Call it a bit of French humor, that one of the most striking portraits of Yves Saint Laurent should show the fashion designer stripped of his clothes. The year was 1971. Photographer Jeanloup Sieff and his sandy-haired subject decided on a spare set-up: three black leather cushions stacked on the floor, with Saint Laurent seated in lanky repose. Besides his glasses, he is, presumably, wearing one other notable accessory. After all, what better advertisement for a new YSL eau de toilette—the very scent he had privately worn for three years—than the bare-chested designer himself?
A half-century later, as YSL Beauty unveils its latest men’s fragrance, Austin Butler steps in as doppelgänger, with a similarly long frame and days-old scruff. This time, the accoutrements are layered—leather pants, double-breasted coat, a full Le Corbusier lounge chair—and so is the understanding of identity, in a way. The eau de parfum, called MYSLF, is emblematic of a generation familiar with dropped vowels and a concept of masculinity that doesn’t conform to stereotypes. (Decoding the name would reveal masculin féminin bookends, with the brand’s monogram neatly contained within.) The intention is to tease out the wearer’s different facets, by way of Tunisian orange blossom, patchouli, and a warm ambery note.
“It starts out in this bright, floral place,” Butler explains on a spring morning in New York, when the weather was cool and Hollywood’s unions had yet to strike, “and then a sort of sweet, woody nature comes through. It evolves as it settles on your skin.” The role of a fragrance face is to humanize the ineffable—a dusting of Oscar-nominated star power doesn’t hurt—and Butler shows up with an actor’s eagerness to explore the backstory. There is Saint Laurent himself: “I’ve just been so inspired by him,” says Butler, “realizing how he set out to shatter any ideas of what style was at that time and the way that he revolutionized so much.” The orange blossom note, too, taps into tradition in unlikely ways. “The idea that orange blossoms are related to a newborn baby or a woman on a wedding day—there are so many different versions of life that are surrounded by this scent,” he says. (Even the Sun King was a devotee, using floral water likely drawn from his Versailles orangeries.) Could a white floral at the heart of a men’s scent be the olfactory mate to Le Smoking, Saint Laurent’s avant-garde women’s tuxedo from 1966?
By leaning into more of a Mediterranean palette, the three perfumers—Daniela Andrier, Christophe Raynaud, and Antoine Maisondieu—sought to subvert expectations. There’s a fizzy, green bergamot note in the initial burst; Provençal aromatics, like clary sage and lavender, give way to a honeyed ingredient created from sugar cane. And at the core, the orange blossom evokes Tangier, where Andrier combed the souk for different versions of the scent, and spent time near the former home of Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé—a couple whose aesthetic sensibility was famously expansive. “We had to express a man who wasn’t a caricature, in all his subtlety,” Raynaud explains of the dimensionality they sought for MYSLF. Butler, as comfortable on a vintage Harley as he is in the campaign’s sheer black button-down, gamely plays along.
Vanity Fair: Men’s fragrances often have a narrative of adventure or lust, but this one has a more inward focus. How do you interpret the story of the scent?
Austin Butler: When they first pitched the concept to me, it was all about the different facets of yourself. That’s what ended up being the core of it. When I was a kid, I had an orange tree in the center of my backyard—that was in Anaheim, California. The smell of orange blossoms really reminds me of picking oranges with my mother and making orange juice in the house.