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When Did Teen Boys Get a Nose for $300 Cologne?

When Did Teen Boys Get a Nose for $300 Cologne?

On a recent trip to Sephora, 11-year-old Lincoln Rivera asked his mom for a $125 atomizer of Yves Saint Laurent eau de parfum.

He also covets scents from Jean Paul Gaultier, which he learned about from the animated movie “Megamind,” and Paco Rabanne (some of its cologne bottles are shaped like robots).

“I feel fine about how I smell,” said Lincoln, a fifth grader in Westchester County, N.Y., whose olfactory experimentation has so far been limited to deodorant. “But I could smell even better.”

Abby Rivera, Lincoln’s mother, first thought the designer scents sounded like overkill for her son to wear to elementary school. She was surprised by his sudden interest until she heard that some of his hockey teammates had also been asking their parents for high-end cologne, too.

“It’s like a status thing right now — they all want it,” she said. “Just like the girls want this high-end skin care and body care, this is like the boys’ version.”

Teenage boys have long turned to mists and sprays to drown out the first whiffs of puberty, but some even younger adolescents — whose parents have the cash, that is — are now becoming infatuated by designer colognes with price tags in the hundreds of dollars.

Teen boys’ annual spending on fragrance rose 26 percent in the year ending in March, according to a semiannual survey of youth spending patterns by the investment bank Piper Sandler. Axe, Old Spice and Bath & Body Works fell in its rankings of teens boys’ favorite fragrance brands, while luxury brands including Valentino and Jean Paul Gaultier climbed.

It’s not just about showing off a cologne’s high price tag: Young enthusiasts say that cultivating an air of sophistication is what separates the boys from the slightly older boys. Using terminology they absorb online, middle schoolers at sleepovers are discussing high-end fragrances the way that sommeliers might analyze wine.

The scent Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier has “a really good honey note,” said Luke Benson, a 14-year-old who lives in Orlando, Fla. Tom Ford Noir Extreme, on the other hand, is “a lot spicier and a little bit darker.”

Other young scent aficionados throw around vocabulary like “sillage,” a French term for how heavily a fragrance lingers, and dissect the merits and shortcomings of different formulations.

“Too much alcohol smells super strong and burns your nose,” said Easton, a 12-year-old in Oklahoma. He and his 10-year-old brother, Bentley, use their father’s collection of more than 70 colognes to create “scent of the day” videos for a parent-run account on TikTok.

In one video, Bentley, who is in fourth grade, grips a $100 bottle of Invictus Victory Elixir. “This has notes of vanilla, caramel and tonka,” he says, referring to a South American legume.

Tween hygiene has become much more elaborate than swiping on deodorant before gym class. Preteen girls have recently made headlines for seeking out high-end skin creams and serums, sometimes with anti-aging ingredients that are intended for adults.

Hannah Glover, a middle-school physical fitness teacher in Bluffton, S.C., has been shocked by how early the cosmetic products of adulthood have been gaining a foothold with her 11-to-15-year-old students. Boys in her class bring bottles of Gucci, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent cologne to school and show them off to their classmates, she said, while girls are obsessed with lip products and Sol De Janeiro moisturizers.

“To give an 11-year-old a $160 bottle of cologne or a $40 lip gloss, it just blows my mind,” Ms. Glover, 27, said. “When I was in middle school, we had Sweet Pea and Cucumber from Bath & Body Works.”

Young cologne customers are trying free samples in stores like Macy’s, Ulta and Sephora, or siphoning spritzes from parents. Those who can afford it are spending their allowances on cologne or asking for bottles as birthday gifts from relatives.

Logan, a 14-year-old in Chicago, started putting his bar mitzvah money toward a cologne collection about six months ago. The fragrances boost his self-esteem, he said, especially a nearly $300 bottle of Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille, which he considers his signature scent. He does not mind “dupes” of designer scents, but he is not exactly drawn to the mass-market brands that have captivated previous generations.

“I don’t think I’ve ever smelled Axe,” said Logan, who has a swoop of brown hair and braces.

Logan’s mother, Jamie, is impressed by her son’s depth of knowledge. “But we also talk about how things can get out of hand, and that we have limited funds and we can’t every week get a new one,” she said.

The fragrance category, which pulled in about $70 billion in sales in 2022, according to a McKinsey report, is full of designer as well as “niche” brands competing for the nostrils of ever-younger customers. While men once stuck to a preferred fragrance for years or even decades, Gen Z customers are more likely to shop around, said Korinne Wolfmeyer, a senior research analyst for Piper Sandler and an author of its teen spending report.

That may make brands even more eager to get on the radar of potential customers as soon as possible. “If that brand can get in early, even develop a little bit of loyalty, it’s easier for them than if they were trying to capture that consumer when they are maybe 20 years old,” Ms. Wolfmeyer said.

Men’s fragrance was a relatively unshowy hygienic product until the 1970s, when Paco Rabanne’s Pour Homme helped reframe cologne as a fashion statement, said Paul Austin, the founder of a fragrance and branding agency, Austin Advisory Group. The trendy colognes that followed — Davidoff Cool Water and Drakkar Noir in the 1980s, Acqua di Gio and CK One in the 1990s — were still mostly targeted toward customers in their 20s and 30s, Mr. Austin said.

The introduction of Axe body spray in 2002 brought even younger customers into the category, and soon teenagers were spritzing themselves with products from Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret, and a particularly potent scent from Abercrombie & Fitch.

“What were seeing now is, I’m sure, in part formed by what Axe did to open up the door,” Mr. Austin said.

Now, teenage shoppers seem to be developing more expensive taste. At Sephora and Ulta, high-end fragrances are swelling in popularity among young shoppers, according to executives for both companies. Quincy Dickerson, the fragrance department manager at Nordstrom in Manhattan, said she had never seen so many prepubescent boys swarm the designer fragrance display before this year.

Ms. Dickerson said she has had to replace the tester bottle of Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male Elixir ($152) several times because groups of tweens keep stealing it.

“Even though it smells like grandpa, they’re coming in to get it because of TikTok,” Ms. Dickerson said.

Asked why middle schoolers have suddenly developed a nose for Dior, almost every teenager, researcher and merchandising expert offered the same answer: TikTok. On the platform, influencers offer tips for “smellmaxxing,” or improving one’s musk, and recommend scents for working out, date night and middle school.

“Social media and TikTok make people want to be more grown-up,” said Luke, the 14-year-old.

Young shoppers are taking cues from influencers like Jeremy Fragrance, a buff German man with 8.8 million followers on the platform. Usually wearing an all-white outfit and a Rolex, he shows off his Ferrari and sniffs his fans to guess which scents they are wearing. “Bleu de Chanel, obviously,” he tells one.

Other fragrance influencers are teenagers themselves. Tristan Rodriguez, a 15-year-old in Litchfield Park, Ariz., recommends citrus scents when his followers have math tests, and peppery scents when they have dates. He was inspired to get into cologne by Jeremy Fragrance, he said in an interview, and is now known for posting over-the-top, sometimes emotional responses to certain scents.

“It’s lavender, fresh, comforter, bedsheets,” he says in one video, taking a drag of Nuits de Noho by Bond No. 9 ($420 for just over three ounces). “Wow, this going to be good for the ladies, for sure.”

Jatin Arora, a high school senior in Winnipeg, Canada, shares daily reviews with more than a million followers on his TikTok account, TheCologneBoy. In an interview, Mr. Arora, 18, said he had been interested in colognes since childhood because he saw adults wearing them. He shoots the videos in his bedroom, in front of a wall of nearly 400 bottles of cologne, many of which have been provided to him by brands at no cost.

He sometimes feels conflicted about how many young people make purchases (or ask their parents to) based on his recommendations. “I mean, I’m a kid, I’m still learning,” he said. “But whatever knowledge I have, I try my best to help them.”

Some parents and teachers wonder about the appropriateness of these products for a young audience. Teenagers are especially fond of the packaging of Angels’ Share by Kilian, which resembles a glass of cognac, and Le Male, a strapping torso with wide shoulders and a bulging crotch. “They make it so sexy,” said Ms. Glover, the middle school teacher, “and an 11-year-old is like, I want to wear that to school.”

Those concerns do not seem to be shared by teenagers, who see the colognes as a way to exude maturity, status or anything other than B.O.

Matt Martocci, who lives in Parsippany, N.J., asked for a bottle of Dior Sauvage as a Christmas present when he was 12. Now 15, he shares spritzes of the niche cologne Xerjoff Erba Gold with his friends. (“The top note of that is very peachy.”)

“If you smell really good or if you smell really bad, it can make or break a situation,” Matt said. What kind of situation? “Like, talking to a girl, or something.”

Matt even picks out perfumes for his mother, Lora, who appreciates that the hobby helps her son feel put together. She is willing to contribute — within reason. “He’ll ask for things for Christmas, and I’ll be like, ‘Matt, that’s a little bit on the high end,’” she said. “Could we do a little bit more chores around the house?”

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