Jean Paul Gaultier remains a tour de force in the world of haute couture, but for many, his fragrances were what first captured the imagination. In the men's sphere, Le Male, set to release as a co-branded reissue with Supreme on Thursday, is his most iconic.
Anyone who grew up in the ’90s or early ’00s needs no introduction to Gaultier's Le Male. Like Polo Sport, Diesel Plus Plus, and Versace Blue Jeans, it was one of those scents that was simply everywhere at the time. And I mean everywhere. If you had an older brother, you probably stole his, overdoing it until you reeked like an airport duty-free, soliciting screwed-up looks from adults as you swaggered down the street.
Le Male was released in 1995 as the male companion to the Classique perfume, which came out in 1993. Its bold but sweet, vanilla-based scent was unlike anything else, and along with unisex newcomers such as CK One, it blindsided a market dominated by beefier, more masculine fragrances. It was sexy and fell right in line with the ’90s "metrosexual," so much that it wasn't uncommon for women to wear it.
But most enduring was its unconventional bottle, a risqué male torso in sailor stripes. The bottle was enclosed in a tin can, which Gaultier said was "like the ones for cat food at the supermarket." As a kid, I remember how intriguing the packaging looked as I walked through the department store fragrance aisle, the harsh light bouncing off its contours and making the surrounding boxes look staid by comparison.
"When I saw the bottle, I thought, 'Oh my god, it’s not going to work at all,'" Le Male perfumer Francis Kurkdjian told Glass in 2014. How wrong he would be. Before long, its suggestive body became a fixture on cologne shelves around the world, with Le Male becoming one of the bestselling aftershaves of all time.
A huge part of that success was owed to its accompanying advertising campaigns, the most famous being the series by legendary French fashion photographer and music video director Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Mondino, whose CV includes music videos for the likes of David Bowie, Madonna, and Tom Waits, helmed a joint set of videos for both Classique and Le Male, featuring Le Male's tattoo-and-marinière-clad sailor in a passionate embrace with the Classique's corsetted model. It was sexy but knowingly overblown and self-sarcastic, set to the strains "Casta Diva" from Bellini's La Norma. "It's like a Pierre et Gilles painting that has come alive," notes one online commentator.
Twenty years on and the male fragrance landscape has changed unrecognizably. As "genderless" brands such as Byredo and Le Labo have emerged, the line between what constitutes a male and female scent is disappearing completely.
Although Mondino's work with Gaultier was a world removed from ads like Old Spice's "The Mark of a Man," which reinforced male social dominance, in the current milieu, it still feels flawed given how worn out the "beautiful female, handsome male" trope is by now. That said, with race and representation an ongoing issue when it comes to fragrance and fashion advertising campaigns, it should be noted that Omahyra Mota did front Gaultier’s 2003 Le Parfum Fragile.
My advice? Cop the new Supreme version and watch its value appreciate with time. Just don't overdo it if you choose to wear it on any dates.