We chat with Manchester-born, Perfumer Linda Pilkington from Ormonde Jayne on the future of Gender-Free perfumes
Think back to buying a Valentine’s Day gift in the last decade. If you were buying a perfume for your beloved, it was relatively easy – for a woman, you would select from the perfumes for women, floral notes of jasmine and lilies, and for a man, a sharp cologne that smelt “masculine” and never the twain shall meet.
Putting the long-established masculine and feminine divisions of the perfume world aside, Ormonde Jayne Perfumery launched Isfarkand, a gender-free cologne in 2005, creating a new tradition which every subsequent Ormonde Jayne fragrance has since followed. It was seen as innovative and revolutionary 15 years ago ditching time-honoured conventions.
Manchester-born Perfumer Linda Pilkington realised gender played little relevance to perfume and one’s sense of smell during a lightbulb moment; a tall burly gentleman entered the boutique and after trying the range, he chose the fragrance Sampaquita. Envisaged for blushing young brides, Sampaquita was the most delicate of light florals with notes of freesia and peach. “At the time he told me how much he adored it and even though I thought it was too feminine on him, I felt it best not to give him my opinion on the gender of the perfume. I also remember thinking, who am I to dispute the perfume he clearly he loved?” recounts perfumer Linda Pilkington.
That lightbulb moment was cemented into company policy a few weeks later after another encounter at Ormonde Jayne’s stand in Harrods, “A gentleman chose the scent Ta’if, which is an exotic oriental made with roses, saffron, dates and amber and we had described it as the Belle of the Ball. Later that day, he had visited our online boutique and saw Ta’if in the female fragrances and was somewhat cross. He called the next morning to complain that he had been sold a woman’s perfume without his knowledge. My answer was, but if you like the perfume on yourself, does it really matter? But that day in 2005, I knew something had to change with our company’s philosophy as we are not in the business of upsetting people or categorising gender.”
Did you think of this change as revolutionary at the time?
At the time in 2005, like night and day, perfumes were either for men or for women. It was very much entrenched and the discussion in society about gender identity had not yet opened up. It was taken for granted amongst retailers that you needed to divide the entire beauty and cosmetics industry into male and female. Looking back and seeing it was only 15 years ago is a bit surprising now, but I remember at the time thinking that pigeonholing fragrance and clients according to gender was questionable and didn’t make any real sense. I compared it to food, flavours and tastebuds and seeing there were no gender divisions there.
Was it a gradual change?
I made the change the same night as the complaint from the Harrods customer. I instructed all the paperwork to be changed, and for the Male/Female banners on our website to be removed. As I am the independent owner of Ormonde Jayne and we have no board of investors to answer to, I can instigate the changes at our pace, and sometimes I like to adapt with agility!
How did you describe your perfumes after the change?
I never liked the word “unisex” and found it sounded too much like the 1970’s. After a few glasses of wine and writing lots of different possibilities, I came up with the term “gender-free”. Ormonde Jayne’s perfumes have been gender-free for 15 years and everyone embraces that term and continue to be our happy clients.
How did your competitors in the industry respond?
Soon after the change, I had been invited to give a speech to members of a beauty industry association. During the conference, I revealed that I no longer wanted to pigeonhole our clients into male and female and wanted to be more open-minded. I announced to the audience that we would make all our perfumes gender-free. Explaining how no one knows what anyone else is actually experiencing when they smell a perfume as it’s an entirely subjective sense, I shared with them the story of the Sampaquita client – If someone liked a freesia bouquet, who am I to say it doesn’t suit you? When I revealed this at the conference, I could feel some ripples and mini gasps, and it was the start of a trend.
Were there any financial advantages to making all the perfumes gender free?
It definitely had a financial advantage because it meant there were double the options available for every customer! Instead of having 3 fragrance options, men now had the whole range. Although the financial aspect was not the motivation, indeed, we didn’t even calculate it in advance, it turned out to be extremely fortunate with a clear spike in our sales following the change.
Did you notice more women buying the perfumes that traditionally would have been more masculine, or the other way around?
Before I made this change, I had launched two perfumes that are the House signature scents and are amongst our best selling fragrances. Their names are particularly gender-specific and the antithesis of gender-free: Ormonde Man and Ormonde Woman! When Ormonde Man was launched in 2004, it was the first-ever fine fragrance in the world using Oudh as an ingredient. Back in 2004, hardly anyone had heard of Oudh but In the Middle East, it’s worn as an attar exclusively by men, so it seemed right at the time to use it for our signature scent for men. At the same time, we launched Ormonde Woman with a similar composition, but without oudh. Instead, we used Black Hemlock and notes of jasmine. I decided not to change the names and to keep them as they had already been firm favourites and we had celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Emma Thompson and Bryan Ferry wear them. It’s hard to answer, but I would say there are slightly more men buying the ones that would traditionally be thought of as very feminine, than the other way around, although only very slightly. By the time we launched Isfarkand in 2005 as a gender free cologne, we were confident that it was the right policy for the future.
ISFARKAND by Ormonde Jayne
Isfarkand wearers are used to strangers demanding to know what they are wearing and this cologne has won numerous awards. Beautifully balanced notes of lime, mandarin and bergamot all wrapped up in pink pepper, cedar and moss make Isfarkand an uncomplicated yet dynamic scent.
Available at Selfridges Exchange and online.