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Inside YSL Beauty’s Formula for Staying Young

The luxury fragrance brand has proven time and again that it knows how to win over the youth market. Its latest scent, MYSLF, aims to embody Gen-Z ideas around self-expression — to a point.
Yves Saint Laurent tapped actor Austin Butler as the face of its new Gen-Z fragrance, MYSLF.
Yves Saint Laurent tapped actor Austin Butler as the face of its new Gen-Z fragrance, MYSLF. (Courtesy)

Whenever I see a new brand or product with a vowel-free name, I think of this New York Times piece from several years ago that speculated on the genesis of the consonant-forward trend in marketing. Linguists suggested that a name less an I, E, A, O, or a U is more playful or childlike.

Five years later, consonants are still going strong. Take MSCHF, the Brooklyn-based “collective” behind those Big Red Boots and the Microscopic Handbag (measuring 657 x 222 x 700 micrometers) that in June sold for nearly $64,000, SKN, Lori Harvey’s skin care line or UN/DN LAQR, Machine Gun Kelly’s nail polish line (it has 50 percent less vowels).

Now, ditching vowels in a bid to reach younger customers has crossed the threshold from indie to big beauty. YSL Beauty last week launched MYSLF, a new men’s fragrance expressly created for Gen-Z and fronted by Austin Butler, with some pretty lofty goals. Emilie Poisson, the brand’s general manager, told BoF she hopes MYSLF will be the “biggest men’s launch in fragrance” for L’Oréal, which holds the license to manufacture, market and distribute beauty products for Saint Laurent.

YSL Beauty already has traction with teenage males. In Piper Sandler’s bi-annual survey of American teenagers’ shopping habits, YSL Beauty jumped from 11th to fifth among boys between autumn 2022 and spring 2023. Korinne Wolfmeyer, senior research analyst at the firm, said YSL was the only fragrance brand to break into the top 10 in that period.

YSL’s men’s fragrance business in the US is up 19 percent year to date (as of July 29), outpacing an overall US men’s prestige fragrance category that’s seen 10 percent growth during the same period, according to Circana.

For MYSLF, Poisson said YSL will up the ante on social media spend by investing “like never before” in TikTok, Twitch and Reddit. It will also give out samples in Brooklyn barber shops as well as gyms in select US cities.

As for Butler, who is 31 and very much a millennial, Poisson put it simply: messaging trumps age. Gen-Z fragrance is selling self-expression, and older generations have always been sold on becoming someone else or being sexy, successful or powerful.

In a May interview, Marina Mansour, vice president of beauty and wellness at technology platform and creative agency Kyra, explained that for Gen-Z, fragrance is an “extension of their feelings, outfits, mood” ­— a departure from previous fragrance marketing that centred on “how it makes you feel [or] smell to others.”

It all reminds me of Glossier You, Glossier’s fragrance that debuted in 2017 — and not just because of the name. You remains one of the brand’s top-selling items and has since expanded to include rollerball and solid formats, a candle and deodorant. “This is not a finished product. It needs you. It’s the ultimate personal fragrance,” read an Into the Gloss post by Emily Weiss, Glossier’s founder, around the time You launched.

MYSLF is about exploration and “never forgetting who you are, no matter where you go.” Butler was selected as a Gen-Z ambassador because he is “sensitive,” “complex” and “fragile yet confident,” read an email from a spokesperson for YSL Beauty. By contrast, Y — the millennial-focused scent that came out in 2017 — is positioned as “a long-lasting fragrance for the accomplished, self-made man” and “an intense portrayal of masculinity.” Lenny Kravitz has been the face of Y since it came out in 2017 (like Butler, he falls outside the fragrance’s target demographic; born in 1964, the musician straddles the border of Gen X and Baby Boomers).

“In the past, we talked more about ‘ambition,’” Poisson told me, adding: “Austin Butler, clearly, is more about self-expression.”

A niche and indie fragrance boom is clearly shaping the way designer houses are approaching the category — from messaging to actual notes and beyond — but to me, something is missing. YSL, Dior, Armani and their peers remain extremely siloed in terms of gender, despite their best efforts at using the category to reach Gen-Z, a generation that, increasingly, rejects gender norms and prioritises fluidity. It’s the unisex or “genderless” offerings from lines like Byredo, Maison Francis Kurkdjian, D.S.&Durga and more that have been, and continue to be, critical to their success.

Calvin Klein did it three decades ago with CK One — it’s still considered one of the most iconic scents of all time — which makes it even more surprising that leading names in fragrance have yet to deploy a similar strategy in 2023. This is a wide-open opportunity for the taking that’s both culturally relevant with the potential to be commercially lucrative (unisex fragrance isn’t limited to half the market, so it can yield double the sales!)

Who will be the first big brand to go the unisex route with a new launch?

Further Reading

With luxury names like LVMH and Kering revving up their beauty businesses, pure play competitors need to safeguard their most prized possessions: their people.


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