Cult Shop: the perfumer drawing on her Māori heritage
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It would be easy enough to walk straight past Curionoir on Auckland’s characterful Ponsonby Road. The shop’s interior is obscured by drawn velvet curtains, branding is kept to a minimum and the front door is usually shut. But behind the discreet façade sits a botanical workshop where owner Tiffany Witehira concocts and sells her fragrances and candles. “We do all our bottling in the store, which is why we have the curtains, because natural light spoils the scents,” she explains.
The low-lit space is also designed to mimic the light of the dense bush that Witehira grew up exploring, with her grandmother and great-grandmother, in the north of New Zealand. “My nan practised rongoā, which is a form of Māori medicine where you source native plants from the bush at certain times of the day or night, and the store to me is reminiscent of being there. I want people’s senses to be heightened when they come in.”
Inside, apothecary-style shelves house ceramic and glass bottles in various shapes and gem-coloured tones. A large walnut table in the centre of the shop functions as Witehira’s bottling counter, where she combines ingredients sourced from ethical producers around the world.
Despite her classical schooling in Provence’s Grasse, Witehira takes a non-traditional approach to her fragrances (from NZ$265 for 50ml, about £140) – one informed by her childhood spent among New Zealand’s aromatic plants. Opia, for example, is made up of mid- and base-notes only, including Australian sandalwood, labdanum absolute and Virginian cedarwood. “It doesn’t have the usual top notes in it so it doesn’t have a loud, volatile effect when you first smell it,” says Witehira. “It hums off the skin, like a whisper.” Pūrotu Rose, meanwhile, was inspired by her great-grandfather’s tangi (funeral): the roses that adorned the tables at the whare kai (dining hall), the sweat beading down her cousins’ backs as they shovelled the earth, and the smoke from the hangi, a traditional Māori meal cooked in the ground. “This is a celebration of his life but also of the decay,” adds Witehira. “It’s a very polarising fragrance.” Others, such as Tobacco Nights, are more conventional, with herbaceous and leathery notes.
These fragrances can be decanted into “Heirloom” perfume bottles with old-fashioned vials and stoppers made in collaboration with local glassblowers, or clay and porcelain vessels by ceramicist Kirsten Dryburgh. Another glassblower, Matthew Hall, creates the vessels for Curionoir’s signature candles (from about £50), which have a cult following and are sold at retailers including Liberty and Browns in London and Ssense in Toronto.
It’s Witehira’s ability to trust her senses that has made this small fragrance business based at the bottom of the world a global success. She releases a new fragrance only every couple of years, and bats away most who approach her to collaborate or propose expansion. “I think some people feel pressured – that they need to do new things,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to conform to those laws.
“My focus is really connecting with my own culture,” adds Witehira. She is currently studying te reo (Māori language), and she’s also been experimenting with native rakau (plants), distilling them at home. “I haven’t used any [native plants] for our perfumes yet because I have a deeper connection to them… and I refuse to tokenise my culture by just adding a Māori plant into something to make it ‘Māori’. But something will happen one day.”