Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thierry Mugler's A*Men

Following up a blockbuster perfume can’t be an easy task; crafting one that’s on par with its predecessor must be even less so; and marketing said follow-up to men surely sits on the bottom rung of the fragrance industry’s “dirty jobs” ladder. The mainstream man has notoriously lowbrow taste, an aversion to distinctive styles – witness the uniformity of the corporate world’s suits and ties - and tight purse strings (so to speak) regarding grooming products. Thierry Mugler’s epochal Angel represented a paradigm shift for the industry’s key players; suddenly, nothing seemed off-limits, no perfume too avant-garde to become a smash hit (given time and a massive marketing budget, of course). Weird was suddenly good, and weird with a blockbuster name attached even better. The launch of A*Men was a no-brainer in this context, but it was still a gamble. Would men take to a “gourmand” fragrance as readily as women did with Angel? Would they shuck the shackles of the stereotypical men’s fragrance blueprint – citrus, aromatics, wood, musk – and embrace a new ideal, one reeking of chocolate and caramel? Would A*Men be an expensive flop?

It certainly had all the makings of one, in retrospect. The advertising, featuring a Terminator 2-style liquid metal avatar gravely holding the bottle aloft, was an exercise in self-serious pomp; the bottle itself, a cartoonish flask emblazoned with a cerulean star, was patently goofy; and the name certainly didn’t lend itself to easy, just-us-guys small talk. (“What’s that your wearing?” “Uh, A*Men.” “What?” “It’s the men’s version of Angel.” “You’re wearing a cologne called Angel?” “It’s for MEN. REALLY.” “Whatever you say, dude.”) But lo, the gamble paid off – Mugler should take up residence in Vegas, he’d probably make a killing – and A*Men hit its mark, ill-defined though that mark may have been. It’s still in production and a perennial bestseller, with loads of moneymaking flankers and a rabid fan base. Perhaps there’s hope for the modern male yet.

I like to compare A*Men to blue cheese – not in terms of smell, of course, but in appeal. One does not come out of the womb loving A*Men. One works up to A*Men, braces him/herself for it, acquires a taste. It is not, like so many of its counterparts in the fragrance department, eager to please. In fact, upon first spray, it seems expressly designed not to please: A blast of peppermint, tar, industrial-strength lavender, nuclear bergamot, and over-extracted espresso grounds greets the nose, with all the subtlety and harmony of a jackhammer against a marble floor. It is an unholy brew, with little obvious appeal beyond sheer “WTF” audacity. At this point, most right-thinking people quickly put down the tester bottle and scramble for some hand sanitizer, myself included. But soft! Give it time, and the mint fades, the lavender calms, and the coffee takes on a robust, silky quality. A vivid dark chocolate note creeps in, flanked by vanilla and caramel. Patchouli and cedar sing an alluring background harmony, and a hint of powder and musk play a smooth backing track. The drydown is a velvety combination of caramel, patchouli, toffee, and a hint of leather, with a clear family resemblance to its big sister. (Both Angel and A*Men could be worn by either gender, for the record.) My repulsion turns to shock at the 180-degree turn things have taken, then to pure lust as I sniff my wrist compulsively and crave coffee ice cream.

It took me a good two years of sporadic testing to finally come around to A*Men’s brash character and high-calorie charm (I've dissed it more than once on this blog alone), and now I’m head over heels for the stuff. What once struck me as high-pitched and overexposed now seems vibrant and hypnotic. It’s true that the volume of the entire production is dialed awfully high – don’t wear A*Men to the office – but I finally realized that A*Men’s brand of rough-edged appeal is exactly what I look for in a perfume. This is no fragrance for wimps, nor for anyone who favors the soft-spoken or transparent. A*Men is solid, lush, and full-bodied; if most men’s fragrances are string quartets playing Pachelbel, A*Men is an orchestra playing Wagner. In a confectionary.

Like Angel, A*Men makes no concessions to elegance or good taste - beyond a taste for sweets, of course – and is all the better for it. Men need to be reminded just as much as women that, beyond its functionality as a product to make you smell good, perfume should be fun, something to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. Nothing is quite so fun as freewheeling decadence, and A*Men is as decadent as they come. A bundle of contradictions, an oddball stew of conflicting accords that somehow works, and a true original, A*Men is delightful to wear and an important reminder that masculine fragrances need not pander to be successful. May it never be out of production.