First things first: I’ve been reading Allure magazine since the 1990s. And I’m always happy to see in-depth coverage of perfumery in a mainstream magazine.
When I noticed a feature article titled “The New Fragrance Frontier” by contributor Liana Schaffner in the July issue of Allure, I settled down with anticipation to read it. In keeping with the issue’s “American Beauty” theme, it was a discussion of independent perfumers who create offbeat blends inspired by the American landscape.
Here’s a sample from the introductory paragraph:
A movement composed of independent, homegrown perfumers is reshaping the fragrance landscape, gradually changing the way we approach and experience scent. Straying from tradition, these olfactory trailblazers are creating fragrances with a distinctly American feel — solitary, rugged, luminous. A new frontier. But there’s another virtue, beyond the pioneering spirit, that motivates this group to push boundaries and break genres. It’s called defiance, and it’s just as entrenched in our American mentality. . .
When I finished reading this article (and it’s fairly long, over 1,500 words), I realized that something about it bothered me. Actually, two things. One: the indie perfume movement and its “defiant” spirit are not new. But that’s typical for “trend pieces” in glossy magazines: they often cover information that’s old news to aficionados.
More troublesome, however…
Schaffner features and quotes seven perfumers, perfume experts, and/or creative directors of perfume lines in this article. . . and they’re all men. Statistically, that’s perplexing. And since the July issue is ostensibly devoted to the diversity of American beauty, this lack of representation is even more disappointing.
I have nothing against the men featured in the article, several of whom I’ve met at various fragrance industry events, and one of whom (Christopher Brosius!) I’ve greatly admired since the mid-1990s.
However, it’s bizarrely inaccurate to represent the American independent perfume scene as a group of men making, branding, and discussing scent. If anything, this scene has been steered primarily by women perfumers since its earliest days. The male perfumers and creative directors rounded up by this article (with the exception of C. Brosius) are not the true pioneers or innovators in the field. Most of them didn’t even show up until later in the game, and they’re good at what they do, but it’s nothing particularly “trailblazing.”
Even when I started my serious browsing at perfume counters around 2004-05, I noticed plenty of smaller lines created by women mixed amongst the heavy-hitter niche houses like L’Artisan Parfumeur and Serge Lutens: Mandy Aftel’s Aftelier, Keiko Mecheri, Sarah Horowitz, Susanne Lang, Antonia Bellanca’s Antonia’s Flowers, Yosh Han’s YOSH.
What about these truly inventive women and their work? Or any of the women who began creating perfumes (or writing or teaching about them) more recently, over the past decade or so?
This omission really distressed me. And, after I emailed Allure‘s “Letters to the Editor” and received no reply, I did what we all end up doing in 2017: I aired my grievance on Twitter.
Some of my fellow perfume bloggers and fellow aromaphiles noticed and responded to my tweet, and we got a lively conversation going about the Allure article and the indie scene in general.
By the end of the day, we had received one conciliatory tweet from Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee. However, the article’s author, Lianna Schaffner, doesn’t seem to have a social media presence, so I don’t know whether she saw our discussion or, if so, how she reacted.
When our Twitter conversation tapered off later that evening, a few of us long-time bloggers decided to continue addressing this topic through our own sites.
So: here’s my own very limited sampling of independent fragrance lines created by American women perfumers, as a suggestion to Allure or anyone else who needs to gain a fuller picture of the indie perfume world. I’ve chosen ones that fit Schaffner’s framework of “perfumers who are inspired by geography and exploration,” and for each one I’m recommending a fragrance that conveys a sense of place.
Enjoy the trip, coast to coast:
House of Cherry Bomb (founded 2010)
Perfumers: Maria McElroy and Alexis Karl
I first met Alexis in 2006, when she was showing her line Scent by Alexis at Henri Bendel. Later that year I met Maria—an indie perfume veteran who started Aroma M in 1995!—at New London Pharmacy. A few years later they joined forces as House of Cherry Bomb Perfumes, while still maintaining their individual brands. They’ve shared a studio, co-created perfumes, and formed an inspiring example of collaboration.
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Inspiration: New York City, past and present; the smells and tastes of foreign travels
Recommendation: Pink Haze, “the scent of tree-lined Brooklyn streets, of stone buildings, both old and new, and of the hot metal of subway cars. It is the heady yet ephemeral scent of gardens blooming with lily of the valley, gardenia, lilac and honeysuckle on early summer nights. It is [the] beauty of light haze tinting the sky pink, and the energy of throngs of people.”
Sonoma Scent Studio (founded 2004)
Perfumer: Laurie Erickson
Back in the earlier 2000s, I must have learned about Sonoma Scent Studio through new-fragrance announcements and reviews on some of the early perfume blogs. I soon became a die-hard admirer of Laurie’s craft and I reviewed several of her scents at Now Smell This. We’ve never met in person, but I feel as though I know her through her thoughtful and evocative work.
Location: Healdsburg, California
Inspiration: The landscape that surrounds her studio in Northern California’s wine country
Recommendation: Fireside Intense (“the oddly satisfying scent of smoked woods carried by the crisp fall air or emanating from an evening campfire”) or Forest Walk (“the earthy, mossy smells of the forest floor with tree bark, tree needles, and soft floral highlights”).
For Strange Women (founded 2009)
Perfumer: Jill McKeever
I think I may have actually learned about For Strange Women from a 2011 article in O, The Oprah Magazine. FSW’s Victorian-styled imagery appealed to me (corsets! settees! floral engravings!), and how could I resist a scent named Winter Kitty?
Location: Kansas City, Missouri
Inspiration: Botanical essences, Victoriana, old-fashioned apothecaries
Recommendation: Coyote (“evolves from a bright citrus opening of mandarin leaf and orange to a spicy heart of bay leaf, cinnamon, and palo santo. A dark wood-smoke note emerges among cedars and oaks as the prairie meets the edge of the woodlands”)
Providence Perfume Co. (founded 2009)
Perfumer: Charna Ethier
I first encountered Charna and her Providence Perfume line at the Extracts trade show, and I later had a chance to visit her boutique just when it opened in 2013. All-natural perfumes can be hit-or-miss for me, but I’ve consistently enjoyed Charna’s creations (and admired her work ethic).
Location: Providence, Rhode Island
Inspiration: Natural aromatic materials, family travels, global fragrance traditions
Recommendation: Rose 802 perfume oil, “inspired by summers spent in Vermont (area code 802) where the warm summer breeze is heavy with the scent of wild roses and blackberries amid the tall trees.”
Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (founded 2002)
Perfumer: Elizabeth Barrial
I have a weakness for all things Gothic and literary, so I fell hard for “BPAL” when I started browsing its website in 2004. Its seemingly never-ending catalogue of perfume oils has generated a rabid and loyal cult following over the past 15 years.
Location: North Hollywood, California
Inspiration: The occult. Mythology. Provocative women in history. Literature by authors from Lewis Carroll to Lovecraft.
Recommendation: BPAL’s “Wanderlust” collection includes olfactory tributes to places like New Orleans (“reminiscent of hothouse blooms on a humid night, ripe, but touched with decay”) and the legendary Tombstone, Arizona (“a rugged, warm blend of vanilla, balsam and sassafras layered over Virginia cedar”).
. . .
I could name many more American female independent perfumers who deserve recognition. . . and I’ll be doing that today on Twitter, using the hashtag #femaleperfumepioneers. Join in and name some of your own favorites!
And please see what my fellow perfume writers have to say on this topic, and find out which indie women perfumers they’re featuring today. It should be a smart and truly diverse range of responses.