Beauty Disruptor: Catherine Haley Epstein on Decentering Scent

What are the challenges of expanding the industry and consumer vocabulary and understanding perfume? Speaking of the decentralization of fragrances, most people don’t know that there are perfumers who work on fragrances that go into household cleaners, for example.

In terms of decentralization, the most important thing that needs to be understood, discovered, and about which I have written to some extent in Nose dipping, is that — say in the example of creating fragrances for household cleaners versus fine fragrances — they are Lego pieces rather than sculpting from clay. This is not to devalue the fact that they have those skills, it’s just to realize that there is an inability to see it as an art form, if it works that way. Decentralizing it from the industry is a very important thing and giving people the agency to take off all the labels. People love beautiful things, but the terminology has to go away and come back in a different form.

How do you see the evolution of consumer relationships with perfume?

I was recently asked to talk about artistic fragrances in America at Esxence in Milan. I speak Italian, but I didn’t realize that the same word means “luxury” in that language. I was giving a presentation on why artists use perfume and I realized very quickly that we were having a different conversation. It’s a business conversation in terms of how luxury is being redefined and artists help to do that. My prediction was that art as a luxury is now slowing down. Perfume does, which is why you are starting to see a lot of functional fragrances appear. It can smell good, bad, ugly, all of which will slow you down when you try to process it. This is luxury.

People are starting to understand that perfume is something you can proactively use to condition yourself. Whether it’s remembering a good moment or footballers using scented salts before playing. He’s Pavlovian, your brain changes. There will also be an emphasis on handmade items as luxury, especially when the internet has made everything so fast.

On the subject of handmade, there has been a big explosion in the niche indie category. It was very separate, but then there were conglomerates that bought the likes of Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. They seem to be getting a little closer. Do you have any ideas about this type of development?

I am a great collector and consumer of fragrances. Mass and not mass stuff, they are both echo chambers. Everyone is trying to appeal to a consumer, but you talk about appealing to a consumer who is perhaps deaf. I don’t say this in a derogatory way, but we are not taught how to smell. Both are riding on the fact that consumers don’t know much, but people are starting to better understand what’s going on with their noses and quality ingredients. It is similar to the rise of wine culture in the United States, and there is now a huge market for this sort of thing.

Some access to this information was not available. Websites like Fragrantica or Basenotes, which serve as educational platforms, are really useful. But your book also contains practical exercises, so maybe we don’t know how to access and fully harness that power?

It’s about process and less about knowing what vanillin smells like. I would explain this because we’ve never had a real tomato, we’re just eating ketchup. If you are aware of the difference between smells, go out and smell things for real, paying attention to them, the next time you step into the duty free to pick your perfume, you will subconsciously have a more mature-looking nose.

There is that physical conditioning, but do you think cultural or social conditioning may also play a role in terms of how we interact with those smells? Of course, if you are talking about buying fragrances, it is such an open market, you can find any type of fragrance everywhere, but when it comes to raw materials, some regions are associated with specific smells.

That’s the hope, right: let’s start having that conversation and it changes things, just like it did in the wine industry. It creates all this movement and it’s great if it’s driven. In the United States there is a lot of knowledge sharing going on through the likes of the IAO [Institute for Art and Olfaction], which is really cool. It looks inclusive, so people will start to get trendy a lot.

Not having access to such knowledge has obviously benefited the industry greatly to some extent, precisely in terms of what the ingredients actually are, where they come from, are they synthetic or natural, their allergenic potential, etc. I remember the first time someone mentioned prestige pricing to me and it was very enlightening.

But when you are a small producer, you actually have to charge more because otherwise you can’t make any money, since you can’t buy ingredients in large quantities. The word “indie” is so funny. Christophe Laudamiel points out that that word shouldn’t be said, and the logic behind it is in the realm of decentralization of things, because there is this hierarchy in that word. Now that the hierarchy in perfumery is flattening out, thank goodness, but you would never tell someone that you are a master or a young painter, for example. No, you are just a creator.

In terms of not using the word “indie” or “independent perfumery”, would you simply say perfumery for all products across the board, from a perfume made by L’Oréal to a homemade creation?

I think so. If you separate this division, when it’s all the same stuff, and then you smell them with each other, you see that one is done very differently than the other, and then having that kind of dialogue makes it different.

Another thing that I found very interesting is the the proliferation of perfume within cultural institutions.

It is so important that the whole perfume culture changes. You always have fragrance manufacturers involved in creating fragrances for these spaces, so it’s a crossroads of culture and commerce to a small extent.

The thing that prevented perfume from being art, full stop, is that there are no aesthetic rules. You have it in fashion up to a certain point, in painting, in video, in music. Perfume must have its own terminology, it cannot continue to rely on analogies with music. These are the things that need to happen.

Sometimes it is easier to follow these associations because inventing a new vocabulary around perfume is quite daunting.

We would not throw away what is already there, you would bring it back in along with other things. There are 42 or 50 descriptors that I can think of that would be great to have in your toolkit. Right now people only have eight, not just perfumeries, but artists too may start thinking about those things, like what is a sticky smell.

But then the tricky thing is that we all smell slightly different. I could take different notes than you would. Where is the common denominator?

The material is the common ground, and then the way you put that material with other materials, just like in a painting. We could look at the same painting, but have a very different experience. People don’t have a vocabulary for this right now, but in general, once they do, there will be more dialogue.

Speaking of interpretations, what can you tell me about your CARNET creations?

I make things in my studio and gift them to people who said I should have made them commercially, so it’s a relapse. I have great pleasure in sharing it with people.

I constantly do stuff and that supports me and my other projects, but right now my bandwidth is very tight. If I could grow two more arms and another eight hours in one day, I’d be like a gangster. At the moment I make 25 candles at a time and that’s it. I work with Tracy Tsefalas at the Fumerie, who sells a lot of my candles, but it’s kind of like making chocolate chip cookies. I have my own formulas that I’m working on, but there’s a huge learning curve in terms of how I put it in the universe.

What do you think of the reign of fragrance criticism?

We live in a culture of criticism, which is something I am currently writing about. I’m trying to figure it out for myself, but what has to happen, especially with the evolution of perfume, is that we have to create a new composition. When you criticize something, you are always in a position to say: “I’m right, go on”. It’s not enough, and that’s why the Odorbet is something I really love because it’s a very collaborative thing. We need to compose something else to get things going.

Where do you see the tension between our primordial sense of smell and technological innovation come into play?

Handmade is important because we are so far away in the digital realm that it will come back. That’s what we do. A long time ago we worked the whole body in the fields and then we invented machines, so our bodies got some rest. Our prefrontal cortex is on fire, right, because we don’t have to use our body as much. Then we made the computers, so keep postponing because the computers are thinking of us. Our limbic system is responsible for everyone today. The limbic system loves perfume, everyone wants it and it will go digital because people want it so badly.

The current examples I’m looking at are Perfume interpreted by the AIand the o Telephonethat was a couple of years ago.

There is a lot of energy around VR perfume behind the scenes. I predict that maybe in 10 years, people will want it and we will make it happen.

There are so many facets to this. I think of things like breaking down gender stereotypes about perfume, but that also fuels the breakdown of that Europe-centered goal. If we look at the Middle East, for example, men have been wearing rose perfumes there for a long time, while in the West men who wear floral perfumes are a much more recent development.

There is actually an anthropological term related to this: WEIRD, or Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic.

The whole idea goes further, because staying in that frame won’t help anyone progress into the deeper realms of our nose. Interestingly, our government knows how powerful our noses are and is researching that potential. In ancient times, to bring everyone into a space with a single mental structure, they lit incense. Actually what we are talking about here is the unconscious mind.

We also have subconscious biases, such as how much have I been trained to believe that a sweet floral scent is feminine and how feminine it makes me feel, so do I associate it with femininity?

Putting a perfume on one skin obviously smells different on everyone. We are depriving each other of things when it stays in that box, so throw it all away.

The most important thing is to have your own agency in the world of perfume, and what feel, look and smell do they have?

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