Call it a bit of French humor, that one of Yves Saint Laurent’s most striking portraits shows the fashion designer stripped down to his clothes. It was 1971. Photographer Jeanloup Sieff and his red-haired subject decided on an alternate setting: three black leather cushions stacked on the floor, with Saint Laurent seated in lanky repose. Besides his glasses, he presumably wears another notable accessory. After all, what better advertisement for a new YSL eau de toilette – the same scent he’d worn privately for three years – than the shirtless designer himself?
Half a century later, as YSL Beauty unveils its latest men’s fragrance, Austin Butler steps in as a doppelgänger, with an equally long frame and days-old skin. This time, the accessories are layered – leather trousers, a double-breasted coat, a full Le Corbusier lounge chair – and so is the understanding of identity, in a way. The eau de parfum, baptized MYSLF, is emblematic of a generation accustomed to lost vowels and a conception of masculinity that does not conform to stereotypes. (Decoding the name would reveal male Female bookends, with the brand’s monogram carefully contained within.) The intention is to unravel the different facets of the wearer, through Tunisian orange blossom, patchouli and a warm amber note .
“It all starts in this bright, flowery place,” Butler says one spring morning in New York, when the weather was cool and the Hollywood unions hadn’t yet gone on strike, “then a kind of gentle, woody appears. It evolves as it settles on your skin. A perfume face’s role is to humanize the ineffable — a sprinkling of Oscar-nominated star power doesn’t hurt — and Butler presents himself with an actor’s eagerness to explore the plot of bottom. There’s Saint Laurent himself: “I was so inspired by him,” says Butler, “realizing how he set out to shatter all ideas about what style was at that time and how it has revolutionized so much. The orange blossom note, too, draws on tradition in an unlikely way. “The idea that orange blossoms are linked to a newborn or a woman on the wedding day – there are so many different versions of life that are surrounded by this scent,” he says. (Even the Sun King was a follower, using floral water probably drawn from his Versailles orangeries.) Could a white floral at the heart of a masculine scent be the olfactory companion to Le Smoking, the avant-garde feminine tuxedo? designer of Saint Laurent in 1966?
Leaning more towards a Mediterranean palette, the three perfumers—Daniela Andrier, Christophe Raynaud, And Antoine Maisondieu– sought to subvert expectations. There is a sparkling note of green bergamot in the initial glow; Provençal aromatics, like clary sage and lavender, give way to a honeyed ingredient created from sugar cane. And at the heart, orange blossom evokes Tangier, where Andrier combed the souk for different versions of the fragrance, and spent time near the former home of Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, a couple whose sensibility aesthetic was deemed expansive. “We had to express a man who was not a caricature, in all his subtlety,” says Raynaud of the dimensionality they were looking for for MYSLF. Butler, equally at home on a vintage Harley as he is in the pure black country shirt, plays along.
vanity lounge: Fragrances for men often have a narrative of adventure or lust, but this one is more focused on the inside. How do you interpret the history of perfume?
Austin Butler: When they first introduced me to the concept, it was about the different sides of yourself. That’s what ended up being the heart of it. When I was a kid, I had an orange tree in the center of my garden, it was in Anaheim, California. The smell of orange blossoms really reminds me of picking oranges with my mom and making orange juice at home.
Where do these fragrance notes take you, in a cinematic sense?
It’s interesting. The scent changes in about five minutes after being on your skin. At first, it really is like a beautiful spring day. And then gradually, I almost see the color of a sunset by feeling it.
Sounds like Terrence Malick.
Kind of a Terrence Malick movie, yeah.
In the spirit of MYSLF, what does your alone time look like?
I travel so much, you know? So my alone time is really at home, cooking and spending time with my dog, watching movies, reading and being in nature. These are the ways that I feel like I recharge myself. I have a pizza oven in my backyard, so making pizza or cedar plank salmon or something like that is really wonderful. The smell of burning wood is so great.
You are at this ripe moment coming from the Oscar nomination. Have you received any career advice, either during awards season or in previous years, that stuck with you?
I think of all these actors and directors that I really admire and with whom I have worked, who have had a long career. They tend to have this deep gratitude and realize how lucky they are. It’s definitely something that keeps me grounded. It’s just by realizing how privileged we are that we can do what we do. The other thing is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Knowing that you don’t have to rush things, just take your time, that’s all.
How does gratitude manifest itself for you?
I think it’s like tuning an instrument, almost. When I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel like the guitar is out of tune. So (the key is) anything that makes your sanity more aligned that way. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a walk in the morning and trying to realize the beauty of just being alive, of smelling the air. My mom used to do this thing where she wrote down 10 things she was grateful for every morning. After she died, I found all these journals with thousands of things she said she was grateful for. It was really so beautiful to be able to see them, because it was everything from “I’m so grateful for the olive oil” to “My nails because I could paint them”. It was just from the smallest thing to something so big. You just see how, if every day you remember it, it really changes your perspective. Someone asked me yesterday what my idea of beauty was, and I really had to think about it. I realized that you can see the same thing and if you look at it through a different lens, it won’t look beautiful to you because you are not able to appreciate it. So it’s really that lens through which we see the world.
In that vein, has any recent shoot given you a new perspective on the world – a sensory shift?
The first thing that comes to mind is when I was filming in Budapest recently (by Dune: second part). There’s a hike I did one evening as the sun was setting, and the light just hit the town in such a beautiful way. All the architecture there is amazing because it’s one of those places that somehow escaped bombing during WWII. The way these old buildings soaked up this sunset was truly stunning.
Do you use perfume to get into character?
I have. The first time I did this, I was doing this play here on Broadway, The Iceman is coming. And every night before going on stage, I had this essential oil. You know how perfume bypasses your conscious mind and immerses you in a memory or an emotional state? It was my routine every night. I would feel it just before going on stage. And I did that throughout the rehearsal. For different roles, I will find the perfume that will make me crack.
Has one of the searches for your roles – whether it’s mid-century music or Photograph by Danny Lyon– ended up influencing your style?
Of course, just because I’m immersing myself in that world or in that person’s life, then it gives me time to realize, “Oh, I love wearing this particular style of pants or jacket” or “This times period suddenly resonates with me in a different way. With Danny Lyon, it was all the motorcycle culture of the 60s and 70s, and even the 50s, when motorcycle clubs started. I definitely bought a lot of leather jackets back then, and I still wear them. Some boots from this period really appealed to me. Even experimenting with different products that you put in your hair, to give it the texture I saw in the photos.
MYSLF projects this more nuanced take on the genre. In the canon of your favorite movies, are there any male characters that come to mind who also inhabit this kind of complex masculinity?
It’s a very interesting question. I did not think about it. The first image that comes to mind is At the water’s edge, where Eva Marie Saint drops her glove and Marlon Brando picks it up. He sits down on a swing and puts on her woman’s glove. It wasn’t scripted, it had never happened before – and it was one of those moments where it kind of broke the screen when I first saw it. It was truly magnificent.
I like this. What rewarding new skill did you learn through a project?
Certainly on a motorcycle. I had ridden a little, but I had the opportunity to ride all these 1960s Harleys that I had never had before. So it’s a real love for sure.
What are you riding now?
I have a 1966 Harley.
Talk about a way to experience a sensory landscape.
For sure. We were in Cincinnati and we were also filming without headphones. The wind in your hair as you ride is just amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.