Sarah McCartney began her career sniffing hot newsprint at the Guardian newspaper. She went on to write and edit the Lush Times for nearly a decade. Here a new British talent tells Lila Das Gupta how novel writing and perfume making inadvertently went hand in hand.
Tell us a bit about your first olfactive memory.
I was two, I was playing in the garden in Redcar and I smelled the mock orange blossom (Philadelphus). Then I decided I wanted to smell it so much I shoved one of the buds up my nose. I ended up at the doctor’s with my mum in a right old panic...
How did you come to work at Lush?
I’d been working at the Guardian newspaper, organising events – the smell of hot newsprint is one of my favourites – and I left to take a master’s degree. One of the essays I wrote was on retail marketing, and the only retailer I knew was Mark Constantine. So he told me about his business and I wrote it up with some suggestions on his future, and where he fitted in the market. (At the university I had access to loads of market statistics that he didn’t). I sent it off and heard nothing. Still nothing, then one day I got a call.
“Can you write?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you want to write the Lush Times?”
It turned out that my stats had got him his funding to expand his four shops to achieve his ambition to have 25 shops in London. So my reward was work.
The Lush Times was a cult publication. It had a ‘voice’ like no other, a sense of humour and the power to describe how people felt about the things they were smelling. How did you develop that ‘voice’?
Well, the voice felt genuine because at the time it was mine. The directors were the creative heart of the company, and invented all the products themselves. They would tell me their inspiration and the stories behind the products, and the essential oils they’d used to make people feel a certain way, and I’d then see them from the point of view of someone who might be thinking of buying them.
I would write each edition with a different reader in mind. That way it would stay fresh and interesting.
Possibly my favourite product description was about something with juniper oil which was there to revive tired people. I wrote that Elijah had rested under a juniper tree when he was exhausted and added “see Bible for details”. I just liked messing about with the usual marketing conventions and surprising people. That got a few letters (praise, fortunately). It turned into the house style, with customers and staff copying the way I wrote, and contributing their own reviews too.
What perfumes have you admired and why?
My first real perfume was Diorella. It is just glorious (and I’ve got a bottle of the old stuff in the fridge for special occasions). Now I know that it’s the chypre I’m attracted to, even when you’d scarcely notice. I love O de Lancome, and Trophee Lancome too, Eau de Rochas – lots of scents made by Roudnitska, I found out later. I was gobsmacked by Poison, and In Love Again, then I just dabbled for a while until I found Lipstick Rose at Frederic Malle’s shop in the Rue de Grenelle. For me, it’s got to have fruit.
What made you decide to make perfumes yourself?
Then what happened was that I left Lush to follow some ideas I had, including writing a novel. In the book, there’s a women who makes perfume to remind people of a time when they felt happy, to help them through their problems. I spent too much money trying to find perfumes that matched what I was describing, and still they weren’t right, so I set off on my quest to make them myself.
Then when people asked me how the novel was going, I’d tell them what it was about. They’d either ask if they could read it, or if I’d make them a perfume. So I turned into a perfumer.
How do you go about making a bespoke perfume for someone, when half the time people can’t find words to describe what they want, or may not be aware of their likes or dislikes?
The simple answer is that you get them to smell stuff and see which things make them say “mmmmmm”. You can pretty much guarantee that if people say they want something fresh and natural, they want it synthetic and stuffed with hedione. That’s fine though. You need to interpret the language they use and not take it literally.
When I made ‘Lion Cupboard’ for my sister, it was because she told me one of her favourite smells was a cupboard we kept at home that belonged to our father. I already knew what it smelled like. It is an oak cupboard with lions carved on the doors and our dad kept his hats, scarves and gloves in there. It smelled like a hug. When he died my sister used to go there and open the doors to inhale dad. Then my mum threw everything away and cleaned it out.
The perfume has a very woody smell of course, lots of vetivert, some patchouli and cedarwood, and a drop of real oud, grapefruit because that’s what he ate for breakfast, a cologne accord because he liked his 4711, and a little spearmint to remind us of his toothpowder.
How do you yourself perceive smell?
I have this cross-modal perception with scent and sound which means that I can hear a musical note when I smell something. I have to listen for it; it’s not as if there’s a symphony playing when I walk into a perfume shop. But it does make it easier for me to feel and hear when accords are right, as well as just smelling them.
With ‘Sunshine & Panckakes’, I was asked ‘Can you make something that smells of sunshine. And pancakes!” I had three goes at it before I was completely happy with it, which is surprisingly few. It was a hit with the client.
For our friend Katie, (for whom I made ‘What Katy at Weekends’) I had to come up with a scent that smelled ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’, in her view. It was a bit of an adventure for me because it was much more modern and accessible than I usually go for. That said, it’s got a mass of violet in it, which people avoid for fear of the cry of “Granny!”
There may come a time when I can’t make what someone needs. I hope that people will come to me because they like what I do, and not ask me to reproduce something they’ve bought at Boots.
How difficult has it been for you to set up as a perfumer? There seem to be quite a few barriers to entry in this trade.
I have a favourite way of starting and business. I did it first when I was seven, then again when I was 19 with jewellery. I make things for myself, then friends ask me if they can buy them, then their friends ask me and eventually I get approached by shops. That’s the way I feel comfortable. I’ve ignored the usual bank loan, venture capital and funding routes - I’m growing organically, and I’m not giving up the day job just yet. I’ve got the website up, for bespoke scent and for my vintage collection which I sell decants of – but I’m still going through the process. I’ve invested a lot of money on materials, and bottles, flasks, pipettes, all the kit, and it does add up.
I’m currently saving up for the investment of EU safety certificates, after which I’ll be able to supply shops. I’ve already got a niche shop in London waiting for supplies, and a Japanese company that specialises in European cosmetics brands.
You can’t just make a nice smell and take it down the shops.
What do you think about the state of perfumery today?
There are thousands of scents that are really nice, but that’s all. They’re just really nice. They don’t smell beautiful. I want scents that make me want to fall in love with them. The most recent one I bought was Une Rose Vermeille by Andy Tauer.
You can meet Sarah at Gone But Not Forgotten: The Vintage Collection of Sarah McCartney, a Perfume Lovers London event in association with Basenotes.
The event is at 7pm on the 24th of January, 2013 at the New Cavendish Club.
Tickets cost £15 and are non-refundable.