Recognizing Faces: How Youtube's Fragrance Culture Has Grown, Improved, Diversified, and Become Quite Crowded (Part One)

'TV Static Screenshot 1' by Justin March at www.justinmarch.com

Ten years ago, Youtube's fragrance community had room for improvement. Reviewer "Robes08" epitomized the drawbacks of amateur reviews, with blurry video, a long-winded delivery, and occasional lack of knowledge of what he was reviewing, sometimes fumbling info on release dates and notes. "BradW," or "bpwool," was arguably worse, offering short, low-res vids from his bedroom. "MyMickers" was so-so, worshipping Green Irish Tweed and hating Grey Flannel in the same breath. Remember "The Grey Flannel Challenge," which dozens of hair-gelled, inarticulate guys participated in? Yeah, that was all Dan. Thanks Dan.

I appreciate his enthusiasm, but watching a middle class guy with a family blow thousands of dollars on perfume is weird. Last but not least, "dracdoc" used to annoy me by frequently saying things like, "Really, the bottle is nothing impressive, or anything like that," and "It gets the job done." He fumbles for perfumers' names, talks with his hands, and has a very "low budget" approach.

These guys had something in common: they made me wonder why I should watch them. Why should I care? They're obviously just a few enthusiasts who enjoy fragrances, and they've taken the initiative to share their thoughts, but their chosen medium is video. Creating channels of blurry, unscripted videos is like attending a business meeting with bedhead and an untucked shirt. They're making a visual impression that is unpolished and uninteresting. Perhaps they could have been more helpful writing blogs, or just communicating their ideas in threads.

I think the limits to video technology that existed a decade ago are partially to blame for lackluster content from reviewers. Let's face it, even if you know what you're doing, it's hard to attract viewers with a channel in 360p. From 2013 onward, Youtube's digital video improved and became unerringly hi-def, giving more sophisticated content providers a means by which to showcase their wares.

It was around that time when the "Fragrancebros" caught my attention, and I enjoyed the silly banter between Daver and Jer (and now lament Jer's departure), and learned a few things from them. Unlike their predecessors, D&J knew they were being watched. They had scripted presentations with accurate corporate information about what they were reviewing, and could draw relevant comparisons between scents, brands, and fragrance categories. "Redolessence" has a well-enunciated delivery, and more importantly, screen charisma. His videos aren't perfect, and his collection is obviously a money pit, but unlike "MyMickers," I get the impression that he fully understands every fragrance in his collection. And Lex Ellis, a Scottish brawler with a comical tough guy attitude, injected some much needed sincerity with his unpretentious reviews and surprisingly well composed theme music.

The current crop of reviewers is, weirdly enough, more polarizing than anyone who came before them. They inhabit a spectrum of being truly entertaining, all the way down to being blatantly boring. The two that I feel are currently worthy of subscription are "MrSmelly1977" and "Brooklyn Fragrance Lover," for their humor and "refined casualness." What do I mean by that? They make it look like they're just a couple of guys with cameras pulling amateur hour, but it doesn't take long to realize that they're savvy about their productions. "Brooklyn Fragrance Lover" employs original piano themes and conveys accurate info, and "MrSmelly1977" has a succinct delivery that cuts right to the chase, and he peppers his reviews with sardonic jokes. His humor is clean, dry as a bone, and quintessentially British. More importantly, he appreciates vintage greats, things like Kouros and Paco Rabanne PH.

Other very good reviewers worthy of a look are "Simply Put Scents," "Gents Scents," and Tiff Benson. Emitsu of "Simply Put Scents" doesn't take himself too seriously, which makes me take him seriously. Production value of his videos is high, his knowledge of fragrance is quite good, and he isn't afraid to say when he dislikes something, nor does he shy away from criticizing the fragrance community. "Gents Scents" is just OK, but it's the high end of OK. Ash's channel is also called "The Binge," and it got a little confusing when he opted to diversify his subject matter with reviews of movies and video games. I understand his desire to cover other topics, but it detracts from his channel; I visit channels with a focus. If I want movie and game reviews, I go to "Cinemassacre" or Rob Ager, and I'm good. I don't need media content clouding what was solely a fragrance channel.

Tiff Benson has a great channel, and she definitely has a keen grasp of light and camera. Women tend to inject a more human tone into their reviews, and that extra layer of subjective thought is valuable when regarding perfume. Tiff's combination of sharp wisdom and technical know-how lends her channel that little extra quality I look for on Youtube.

I get a little worried about the state of Youtube when I consider other channels in the fragcom, however. There are a few contributors who have me wondering if we're seeing a bit of a Youtube cultural hiccup. Among them are "Jeremy Fragrance," "The Fragrance Apprentice," and "CubaKnow." Now, bear in mind that all of the channels I criticize in this post warrant viewing, but I don't think their contributions to the culture have been as successful as the other channels mentioned.

One example is "Jeremy Fragrance." Jeremy is an odd case. He started out as just another guy talking about fragrances, with a competent grasp of light and camera. Over the years he has changed into a true showman, often dressing in a tailored suit and featuring gorgeous women on both arms, and he has essentially made the viewing experience something of a farce. You're not visiting Jeremy's channel to learn about fragrances. You're visiting to ogle his girlfriends. Another demerit is his misuse of Patreon funds. Instead of putting the money entirely into his channel, he used some of it to lease a Ferrari, and then made a vid thanking his viewers for making the Ferrari possible. This is a head-scratcher.

"CubaKnow" is perhaps a personal gripe more than a true gauge of our culture, but I take issue with the language on that channel. Everything he likes is "sexy," and (insert expletive), and everything he dislikes is a series of disgusted faces with multiples of "no," and (insert expletive). I feel that "Cubaknow" likes the idea of being a fragrance reviewer, and enjoys being on camera, but doesn't have much to say about fragrances. I'm not even sure he knows anything, even basic things, about the fragrances he discusses. And maybe I'm old fashioned, but being called a "ballsack" by a nobody on Youtube makes me want to exit. That said, I'm fairly certain he wouldn't care if I tuned out, so I suppose it doesn't make any difference what I think of "Cubaknow." His channel isn't to my taste.

The channel that makes me wonder if the culture is truly on stilts is "The Fragrance Apprentice." I don't think this channel, or its creator, are bad. I think it has very good (and recently upgraded) production value, with some notable camera and editing skill. I think George is a good guy, and quite talented. I applaud that he goes on camera and braves the world of Youtube, and its endless torrent of weird and sometimes abusive comments. But his philosophy about the fragrance world, his views on "fragrance politics," and his understanding of fragrances makes his channel one of the hardest for me to watch.

I didn't appreciate his video on the reformulation of Halston Z14. He mischaracterized the fragrance, inaccurately described the reformulation, and suggested Z14 has been destroyed, when in truth it's doing just fine. I wonder if he knows that Z14 is a pioneer of Iso E Super, and always has been? This isn't some super-natural vintage that was transformed into synthetic dreck. It has always relied heavily on synthetics. He doesn't contextualize the fragrance in his critique, and acts like it's a gorgeous brunette who died tragically in a plane crash. Newsflash: this beauty is still alive.

There are some things about George's defense of "Jeremy Fragrance" that also give me pause. He has it all wrong. Aside from making a slew of excuses for someone of questionable character, he suggests that content providers should offer something new in their reviews, and that they should review new stuff, because, and I'm heavily paraphrasing here, "We all know about the IFRA, we all know about reformulations, and we don't need another review of Original Santal, we know it smells like Mont Blanc Individuel." I'm not attuned to the finer points of cultivating an internet video audience, but I think George misinterprets his relationship with his viewers, and misunderstands its potential.

George describes fragrance reviewing as though it were cable TV. The problem is, Youtube is the opposite of cable TV. I make this claim as a dedicated member of the audience. Instead of having to make do with whatever cable decides to broadcast, I can tell Youtube what I want to watch, and have it instantly. If, on a whim, I want to see what people think of Brut, I just type it in, and I have videos for days. Youtube is fueled by whims. There is no competition in the traditional sense, because there is no need to fight for airtime. You can be the most technically inept person on earth, and your videos will still be aired. It certainly doesn't take millions of dollars to create content. As long as you have a camera and a decent computer, you have a channel. Maintaining a channel will cost some money, true, but we're not talking anything close to "big budget" here.

When I visit channels, I'm visiting to see straightforward reviews that are competently shot, and well informed. Humor, extra production value, graphics, music, all of that is nice, but not necessary if the reviewer knows his frags. And you can't assume that there are too many videos about older fragrances, or that viewers "already know." There is an endless, cyclical, generational supply of viewers from hugely diverse backgrounds and experience levels who have never heard of a chypre or fougere, and they appreciate new video about those scents. To assume the world is full of potential viewers who already know about IFRA regs is rather silly. Believe me, outside of the very small world of obsessed fragheads, and a handful of more than casual observers, nobody knows the IFRA exists.

George also suggests that pedigree comes with being a good fragrance reviewer on Youtube, as if it's earned. But the reality is that it isn't earned at all. George's opinion is one of tens of millions available, and nobody earned it. That's the point of YouTube. It's about you, and you upload content because you want to. You didn't have to fight for it. It wasn't a struggle. I mentioned guys who barely tried, and guess what? I still watched their videos. They're not on TV; they didn't have "bad press" to stop me from "tuning in."

Is it a struggle to get one million subscribers? Sure, that's an accomplishment, and that can make you real money. But let's not pretend that having a million subscribers on Youtube makes you the Roger Ebert of the fragrance world. You didn't toil for decades in the syndicated newspaper business to make a name for yourself. You bought a camera and voluntarily offered content after coming home from your day job. This is what makes Youtube great, and exciting to watch, but it also makes it very different from watching a movie or regular TV. It's not a competitive landscape. It's an endless landscape. Every 24 hours, Youtube has 68 years worth of viewable content uploaded to its servers. Good luck competing in that arena.

Videos will always be available. They're not competing for time slots. And it's no biggie if nobody watches your video this year. Decades from now, you'll have at least a thousand views. That sounds like nothing, but you're part of something so large that it eludes human understanding, which makes you pretty amazing.


Kirk's Original Coco Castile Pure Botanical Coconut Oil Soap (Kirk's Natural LLC)

A few years ago, I reviewed a scent by Penhaligon's called Castile, which was based on vegetable oil soap scents of the last few centuries. Released in 1998, Castile was an ode to a few of its themes: citrus, white floral, chemical, detergent, clean, fresh, etc. I disliked it, and felt that a soap scent is best relegated to soap itself. However, a faithful reader suggested that Castile is in fact a very good representation of Castile soap, and that it can be generalized from the mountains of Aleppo to any truck stop on Route 95.

The other day I found a few bars of Kirk's Castile soap at Walmart, and figured I'd try it in the shower. The company recently reformulated their standard Castile. It used to be simply coconut soap, water, vegetable glycerin, coconut oil, and "natural fragrance," presumably a little neroli and laundry musk. My packaging reads: sodium cocoate, water, glycerin, sodium chloride, sodium gluconate, fragrance. Translated, that reads as coconut soap (fatty acids of coconut), water, salt, and a natural byproduct bonding agent. The "fragrance" part still represents a hint of neroli and synthetic musk. Why Kirk's changed the formula is beyond me, but I see no reason to fret about it.

Why am I writing about Kirk's Castile? Simple. This soap works surprisingly well for shaving. I should warn you that I have very oily skin, with large pores, and a very delicate, damage-prone epidermis. Many have tried Kirk's for shaving and found it overly drying, to the point of burning their skin, but my experience is far better. Kirk's lathers exceptionally well, with a rich, creamy foam that penetrates hairs and softens them, while also offering a slickness that makes DE shaving easier than usual. The shave itself is astonishingly close and very efficient, requiring only one pass for large portions of my face, which is rare for me.

Do I think you should trash your other shave soaps and just use Kirk's? No, but I recommend trying it this summer, when skin is clogged with sweat and grime, and all you want is a quick, cleansing shave. Generally, for showers and baths, Kirk's is an excellent soap, and it does smell like synthetic neroli (truck stop style), but guys, you can get dual usage out of it for only a few dollars at any online merchant or at your local Walmart, and it will leave your skin like mine, smooth and clean.


Lustray Bay Rum Compound (Lustray)

Bay Rum is something only a man could invent. Imagine a sailor in the seventeen hundreds, adrift and disgusted by his own b.o., sifting through what little supplies remain aboard his floating barrel for anything to alleviate his stench, and all he can find are dry spices, a bottle of rum, and a handful of forgotten bay leaves from the cook's quarter. These miserable scraps are thrown together and left to sit for a few days. Sails are tied, pirate attacks are repelled, and when he returns to his weird concoction, he finds it grim, but amenable for use in lieu of real soap.

How does one account for its survival over four centuries? Supposedly the first bay rum emerged from the Virgin Island Saint Thomas in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, a time when modern pharmaceuticals were nonexistent, and colognes were limited to 100% natural flower waters. Albert Heinrich Riise (1810 - 1882), a Danish chemist, stocked his St. Thomas Pharmacy with his own trademarked bay rum, and it gained commercial ground in the European market. Today it exists in many synthetic forms as a symbolic throwback to a bygone era, a relic of Western civilization's encroachment on exotic shores.

When I encounter today's hipsters, with their finely groomed beards and quasi-bouffant quiffs, I wonder if they're familiar with this part of their heritage, or if the iPhone age has overlooked bay rums. Amazingly, Lustray still offers theirs. It's an awful, cheap, fleeting phantom of a compound, only slightly oily, which doubles as aftershave and hair tonic. For five seconds you get a whisper of bay leaf and spiced booze, and it's gone (you might glean thirty seconds if you apply generously to hair). I'm fairly certain that this is the worst bay rum sold today, but hey, it's four bucks for fourteen ounces, and it works well on hot days. I can't complain.


"You Smell Like Shampoo" - Why SMW Clones Often End Up Smelling Like Something Else

Not Necessarily Lowbrow Scents.

One day last winter I was wearing Al Wisam Day, when a coworker said, "Bryan, is that you? You smell like shampoo!" I found this comment amusing, because AWD is supposed to smell like Silver Mountain Water, an expensive Creed.

To me, AWD smells like a soapy rose with hints of fruit and woods. It certainly has a quality freshness akin to SMW, and I understand why it draws comparisons to a fragrance five times more expensive, as it doesn't devolve into a "fuzzy" chemical cheapness, or lack longevity. But I feel it's important to refrain from saying that AWD is a suitable substitute for SMW if you're a fan of that particular Creed. If you like SMW, and you can afford a bottle, you should own one, and you should also look into owning AWD as another variation of the idea. However, anyone who thinks that AWD could replace SMW is kidding themselves.

To everyone on the internet who has ever said that AWD is better than SMW, let's get one thing straight: there is no way under the sun that Rasasi spent as much time developing their fragrance as Creed did. When I smell SMW, I smell one of what I consider to be the "lesser" Creeds. It smells expensive and of high quality, but lacks the dimensionality and richness of Creed's top tier products, stuff like GIT and OV and Green Valley. It's more along the lines of Tabarome Millesime and Royal Water (and note, I happen to really like RW). That said, SMW still smells leagues beyond your typical fragrance. The delicate fizz of sharp citrus in the top notes, the mineral tang of papery green tea against a translucent haze of blackcurrant and some difficult to define "ink" note smell well crafted and expensive, with photorealistic intensity. It may not be the most exciting fragrance Creed ever coughed up, but that gentle ambergris drydown is never duplicated by anything else.

Al Wisam Day opens with a piquant fizz of blatantly metallic notes that do not smell lucidly of citrus fruit (but are citrus-like), which rapidly segue into a clean blackcurrant and tea rose note, all of which dries down into a creamy, fresh, fruity floral essence, much stronger and a bit more linear than SMW. Now, here is where it gets interesting. AWD does not smell "cheaper" than SMW, nor does it smell "generic," or "designer," or "simple." It retains an expensive aura, smells unusual enough to be considered niche, and possesses enough complexity and dynamism to remain interesting for hours of wear. However, it radiates far differently than SMW. The Creed wafts off my body like Olivier's glacial mountain stream idea, always clear, always lucid, always offering something new with each sniff.

AWD wafts in a very creamy and opaque manner. The nuances of SMW aren't quite there. Instead, there is a soapy cloud of lavender (the "metallic note" rendered as a cold, herbal twinge), rose and currant, mixed with something like Sandalwood Lite soap. The tea rose is the most obvious to me, and to other people the scent smells very clean and shampoo-like, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as many shampoos smell quite good these days. (I consider "Invigorating Champagne Mango & White Ginger" by Olay Fresh Outlast an incredibly beautiful shampoo, with a scent bordering on being a work of perfumery genius.) But if you are looking to capture the exact same smell of SMW with AWD, it will fall short. This fragrance is, at its heart, a rose fragrance, and the damascones and damascenones used are the same type used in the dirt-cheap Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop. This isn't an essay on mountain freshness, it's an essay on soapy rose freshness. There's a big difference, and familiarity with Creed exposes it.

Al Rehab Silver, on the other hand, captures the citrus and blackcurrant aspect of the Creed with more focus than AWD, and aims more for SMW's top notes. But ARS (oil form) remains stuck in those top notes for the duration of its lifespan. It's as linear and one-trick as it gets. The spray version expands the composition a bit, giving more credence to the inky muskiness of this type of fragrance idea, but winds up reminding me more of Royal Water (a darker scent) than SMW in the drydown. Again, there is no way the perfumer spent anywhere near the same amount of time as it took to make SMW. Creed's nose probably spent a couple of years fine tuning the original formula of SMW. Al Rehab's nose may have spent a week on it, if that.

The bottom line: if you want to smell like a Creed, buy a Creed. Ambergris, real ambergris, which is used in Creed compositions, is not a common note, nor is it easy for budget brands (or low end niche, like Rasasi) to replicate. When you buy a Creed, you're often buying something with a very unique ambergris accord. Still, ambergris isn't for everyone. If you like the idea of a Creed, but don't actually like its execution that much, then you may want to explore the clones. This is why I own Silver and AWD, but not SMW. I like the idea of SMW, but don't actually think the Creed itself is worth the money. I can get the same general idea in AWD for a fifth of the price, and be just as happy, or more so.

If you buy and wear AWD, you will be buying and wearing a shampoo-soapy tea rose fragrance with an hour to ninety minutes of SMW-like top accords that generally replicate the "feel" of SMW without actually replicating the precision craftsmanship of SMW. Don't expect anyone to say, "Hey, you smell like you're wearing Silver Mountain Water." Expect people to say, "Hey, you smell like a nice shampoo." Look, in the world of niche, smelling like a good shampoo isn't really that bad, as long as you don't spend $400 to get there.

I happen to think AWD smells like it could be a type of shaving soap, hence my inclusion of its review this year, the year of shave reviews. Maybe it's the ephemeral brushing of cold lavender on top, followed by a hum of smooth sandalwood below, that reinforces my impression. Though unisex, it smells "manlier" than SMW to my nose. Its clean richness would work well in canned foam, or a shave stick. I associate it with an imaginary $125 luxe version of Barbasol you can only find at one specific hotel in Dubai, if such a thing could exist. I'm hoping to get a bottle of Al Haramain's L'Aventure Blanche soon to compare it to AWD and AR Silver. Hopefully it offers a different twist on this Arabian shave soap idea.


Clubman Musk (Pinaud)

This is the only Clubman product left for me to review, and I've been debating whether I should bother with it since February. I would sneak splashes of this from a Walgreens when I was in high school, and it faded from memory for being the one Pinaud that was blatantly redundant. I knew every drugstore Pinaud but one (no store carried Classic Vanilla), and liked them all, but Musk was pointless. It still is.

The problem isn't that it's too musky (nothing is too musky for a wetshaver), or too sweet, or too synthetic, or too anything. The problem is that it's 99% identical to original Clubman, oakmoss and all. There is a slight tweaking to the formula that gives it a vaguely fresher citrus top accord, followed by a hair-splittingly sweeter drydown, but otherwise it's the same, with maybe one additional loud musk: Clubman with a boost kit. From the bottle, it's a little brighter than the original, and yes, it's quite good. But why buy it when it's so close to Clubman?

Most would agree with me here, and I think this particular product is only for Pinaud completists. Since buying a bottle, I've struggled to find a reason to reach for it after a shave. I'd rather wear the truly sublime Classic Vanilla instead. Skip this one, especially if you already own Clubman and Coachman.


Blue Spice (Lustray/Clubman): Clean Shave

Of the five Lustray aftershaves in my bathroom, this one is my favorite. To my nose it is the only truly successful scent, and thus is the easiest to use. Oddly enough, it's the least favored by most of my fellow wetshavers. Apparently many are turned off by what they consider an "old lady powder" in its drydown, but I read it as a 1970s incarnation of Aqua Velva Ice Blue, with "aqua notes" instead of menthol.

AV Ice Blue spawned an entire universe of blue imitators, and most are variations on the fresh menthol theme. Lustray adopted a novel approach, synthesizing the smell of AV after dilution in water, with the water's scent as the source of its freshness. From there it gets powdery and softly sweet, a crisp talc. What elevates it in my esteem is a complete absence of the dreaded plastic note, which still plagues the Spice lotion. I decanted BS into glass, and within two days the plastic pollution was completely gone. This was interesting to me, because the plastic element was pretty intense from the bottle. Needless to say, I'm glad I decanted.

Blue Spice has considerable oak moss, and emits auras of clean, sweet, and powdery, in that order. Ask me for a recommendation of a different style of AV Ice Blue, and I'd probably point to mentholated congeners instead, but ask if there's an old-school "blue smelling" aftershave still on the market, and Lustray tops my list. "Blue" is a flavor concept: Blue Raspberry, Pepsi Blue, Marlboro Blue. Here, the flavor is your shave water, a swirling slop of used shave cream, witch hazel, and talc, unceremoniously bottled just before it goes down the drain.


Al Wisam Day (Rasasi)

Gorgeous bottle.

Being a lover of rose scents is a tough life for a male in America. Rose is forbidden to me here; I'm expected to appreciate it in small doses as a minor note tucked behind ballsier "manly" notes. I only have one rose soliflore in my wardrobe: Tea Rose by The Perfumer's Workshop. It's a fresh rose, with green leaves and dew drops in the periphery. It's beautiful, but literal. There are no embellishments to the flower. Ask me if rose water, or any successfully-crafted rose soliflore is "barbershop" in any way, and I'd have to say no. Although roses are associated with some western aftershaves and witch hazels, they are generally not at the forefront of the genre.

This changes as you move eastward, where it's fine for men to wear rose. Rasasi is one of many houses in the UAE that have found interesting ways of making fruity-floral roses smell masculine and modern. What sort of house is Rasasi? They have no tendrils in the US market, beyond the occasional Amazon or eBay merchant. By the looks of it, they're an upscale niche house, native to Dubai. They're given to lining their boutique walls with caskets of oud chips, which they sell as incense. I don't like oud, so this doesn't do much for me. But Saudis and I share a love of rose. This gives me a reason to step into Rasasi's luxurious boutique, despite the burning oud chips.

Al Wisam Day is a musky tea rose, and its drydown reminds me of Annie Buzantian's scent. While the photorealism of the rose is similar, Rasasi's florals are buttressed by blackcurrant and bergamot on top, lending a "fresh" effect, and creamy musk below, burnished by a lick of sandalwood. Its rose is fruity, perhaps overly sweet, but I suspect beta-damascenone and other quality rose ketones are used here. It performs in the inverse; top notes are soft, base notes crescendo. I really enjoy this one. For forty-five dollars, I have something that smells like four hundred. If there are barbers in Dubai, I imagine this is their aftershave.