Perfumers Jean-Louis Sieuzac and Maurice Roger.
Fahrenheit hit in 1988 and was an instantaneous commercial success. It was a bold scent, innovative in concept and execution and was immediately recognizable as something new. It might have been developed using the framework of the fougère, but unlike the other massive launch of the year, Cool Water, it bore little resemblance to the genre. Fahrenheit’s infamous gasoline note gave it an edginess that separated it from other masculine fragrances. 1988 was effectively pre-niche and unorthodox perfumes were rare. Dior bet that there was an unmet demand for a fragrance that didn’t play by the ‘normal’ rules of scent. The combination of gasoline and dehydrated sweetness gave Fahrenheit a deliberately synthetic appearance and distanced it from the fougères and woody chypres that were still the norm for masculine fragrances. The olfactory image of gasoline is convincing. The dryness of woods and the coolness of the violet leaf suggest volatility, like drops of gasoline evaporating from your skin.
To Dior’s credit, they didn’t simply take a traditional perfume and dress it out with ‘avant-garde’ images and a trendy ad campaign. They created a straight-up oddball that didn’t fit easily into existing categories. What’s interesting, though, is that while Fahrenheit was groundbreaking, it wasn’t without precedent. Dior seem to have learned from a few great masculine fragrances of the prior dozen years. The pressurized hiss of violet leaf is a nod to Grey Flannel and the aggressively dry woods are reminiscent of Antaeus. The last piece in the puzzle comes from perfumer Jean-louis Sieuzac himself. Two years before he co-authored Fahrenheit for Dior, Sieuzac composed Hermès Bel Ami, a sumptuous leather chypre with a noticeable whiff of gasoline. He isolated the gasoline note and amplified it to form the basis of Fahrenheit.
Fahrenheit juggled offbeat style and mainstream PR and production streams with remarkable success. Take a look at a network sit-com or an action movie from 1988. Or a fashion magazine. Listen to some 1988 pop music. Most of it doesn’t hold up very well. (See photo above.) Fahrenheit on the other hand might come off as era-specific, but not dated. It has survived reformulation, the vagaries of trend and an increasingly competitive market yet remains distinctive.
(image: Donald and Ivana Trump, 1988. source, cnn.com.)
Fahrenheit is two different things. On one hand, it’s so loaded with olfactory masculine markers that it’s chest-beatingly butch. Yet in the same breath, it is a tricked-out sweet floral leather, a soul-successor to the early 20th century blue-bloods.
The first read, the easy read, is all hard wood, octane and virility. As a macho fragrance Fahrenheit is blatant, and if accepted reflexively isn’t all that interesting. But screwing with highly gender-determined perfumes can be a kick, and Fahrenheit is built for it. It has a staginess that seems pre-wired for camp. The advertisements, bottle and packaging all play with the image of a burning horizon and scorched earth. Just add gasoline and it’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
The more interesting gender reading is the comparison to the vintage sweetened leathers. Tabac Blond, Lanvin Scandal, Knize Ten and the like offer a satisfying dive into one of the more interesting gender twists of the 20th century: the garçonne/dandy axis. Take Chanel’s Cuir de Russie. Exchange warm, boozy burl for freeze-dried lumber. Swap smoke for gasoline. Hold the powder. It’s not exactly Fahrenheit, but the connection is there, especially in drydown.