What makes a fragrance cult?

Art or alchemy? Accident or design? Grooming journalist Lee Kynaston takes a look at what really elevates a fragrance to cult status.

Lee Kynaston, Award-winning Journalist

What makes a fragrance cult?

As someone who writes about fragrance for a living, I've road-tested thousands of perfumes in my time — from blockbuster high street confections designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience to out-there experimental numbers that tickle the nostrils (literally, in the case of the spicier ones) but, sadly, not the fancy of the average consumer.


Somewhere between these two opposite ends of the commercial spectrum lie my favourite fragrances of all — the cult ones. Experimental but wearable, exclusive without being elitist, they're the olfactory equivalent of Goldilocks' perfect porridge — neither too generic to be mainstream or too obscure to be niche, instead occupying a very special place in the fragrance firmament — a place that, in our fairytale character's own words, is 'just right'.

But what actually elevates a fragrance like Escentric Molecules, Molecule 01 to cult status? To answer that question, you need to look at what makes anything cult — be it a midnight movie or a classic album. It starts with a bold, uncompromising idea close to the heart of its creator — more often than not, one that thumbs its nose at convention or market expectations. It's this kind of single-minded commitment to the artist's creative vision — and a refusal to pander to external commercial pressures — that enables cult fragrances to be born. No surprise then that Escentric Molecules founder Geza Schoen cites 'originality' as the key ingredient required to create any cult fragrance.



In Molecule 01's case, the idea was simple but groundbreaking: to create a single-note, barely-there scent that reacted with pheromones, so it became unique to the individual — amplifying and enhancing the wearer's own personal smell rather than smothering it.

Out went the traditional pyramidal note structure that defines most fragrances, and in came Iso E Super — a single synthetic, velvety aroma-molecule that's brought to life by the warmth of the skin. Instead of being a bells-and-whistles opera performed by a full orchestra, Molecule 01 is a quiet, understated, defiantly minimalist piece performed by a lone instrument: more Philip Glass than George Gershwin.



Binning centuries of fragrance norms with its deceptive simplicity, it turned hitherto pretty boring backroom chemistry into front-of-house artistry, celebrating the synthetic and creating the ultimate 'anti-perfume' in the process.

Like Kate Bush's critically acclaimed but challenging 1982 album The Dreaming or cult film-maker John Waters' legendary Divine vehicle Pink Flamingos, it put art, individuality and eccentricity before commerciality, going out on a limb to do something oddball and anarchic.



In the fragrance market, that's a very dangerous space to occupy because the risk of failure is much greater if you're hellbent on creating something that goes against consumer expectations and long-established industry paradigms. (The fragrance industry — like the film and music industries — is built upon familiarity and the endless tweaking of tried and trusted formulas).

But — and it's a big but — the rewards are potentially even greater if you stick to your guns and take a risk because not only do you end up with a fragrance with a long potential shelf life (at which point it becomes a cult classic) you also emerge with your artistic integrity intact.

This probably explains why Schoen doesn't see the word 'cult' as a slur but as a compliment. "I'm more than happy for Molecule 01 to be called a cult fragrance," he says. "It was a different proposition from the start, and it managed all by itself to grow into a cult product — which is fabulous."

The use of the word 'grow' is significant because anything cult takes time to secure its legacy. Like the best cult films and albums, cult fragrances are growers, not showers — sometimes taking years to establish themselves, letting fans discover them organically (often by word of mouth) but captivating and retaining them once they do.



Like Marvel universe superheroes, the best cult fragrances also have great origin stories that eventually become mythologised, so there's always a certain, enduring mystique about them. They also tend to be incredibly (and wonderfully) polarising. For example, when people smell Molecule 01, they're either mad about it (like, crazy mad about it) or simply don't see what all the fuss is about.

Personally, I love it. I did when it launched back in 2006, and I still do now, 16 years later, but I know some people who don't share my enthusiasm. But if you want to be a cult fragrance, that's exactly the difference of opinion you want. You have to divide in order to conquer; you cannot be merely 'meh'.

I'd go as far as to say that for a fragrance to become truly cult, it needs detractors as much as it needs fans because wildly varying opinions are what ensures it gets talked about and what prevents it from becoming mainstream.

I love fragrances that provoke a strong reaction. In fact, I actually love the fragrances I hate. Why? Because they elicit a powerful, visceral emotion — and better that than a shrug of the shoulders. Like all art forms, fragrance works best when it challenges and provokes. When it really hits the spot — as is the case with Molecule 01 — it inspires other scents to follow its lead while never actually being bettered itself.



Finally — and possibly most importantly — for a fragrance to become cult, it needs its fans. But no ordinary fans; I'm talking about ridiculously passionate ones who understand and buy into the brand's ethos and, in doing so, feel themselves part of a select, knowing community.

If you're a Kate Bush fan, a John Waters obsessive, or turn up to screenings of The Rocky Horror show dressed in fishnets, you're very much part of a tribe. The loyalty of these fans — including fans of Escentric Molecules creations like me — is what helps elevate fragrances to cult status.

The beauty of Molecule 01, in particular, is that it was created to make you smell like you — only better — which, rather uniquely, allows you to be part of a whole 'aroma army' but be totally individual at the same time. Had it been created by committee and subjected to endless focus groups, as is the case with many designer scents these days, you'd be wearing something far less interesting, far less intriguing and far less… cult: you'd be wearing a fragrance everyone else on the high street is wearing. And who wants to smell like everyone else on the high street?

Or, put another way, why be Coldplay when you can be Joy Division?


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