I'm also fascinated by the fact that I never saw any connection at the time. Did anyone else, or was it just me? How was it possible that Estee Lauder would even venture such a stealth move on the buying public, conflating masculine and feminine right under the consumer's nose, without concern that such a sales strategy would backfire? For as long as I can remember now (okay, a little over a year) I've been championing the erosion of gender categories in fragrance. They seem so arbitrary and bogus, mere marketing tools. Smell is democratic. A man washes his hands in flowery soap and thinks nothing of it, yet, somehow, Aromatics Elixir is beyond the limits of masculinity, no matter that it smells very similar to Aramis for men. We seem to ignore the blurred boundaries between these fragrances across the so-called gender divide as though we've internalized the segregation of scents which technically smell virtually the same.
How many men smelled Youth Dew or Cinnabar on their lady friends (mothers, wives, grandmothers, steadies, strangers) and liked it? Lauder must have done the math. By pouring Youth Dew into a butch bottle with a masculine monogrammed label (ostensibly for her own husband) she allowed men to wear what they'd already been enjoying for years. I imagine Mr. Lauder smelling Estee's neck for the umpteenth time. Oh that smells wonderful, he says. You should try some, says she. Oh no, I couldn't possibly, he guffaws. It's so feminine. I like it on you, dear. What if Estee simply poured Youth Dew or Cinnabar into a new bottle, as a little experiment. Here's a businesswoman who sold more units than the average highest-selling male. I wonder how many times she felt condescended to, as though her province were simply the house-bound lady folk. How many times was she made to feel that in a world of men she wouldn't sell those numbers? How must she have felt, being treated as if her proper place were in the home? It would certainly bolster my desire to make a point--if only for my own personal satisfaction--and I have only a fraction of her ambition and drive.
Which isn't to say adjustments weren't made to the formula. The truth is, there isn't much difference between JHL, Youth Dew, Cinnabar, and Opium--how else would the experiment work, otherwise? But there are subtle adjustments. JHL has the faintest whiff of fir, a certain strain of alpine airiness moving through its structure. Michael Edwards classifies it as "aromatic--rustic", whereas Cinnabar, for instance, is listed as "oriental--spicy". Both have rose, cinnamon, and carnation in their hearts. Both open piquantly with a zesty spritz of orange. JHL replaces Cinnabar's incense with labdanum, adds pimento up top and the fir note instead of jasmine, which makes a far subtler adjustment than you might expect. It might also be that Lauder wanted to show in some way how little distance there is between making a so-called feminine into a so-called masculine. Baby steps, really. It certainly would have shown that knowing a thing or two about women was in some ways knowing as much about men. Was Estee Lauder this avant-garde--the Marcel Duchamp of perfumery and cosmetics? If so, don't count on anyone giving her credit for it, despite the fact that Devin is a dead ringer for Aliage, and Aramis 900 just a hop skip and a jump removed from Tuscany per Donna.
I received a bottle of JHL in grade school, and couldn't have been happier. I liked it better than any cologne I'd ever smelled, and wearing it was vaguely confusing, because I generally had no taste for male fragrances, certainly far less than I do now. For years I'd hung out at my mother's bureau, enjoying her aged bottle of Youth Dew in secret. I could never put it on. I couldn't risk letting anyone smell it on me. I had to absorb the smell mentally and store it in my head. I was so conditioned, so programmed by social codes and mores, that when JHL came along, I had no idea I was finally able to bring my love of Youth Dew out into the open. It was still a secret, even from me.