There’s an inside joke in Melbourne real estate circles that the key to selling an expensive house in the Australian city is to make sure a bottle of Aesop’s signature hand wash, in its distinctive brown livery, is always in clear view. If a prospective buyer remains unmoved by mid-century furniture, marble kitchen tops and floor-to-ceiling windows, then a sweet-smelling container of vetiver soap in the bathroom will, undoubtedly, seal the deal.
Fancy Australian hand wash and estate agent humour aside — and, yes, both sound like oxymorons — there is an increasing intersection between the worlds of luxury grooming and aspirational interiors, fuelled in part by the coronavirus (lots more time to spend at home… and wash your hands) but also, apparently, a burgeoning desire, among men as much as women, to create a life that is as fragrant and well-groomed as the bodies that live in it. Candles are cool! And so are diffusers, sticks of incense and all manner of other “home scents”. If a man of alleged good taste doesn’t have a cupboard full of Diptyque ready to be deployed… then is he really a man of taste at all?
“Most of the people we work with understand that a home needs to appeal to the full range of senses,” says Matt Gibberd, co-founder of the design-led real estate agency, The Modern House. “We have noticed a welcome move towards natural, non-toxic products. One particular client went as far as devising a scent strategy, giving each of the main rooms in the house its own personality.”
“Candles and home scents comprise a small, but significantly growing part of our business,” adds Daniel Crow, homeware and lifestyle buyer at End Clothing, the influential fashion store. “We are seeing more and more customers, men, in particular, who are engaging with this kind of product, particularly during lockdown. We’re all paying more attention to the mood and feel of our homes. Many of us are working from home so it is about those small wins that, perhaps, make our days a little better or improve productivity. Personally, I want everything in my house, from furniture to decorative objects, to candles to evoke some kind of joy, interest or pleasure.”
Among the better-known brand names are Aesop, the Australian empire built on expensive soap, and Byredo, the hugely popular Swedish brand, founded by the tattooed and bearded Ben Gorham, that sells sparsely-labeled eau de parfums and candles (its Bibliotèchque variety is an End best-seller) and home fragrances with names like Cotton Poplin and Tree House. Then there’s Le Labo, the hip New York label whose made to order Santal 26 home diffuser costs £435 and is crafted out of reclaimed maple wood, perfect for wafting its signature scents through your Brooklyn loft. Diptyque has almost become a synonym for a certain kind of interior luxury. Like Sellotape, but for fancy French candles. These brands don’t merely want you to smell of their perfume or use their styling clay in your hair or brush your teeth with their natural toothpaste, they want to populate your whole house with beautiful and fragrant things.
Tom Daxon, the high-end London perfumer, went so far as to launch his own soap and hand care diffusion range during lockdown: Gloved. Perhaps with the view that, while traditional fragrances are in a tricky spot, hand hygiene is here to stay.
“It’s not by chance that our Home Collection wants to express typical Italian moments,” says Paola Paganini, product development and innovation director at Acqua di Parma, “like the relaxation you feel when you spend the weekend at your villa on the lake shore” — Acqua di Parma’s La casa sul Lago, she says, conveys this feeling — “or the taste of a good coffee” — Caffè in Piazza — “or even that brio you feel when drinking a good aperitivo with your friends on a terrace” — Aperitivo in Terrazza — “there are so many different products available.”
As this year has developed, and most of us have remained as far removed, mentally and physically, as is conceivable from an aperitivo on a terrace overlooking a cluster of terracotta rooftops, or a macchiato at a café facing a sparkling lago, it makes sense that there is a desire for escapism. But are men really buying loads of candles? The numbers seem to back up the claims.
According to NPD, a global retail analyst, in March 2020, UK sales of prestige room fresheners increased 37 per cent. Sales of prestige candles increased six per cent compared to the same period in 2019. A separate 2019 report by analysts Vend stated that the UK candle economy is now worth £1.9bn. No wonder the biggest names in high fashion are eyeing an ever-greater slice of the bergamot-scented pie. Gucci, Dior, and Louis Vuitton have all taken further footholds in the worlds of scent, furniture and homewear in recent years.
At Loewe, the fashion house overseen by British creative director Jonathan Anderson, a new range of genderless home scents, candles, rattan diffusers and soaps have been designed by in-house perfumer Núria Cruelles to reflect the “essence of a vegetable garden”. There’s juniper, honeysuckle, luscious pea (luscious pea?) and ivy to name a few.
“Jonathan was really clear that the Home Scents range should focus on the botanical inspiration and the concept of reviving a greenhouse,” says Cruelles. “He challenged me with some scents we wanted to include that are really rare in perfumery. It was a constant experimentation.” The results are clean and colourful and a bit “church’y”, the sort of thing you’d find in a tastefully-decorated Spanish summer home or Moroccan riad. The kind of objects that people might remark on.
“A stylish home should definitely have a distinct smell,” adds Cruelles. “I love when someone enters my place and says, ‘I love how your home smells, it’s so you’. A sophisticated scent that surrounds the different rooms without being too much. Just the perfect amount for everyone to feel comfortable and that matches with your personality and decoration.”
While the fashion and mainstream grooming industries participate in a wide-reaching existential audit — What does a shoe mean now? How about a classic perfume or a suit? — there has been a less fraught conversation about the comforts of home and what that looks, feels and, now, smells like. Before “all of this” who had the time, really, to think about a home scent? Who could be bothered? For many of us, home was a place to drop your stuff, catch up on Netflix, get some sleep and head back to work. As things stand for many of us, with a return to full-time office life some time in the future, ambience is a concept that is far easier to conceive and enjoy.
“Right now, hand wash, candles, and other seemingly unimportant home accessories are subdued signifiers that telegraph taste and sophistication to the right guest. It’s affordable luxury,” says Chris Black, the New York-based writer and founder of Public Announcement agency, who work with clients including Stüssy and Thom Browne. Black is also known as something of an online tastemaker, with a column titled “Ask Chris Black” where people write in to ask for his aesthetic advice. “For candles I like Diptyque Oud, Byredo Japanese Ambre, Norden Joshua Tree and Malin + Goetz Leather,” he adds. “For incense, it’s Shoyeido Shun-You Beckoning Spring, Kuumba Sandalwood and Astier de Villatte Aoyama.
“Having your home or office smell good should be mainstream, it’s a simple pleasure that we should all indulge in,” he concludes.
As someone who lives in a shared rental property in London, with a landlord who requires the presence of the ghost of Kofi Annan to mediate a disagreement over a broken cupboard, the idea of Eames chairs and Noguchi coffee tables feels like an impossible fantasy. But, much like the millennial house plant boom circa 2017, the idea of owning a luxury candle or home scent feels like a small token of tasteful elevation. Aspirational, but entirely achievable. Something that, regardless of where you live, you can control and enjoy. Currently I am rotating between a Petit Grain 21 candle by Le Labo and the Aesop Istros Aromatique room spray. A Peyote Poem candle by Byredo is being being lined up next.
Before the world felt like it had been rammed into a Ziploc bag for the year, I took a trip to End Clothing on the corner of Broadwick Street in Soho. Inside a brightly lit and squeaky clean white and glass box on what used to be a seedy corner of old London stand rails and rails of neat Stone Island, Aime Leon Dore, Asics and Nike, AMI and Acne. Upstairs there’s a brilliant grooming section, a deep square sink surrounded by marble and stainless steel, with shelves stacked full of the latest products by Aesop, Malin + Goetz, HAY and Escentric Molecules. If you asked Kanye West, Aesop and Rick Owens to collaborate on a bathroom, it might look a bit like this. I noticed scores of young men with haircuts in Gore-Tex coats and pristine trainers stop and observe. Comfortable in the presence of the four-figure designer clothes and rare trainers, they appeared to be taken aback, left feeling slightly awkward, by the concept of interiors, grooming and homeware. It felt like a first acknowledgment of taste outside of the most conspicuous fashion signifiers: Supreme and trainers. We’ve all, in some guise, been there.
“Not only is it nice to walk into a room with a distinct aroma,” says End’s Crow, “but it is also a statement when someone sees you are taking note. Not only of the sneakers on your feet and the clothes on your back, but of the scent and mood in your space at home. Be it a candle from Byredo or 19-69, or a pair of Common Projects or Nike x Sacai LDV Waffle trainers. It says something about you.”
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