I arrive 15 minutes ahead of schedule at Roullier White, despite having battled my way through the torrential rains that decided to plague my entire bus ride there. Stepping into the cosy warmth of Roullier White, I am greeted with a firm handshake by Lawrence, who owns the place and Mila, who happily gives me a hug. It’s been some time since we last saw each other. Lawrence informs me that we are going to be behind schedule because Jo Fairley is still in the middle of interviewing Mark Buxton for a podcast. Small matter, because since the last time I was here, Lawrence has brought in a number of brands that I am excited to try out, such as Josh Meyer’s Imaginary Authors, that I have yet to sample, and Neela Vermeire’s creations, that I am eager to revisit, having only tried them on paper once on my visit to Jovoy last December.
About half an hour later, I’ve managed to smell the entire Imaginary Authors range, as well as a couple of other fragrances, and it is only then that Mark emerges from the office with Jo. He is dressed in a dapper blue jacket and crisp white shirt while donning on a pair of shades and a white hat, both of which he never removes during his entire time in Roullier White. And he’s very tall indeed, towering many inches above me. We really are quite a fair bit behind our schedule, but he politely asks to be excused to have a smoke outside of the shop. It’s something that he does quite a few times throughout the rest of the evening – the man likes his cigarettes.
Soon, though, I am bundled into the back office, which is small and messy. Lawrence apologises with a sheepish smile, explaining that they have been rather busy recently. Personally, I think it’s perfect. Better a cosy, messy room with a famous perfumer than a perfectly manicured room without one. Since I don’t have much time with Mark, I’ve decided to skip the serious questions first and dive straight into what I’ve called the ‘Fun Questions’. I’ve never quite seen the point of asking my interviewees the ‘Standard Questions’. After all, the answers to them can be easily found by performing a simple Google search or browsing through fragrance forums. It’s also occurred to me that if I were in their shoes, and I were asked the same questions over and over again, I’d get bored of hearing my own voice repeating the same things incessantly.
Settling comfortably into our swivel chairs, I pop the first question, “Is there a question you wished people would stop asking you? Why?”
Mark is visibly taken aback by the question. I don’t think he was expecting me to start with that. Recovering quickly, he answers, in German-inflected English, “Not really. This job is rather rare so people don’t really know about it. If ever I don’t feel like talking about something, I just bullshit about it. As soon as you’re in a crowd somewhere and they don’t know you that well, and you say you’re a perfumer, they ask you what you do and you find yourself talking for hours and hours about what you do.”
Right. So any of the replies he gives me subsequently might be made up. I like Mark’s candour. I know that it’s going to be an interesting interview. I ask Mark if he would participate in a top secret experiment in which fragrances can be sent over the Internet.
“Why not? Technology is always good. I had an idea with a friend to incorporate perfume in telephones. We thought about these iPhone things – as soon as you get a call, it gets warm and diffuses fragrance. In fact, I think there is already something like that on the market.” [Author’s note: There is a smartphone add-on gadget on the market known as the Scentee, that emits smell-based notifications.]
“But aren’t you worried about piracy? Wouldn’t this facilitate the making of copycat perfumes?”
Mark opines that copies have already existed. “Everybody copies everybody. As soon as a fragrance comes out, the companies run a GC/MS (Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry), and you can have 90% of the formula within 8 hours. I always say that the original stays the original. If people copy you, it’s a good feeling, because it means that the perfume you’ve created is a success, so it doesn’t really bother me, no.”
I suppose imitation can be flattery, and if my knowledge of perfume history is anything to go by, many of the greats came about by taking someone’s original idea and giving it a twist, for example by overdosing a particular ingredient. Still, in my head I remain worried about the growing trend of supposedly ‘niche’ houses that simply rehash ideas while charging a huge mark up. Also, if copying isn’t so bad, then why do perfume houses try so hard to stamp out fakes that, while resembling the original fragrance, don’t even come close to replicating its quality? But my thoughts are my thoughts, and I’m curious to find out more about the enigmatic Mark Buxton.
“Which of your fragrances would you pick to scent the Queen of England?”
Mark laughs as he cheekily replies, “Sexual Healing.”
I should have seen that coming.
But then he continues, “For the Queen, well, I think I would create a fragrance that is a beautiful rose, since it is the most precious English flower; a delicate rose, not a heavy one. It will be slightly watery.”
I ask Mark if he has ever dreamed of a perfume, and what it smelt like if he had.
Also, I hate going to bed. I like drinking, I like smoking, I like women and I like fast cars. But I don’t like getting out of bed. All my dreams are a thousand things in my mind at the same time. I love working on a thousand projects at the same time. So I thought to myself, I would try to capture this, the mood that I have when I go to bed. It takes me a while to go to sleep. So that’s why the fragrance itself is rather cloudy. It’s cottony with a slight marshmallow note inside, something gay about it. I like the smell of leather, so there is some suede leather in the back. I’ve also included an awful slug of quince at the top for when I wake up in the morning. It gives you a rather funny entrance into the fragrance.”
“So,” I ask, “to follow up on what you just said about new chemicals and molecules, what are some new molecules you’ve worked with? And what are some of your favourite molecules?”
“I also like rose oxide. It’s rosy and metallic. It’s very sharp and not very pleasant. I’ve used it in No.3 Comme des Garçons. The guy I was working with doesn’t really like flowers and he’s not a very big flower fan either. But I wanted to put something floral in there. Something futuristic and metallic, so instead of using rose oil I used 15g of rose oxide to give this effect. An overdose of this product. If you don’t dare or don’t try it all, it smells the same. It’s like doing an experiment, like cooking. You could make béarnaise sauce the traditional way, but why not make it with 2 to 3 different spices in there instead?”
I ask Mark if overdosing is a technique that he uses often. He replies that he wants people to smell his fragrances and understand them, to get information directly. “You can do this by overdosing certain products. Everybody was using calone in traces at the start. And I put 20-30% pure. You can dress them up right, use them right. I like it ‘BANG’. Like in Devil in Disguise. It’s rhubarb that’s in your face.”
I cringe at the thought of a calone overdose. Sounds like perfume murder to me. I wonder out loud if Mark has ever read Perfume: the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind, and what he thinks of it.
“It came out when I was freshly in perfume school in Germany. The book came out and everybody had to buy the book, being in the industry. And I must say that the book was fascinating. It was hard to put it down and I loved the way he described the odours in the whole book. Such as being born amidst all the fish and shit and certain things that were disgusting. It’s not easy to describe odours and fragrances. If you ask somebody about a product and ask them what it smells of, they find it very difficult to describe an odour. This is a shame, because it is one of the most beautiful senses, but it always stops when somebody comes into the metro and says, ‘It stinks,’ but they don’t explain why it stinks or what it smells of. And we see the difficulty. I have two boys who are 13 and 15. I’ve been trying to train them to describe smells when they are young. Instead of just saying that dinner smells nice, they’ve been saying ‘Daddy’s making roast beef, green beans, rice, roast potato.’”
“Do you think people should be educated in smells?” I ask.
“I’ve been asking the school where my boys go to do demonstrations using oils I have. The excitement when the kids smelt these oils was amazing. Everybody was talking at the same time. So I said to smell it first and let me talk. I definitely see that there is an interest. I think it would be cool if there were some kind of olfactive lessons at school. Make people talk about it, use their noses. Millions of years ago, humans without their noses would have been dead in ten minutes. They smell fear, danger, that there’s something wrong here, animals, whatever. And all this is lost. It’s a shame, really. We’ve got to get back to our roots.”
Brilliant. Compulsory olfactory education. Being an educator myself, I can’t ever foresee such a thing happening, but as a perfume lover I certainly do wish with all my heart that all of this would come true.
“Speaking of animals, I’m interested in smelling a unicorn. What notes and raw ingredients would you use?”
“Well, it looks like a horse. It will need something horsey about it, that’s rather easy. It’s got to be animalic. But not violently animalic. Because it’s a very precious animal, and there’s something like a dream, like a fantasy. But it also needs something solid, because it’s a strong animal with a horn. There’s also something earthy about it as well, but also something elegant. If you would ask me for a flower, I think I would do something around magnolia. It’s a special odour and very delicate. Seldom used. So yes, a magnolia with animalic touches around it.”
Now that’s something I’m looking forward to.