Beauty Disruptor: Catherine Haley Epstein on decentering fragrance

What are the challenges in expanding industry and consumer vocabulary and understanding around fragrances? As for the decentralization of fragrances, what most people don’t know is that there are perfumers working on the fragrances used in household cleaners, for example.

Regarding decentering, the main thing that needs to be understood is revealed and I’ve kind of written about it dip your nose, that’s – let’s say in the example of making fragrances for household cleaners versus fine fragrances – it’s about Lego pieces versus clay sculpting. This isn’t to disparage the fact that they have these skills, just to recognize that there’s an inability to see it as an art form when it works that way. It’s a very important thing to get it removed from the industry and give people a chance to strip off all the labels. People love beautiful things, but the terminology has to go and come back in a different form.

How do you see consumer relationships with fragrances evolving?

I was asked to speak about Artistic Fragrances in America at Esxence in Milan recently. I speak Italian but didn’t know that the same word means “luxury” in that language. I was giving a presentation on why artists use fragrance and I realized very quickly that we’re having a different conversation. It’s a business talk about how luxury is being redefined, and artists are helping. My prediction was that art as a luxury will now slow down. Fragrances do that, which is why you’re starting to see a lot of functional fragrances popping up. It can smell good, bad, ugly, all of which will slow you down trying to process it. That’s luxury.

People are starting to understand that scent is something you can proactively use to condition yourself. Whether it’s remembering a beautiful moment or soccer players who use smelling salts before playing. It’s Pavlovian, your brain changes. There will also be an emphasis on handmade objects as a luxury, especially when the internet has made everything so fast.

When it comes to handmade, there’s been a big explosion of the niche indie category. It used to be very separate, but then there were conglomerates that bought the likes of Le Labo and Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. It feels like they’re getting a little bit closer. Do you have any thoughts on such a development?

I’m a big collector and consumer of fragrances. Mass matter and not mass are both echo chambers. Everyone is trying to target a consumer, but you’re talking about targeting a consumer who may be deaf. I’m not saying that in a derogatory way, but we’re not taught to smell. Both build on the fact that consumers don’t know as much, but people are starting to learn more about what’s going on with their noses and quality ingredients. It’s akin to the rise of wine culture in the United States, and now there’s a huge market for something like this.

Part of the access to this information was not available. Sites like Fragrantica or Basenotes that act as educational platforms are very helpful. But your book also includes practical exercises, so maybe we don’t know how to fully access and use this power?

It’s about the process and less about knowing what vanillin smells like. The way I would explain it is that we’ve never eaten a real tomato, we only eat ketchup. If you are aware of the difference in smells, go outside and really smell things, pay attention to them, then the next time you go into the act of choosing your perfume, you will subconsciously have a more mature nose.

There’s that physical conditioning, but do you think cultural or social conditioning can also play a role in how we deal with those smells? Admittedly, when you talk about buying fragrances, it’s such an open market that you could get any type of fragrance anywhere, but when we talk about raw materials, certain regions are associated with certain smells.

That’s the hope, right – we’re starting to have this conversation and it’s changing things, just like it happened in the wine industry. It creates this whole movement, and it’s great when guided. In the US, much knowledge sharing takes place through bodies such as the ILO [Institute for Art and Olfaction], this is really nice. It feels inclusive, so people will start to get excited about a lot of things.

The lack of access to this knowledge has obviously helped the industry to some degree, just in terms of what the ingredients actually are, where they come from, whether they are synthetic or natural, their allergenic potential, etc. I remember that first time someone told me about prestige awards was very enlightening.

But as a small producer you actually have to charge more because otherwise you can’t make money from it because you can’t buy ingredients in bulk. The word “Indie” is so funny. Christophe Laudamiel points out that one shouldn’t say this word and the logic behind it is in the area of ​​decentering because there is this hierarchy in this word. Now, thank goodness, that hierarchy in perfumery is flattening out, but you would never tell anyone that you’re a master or junior painter, for example. No, you are just a creator.

Not to use the word “indie” or “independent perfumery,” would you simply say perfumery for all products across the board, from a scent made by L’Oréal to a home-made creation?

I think so. If you separate that gulf when it’s all the same stuff, and then you smell one with the other, you see that one is made very differently than the other, and then Having that kind of dialogue makes it different.

Another thing I found very interesting is that the dissemination of scents in cultural institutions.

It’s so important that the entire fragrance culture changes. They’ve always involved fragrance makers to create scents for these spaces, so to some extent it’s an intersection of culture and commerce.

What has kept fragrance from being art, period, is that there are no aesthetic rules. You have it to some extent in fashion, in painting, in video, in music. Fragrance must have its own terminology, it must not always be based on analogies to music. Those are the things that have to happen.

Sometimes it’s easier to go with these associations because it’s quite daunting to invent a new vocabulary around scents.

We wouldn’t throw away what’s already there, you’d bring it back in with other things. I can think of 42 or 50 descriptors that would be great in your toolkit. At the moment, people only have eight, not only perfume houses, but also artists could start thinking about these things, like what is a sticky smell.

But the difficult thing is that we all smell a little differently. I could pick up different notes than you. Where’s the common denominator?

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

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 do it commercially, so it’s a fallout from that. I take great pleasure in sharing it with people.

I’m making stuff all the time and it supports me and my other projects, but right now my bandwidth is super tight. If I could grow two more arms and eight more hours in a day, I’d be like a gangster. Right now I’m doing 25 candles at a time and that’s it. I work with Tracy Tsefalas at Fumerie, who sells a lot of my candles, but it’s a bit like baking chocolate chip cookies. I have my formulas working on, but there’s a huge learning curve in terms of how I put them in the universe.

What do you think of the realm of fragrance criticism?

We live in a culture of criticism, which I’m writing about right now. I’m trying to understand it myself, but what has to happen, especially when perfumes evolve, is that we have to make a new composition. If you criticize something, you’re always in a position to say, “I’m right, go ahead.” That’s not enough, and that’s why Odorbet is something that’s really close to my heart, because it’s a very collaborative thing. We need to compose something else to move things forward.

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

The handmade is important because we’re so far into the digital realm that it’s going to rebound. This is what we do. A long time ago we did full body labor in the fields and then we invented machines so our bodies took a little nap. Our prefrontal cortex is on fire, right, because we don’t have to use our bodies as hard. Then we made computers, so that goes into snooze mode because the computers do all the thinking for us. Our limbic system is responsible for everything these days. The limbic system loves smells, everyone wants it, and it’s going to go digital because people want it so badly.

Current examples I see are AI interpreted fragranceand the ophonethat was a few years ago.

There is a lot of energy behind the scenes around the VR scent. I predict maybe 10 years from now people will want it and we will make it happen.

That has so many facets. I’m thinking of things like breaking gender stereotypes when it comes to fragrances, but that also helps break this European-centric perspective. For example, if we look to the Middle East, men there have been wearing rose scents for a long time, while in the West, men wearing floral scents is a much more recent development.

There’s actually an anthropological term that refers to it: WEIRD, or Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic.

The whole idea goes beyond that, because staying within that framework isn’t going to help anyone get to the deeper reaches of our noses. Interestingly, our government knows how powerful our noses are and is exploring that potential. In ancient times they would light incense sticks to bring everyone into a room with one spirit. What we’re really talking about here is the unconscious.

We even have unconscious biases, how much am I trained to believe that a sweet floral scent is feminine and how much of it makes me feel feminine, so do I associate it with femininity?

Obviously, when you put a scent on your skin, it smells different on everyone. We’re robbing each other’s stuff if it stays in this box, so throw it all away.

The most important thing is to have your own agency in the world of fragrances and how does it feel, see and smell?

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