Spy Makers is a new conversation series where we sit down with inventors, designers and entrepreneurs to talk about their work. In this story, SPY E-Commerce Editor Tyler Schoeber talks to Matthew Herman, co-founder of Boy Smells, the gender-bending candle, intimates and now fragrance brand breaking smashing the binary one wick at a time.
If you’ve been following along with some of our recent content here at SPY, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we’re big fans of Boy Smells. Well, let me be frank: I am a massive fan of Boy Smells, and I have been for years now. I got the rest of the team on board after I started at Spy, so guys, you can all thank me when you get the chance. I’m waiting.
I fell in love with Boy Smells accidentally after stumbling into a new boutique in Brooklyn a few blocks from my apartment. Upon entering the place, I was automatically drawn to the scent. It was fragrant yet subtle, unusual but familiar and felt both masculine and feminine at the same time. It reminded me of my first girlfriend’s shampoo and my last boyfriend’s cologne all at the same time. The hard-to-pinpoint scent threw my brain for a loop in a way no other candle ever had, and I left the store with four Boy Smells candles in my tote.
Boy Smells was created by real-life partners Matthew Herman and David Kien. The couple wanted to move past the notion of gender-specific scents by merging traditionally masculine and feminine fragrances together, creating a line of soy candles impossible to label masc or femme.
Since their initial start in candlemaking, Boy Smells has evolved. The company is now creating products like gender-inclusive undies in the Unmentionables collection. Most recently, Boy Smells launched a brand-new Cologne de Parfum line. The new collection is full of intriguing fragrances like Suede Pony, which combines ultra-masculine scents like brushed leather with notes of hazelnut and violet. It’s that kind of surprising combination that makes Boy Smells such an interesting brand.
I recently got the chance to virtually chat with co-founder and icon Matthew Herman to talk about everything Boy Smells. From the brand’s origins to their future endeavors (and anything in-between), you can check out our recent chat below.
I wanted to start off by asking about you and your partner, how have things been going over the course of the pandemic? Any new hobbies or ideas outside the realm of Boy Smells? How’ve you been spending your time?
The pleasure is mine! We have been busy and feel very lucky about that. Once the pandemic set in, people were stuck at home. Candles seemed to offer a lot of comfort for people, which was lovely to see them bring joy into an otherwise stressful time.
We have been staying sane by spending as much time as possible in nature. I have loved rediscovering Los Angeles parks. We have had countless picnics with friends and family. I am so much more appreciative of our public spaces than before.
Obviously, we have cruised through A LOT of shows on Netflix, lol.
The pandemic has obviously caused a massive spike in online retail but that wasn’t something anybody could have expected. Did you have any trouble producing Boy Smells products in the beginning of it all? Was it hard to keep up with the influx of online sales?
This has been a meteoric year of growth for us, with our online sales skyrocketing 1000% between 2019 and 2020, far surpassing projections, even with pandemic-related disruptions. We had to quickly pivot our operations to support the exponential increase in demand on our DTC channel. Just like many businesses, we’ve had to embrace constant change over the last year, but we’ve luckily been able to shift and adapt throughout the process.
Once our candle factory closed, we set up some of the workers with industrial wax melters in their garages, so they could “work from home” but still make candles. We were doing the same. Trying to make it work however we could. Our team is awesome and scrappy. We all have a few more grey hairs now.
Back to the beginning of it all — when you and your partner first decided on the gender fluidity aspect that comes with the Boy Smells aesthetic, was there any worry that potentially it wouldn’t catch on? So much has changed since 2016 in terms of both gender expression and understanding, so I’m curious if any part of you was like, “maybe now isn’t the right time yet.”
We started this company as a recreational side project. Calling it Boy Smells and putting it in a pink box was intentionally provocative; the branding challenges your gender assumptions. We were really cool with it being something for us, fun and niche, assuming it would not click with everyone else.
The success has been awesome to see and it shows us that the world is changing. It is an opportunity for us to stand for more than just personal products. We get to amplify values and push the conversation forward, and hopefully inspire people to see identity in a new way. Of course “that voice” can pop into your head from time to time making you second guess your decisions, but we’re so incredibly proud of the brand we have built — one that reflects the complexities of modern identity and continues to challenge outdated gender expectations.
Our vision is to reinvent personal care into objects that make exploring and affirming your identity a daily ritual, conceived beyond the gender binary and made with genderful ethos.
Have you had any scented candle ideas you felt strongly about that simply flopped?
LOL, yes. Of course. We had a candle called COIN that only I loved. We eventually dropped it from the line, but I thought it was very chic. It was rusty and minerally, like old coins.
Given you’re trying to break the binary with these candles, I’m curious, are there scents that you feel are more masculine or more feminine?
The way we explore genderfulness in scent is to mix traditionally masculine and feminine scent notes together. We associate florals as feminine and musks and woods as masculine. But, I love florals, and all my girlfriends love wood scents. Who made up these rules? And why should they matter? That’s what we are asking. The answer is no one knows and they don’t matter, so do what makes you happy, express yourself in ways that satisfy yourself, not anyone else. That is self-empowerment.
That said, some of our scents are more floral than others and some are woodier than others, but to us, that does not make them more or less feminine or masculine.
Trust me, rose and violet (traditionally feminine, cosmetic scents) make me feel like the best man I can be.
I personally fell in love with Boy Smells when you teamed up with queen icon Kacey Musgraves herself. What was working with her like? Are there any new celebrity features in the works?
We have counted ourselves fans of Kacey’s music since she arrived on the scene. Her authenticity, lyrical ingenuity and fearless self-expression garnered immediate respect from us, and we saw her as a role model for living authentically, which is a shared core value of Boy Smells.
The Slow Burn candle played a crucial role in growing our brand from start-up indie darling to one of the most widely talked about candle brands this year. It’s been incredible to witness and we could not think of anyone more fun to do it with.
We are open to collaborating in the future. That said, our number one priority is always that these partnerships are authentic to our Boy Smells brand values, so we are very careful with who we will work with as a partner. We want to ensure anything we create is truly collaborative both at the product level and at a values level.
As we built Boy Smells from the ground up, we don’t take partnering lightly, but partnering with Kacey was a no-brainer. We collaborated on every single thing to do with the candle and the launch event. Slow Burn embodies Kacey’s self-assured but chill nature. We loved every moment of working with her.
At what point did you begin to think that you could be much more than a candle brand and decide you were going to work on the Unmentionables underwear line? Do you plan on making more clothing in the future?
We view candles and underwear as objects you engage with on an intimate level and integral to your personal care routine. They are objects we hold close to us, as is fragrance; they should reflect our most authentic selves. Before we put on our uniforms each day, the clothes we wear out to engage with the world, it is important that we have self-care routines that reinforce our true selves.
We always knew our next step after candles would be underwear, due to the fact that it’s perhaps the most gendered item out there. The way we label our underwear describes the fit, not the gender, which allows for the purchaser to decide how they relate to the product, we don’t dictate that. It’s effortless and uncomplicated and does not exclude anyone.
Whatever you’re getting dressed for — your CEO drag, yoga drag, party drag — you should start with the things that hold you in your truest self. We hope that what you see in the mirror should become your ideal of beauty and invite everyone to celebrate themselves without labels.
We need to talk about the release of your new baby, the Cologne de Parfum line. How long had this been in the works? Was it something that you kind of always knew you’d want to do?
Personal fragrance has always been the next natural step and is in a lot of ways is the best articulation of our values. We love to use the word “genderful” when describing the brand, it is kind of the opposite of genderless. Rather than be a blank slate, we prefer to simultaneously embrace masculine and feminine together into pro-gender-multiplicity. I really believe this spectrum resides in everyone and should be explored, embraced, and celebrated. We’re all a mix of unique qualities and have the ability to tap into a spectrum of power. We call it a personal mixology. And, our goal is to channel this modern sense of identity into the products closest to us. These fragrances, that we have been working on for the past 2 years, are made to bring out your most mighty and authentic self.
After candles, undies, and cologne, do you think there is another realm you’d like to tackle in the future?
We have some exciting plans for new categories in the near future. Can’t talk about it too much just yet. Let’s just say, we want every aspect of your daily routine to be a celebration of the complexities of your identity.
Last but not least, I need favorites. What is your personal favorite Boy Smells candle to date?
What?! That’s impossible. I am most excited about what we are doing next, which is really really really good. More to come. 😳😘😉