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Scent Notes: “Gendarme”

Cult scents are interesting in several ways, but primarily in how they became cults in the first place. There is never really a straightforward answer to the question; if marketers, whose job it is to build cults around products, knew the answer, then every individual in the world would have his own branded scent, ringtone and reality television show. But you know a cult-worthy brand when you see one. And they tend to take you by surprise.

I was at a lunch at a waterfront beach house on Fire Island, N.Y., five years ago when one of the hosts thrust his wrist at me. “Do you like it?” His expression was wide-eyed and intense as he watched me lean in to take in the scent. I thought about it for a moment. I said yes, I liked it, and that it was similar to masculine scents I’d smelled before _ traditionalist, fresh and clean, with a sharp, dry lemon-and-bitter-orange citrus anchored to a solid, dry spice core. But I didn’t recognize it. It was as tightly structured as a uniform but light and friendly enough that it didn’t feel military. More like something from the men’s department at Barneys. The host was barefoot, wearing a bathing suit and a polo shirt, and the scent worked with that look _ but I assumed that during the week, back in the city, he wore the same fragrance with a navy Calvin Klein two-button suit. What was it?

“Gendarme!” he said.

I’d never heard of it. It wasn’t associated with any brand (well _ the brand was Gendarme, which I hadn’t heard of). When had he gotten it?

“Years ago. I never wear anything else. It’s my scent.” He said this as though he’d made it himself. “You’ve never heard of it? Seriously?” He looked incredulous for an instant, then smiled. “You will.”

I did, in the same way that after meeting a friend of friends, you suddenly bump into him everywhere. I saw someone I knew from The New York Times on the subway. We chatted. I stopped. “What are you wearing?”

“Gendarme,” he said. “I totally love it _ it’s my scent.”

In 1983, when a man named Topper Schroeder set out to find a scent that he could call his own, he was just another guy. He knew nothing about making a fragrance. But he had scoured department stores and had come up with nothing, so he did something rather unorthodox: He decided to have one made.

With “a market of one,” as Schroeder describes it, it is not easy to get a fragrance project off the ground. To have a perfume made for yourself is a luxury _ and a feat requiring herculean persistence. Through luck and determination, Schroeder eventually found the perfumer Bob Slatery and directed him in creating a new cologne. “A clean masculine scent,” Schroeder says. “That’s what I wanted. Crisp and fresh.” When it was finished, Schroeder named it “Gendarme.” (In the 15th century, French cavalrymen were called “gens d’armes”; later, the word morphed into “gendarme” and came to mean “police.”)

Schroeder wore “Gendarme” happily. Then he began to retail it. Within a few years, he had introduced “Gendarme” shaving cream, body wash, moisturizer and more. He expanded the scent line with flankers: “Gendarme-V,” which is heavier and grassier than the original, and “Grabazzi,” with slightly more spice.

The scents and other products are available at Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, and “Gendarme” is among the top five men’s fragrances at Barneys stores throughout the United States. But perhaps the most impressive expansion of the “Gendarme” line is the extraordinary home base that Schroeder built _ it’s difficult to know what to call it: a private recluse? A small fantasy world? Schroeder opened a brand headquarters, the Gendarmerie spa, all but hidden on a tiny West Hollywood side street called Nemo. Done up in the style of a Key West bungalow, the Gendarmerie has a masculine Hemingway-in-Havana living room where guests can sit and chat, and a quiet stone terrace out back, beneath palm trees. Inside, you might find yourself casually sitting next to a celebrity, your respective barbershop stations a few feet apart.

The small but complete spa takes you through the “Gendarme” product line. And afterward, you emerge into the mild California air, shaded by the palms, smelling lightly fresh and clean with a sharp, dry lemon-and-bitter-orange citrus anchored to a solid dry spice core.

- By Chandler Burr
NY Times Syndicates