Scents of Place

These Canadian perfumers are putting the nation on the fragrance map.

Like so many bright ideas, Victor Wong’s occurred to him in the shower. The videogame graphics designer had long been frustrated with his 9-to-5 in Toronto, and it was while vacationing at Quebec City’s Château Frontenac that he first got inspired by the power of perfume. He was enraptured by the hotel’s toiletries, shower gel and body lotion, which are all infused with Le Labo’s Rose 31 – a spicy floral scent that the cult perfumers developed specially for the Fairmont hotel brand. The scent’s namesake bloom, Rosa centifolia (also found in Chanel No. 5), is a prized type of the flower and is harvested in Grasse, France.

“I had never smelled anything like it,” says Wong, who promptly set out to test hundreds of perfumes and explore countless fragrance forums, blogs and books. This research ultimately led him to found Zoologist, a niche fragrance brand which features quirky yet technically sophisticated scents that are heavy on synthetic animalic notes like musk and ambergris, all meant to evoke types of wildlife.

Since then, Wong quit his job and his fragrances have earned numerous accolades (among them, Beaver was named ÇaFleureBon’s perfume of the year in 2014, and Bat won best indie perfume at the 2016 Art and Olfaction Awards) and the respect of the perfume elite, including Luca Turin, author of Perfumes: The A–Z Guide and one of the industry’s most ardent critics.

Geranium

Geranium (pelargonium x asperum) notes: very fresh, herbaceous, slightly floral

Historically, Grasse has been considered the world’s fragrance capital, with perfume dynasties as plentiful as the jasmine, orange-blossom and tuberose fields that inhabit the landscape. In fact, well-documented nepotism has created a barrier to entry for those who aren’t part of the perfumery bloodline. But Wong’s success confirms that a new era is firmly under way, one in which indie perfumers – many of whom have no formal training, let alone family ties to Grasse – are carving out significant space on our vanities, and doors are opening for first-generation perfumers right here in Canada. According to marketing company The NPD Group, fragrance sales in the United States totalled $4 billion in 2017, with new categories turning the industry on its head. In fact, while the aughts belonged to fragrances launched by celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Jessica Parker, “artisanal fragrances” started gaining popularity thanks to a similar trend in the food and beverage world, from microbrewed beer to handmade cheeses.

“Consumers want the same kind of quality attention and materials in their fragrances,” says Kissura Craft, fragrance-industry analyst for The NPD Group. The other part of the appeal is that these scents are harder to get your hands on, making them feel exclusive compared to the ubiquity of mainstream labels. (A recent NPD survey found that 63 percent of American shoppers say they want “a scent that is unique and different.”)

Still, while Canada can boast of being the birthplace of many globally successful makeup brands, from M.A.C. to RMS Beauty, things have remained relatively quiet on the perfume front, with the exception of Toronto-based Susanne Langmuir, who launched an exclusive fragrance line at Barneys New York before creating her Bite Beauty lipstick line. (Lang also helped Nova Scotian Barb Stegemann develop her 7 Virtues fragrance line, which features ingredients sourced from countries such as Haiti and Afghanistan, with the goal of empowering women and farmers in those regions.) There are also perfumers who outsource the actual scent-making side of the business, like Ben Gorham of Byredo, and Michel Germain, who had New York’s Sophia Grojsman (the mastermind behind hits like CK Eternity and Lancôme Trésor) help him develop his women’s fragrance, Sexual, for his wife Norma. Germain, who has been in the industry for 25 years, received a lifetime achievement award at the 2016 Canadian Fragrance Awards.

Oakmoss lichen

Oakmoss lichen (evernia prunastri) notes: damp soil, leaves and mushrooms

Wong has adopted this outsourcing model, working closely with perfumers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Skyping and tinkering with the formula until it meets his expectations. But many small-batch Canadian brands are popping up across the country, helmed by founders who are creating fragrances themselves, their homes doubling as chemistry labs. Arborist turned perfumer Josh Smith is one of them. Smith launched Edmonton-based Libertine Fragrance as an alternative to what he felt were generic-smelling mass perfumes and their glossy marketing campaigns. While working on an industrial-design degree, he got interested in fragrance-making and “began to wonder if perfume could be more authentic an experience, more artful and less about fancy yachts and gendered scents.” His line of unisex scents quickly took off, a coup he owes to living in Canada rather than fragrance capitals like Paris or New York. “There’s just so little [perfumery] going on here, that it really helped me stand out,” says Smith. Canada’s landscape has also helped by serving as a muse, its botanicals featuring prominently in Libertine fragrances like Soft Woods, with notes of juniper berry and balsam fir, and Sweet Grass, which smells of freshly cut hay.

“A lot of the best tree essential oils come from Canada,” says Josée Gordon-Davis, founder of Vancouver-based perfume and skincare brand Reassembly. While Wong and Smith’s fragrances feature a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients, she primarily works with essential oils. “My mom was a holistic practitioner, so she had these essential oils all over the house – that’s what she wore as perfume,” says Gordon-Davis, who sometimes forages for ingredients right in her backyard. For instance, Mountain Milk, which features sandalwood, black spruce, fir needle and vanilla bourbon, contains evergreen tips she collects from nearby forests. Every bottle is different, depending on the season. “Similar to a wine, the rain or lack of rain, the soil, all of these things contribute to the life or breath of the fragrance. I don’t fight these natural events, but rather embrace them.”

Similar to a wine, the rain, the soil, all of these things contribute to the life of the fragrance.” Josée Gordon-Davis, founder of Reassembly

On the other side of the country, Montreal native Julie Simard Jones takes her inspiration from both nature and her own memories, hand-blending natural perfumes for her brand Les Lares. Jones appreciates the creative freedom her home base affords. “I didn’t grow up beside a lavender field, so I can’t talk about perfume in the way that a perfumer born in France might be able to,” she says. But working here gives her the space to experiment. It also helps that these Canadian perfumers push boundaries, without being held back by tradition.

“Bat is probably one of the first fragrances to feature synthetic-molecule geosmin, which smells like earth,” says Wong. “It’s been around for a while, but most perfumers wouldn’t use it as the predominant ingredient.” The result is “somewhere between patchouli and a woody amber,” writes Turin on his blog, perfumesilove.com, and “the fragrance seems lit from within by the earth note.”

With its budding perfume industry, could Canada earn the nickname of Grasse West one day? It’s a lovely thought. But for now, all of these perfumers have much more humble aspirations. “I don’t want to take over the world or start a perfume revolution,” says Gordon-Davis. “I want to make beautiful scents that speak to people. Whether it’s six or 6,000 people, I’m okay with that.”

Prop stylist: Thomas José Henri, researcher (ingredients): Julie Simard Jones

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