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Avon Mad Men - A Masculine Fragrance History Pt 2: Halcyon Days

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The American public had a greater desire for luxury goods than ever by the 1960's, and stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Sak's Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Barney's, Neiman Marcus and more were dotting the landscape of major cities, while slightly lower-level but larger-scale stores like Filene's, Marshall Field's, Bon Marché, Hutzler's, Nordstrom, Hecht's, and the like served up slightly more-accessible luxury to the upper-middle classes. But what if you were part of the wider swath of blue collar families that thought Macy's or JC Penny's was a rare treat and spent most of your non-grocery cash at places like Sears or Montgomery Ward? Where would a family like that get their regular dose of luxury goodies so deserved to the middle-Americans fighting for that American Dream? Well, if a trip to a local pharmacy like Revco or Rite Aid wasn't the ideal solution, direct sales luxury brand Avon was the answer, and for millions of Americans during this time, it was the first choice.

Women by and large had been the largest consumers of luxury goods at this point in American history, with US men being comparatively barbaric compared to the sophistication of their European peers. Unless you were an executive or self-made businessman in those days, the idea of sartorial wear, let alone the "dress casual" hybrid was lost on you. Guys went strait from their work overalls or uniforms right into jeans and t-shirts, or bathrobe and slippers even. We were an uncomplicated bunch for better or worse, and didn't give much more thought to smelling good beyond what our choice of soap, deodorant, and after shave gave us (and they usually matched because we were oh-so brand loyal then), so the idea of a fragrance wardrobe, or even a solitary signature scent seemed unnecessary for most. Avon understood this, and mostly kept their men's offerings sparse and practical up until the beginning of the decade, because something finally started to change.

The single Avon for Men line served adequately and faithfully for well over a decade by the time major changes occured. Men in the households Avon was traded were happy with it, and the after shaves proved 10 to 1 more popular than the singular cologne entry. Still, with products from Shulton, MEM, Fabergé, Leeming, Swank, Revlon, and Dana gaining traction in men's circles, Avon saw an opportunity to use their huge and growing installed market to get a piece of that pie. They did this by ditching the concept of Avon for Men as it's own separate fragrance line (a la Chanel's Pour Monsieur or Caron's Pour Un Homme), and made it a sub-brand for an entire catalog of separate lines to be sold. The first such attempt at this was 1963's Tribute for Men, a well-studied aromatic chypre exercise that could impressively go toe-to-toe with something like Monsieur de Givenchy (1959) or Moustache by Rochas (1949).

Tribute was arguably too classy for it's intended market, since American men were about as familiar with chypres as they were bidets at that time, but Avon's overzealous marketing and kitschy packaging assured that it drew the eye, coming initially in a bottle shaped like a Spartan warrior's head, before being placed in a more conventional frieze-adorned cylindrical bottle, and sold alongside soap, aftershave, shaving cream, and talc. Older flankers to the original Avon for Men were preserved for now, but eventually that first line would survive only in after shave form, with the "Spicy" variant seeing relaunch by itself as it's own line also with soap, talc, and shave cream. Avon didn't just sit on their laurels with Tribute however, and unlike it's peers, continued to roll out new lines year over year, some of them after shaves, some colognes, and some both, until their variety of men's fragrance products dwarfed the competition much like their feminine lines had for years.

The 1960's were halcyon days for Avon masculines. They were treading new territory, or at least new territory for them, with every release, and although there was a lot of referencing other products from other perfume houses, there was also a lot of exploration and innovation too, leading to both good and cringe-worthy results. A good example of cringe might be the very fact that the men's fragrances all came in goofy themed bottles, from the boot of Avon Leather (1966) to neon pink hippie extravaganza of Bravo (1969). Other embarrassing ideas include a cologne named after the sword in the stone (Excalibur from 1969), and a 3-piece masculine cologne set themed after raw building materials (the "Wood", "Steel", and "Glass" colognes from 1969's Structured for Men). Then there was Avon launching a grooming and fragrance line for teenagers (Avon Blue Blazer from 1964), that had a fake school crest and was claimed to be attuned to what younger men like but actually smelled like a clone of Caswell-Massey Jockey Club, a fragrance from the late 1800's, which was anything but what young people wanted, if there was even that young men's market at all in the US during this time.

Avon had its successes too, lots of them. The outstanding Avon Island Lime (1965), Windjammer (1968), and of course Wild Country (1967). That last one proved to be the biggest achievement Avon would ever have in the men's fragrance market, as it wasn't just a damned good fougère in it's own right, but a cultural icon that brought the American country-western themes that guys all over (even in Europe) like romanticizing. Nobody had thought of theming a masculine fragrance this way, and in a so far unrepeated stroke of genius, Avon actually set a precedent that the fragrance world would try to follow, even in designer realms. I mean, without Wild Country, would we ever have gotten Chaps Ralph Lauren (1979) or Coty's equally-iconic Stetson line (1981)? Probably not.

Avon also began a practice in the 60's that would eventually become a stain on it's reputation, and that was the marketing of fragrances in novelty gift decanters. Avon didn't limit this practice to men's fragrance but men received the bulk of them as the idea believed by Avon at the time was that men from the middle-income bracket they served likely wouldn't go out and buy their own fragrance, nor would likely use it if given to them in plain bottles like what much of women's perfume used at the time. However, if a cologne and aftershave set was cleverly disguised as a pair of binoculars or if a singular bottle was shaped like a trophy, pistol, liberty bell, presidential bust, knife, wagon, fish, mailbox, golf caddy, or even a scale model of a sports car, the guy could be subtly coerced into using it. I barely even touched upon the variety of decanters here, that's how many there were.

Whether this tactic worked or not is uncertain, but the women who primarily bought and sold Avon at this period ordered droves and droves of these tacky gift decanters, flooding the aftermarket with them in later years after they sat neglected by the men who may have liked the smell of the stuff inside, but found opening their bottle of Old Spice easier than fiddling with the spare tire on a glass model of a Packard just to put on some cologne. Potential new customers to the brand would be confused by all this illusion of choice, passing up chess pieces filled with Wild Country for square English Leather bottles with caps they could unscrew without breaking or spilling. Likewise, in subsequent decades, collectors would never grow to appreciate the actual style and quality of Avon's masculine lines because they just couldn't get past all the novelty decanters.

Seriously, there are longtime collectors that even now, don't realize Avon cologne and aftershave from this period came in normal and practical bottle designs, or at least more normal by comparison. The novelty decanters of the period were just really bad ideas that looked super good on paper, but when executed (and then doubled-down on in the 70's), really started to hurt Avon's still-developing reputation with a growing male audience. Overall, the company would continue to grow hand-over-foot because of 80 some odd years of success with women by that point, but if it wasn't for outrageous successes like Tribute, Avon Leather, and particularly Wild Country (which has never ended production after 51 years), Avon might not even still be making fragrance for men, all because of how obnoxious these decanters were.

Nowadays folks over at Etsy go nuts for these things (empty or full), just like Beanie Babies or Barbie dolls, but when is the last time you ever said to yourself that you wanted your signature fragrance to come from the knicknack adorning your mantle or coffee table? Probably never. The 60's might have given birth to some of Avon's best classic masculines, and it's most popular, influential male composition (Wild Country), but it wasn't Avon's most successful decade; that honor goes to the 1970's, but you'll have to wait for Part III for that story.



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