The Italian luggage company Mandarina Duck, whose spicy citrus men’s fragrance Pure Black was released last year, may not be familiar to American audiences—even less so for men. The company started in 1977 when two young Italians decided to make traditional leather luggage more colorful. The firm has had a few stops and starts in the American market, but has a much stronger presence in Europe and Asia, with about 80 flagship stores worldwide.
That lack of name recognition probably made Mandarina Duck’s previous men’s fragrance, called simply Man, a tough sell when it launched in 2006. Between that and the bright orange packaging, a candid Mandarina Duck representative admitted to me, Man didn’t quite catch on. It was a light and summery scent with fruity-sweet orange, grapefruit and peach notes that, like its colorful bottle, may have seemed less than masculine to the American nose. Despite that, Man is still in stores.
Pure Black, the company’s second scent, didn’t exactly abandon the original concept—the fragrance is still orange-based (and created by the same perfumer, Nathalie Lorson), and the bottle is shaped the same—but the masculinity factor is amped up a bit. “We realized we had focused too much on the Mandarina Duck brand with Man,” a company rep told fashion and fragrance editors at a publicity event at Barney’s, pointing to the clear and orange bottle. “Pure Black focuses on what men want.”
That’s true, but there’s a disconnect between the Pure Black name and the citrusy fragrance. It starts out with bergamot and tangerine, spiced with pepper, and warms to orange blossom and tonka bean, finally drying down with cedar, sandalwood and vanilla. When I sprayed it on a card, I wasn’t impressed; on the skin it’s much better. Used sparingly, it’s a nice warm-weather scent: orange notes provide some of the freshness of lemon but linger longer. Vanilla softens the citrus edge. I prefer the fresh top notes to the basenotes, which smell a little less adventurous, a little more ordinary to me.
For a great orange-based fragrance, one that keeps up the momentum after the top notes, I prefer Frederic Malle’s Bigarade concentrée. It’s warmed with a similar cedar note, but softened by subtle rose, and the orange lasts longer. It too needs to be worn sparingly.
With Pure Black, I’m reminded of how much the success of men’s fragrances are subject to sensitive marketing: a sleek black bottle will always reassure a guy, and woody-spicy basenotes will seldom offend. But after that, it’s up to the brand, its distribution, and, probably, magazine ads. For those of us who review and collect fragrances, such crowd pleasers are a dime a dozen.
Just the same, Pure Black (which typically retails for about $70) does what it does well, and I’d recommend it to any guy who needs to move beyond those usual crowd pleasers without venturing too far into the more expensive and exotic fragrances that aren’t marketed to either men or women. —Harry Sheff