Several weeks ago I began exploring the British perfume industry to attempt to discover a definitive spirit. This journey resulted in a 3 part article of which you are now reading part 3 – The Indie Kids. To read parts 1 and 2, scroll down the page for an irreverent look at how heritage and royalty have influenced the Great Brits - Penhaligon’s, Floris and Grossmith.
Britain is famous for it’s indie culture. By ‘indie’, I mean independent, the creation of something that a person or small group of people make without the backing of a big investor or parent company. Essentially, innovation without major finance.
Some of our greatest indie Brits are famous for innovation in the worlds of music and fashion. Think of the fabulously unconventional fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who in the early 1970s partnered up (romantically and in business terms) with avant-garde music producer Malcolm McLaren, quit her job as a primary school teacher and created ‘Let It Rock’ a London based clothes shop. Let It Rock evolved rapidly, schizophrenically changing names and design themes, as the pair kicked off the sub-cultural music and fashion scenes of punk and new wave. Soon, London’s youth sported sado-masochist influenced bondage trousers and vertiginous Mohican hair taking alternative into the mainstream.
Westwood and McLaren
During my teenage years in the late 1980s, I followed Manchester’s famous ‘Madchester’ music scene where bands such as The Inspiral Carpets (think – psychedelic Hammond organs combined with guitars strummed at full tilt and huge walls of noise) formed their own record label rather than seek a signing from a major, ultimately allowing complete creative control and gaining cult status amongst fans. The weekly arrival of my subscription to Melody Maker magazine saw me scouring listings for obscure gigs that would inevitably lead me and my friends to sleeping rough in Manchester’s Piccadilly Plaza after we missed our last train home. The satisfaction of an extraordinary night in undergound haunts such as the legendary Hacienda would keep us warm amongst our collected bin bags of shredded paper waste that offices would leave on their doorsteps for the bin men (surprisingly comfortable).
What Vivienne Westwood and The Inspiral Carpet’s shared, was a ‘Do It Yourself’ attitude. Why bother seeking the backing of a major investor or working for someone else when you can launch your own mini empire in your own makeshift way? DIY is the basis of indie victory.
The Inspiral Carpets in their youth
Essential oils, absolutes, alcohols and synthetic bases are widely available to buy online and (with a little research) it’s easily possible to make something unique and quirky. So why aren’t there a proliferation of indie perfumers?
One explanation could be the bureaucratic toil that is required to obtain a European safety certificate, i.e. a document that certifies that your perfume isn’t going to poison anybody and will allow you to trade your fumes to the public in a shop. This is both pricey and complex. Another explanation is that there is an expectation that a perfumer holds a high level scientific qualification and has undergone extensive training within the employ of Givaudin, Firmenich etc before becoming what we know as ‘a nose’.
One entrepreneurial spirit who has negotiated the EU rules and successfully created a range of superbly quirky whiffs is Sarah McCartney. Sarah launched her company 4160 Tuesdays with minimal formal training, learning just enough to ensure that her products performed as a perfume successfully. Sarah’s real ‘training’ was a life long adoration of fragrance and the depth of knowledge that comes with years of reading and writing about perfume. Sarah says of her company:
“The 4160Tuesdays project is about being creative: mindful observation, nerd-like fascination, endless exploration and - fingers crossed - mixing it all up and having good ideas. At least once a week. If we can't be bright and brilliant every day, at least let's have a crack at making Tuesdays interesting.” 4160tuesdays.com
This statement thoroughly embodies the indie spirit, it’s not about creating a luxury product for a label hungry consumer. It’s about exploring what can happen when she pursues an idea, the creation of a perfume that might capture a concept, place or memory rather than simply ‘something that smells nice’.
Sarah mixes fumes in a home made lab
As I write, I’m wearing a sample of ‘The Dark Heart of Old Havana’ a scent inspired by her travels to Cuba. Sarah says of the Cuban capital:
“They have tobacco, sugar, rum and fruit. They don’t have much of anything else. And there’s ingenuity, humour, fatalism and sweltering heat. And this is the way I remember it smelled, walking through Old Havana to the Caseón del Tango at night.”
And dark it smells. Our noses are trained to recognise vanillic smells as sugary and comforting, with associations of ice cream, cakes and all things ‘sweet’. Now and again someone will mix it with some patchouli and spice and call it ‘noire’, but it’s never that dark, merely a little more adult. In the case of Sarah’s Dark Heart of Old Havana, she has created a literal interpretation of her experiences off the tourist trail and reproduced both the edgy atmosphere and intoxicating smells of Havana.
L’ Artisan Parfumeur released a fragrance called Havana Vanille, which promised a combination of rum and vanilla mixed up with spices and tobacco. To my nose it smelt of vanilla and pepper and little else, it left me uninspired. Sarah’s Havana Vanilla doesn’t. It makes me excited. It’s the rarest form of vanilla fragrance in that it actually smells huge and symphonic, casting notes of dark leathery labdanum, over-ripe fruits and a curious burnt toffee sensation into the air. Whilst vanilla scents often smell ‘flat’, this one seems to radiate upwards and outwards with a lot of energy. I can almost smell Sarah’s energetic mission to learn how to Tango on her travels! Yes it’s dark in that smells of strong booze, smoky cigars and filthy fruit pulp leftovers at the end of a market day in sweltering heat but it’s also bright and optimistic, a triumph of very clever perfumery.
Sarah’s scents are sold in small scale distribution, with an online shop at the 4160 Tuesdays website, Les Senteurs and a posh knicker shop in Camden. I’m glad about this, I don’t want to see it in Harrods. I’d hate to hear a passionless sales assistant try to sell her memories.
In the process of communicating with Sarah during my research process I was struck by how much I personally liked her. Wit, intelligence, informality and a slighty daft sense of humour underpinned her emails, which really sums up the spirit of her perfumes. They are a reflection of her eccentric character and as such are delightful.
Another route into indie perfumery is to leave your career as a nose for the big guys and set up on your own. Ruth Mastenbroek has mighty credentials, in possession of a chemistry degree from Oxford and a lengthy International career creating a multitude of perfumes and aromas under the security of contracts with large companies, she is the polar opposite of Sarah McCartney. In fact, Ruth even holds the title of President of the British Society of Perfumers.
Ruth launched her own signature fragrance, RM for women, independently in 2010. There must be a huge amount of pressure involved with the release of your ‘signature’ perfume. What if it isn’t as successful as your past creations for other companies? How do you, as an industry expert, deliver a concoction that ultimately signifies your personal taste, gives away a little of your character, and bears your name as an emblem of what you believe to be your own idea of the sublime idyll within perfumery?
Of her inspiration for RM, Ruth says:
“Our sense of smell is a powerful reminder of precious memories. Memories have inspired me, inﬂuencing the complex ‘chypre’ fragrance that is Ruth Mastenbroek.
Memories of childhood: gingerbread, fresh earth, blackberries... Memories of my life in England and abroad: Japanese jasmine, cherry blossom, lotus, and green tea; Dutch lilies, narcissus, hyacinth, and salt sea air; French orchids, roses, and wild ﬂowers...
Memories of travels to exotic places, the spices and oils of Morroco, Sri Lanka, Italy and Thailand.
This palette has been my playground, my refuge, my source of inspiration. From it I have created a scent that stands out above all others, one that I can truly call me. “
Ruth created a contemporary floral chypre, with a strident blackcurrant note and abundant jasmine. It isn’t quirky, it’s very likeable to a mass audience as well as those with a nose for niche florals.
Ruth's signature fragrance
When I first applied it I was surprised. To some extent I was disappointed that it wasn’t very unusual. I’d expected to smell an innovation, perhaps with a challenging aspect that could only be appreciated by a perfume junkie such as the cold camphor in Tubereuse Criminelle or curious curry in Eau Noire. RM could have easily been released by Givenchy, Lancome or Dior and appreciated by millions. As I pondered it’s mood over several wearings I started to understand the point of RM. It’s not supposed to be quirky. It’s supposed to be a culmination of years of expertise and life experience, a summary of her career and a statement of elegant femininity. It wasn’t meant to be for me, with my penchant for edgy music, flat shoes, masculine colognes, handmade art school dresses and jasminophobia.
So why is RM in my indie article? Because I love the idea of Ruth creatively beating the giants at their own game. RM is amongst the most mainstream smelling perfumes on the shelves of legendary indie fume shop - Les Senteurs. It’s what the huge cosmetics houses would love to release under their own name if only they could. It’s a Goliath perfume, a high end fruity floral chypre with enormous longevity and strength that would sells millions of bottles to millions of women if you could buy it at Debenhams. Only you can’t. You can only buy it directly from Ruth’s web boutique and from a number of small indie retailers. For that reason, it’s downsized, DIY Dior. It smells as if Ruth wanted to create her masterwork as ‘the greatest popular floral in the world’ without the restrictions of designing it for a big house to make it actually become the greatest popular floral in the world. No clients to please and appease, no marketing folk to deliver a definitive brief, no tight restrictions on a materials budget and no corporate nonsense. A J’Adore created during a period of freedom. For this I admire her as much as I admire Sarah McCartney’s delightful eccentricity.
As I ponder the close of my research into ‘The Scent of British Spirit’ I still wonder why we as an industry are still deemed to be less commercially successful and innovative than the French? I can only summarise that it ultimately might come down to production and distribution, we simply don’t make perfume by the truck load or market it with glamourous gusto to the masses.
Perhaps it’s just who we are, a nation who will always be the slightly eccentric underdog. Essentially creative but not overly concerned with winning a commercial competition. After all, there is joy in the hidden, being part of the alternative, we do it our own way.
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