The perfumer who hates perfume: An interview with Christopher Brosius
01st September, 2008
CB I Hate Perfume is almost wilfully hard to get a handle on. Nothing here falls into comfortable olfactory families. The shop itself is in a resolutely industrial area of Brooklyn, and is bare inside apart from the shelves of neatly labelled bottles lining the walls. Then, of course, there's the name. What does a perfumer of Brosius' pedigree mean when he says he hates perfume? He steeples his fingers and fixes me with a glare.
"Many of them I do hate. A lot of perfumes are chemically...obnoxious". The hands unclasp and start to wave in the air, as if trying to dissipate a particularly unpleasant smell. "The way some perfumes are worn is inelegant and offensive, in the same way that standing on a table in a restaurant and screaming would be.
"There are two groups of people using perfume obnoxiously. The first is a large group of people who are completely anosmic to synthetic musks. Galaxolide, which I cannot bear, is a note many people are simply unable to smell. They can smell the implications it has on other chemicals." (Galaxolide is a polycyclic musk which is used as a fixative, alongside its more direct fragrance applications.) "But being unable to smell it, they load up on perfume until they can detect something - meanwhile, everyone coming into contact with them finds the smell revolting.
"The other group - and these are my least favourite abusers of perfume - are wearing perfume because they think they should. I blame Chanel - when she came out with all that business about never being fully dressed without it."
Brosius is the first perfumer I have heard blame Chanel for anything.
"People listened to her, but never developed the capacity to decide whether they actually liked a perfume. So here in America, where the habit of wearing perfume comes from as recently as the 1970s, people are still learning how to do it properly. Women are better at it, and tend to wear fewer atrocities." The glare again - this time not at me, but at some imaginary fragrance abuser in the middle distance. "There is a steep learning curve for men - look at what they are fed. Cheap crap like Axe." (Lynx in the UK.) "Women tend to wear too much perfume; men wear too much awful perfume. And there are real some abominations out there - look at some of the new fruity things on the market recently." I mention a specific recent commercial release, and he nods in horror. "A disaster from start to finish."
Who wears perfume well? "Imagine a well-heeled French woman. You can tell she's wearing something, but not exactly what. The American woman operates perfume in a different way - it's an accessory, not a personal joy. And it can be utterly revolting. People are hypersensitised; overstimulated. I would love to get my hands on the volume control of some perfumes."
Christopher Brosius is not kidding. He really does hate perfume.
The people he caters to at CB I Hate Perfume are very different from the people he describes above, and the perfumes he produces are very different from what those people are wearing. The word-of-mouth marketing which brings so many people to his shop means that he often has direct contact with the people who wear his fragrances, which suits them and suits him; Brosius can educate his clients about the manufacture and use of perfume in person. "It's better for all concerned."
He is synaesthetic, which means certain words and concepts (days of the week, numbers and so on) have tastes, smells, sounds and texture when he experiences them. Some of these synaesthetic experiences can be "extraordinarily cool", but others cause real problems - there are some words which, when written or said, make him feel physically uncomfortable. This synaesthesia is what he suspects is behind his ability to recall and recreate smells (some from decades ago) accurately. To prove it, he waves a test strip under my nose. The bottle is marked You Know This, and the effect is immediate and shocking - it's Play Doh. Smelling it, I can almost feel the stuff in my hands (cold, because my parents used to keep it in the fridge), and I have to shake my head vigorously to remind myself I'm not five any more.
Another test strip, and I laugh out loud - roast beef. There's a perfect pear - Brosius' fruit accords are very true to the real fruits; entirely different from the boiled-sweet fruit notes used by some perfumers. Apple, apparently, is difficult to do well and prevent going in a candy-apple direction, but he seems to have cracked it. There's Nail Polish, Rhubarb Leaf, Market Tomato - "One of the smells I absolutely detest is cannabis smoke, but I love tomato leaves, and they're actually related closely."
Hated Perfumes: Top L-R: In the Library, Winter 1972, I am a Dandelion, Patchouli Empire, Lavender Tea, Russian Caravan Tea, Wild Hunt, Mr Hulot's Holiday, Violet Empire, Fire from Heaven; Middle L-R: Eternal Return, Burning Leaves, CB musk Reinvention, In the Summer Kitchen, Just Breathe, Revelation, Cedarwood Tea, Memory of Kindness, Under the Arbor, At the Beach 1966; Bottom L-R: Tea/Rose, M#1 Narcissus, CB93 Reinvention, Greebriar 1968, Cradle of Light, Gathering Apples, The Fir Tree, Wild Pansy, M#2Black March, To see a Flower.
One of Brosius' triumphs at Demeter, the company he founded in the 1990s and left in 2004 (you'll notice a real drop-off in their creativity in the years since he left), was Dirt, a weird and utterly compelling representation of soil. It's a curiously clean smell, but a totally accurate depiction of what happens if press your nose against the earth in your garden.
The fashion world went mad for Dirt, especially when it emerged that people like Brad Pitt were wearing it. I mention my fondness for it (and the Brad Pitt thing), and Brosius beams - he has something to show me. It turns out that since leaving Demeter, he's created a new accord which improves on Dirt. Soaked Earth is recognisably a close relation of Dirt, but has an extra lucidity to it - in this accord, it has been raining recently, and the warm, moist soil is tangible. This is really good stuff.
All these accords do a single thing - soaked earth, a chanterelle mushroom, a fig leaf, a green bean. On the opposite wall of the shop you'll find the perfumes. These are complex blends which tell stories; re-imagine classical ideas (the Reinvention line, for example, interprets tea rose as something quite different from the cheaply sickly, powdery drug-store scent we all know - in Brosius's hands, Tea/Rose is tea, and a rose); and explore ideas you thought you were familiar with. The Experience series provides perfumes which walk you through a second-hand bookshop (In the Library), take you collecting Mackintosh apples in wooden baskets (Gathering Apples), and shows you a flower from an earthworm's perspective (To See a Flower).
One of CB I Hate Perfume's lines, Secret History, is a series of his personal scent memories, and there are some which lots of of people smelling them will share - At the Beach 1966 is all fresh breeze and Coppertone lotion. Memory of Kindness hurls me back in time until I'm about seven, grubbing around in the mulch in my grandmother's tomato greenhouse. There's an odd sense of light in this fragrance, which I can't put my finger on, but there's a palpable sense of the hot sun shining through glass. You'll find this light again in Wild Hunt from the Archetype series, which is a representation of a cathedral of trees. While the sun beats down through a green canopy, there's a mossy, mushroomy floor, the smell of ripped weeds, sap, dry leaves, wet leaves - this is one I just can't stop sniffing.
The idea behind the Archetype series is a high-minded one: Brosius is looking for cross-cultural experiences of scent, picking apart great perfumes and finding the universal ideas behind them. It's a Jungian approach, and it's resulted in some beauties. Wild Hunt, besides being a startling experience of yomping through the woods, also happens to be a classic chypre. He feels these are some of his best work - this series also contains some of his rarest and most expensive ingredients. Cradle of Light is a joyful white floral, crammed full of glorious jonquils (a phenomenally pricey ingredient), narcissus, tuberose, several different jasmines and white lotus. There's a quiet green background, all against a skin-like base. It has a slightly indolic background, and the whole comes together to remind you of what the best French perfumers were doing in the 1950s.
"Cradle of Light is a white floral, but without any synthetics. It began in 2006, when I started wearing an Indian jasmine oil with Memory of Kindness (the tomato greenhouse perfume). A good blend of jasmines wasn't so difficult to prepare in the lab, but the narcissus and jonquil were hard. Certain white flowers - stargazer lilies, paperwhites - make me feel unwell. It's the indoles. But jonquil has an indolic quality which can be gorgeous when worked properly."
While we're talking about white flowers and cross-cultural scents, I mention the disquiet that some of my older Malaysian-Chinese relatives experience around some flowers, especially gardenia, which is used in Malaysia almost exclusively as a funeral flower, and is grown in graveyards.
"I'm not surprised. The indoles in lilies are what makes them a Western funeral flower. They were used pre-embalming to cover up the smell of a body because they had something in common with corpses; there are few global scent preferences, but everyone hates dead flesh. I was asked a while ago to produce the smell of a drowned corpse for the climax of a play. I had to refuse; everyone would have left the theatre."
I expound a little on the occasion that someone living down the corridor from my first flat after university died, and was only found a few weeks later because of the gag-making, unholy smell. I then notice the looks on the faces of a couple of customers who have just walked into the shop, and shut up. Quick. Must change the subject.
Are there scents which have been impossible to reproduce?
"You mentioned liking damp plaster earlier. I do too, but it's proved very difficult. Animal smells, human smells, certain technological smells - they're hard. Part of the problem is that the aromachemical industry hasn't caught up with these things yet, so often the materials you need simply don't exist. The industry tends to want things to please the market, so materials which fit the classic categories are created, but they have trouble going outside those."
The customers have got over the shock and are buying several bottles; I have taken up far too much of Brosius' time; and Zephyr appears to want a walk. I walk back to the subway past empty lots full of barbed wire and shipping warehouses, but my nose and my mind are still back in a greenhouse in 1982.
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