Interview: All by MYSLF – The inspiration behind YSL’s hot new masculine fragrance

Stephan Bezy: “This generation does not want to conform to traditional notions of masculinity”

Introduction: Described internally as “Yves Saint Laurent’s most trailblazing launch in years”, new masculine fragrance MYSLF has got off to an encouraging start since its introduction in September. On L’Oréal Groupe’s Q3 earnings call late  last month, CEO Nicolas Hieronimus said the new line was “flying”, confirming early optimism that a top five men’s fragrance is in the making.

The Moodie Davitt Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie discovered more when he met Yves Saint Laurent Beauté International General Manager Stephan Bezy at L’Oréal  Groupe headquarters in Paris recently to discuss MYSLF’s positioning with a new generation of consumers and the role travel retail will play in the commercial journey.

In a fascinating, freewheeling interview, Bezy delves into the fragrance’s origins, the statement it makes about a post-pandemic, nuanced and sensitive masculinity, and the fundamental connection between fragrance and travel.

Seldom can a dropped vowel have carried such implications. Welcome to MYSLF, a new male fragrance with a shorthand title and designed to be emblematic of a contempory, pandemic-shaped evolution of masculinity.

“On the masculine front, we saw a definite opportunity with the new generation,” says Yves Saint Laurent Beauté International General Manager Stephan Bezy as he describes the genesis of the L’Oréal Groupe-owned maison’s latest male scent unveiled in September and since rolled out across the travel retail world.

“L’Homme and La Nuit De L’Homme catered more to the Gen X demographic. Y was aimed at millennials, and we realised the importance of staying in touch with the younger generation because they are your clients of tomorrow,” Bezy says.

“So we conducted over 6,000 interviews in the Middle East, China, the US, and France, speaking with these young gentlemen to understand who they are and what they seek.

The refillable MYSLF fragrance is designed to speak to a more nuanced masculinity

“What we discovered was a significant shift in their expectations when it comes to living out their identities. This generation does not want to conform to traditional notions of masculinity – what we sometimes call alpha male. And while not all traditional masculinity is toxic, it can be somewhat rigid. This new generation values fluidity, freedom of thought, self-comfort, and embracing all aspects of their personalities.

“They are more explorative, curious, and less judgmental – less beholden to taboos and norms. We engaged with them and learned that self-ownership was vital to them. This idea of being unapologetically themselves, without the need to justify their identity, is central to this generation. They embody a more sensitive, nuanced, and complex form of masculinity.”

The shift was accelerated by the pandemic, Bezy says. “There was a lot of isolation during that time, and people spent considerable periods reflecting on their lives. An entire generation started questioning the meaning of life, their goals, and aspirations.”

Lives were changed, jobs ended or changed, relationships questioned in the face of 24/7 confinement. “The pandemic prompted introspection and profound self-reflection, making people reevaluate many aspects of their lives,” Bezy observes.

He points out that we live in an unsettling world, one marred by war, global warming and other ecological issues, financial instability, demographic challenges, and political turbulence. “It’s not a time of peace and ease. I grew up in the 1970s, a time when everyone believed the future would be brighter, that science would solve everything, and progress was infinite… the world was still amazing and you had the promise of so many possible adventures and a promising future.

“This young generation is growing up with more information than we ever had. They are acutely aware of global issues, which can be quite frightening. It’s not as simple as it was in the ’70s. The young generation today is under more pressure; they often feel that they can’t afford to waste time in the world they live in. So they choose to align themselves with who they truly are.”

Moreover, for large swathes of society, human fragility was laid bare during the pandemic. Everything became temporary, as jobs, businesses and lives were lost. The resultant reshaping of values has played out in many ways, Bezy contends, a metamorphosis that Yves Saint Laurent Beauté sought to address both in the new fragrance and the communication that surrounds it.

During this period people have been pondering many things. And in our conversations with them, they were expressing their complexity, sensitivity, and a growing need to be true to themselves. The new, modern masculinity is all about the freedom to be oneself.”

Me, myself and…. a dropped E

Those findings echoed with one of Monsieur Yves St Laurent’s most famous quotes: “I’ve understood that the most important encounter in life was the encounter with myself.”

“This quote sparked our interest, and as we brainstormed with the team many names were considered,” Bezy explains. “We shared these names with a young audience and paid attention to their reactions. Initially, we had the name ‘Myself’ with an ‘e’ but it felt a bit too self-centered, a bit too much about me, myself and I. So for a while we didn’t keep it.”

“We were looking at other names and then a girl in my team said, ‘What about removing the E?’”

It was a eureka moment. “I thought that’s so brilliant,” Bezy recalls, smiling at the memory. The name played to the younger generation’s tendency, born from texting and social media, to truncate words. It could also be read as shorthand for ‘My Yves St Laurent fragrance’.

“This is what a lot of Gen Z do – the way they abbreviate words and omit vowels, which is very much a part of their generation’s language. By making this adjustment, the name takes on another dimension. It shifts away from being solely about ‘me, myself, and I’ and becomes more intricate, with different levels and layers,” he comments.

Yves Saint Laurent Beauté tested the name on groups of young men. The results were intriguing. “They saw things we hadn’t noticed initially,” says Bezy. “Some recognised elements of both masculinity and femininity. It’s a fragrance for men, but it’s for multifaceted, subtle, complex, and nuanced men — men who are comfortable with their feminine side. The name has multiple layers.”

Bezy shares an anecdote about a distributor in France, who said, “I don’t know who came up with that name, but he’s a genius.” Genius indeed, except he was a she. “It’s a brilliant name and interestingly every time we presented it to our couture friends or the CEO of L’Oréal, their immediate reaction was overwhelmingly positive. They loved the name, found it brilliant and smart.

“This reaction has been consistent whenever we shared the project with friends, stakeholders, and partners. Everyone really admires it, describing it as a cool and great name.”

Work on the fragrance itself kicked off at the end of 2020, less than a year into the pandemic. MYSLF will therefore go down in history as the maison’s first major launch after this unprecedented global crisis but one very much born from it.

Austin Butler – something beyond the external

Given that broad sociological context, the choice of Austin Butler as MYSLF’s face was a natural, Bezy says. The American actor, whose lead role in the Baz Luhrmann-directed biopic Elvis earned him a Best Actor nomination at this year’s Academy Awards, embodied all the values the fragrance was seeking to encapsulate.

“Where do I begin with Austin? Well, we love him. He’s adorable to start with,” says Bezy. “It’s quite moving because this gentleman has been a professional actor for 17 years now. He embarked on his acting journey at a young age. He has appeared in numerous films, and what’s happening in his career is nothing short of amazing and well-deserved. He’s a highly talented actor, and it’s incredible to witness the impact of the Elvis movie on his destiny.

“Now he’s collaborating with renowned directors like Jim Jarmusch, Denis Villeneuve, Jeff Nichols, and, of course, Baz Luhrmann. These are some of the top film directors in the US, and they are eager to work with him. He was the most promising young actor revelation of the last year and of his generation. This success [with Elvis] is quite a phenomenon, and it marked a turning point.

“We were looking for a rising star, so to speak. We’ve always embraced this idea,” Bezy continues. “We cherish the notion of embarking on the journey to success together and growing together. Austin fitted the profile we were seeking, not just in terms of his career but also his personality. He’s exceptionally good-looking, very masculine, yet unafraid to reveal his more feminine, fragile, and sensitive side. He’s nuanced and complex, not a one-dimensional nor stereotypical figure.

“He’s an incredibly intelligent individual. It was very interesting to collaborate with him. He has a unique perspective and is genuinely committed. He actively engaged in discussions about every scene with the film director and provided his insights. He was deeply involved in the script – this was part of our agreement, which we fully welcomed.

“At every stage of production, whether it was for the print or the film, we involved him in our talent selection. We wanted a feminine perspective on this project. For us, exploring the new masculinity, which is a more sensitive form of masculinity, through the eyes of women was incredibly interesting. That’s why we brought in the film director, Julia Ducournau, who was the second woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes after Jane Campion.

Julia Ducournau is an incredible character, very strong, with a unique personality. She’s a true artist. It was her first time doing advertising, which isn’t always easy for artists. However, she was delighted because she felt highly respected and even surprised. I told her that’s exactly why we chose her. We didn’t want an artist to be confined; we wanted her freedom, her style, her voice to come through in the film.”

Sound sustainability credentials are critical to reaching out to Gen Z consumers
Austin Butler as captured by Gray Sorrenti

The same philosophy underpinned the decision to select a 22-year old Gen Z photographer Gray Sorrenti – daughter of famed fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti – to shoot the print campaign. “It was a fascinating decision, and I believe you can sense it in the imagery,” Bezy  observes.

“When you look at the advertisement, the body language, the way Austin gazes into the camera, and everything about it, you perceive something beyond the external. There’s a fragility, a sensitivity that comes through.

“He’s a stunning, muscular and handsome man, yet you feel something more, a depth to his character. Moreover, he’s dressed in Saint Laurent, wearing a semi-sheer blouse that reveals hints of his skin through the fabric. The hand positions, body angles, neck tilts, and his gaze into the camera, it’s not just for the present moment.”

Talking travel retail

As reported, L’Oréal Travel Retail is showcasing MYSLF with a show-stopping pop-up takeover in Europe and Middle East travel retail, involving more than 400 animations, including pop-ups, OOH advertising, gamification, personalisation and immersive discovery.

Bezy is a firm and articulate advocate of the role that travel retail plays for launches such as MYSLF.

“I have tremendous faith in travel retailers and their capabilities. I’ve witnessed their tremendous achievements and success,” he says. “Travel retail is an incredible platform for showcasing and expressing a brand. It’s a prestigious environment with airport spaces often acting as large podiums.

This dazzling mirrored animation anchored the MYSLF launch at Istanbul Airport, Türkiye in partnership with Unifree and Gebr. Heinemann

“Airports often resemble modern temples or cathedrals, boasting stunning architecture. The grand scale and extraordinary presence of an airport is ideal for fragrance, and the audience is quite captive in this unique environment.

Because travellers often have some downtime while going through the steps before boarding a plane, we can capture their attention. It’s always a pleasant experience to explore the beautifully designed duty free areas.

The Yves Saint Laurent MYSLF campaign kicked off in style at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in September with Kappé

“This aligns perfectly with the image of quality and luxury we aim to convey for our brand and our fragrances, which represent the pinnacle of the beauty industry. The airport environment is an ideal match for fragrance, as it caters to a selective, captive audience embarking on adventures, whether for business or leisure.

“This setting encourages an open-minded approach since travellers are at the start of a journey, an experience, and we believe that fragrance is itself a journey.

 A traveller takes a deep dive into MYSLF inside the Kappé activation at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol guided by Brand Ambassador Austin Butler

“The connection between travel and fragrance is evident. You travel with both your chosen fragrance and your airplane. Travellers are usually in a good mood because they are entering a new chapter in their lives, bringing about a change. Even when fatigued, the memories of travel endure more vividly than the routine of daily life.

“These airports are not just functional facilities; they are a testament to the strength and aspirations of the countries they represent. As the first and last impression travellers have upon entering or leaving a nation, they play a significant role… providing the perfect backdrop for a compelling fragrance presentation.”

China to play pivotal role

 Interestingly, China – a market that would likely have not even been part of a roll-out plan a few years ago – looms large in the roll-out agenda. When we were developing this fragrance, we had China in mind from scratch,” Bezy reveals.

“The market in Asia is changing, even in Japan [historically a heavily cosmetics-dominated market -Ed]. For instance, Libre has been a big success in Korea and China. It’s the number four or five fragrance, depending on the month, in China. We used to develop fragrances with a more western focus, engaging with western testers and validating the scent with westerners. However, this fragrance was developed from the start with China in mind and we tested the scent there.

“We perform blind tests when developing fragrances. It’s crucial to involve our target audience in the process. We present them with multiple scent options and let them live with it for a month, soliciting feedback on the hedonic [technical] profile, overall notes, and pleasing factors.

“In blind tests, people don’t know the brand or whether it’s selective or not. It’s just about the juice. We tested it in the western world and also in China with Gen Z Chinese men as we wanted to see how they would react. We were delighted because they loved this scent.

“It’s challenging to create a scent that appeals to Europeans, Americans and Asians. But this one has succeeded, just like Libre. Libre ranked fifth in the world last year, just three years and four months after the launch. That’s quite a success.”

How lofty are his ambitions for MYSLF? “This one could be in the top five in at least two years,” Bezy responds. “Normally I’d say three years, but the way it’s taking off is quite impressive. Even without any media campaigns, in France at Sephora it has gained significant market share since its launch. It reached among the top positions within the first week without any media support. It’s off to a great start.

“We pay a lot of attention to what people say on social media, particularly the younger generation, as well as women. It’s fascinating to note that over half of men’s fragrances are purchased by women. Before the fragrance was even launched, we had a few women at L’Oréal try it, and one of them exclaimed, ‘Stephan, what have you done?’ She remarked, ‘Oh my God, this scent is irresistible for women.’

“This feedback is a great sign because if women appreciate it, they’re likely to want their significant others to wear it as well. Plus, who wouldn’t want their man to smell like Austin Butler?” ✈

A unique olfactory journey

MYSLF breaks new ground for YSL in being the brand’s first woody floral fragrance, the result of a specific brief presented to some of the world’s top perfumers, says Yves Saint Laurent Beauté International General Manager Stephan Bezy.

“For instance, when we developed Y, we were missing a significant fougère fragrance in our collection. In the US, fougère fragrances account for half of the male fragrance market. So we decided to enter the fougère category and created a modern fougère with Y. We are now the third best-selling fragrance in the US market.

“Similarly, woody fragrances are another significant category in male fragrances. However, given our brand’s modern and nuanced positioning, we didn’t want to create a traditional or classical woody fragrance. Instead, we introduced a feminine twist with floral elements. When discussing this concept with the olfactive experts and perfumers, we asked them to develop a fragrance around the idea of a floral woody scent.

“That’s why you’ll find the note of orange blossom in MYSLF. Orange blossom is a versatile note. Depending on how it’s treated, extracted, dosed, and its source, it can be either feminine or masculine, fresh or sensual. It’s a highly adaptable raw material based on its usage. This is why we included fresh notes at the top, such as Calabrian bergamot and citrus notes, along with clary sage from Provence.

“At its heart, you’ll discover the absolute heart of orange blossom, extracted through a two-step, sophisticated process to capture its most delicate and pure essence. The flowers are carefully handpicked at sunrise, which keeps them incredibly fresh and prevents them from being damaged by the sun. We process them immediately to preserve their freshness.

“This particular orange blossom comes from Tunisia. At the base, you’ll find Ambrofix, a highly sensual ingredient that imparts deep and rich woody notes, sourced from sugar cane.

“It’s an eco-friendly process known as green chemistry, which involves extracting a molecule called Ambrofix from a natural source. Along with the wood accord and Ambrofix, we incorporate patchouli from Indonesia, adding sensuality to the fragrance, mainly in the base notes.

“The scent evolves on your skin, so while it may initially smell sparkling and fresh, it will develop into something comforting and sensual, a unique olfactory journey.

“Three perfumers, Daniela Andrier, a Givaudan Fragrances superstar, Christophe Raynaud, and Antoine Maisondieu, collaborated as a trio to create this wonderful fragrance. They competed during the development process, and we eventually selected their composition as the best one.” ✈

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