THESE DAYS, smelling good is harder than it looks (er…smells?). Your local department store is overpopulated with brand name colognes that are essentially overpriced, derivative, “upscale” versions of AXE body spray. The last thing you want to do is wind up smelling like the guy who wears way too much gel in his hair and keeps his shirt open down to his belly button, but do you really have a choice?
Thankfully, you do. In recent years, a slew of homegrown, independent companies have cropped up, handcrafting fragrances that are complex, innovative, and made from artisanal ingredients with the utmost care. To give you a hand in finding your ideal cologne, Handlebar went out hunting for some sophisticated scents that will have you smelling like a million bucks without paying the premium for a designer label—our findings are catalogued below.
We also took some time out to speak to a couple tastemakers we trust about the scents they love, and put together a handy guide for applying your fragrance correctly.
So take a look, and get ready to start turning heads instead of turning up noses.
Four Independent Fragrances You Should Know
D.S. & Durga — “Freetrapper”
The somewhat mysterious D.S. & Durga seems to be at that point of perfection when a company produces goods of the highest quality while remaining just under-the-radar of the mainstream. Launched in 2007 by a musician, D.S., and an architect, Durga, the buzz around the pair’s homemade fragrances has been growing rapidly in the past few years.
The scents crafted by the Brooklyn-based duo seem to have inherited many of the qualities of their creators. The combination of clean, crisp notes with woodsy, natural elements present in the men’s fragrances call to mind both the strength and sharp lines of a building’s steel framework as well as the sounds of a melancholic cowboy’s song on the prairie.
“Freetrapper” is one of several standout selections from the line. Perfect for the office or a relaxed Saturday afternoon date, the scent maintains a perfect balance between casual and formal. Notes of dark cedar are striking, but not overwhelming by any means. The outdoorsy overtones make “Freetrapper” an unmistakably masculine cologne. Best of all, you won’t have to reapply any D.S. & Durga fragrance—a single spritz will last you all day.
Cirmes Tonsorial Parlour — “Sapera”
Andrew Fuller isn’t trying to build a behemoth corporation. He isn’t trying to make a billion dollars off of his company’s IPO. All he wants is to make and sell products that have their roots in tradition, value and craftsmanship. With his small online shop, Cirmes Tonsorial Parlour, he seems to have done just that.
A barber by both blood and trade—his great-grandfather was a coiffer, and he trained in the tonsorial arts himself—Fuller has put his inherent skills toward creating a line of grooming products that have depth and tell distinctive stories.
Aiming to foster a sense of nostalgia and unique character in his scents, he looks to break the mold when devising his wares and takes pride in the divergent, unorthodox nature of his creations. “[My scents are] for the man who doesn’t want to smell like everyone else. People who purchase my products have a beauty and complexity to them,” says Fuller.
Our favorite Cirmes scent is “Sapera.” A clean, fresh fragrance, “Sapera” will leave you smelling like you’ve just stepped out of the barbershop. The aroma comprises soft notes of frankincense and myrrh joining with Cardamom (a ginger scent) and smoky patchouli to create a truly one-of-a-kind scent. If you want a cologne that will get you noticed, definitely give this one a try.
Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab — “Wilde”
There’s no reason to fear the dark, Gothic themes prevalent across the collection of fragrances from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. Even if you aren’t super pale and wear black all the time it doesn’t mean that the impeccable colognes this outfit is churning out aren’t perfect for you.
Refreshingly self-aware, owners Elizabeth Barrial and Brian Constantine don’t let the tongue-in-cheek nature of their brand’s “magickal” motif dilute the seriousness with which Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab creates its scents. With inspirations ranging from classic mythology and pagan tales to Medieval and Renaissance formulas, the diversity of aromas the company offers is staggering.
“Wilde,” our choice, is a slightly floral, aristocratic scent with hints of lavender, jasmine and thyme. In the distant past, gentleman of the highest classes favored fresher, flowery fragrances. But “Wilde” smells a little more manly than stuffing posies in your pockets—it holds notes of bergamot and Tonka bean that give it a unique combination of smooth vanilla and sharp citrus. Intriguing and complex, Wilde will definitely have people sidling up a bit closer to you for a second whiff.
Herbal Alchemy Apothecary — “The Ambergill”
From the time she was a child, Herbal Alchemy Apothecary founder Julianne Zaleta was always interested in alchemy, plants, and crafting scents, soaps and other bath products. Her education in such matters began by playing in her mother’s garden and foraging for plants in Northern Michigan, and continued as an adult with formal training by a master aromatherapist and perfumer in Brooklyn. The range of her experience is evident in the diverse, multifaceted fragrances she creates.
Though she started out primarily producing therapeutic products, Julianne seems to have found her niche in concocting subtle yet striking scents for both men and women to wear. “[Creating] perfume is much more creative and is really an art form,” says the alchemical savant.
One of her finest creations is “The Ambergill,” a unisex fragrance inspired by visits to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The local flora and fauna shape the scent, with rich natural notes blending with pronounced masculine undertones to create a superb blend that is musky yet fresh.
Two Designer Colognes That Don’t Suck
If you’re caught in a bind one day or find yourself trapped in a Sephora, we’ve culled together two surprisingly stellar options from big-name designers. Both are great fallback plans in case you can’t get your hands on the local indie goods.
Kenzo L’eau Par is a light, citrusy fragrance that is perfect for the summer. Reminiscent of a cool cocktail on the beach, this cologne wears very well during the day and definitely has the potential to become a go-to for when you’re out running errands.
John Varvatos Vintage, meanwhile, smells like a lumberjack drinking a Dr. Pepper. It has sweet, sugary notes supported by pine tree-esque, earthy aromas that make for an interesting mixture. Bold, musky, and extremely versatile, it’s pitch-perfect for a night out at a classy bar or your favorite dive.
Recommendations From Guys We Trust
“I myself rarely wear cologne, but I do have a few bottles that I can recommend. For general purpose use, especially for the neophyte, I suggest Creed’s Green Irish Tweed. It’s fairly light with a citrusy verbana scent at the top and sandalwood and ambergris at the base. The only downside to it is that it’s somewhat unoriginal. Enthusiasts for this stuff often knock it for being like Coolwater. For something more unique but still light, I go with E. Marinella’s 287. Hardly anyone knows about it, and it’s only sold in very specialized shops. If you’re an enthusiast for Neapolitan menswear, like me, it’s also kind of cool to wear a scent from E. Marinella, a Neapolitan brand famous for their ties. Either of of these scents will work well for spring, summer, or many daytime activities. For something a bit heavier, I recommend Lorenzo Villoresi’s Uomo. It has citrusy, green notes, but also a smoky, patchouli, musk scent at the base. I think it works well in the winter, when you’re wearing shawl collar sweaters, heavier wool pants, and pebble grain boots.
F.E. Castleberry, Unabashedly Prep
“My favorite scents are Ralph Lauren’s Big Pony 1, 2, 3, and 4 fragrances. I’ve been wearing them since their introduction a year ago. I discovered them when I realized Bruce Weber’s campaign images needed to be shared on Unabashedly Prep.”
A Few Words On Application and Usage
Once you’ve found the right scent for you, you need to figure out how to use the fragrance to maximum effect. When it comes to wearing cologne, balance and restraint are key. Put on too much and you smell like the area within a 200-yard radius of an Abercrombie store. Too little and you may as well not be wearing any 2 hours after you first applied. So how much should you use?
There’s obviously going to be some variation from person to person, but a good general rule to go by is the rule of four: one quick spray in each armpit and one for each wrist. After hitting the wrists you should rub them together and up your forearms a ways and then use them to leave a hint on the sides of your neck. Oh, and forget that myth about spraying your bottle in front of you and walking through it—it’s just a waste of cologne.
I’m a fairly sweaty guy myself, so I like to target the areas where body odor is going to hit the hardest during a long summer’s day. If you do better in the sun than I do and perspire less, you can perhaps forgo the armpit sprays for one towards the middle of your chest; but you’re going to want to get something in the middle of your body somewhere as well as the neck – they’re both hot spots for when a person comes in close for a hug or perhaps a kiss…
As for having a signature scent, you should be careful not to overdo it with one fragrance. If you stick to a single cologne for too long, you’ll become desensitized to the aroma, which can lead to accidental over-application. A good idea is to have a couple of go-to colognes for everyday use—a lighter scent for warmer weather, and a heavier one for fall and winter—and another two or three in reserve so you can mix it up for certain occasions. That way, you’ll always have that ace up your sleeve when you need to really impress someone special with an unexpected scent.
All photographs by Yang-Yi Goh unless otherwise noted. Illustration by Jeremy Wolf.