Meet the perfumers decolonising how we smell
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
In the years that Ezra-Lloyd Jackson first spent studying fragrance, and how the human body reacts to scent, white skin was the default. So when the British-Jamaican perfumer set out to build his brand, Deya, he set himself a question: how might a fragrance designed for my own skin smell?
Jackson is part of a new generation of perfumers entering the fragrance world with a vision to decolonise how we smell. “We’ve had primarily white people going to foreign countries and making fragrances that inspire them from their travels in a far-away land – that Marco Polo narrative – and we don’t need it anymore,” says Yosh Han, the founder of Eau de Yosh, creative director of Scent Trunk and producer of Scent Festival. “We want to hear from brown people and what they think of their own homeland and beyond. Too often, brown people are in the narrative only as farmers or suppliers, rarely in creative positions or as the main character.”
Jackson’s starting base note for I, his first fragrance, is Haitian vetiver root. It also includes parts of cocoa butter as well as bay leaf and nutmeg incense, smells often found in Jamaican households. Beyond the focus on scents, Jackson formulates his perfumes using a high volume of vetiver hydrosol (water) in addition to alcohol; a decision that is as much about building a more sustainable production process as it is about making the fragrance more comfortable for its intended wearers. “Black skin loses more moisture compared to white skin,” says Jackson. “Most fragrances are still alcohol-based and dry out my skin.”
The modern fragrance industry is often traced back to Grasse, a city in south-eastern France commonly referred to as the world’s perfume capital. But many of the scents that leave the town’s perfumeries are created using natural resources that have been extracted from countries across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Responsible sourcing was a key objective for Jackson, which meant acquiring products directly from farmers and producers where possible, in order to avoid convoluted supply chains. “I want to establish a direct connection with suppliers to bypass the multiple layers of resellers and monopolies,” says Jackson. “For me, it’s about building a connection from the source, where these items are cultivated and farmed.”
Matthew J Sánchez, the founder of LA-based scent brand Matteo Parfums, uses ingredients from third-party companies that offer independent perfumers access to a library of responsibly sourced scents: his debut scent, Celadawn, included notes of horchata, a traditional Mexican drink made from cinnamon-flavoured white rice. He has also nurtured strong relationships with the farmers cultivating the materials he works with, including Hawaiian lavender, Mexican vanilla, and Egyptian myrrh. “I’m not necessarily trying to buy directly from the source, which means that [my suppliers are] happy to introduce us,” he says. “I just want to know where I’m getting the ingredients from – and give as much shine and credit to these places that have been left off the fragrance map for too long.”
Gabar – a fragrance brand with roots in Myanmar that centres south-east-Asian histories by championing scents like amber, jasmine and sandalwood – is also building its supply chain with equity in mind. For co-founders Phway Su Aye and Susan Wai Hnin, this means relying on a mix of synthetic and natural oils, especially where natural ingredients like agarwood, rosewood and sandalwood are hard to source sustainably. Clean synthetics not only avoid using up natural resources, they are also better for people with allergy-prone skin.
“The agricultural trade and much of the oil trade in Myanmar is still controlled by the current government,” says Su Aye. “There is, for lack of a better word, a lot of shadiness around the business of extraction and oil production – and many oils are endangered. We’re really trying to move away from those extractivist models that are harmful to the environment and to local people.”
For the fragrance industry to become more equitable and respectful, the language that we use to describe scent also needs to change, says Han. “These white guys in suits have never been exoticised or fetishised, so they don’t understand why someone like me doesn’t want to see the word ‘Oriental’ on perfume packaging,” she adds. Such Eurocentric terms also aren’t efficient in naming olfactory groups. “Oriental” is often used to describe notes as varied as vanilla, cinnamon, orris, jasmine and orange blossom, among others, without reference to specific culture or geography.
For this reason, perfumers such as Dana El Masri have called on the industry to replace problematic terms with names better suited to specific notes. “By using language that is kind, respectful, honest, authentic and specific, it strengthens storytelling and informs the ‘audience’ – for lack of a better word – about what you’re sharing,” says El Masri, who founded fragrance brand Jazmin Saraï in 2014. “And perhaps it makes it easier to relate to others.”
Demystifying fragrance terminology is also a priority for London-based perfumer Maya Njie, who launched her namesake brand in 2016. Njie also runs regular educational workshops in London aimed at lifting the veil on the jargon used in the industry. “Perfume can be really elitist,” says Njie. “The more language we use that people who might not know about perfume can understand, the more people are going to get interested.”
Elle N, founder of blackperfumers.com, a platform dedicated to promoting the work of black scent designers, points out that a more equitable industry should include increased collaboration between retailers and independent scent designers of colour. “When retailers take initiative in discovering, endorsing and investing in black-owned fragrance brands, they increase value for these brands in the eyes of shoppers,” she says.
Elle N also cites a need for greater consumer awareness around the perfumery code of ethics, more endorsement by celebrities of colour for brands by independent perfumers of colour, and the introduction of fragrance curriculums at historically black colleges as important steps towards creating greater access points to the fragrance industry.
“Statistics tell us we spend big within this industry,” says Elle N (black consumers in the US are responsible for 22 per cent of the country’s total spend on women’s fragrances, according to Nielsen). “So it’s even more important that we’re on the production side of it. That means we’re not just giving out money, we’re reinvesting in ourselves and gaining skills we can pass on, so that we can have generations of perfumers in our families. It’s a way for us to build upon and re-engage with the notion of legacy within this industry.”