the globe, proving to be as popular in Durban as it is in Dudley (Aramis sells particularly well in South Africa, the UK and the Middle East – countries with a penchant for heavier, more intense fragrances).
Over the years the formula has been tinkered with slightly and Aramis as a brand has expanded and mutated – as successful brands are wont to do – but while there have been many fragrance spins offs over the years (Aramis Life, Aramis Gentleman and, most recently, Aramis Adventurer, in truth they’re but pretenders to the classic version’s crown.
"The thing about Aramis is that it’s an incredibly refined and distinctive fragrance,” says perfumer and fragrance historian Roja Dove. “It has inspired a myriad of masculine creations over the years, but no one has created a better version of it and it continues to inspire many perfumers working today, including those who create fragrances sold by uber-cool brands."
So what is the secret of its success? To me, at the heart of its appeal is the simple fact that it smells so straightforwardly masculine. As someone who writes about fragrance for a living I often get lambasted for using such crude descriptors (it’s far cooler to say fragrances should be genderless), but the truth is it just does. Or at least, it smells how you might expect a classic masculine fragrance to smell. It’s not fizzy, fruity or overloaded with so much vanilla that it smells like a cake shop; it’s leathery, woody and earthy. It’s solid, punchy, muscular and reliable, but gentlemanly and refined too.
“Aramis is masculine, yes, but in a way that never comes across as brutish or aggressive,” says James Craven, Perfume Archivist at Les Senteurs, London’s oldest independent perfumery. “It suggests a suave, poised masculinity and has become something of an object lesson in effortless style.”
Another part of its success lies in its curious ability to re-engage wearers many years after they’d forgotten about its existence, in the same way that a teenage crush might suddenly pop up on Facebook twenty years after you last saw them, only to knock you for six and leave you looking at your current lover with more than a hint of doubt. “Funnily enough, I was given a bottle of Aramis earlier this year and was totally bowled over by it – all over again,” says Craven, as if to prove my point.
A simple, sleek and timeless bottle has helped it endure, too, as has its tenacious longevity on the skin. But the real key to its success is its daring and originality. Certainly, today’s generic, focus group fragrances could learn a thing or two from its distinctive and uncompromising character.
“Aramis was a pioneer in men’s fragrance and is a scent that is distinctive and recognisable and one which can transcend trend and fads,” says Estée Lauder’s Trudi Loren, Senior Vice President, Corporate Fragrance Development, proudly. Which is something that certainly can’t be said of the majority of today’s bland and samey fragrance launches – few of which will be around in 2024, let alone 2064.
The bottom line is that when Chant sat down to create Aramis all those years ago he wasn’t just artfully combining an array of perfume oils; he was also mixing in dashes of boldness, daring and originality. It is these ingredients and not vetiver, patchouli or tonka bean that today’s fragrances need to include if they want to have true staying power.
It’s also why, to use Loren’s words, at some point in a man’s life he finds himself in need of the kind of refinement and elegance that Aramis can provide. I’m wearing it as I write this and must admit that, looking at my current fragrance favourites, I’m seriously considering olfactory adultery.