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Flying in the face of September’s back to school spirit, we look at the rebel perfumers who went their own way W o r d s L aw r e n c e R o u l l i e r W h i t e


raditionally perfumery has always been a difficult skill to learn, expertise and knowledge was handed down through families. Budding perfumers could seek entry-level work at one of the great fragrances houses and hope to learn the ropes on the job or train as apprentices with a master artisan perfumer but opportunities were few. Things opened up a little when the Givaudan Perfumery School in France opened in 1946. The school claims to be responsible for training the noses behind one third of fragrances on sale today, including Chanel’s Jean Polge and Hermes’ Jean-Claude Ellena, mastermind behind my beloved Cologne Bigarade for Editions Frederic Malle. Another school, The Institut Supérieur International du Parfum, was founded in 1970 by famous

Sarah McCartney

Brent Leonesio

perfumer Jean-Jacques Guerlain, a school where successful applicants (only twenty are chosen each year) are required to have a chemistry degree in order to apply. The Grasse Institute of Perfumery is even more restricted; taking twelve students per year on its nine month intensive programme. Even if one is accepted onto one of these oversubscribed courses the chance that one will end up creating the next Chanel No. 5 are slim. Most trained perfumers work very much below the radar scenting and flavouring a myriad of household and food products. It is not surprising then that those with talent and an eagerness to create, set about teaching themselves, unencumbered by convention and fuelled by the spirit of entrepreneurism. I describe Sarah McCartney as an olfactory lyricist, her deft hand realises beautifully composed concoctions recalling moments in her life of significance; moments to which we are

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given a lasting, unique and vivid insight. Sarah’s compositions whisk you off to her world, real or imagined, in the same way the lyrics to Rodgers and Hart’s Manhattan might have you wandering the Lower East Side streets in the 1930s. It is no surprise then that Sarah’s background is that of a cosmetic copywriter, a profession from which it was a sideways step into making the things she had been writing about. Her storytelling continues: What I Did On My Holidays evokes just that, peppermint rock, briny air and candy floss. Chris Bartlett of Pell Wall Perfumes was drawn to perfumery by the ingredients; collecting ingredients soon led to him creating his own blends. Gin & Lime is the result of Chris’s other passion: cocktails. It is a citrus-type cologne that is designed for everyday wear and to lift your mood. It is delicious, as is my favourite of his, Green Carnation, with top notes of cut grass. Free from the commitments of funding international ad campaigns, the perfumes produced by independent self-taught perfumers relies on the quality of the actual juice to sell itself, not colour page spreads, elaborate packaging or over-thetop bottles. As Brent Leonesio, founder of LA cult fragrance brand Smell Bent, explains: ‘The goal of my perfume was always to put the money inside the bottle rather than outside.’ Leonesio was a retail fashion buyer who spent his redundancy cheque on some raw ingredients and some technical tomes, teaching himself his craft. Smell Bent is now one of the most revered indie perfumeries in the world, and with names like Miss Panda Gets Lei’d and Walk of Shame it is certainly one of the most maverick. And that’s one thing you won’t learn at perfume school. u

Chris Bartlett

Roullier White, 125 Lordship Lane, SE22;


26/08/2014 19:40


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