ABOVE: CHRISTOPHER BROSIUS IN HIS STUDIO
Perfumer Christopher Brosius has never cared much for how most consumers think about scent, as the manifesto on his website makes clear. “I hate perfume. Perfume is too often an ethereal corset trapping everyone in the same inelegant shape, a lazy and inelegant concession to fashionable ego…” it begins. And how does it end? “I love perfume. I love being a perfumer.”
Sometimes, Brosius says matter-of-factly, “I do perfumes that I fully recognize, ‘Okay, there are maybe going to be six people who are going to get this particular perfume.'” But those who do get it can’t get enough: devotees of Brosius’ line, CB I HATE PERFUME, are fanatical, drawn to Brosius’ methodical, labor-intensive small-batch production and the whimsical, poetic narratives behind his scents. Consider “Where We Are There Is No Here,” a jasmine-based scent inspired by Jean Cocteau, described by the brand as follows: “405 is a paradox—the antithesis of perfume. It is completely intangible and almost undetectable. Yet it has great presence and allure. Like the ghost of a flower, it touches the subconscious of those who wear it— and those who encounter it.” Or Winter 1972, based on a memory from that year: “It was not at all a pine scent and had nothing to do with cinnamon or spices. It was the blue frozen scent of fresh snow and silver stars.”
Brosius’ latest anti-establishment venture is the Rare Flowers collection, a group of six scents (so far) each of which is focused on a single floral absolute: undiluted and extracted directly from the flowers themselves rather than presented in inferior synthetic versions. He’s also soon to make his entire catalogue available in a signed, numbered, limited-edition box containing full bottles of each perfume he’s released—and the promise of each new one, too; the box comes with the option to register for each upcoming release. “That one’s not cheap,” Brosius laughs (indeed, none of his products is). “But it is really gorgeous.”
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: Are the Rare Flowers scents meant to be worn on their own? Is the idea that you’re empowering people to create their own blends? What are your end-utility ideas for the collection?
CHRISTOPHER BROSIUS: They certainly can be worn on their own, and my intention when making a perfume is usually to think about it like that—”This is the thing that I’m intending people to wear”—however, I never ever prevent people from modifying. If they want to mix two perfumes that they enjoy together, that’s fine. These, since they are one single flower, are more unusual, in that they would lend themselves more to amplifying a particular note in another perfume. However, it’s probably not something that I would recommend, because my original intention with the collection was to really present these in such a way that they can really be truly appreciated on their own. A jasmine is obviously very, very popular, and considerably more readily available than other things like the champaca, the jonquil, and the narcissus, which are incredibly rare and very hard to get. But they also are wonderful and really marvelous in their own right, and people don’t have the chance to really experience them directly.
SYMONDS: As opposed to just as one note among many?
BROSIUS: Exactly, as opposed to one note among many—or, much more commonly, the synthesized versions. Even though there are perfectly lovely versions of tuberose out there, or jonquil, or even things like jasmine, the synthetic version simply can’t be as amazing as the real one. The synthetic version of a flower might be made with—well, if your perfumer is really going to take the time, between 25 and 50 aroma chemicals. [In the actual flower,] 1,000 to 1,200 molecules are happening simultaneously. So the difference between the two…
SYMONDS: I had no idea it was such a huge difference in scale.
BROSIUS: Yeah, it’s fascinating. I was speaking once to the creative director of one of the huge fragrance manufacturing companies, and I asked them if they had a really good honeysuckle, and he said “no.” I was surprised, because they’ve done tons of work into other flowers, and had replicated perfectly good versions of jasmine and freesia and other very commonly used flowers. I said, “Well why not the honeysuckle?” And he said “Well, we have identified 1,100 molecules that are in honeysuckle— that composes about 85 percent of the odor of the flower.”
SYMONDS: Oh wow, so you are still missing 15 percent?
BROSIUS: You’re still missing 15 percent. And there’s something in that 15 percent that makes it honeysuckle.
SYMONDS: How did you decide on these six, at least initially?
BROSIUS: They are ones that either have been very popular with a lot of my clients, or, like in the case of tuberose, something that’s requested again and again and again. It very interesting, because I personally don’t care for the vast majority of synthesized tuberose. Most of them really make me sick.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Tell us how you really feel.
BROSIUS: [laughs] I have no problem doing that! But the real flower is markedly different. Also the tuberose is one that, of the six, is the most changeable in terms of how it smells initially and how it smells several hours later. Initially, when it’s on the skin, it has this very sharp, very green, almost chemical kind of presence—which quite quickly begins to dissipate, and you begin to see the creamy, smooth, sweetness of the flower, which people traditionally associate with the smell of tuberose. One of the things I find so powerfully cloying about the synthetic versions [is that] several hours later you really see that full, smooth, creamy, rich tuberose, but it is so much more complex and so much more delicate than anything you can find in a tuberose perfume.
SYMONDS: Until yours.
BROSIUS: Yes. It’s a real tuberose.
SYMONDS: How do you source the flowers themselves?
BROSIUS: Over the years, I’ve come to deal with a number of houses that specialize in strictly natural materials. Their quality control is really top quality. They are very particular about making sure the substances they bring in do conform very rigorously to standards for that material. So that means that the odor profile matches within a certain percentage, that they’re not adulterated, they’re not mixed, they are in fact pure, they’re not damaged in any way. There are a few houses that I source things from, and occasionally I’ll ask them for something that is really hard to get, and frequently the answer is no, like violet absolute— I don’t mean the leaf, I mean from the actual flower. Or honeysuckle absolute. I’m given to understand that there is still honeysuckle absolute being produced, somewhere in the world, but it literally begins to look like I’m going to have to go to Grasse and just start knocking on doors.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Do you think the nose can be developed?
BROSIUS: Well, sure. I have, over the years, frequently heard the phrase, “Oh, I have a really terrible nose.” Well, no, you probably don’t, because obviously you’re able to smell things. It is simply that people are rarely taught consciously how to use it. It’s very much like wine tasting—you can learn to appreciate various qualities in wine, and with time you learn to differentiate degrees and nuances, and understand what it is you like, and what it is you’re really tasting. Someone who is reasonably accomplished at wine tasting can say “Oh no, this wine is corked, this is bad,” or “This is not what it should be.” The same is true of the nose. A lot of times I have people who come here, and they’ve just spent a couple hours sniffing through the individual accords that we use, and all of a sudden they have a different appreciation of what they smell when they step out of the door. I know because I get either return visits where people tell me that was their experience, or an email saying, “All the sudden I became aware of how things smelled around me.” It’s just a function of learning and choosing how to do that.
SYMONDS: Well, I think it’s a delicate process, but also one that’s easy to take for granted. Especially if you live in a place like New York.
BROSIUS: Oh my God, yeah. Frankly, the city stinks. [laughs] And it stinks worse and worse. The only thing that actually has improved over the course of the time that I’ve lived here is the subways do not stink like they used to. The rest of the city is hard to take a lot of the time.
SYMONDS: Did you end up moving? Has that happened yet?
BROSIUS: We are in fact moving this month.
SYMONDS: Elsewhere in Williamsburg?
BROSIUS: Yes. We’re actually moving just a bit further out. The specific area that we’re moving to is sometimes described as Bushwick, and sometimes as East Williamsburg.
SYMONDS: Depending on whether you’re talking to a real-estate agent or not.
BROSIUS: Yeah, exactly. I think we’re like right there on the cusp.
SYMONDS: You’ve been in Brooklyn for about 11 years now—do you feel like the way Williamsburg has evolved during that time has been conducive to your creativity?
BROSIUS: I’ve wanted to get out of this particular area for several years. I mean it was clear that we were outgrowing the building around about 2008, and then the global financial crisis happened, and I thought, “You know what? Let’s just sit pretty until that sorts itself out.” But for a good four years I’ve really wanted to get out of this neighborhood. It’s lovely that it’s popular, but it’s not the neighborhood that I moved into.
SYMONDS: I think people want to be proximate to creativity without needing to actually be creative. [laughs]
BROSIUS: I was actually at a party in Bushwick a couple of months ago, in this really fantastic artist’s loft. He lived in sort of a warehouse garage building that had been turned into live-work studios. And around about 4 o’clock in the morning, the police show up, because some girl who had moved into the building the week before was complaining about the noise. And I’m like, “Are you kidding me, honey? You move to an artists’ building in the middle of Bushwick, and you’re complaining because you’re hearing noise at 4 o’clock in the morning? You need to get yourself the hell back to Park Slope where you belong.” I know what you mean. It’s like people want to be adjacent to creativity, but they want it to be contained, comfortably behind bars. Like it’s the zoo.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Would you say that you’re mostly doing the bespoke scents now?
BROSIUS: Actually no. I have done very, very few custom scents for a few years. I really haven’t had the time, and space was another concern, because where I used to do them we had to turn into offices. So I am going to be going back to doing that. In fact, our whole way of selling perfume is really about to change. We’re getting rid of the whole storefront, shop-on-the-street thing. We’ll have a bit more space in the new gallery, but we are going to do it largely by appointment. There will be two days that the public can just sort of show up unannounced, if they choose, but we still strongly recommend they make an appointment. This way, my clients are going to have the experience that they really want when they come here, without the distraction of the hipster moms who are there because it’s their day to watch the 10 kids with some other hipster mom, and they bring them all here and let the kids run riot all through the place.
SYMONDS: I get tense just thinking about that.
BROSIUS: It’s astonishing what New York parents will allow or expect. It’s like, “Excuse me, this is not a petting zoo. You can’t do this.” And they get all upset and whatever, and it’s like, “Well, thank you very much, get out.” So really it’s going to be a much better experience when people come to the gallery, and we also are going to begin making it possible, when people can’t come here, we can start going to them.
SYMONDS: Oh wow.
BROSIUS: Yeah, we developed this really beautiful box that has basically one of every single perfume that I do in it. We developed it originally as a tool for us to work with our stores—the stores that stock my perfume—so that we can work with them specifically to tailor a selection that’s really going to suit their clientele. My position with perfume has always been, “We do not tell you what to wear. We can suggest things, we can guide you, but ultimately, you’re the one who has to choose.” So I really wanted to make it possible, as much as possible, for the stores that stock my perfume to treat their clients just the way ultimately we would when they come to me directly. It’s one of the main principles I learned at Kiehl’s, no matter where you are getting my perfume, you become my customer, and I expect you to be treated as I would treat you. So that’s going to be something that’s enormously helpful.
SYMONDS: I’m sure that doing the appointments helps you decide what to release on a larger scale, too.
BROSIUS: We’ve always been very, very interactive here; we always ask for suggestions. My people here are trained that when clients will ask, “Oh do you have this smell,” they always tell me, and I keep very careful track of stuff like that. That’s how the patchouli perfume came to be included in the collection in the first place.
SYMONDS: Oh yeah?
BROSIUS: I mean, patchouli used to be a scent or an oil that I absolutely hated the smell of.
SYMONDS: It has associations, too, for sure.
BROSIUS: My first encounter with it was really at Kiehl’s, and Kiehl’s had a selection of patchouli—I think about six—each of which I found more appalling than the last. I mean, I just hated them! Shortly after I opened here, all of a sudden, I got client after client going, “Oh, do you have something with patchouli? I really like patchouli.” And I’m like, “Okay, this could be a challenge.” How do I take something I personally really dislike, and turn that into something that I don’t? So I started to research patchoulis, and started to play around with them a bit, and I was like, “Oh. Well there’s patchouli and there’s patchouli, and there’s definitely a way to bring a really beautiful perfume out of that.” To the point that, I have a lot of clients who hate patchouli, and I go “All right, smell this,” without telling them what it is.
BROSIUS: Nine times out of 10, the answer is, “Oh, wow, that’s great. What is it?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s actually a blend of five different patchoulis.” [laughs] But that’s one reason that I’m doing these particular flowers. The first six are all white flowers, but I’m going to mix it up in the next release, probably in the fall. I’m going to bring out some roses, because when I ask clients, “What kind of smells do you like?” Most people will be like, “I’m not sure, but I can tell you what I don’t like.” Frequently on the “I don’t like” list is, “I hate rose. It always smells like my grandmother.” All right, fine. Dip blotter into bottle and hold it out, “Could you please tell me what you think of this?” They’re like, “Oh my God, that’s beautiful!” Well, that’s rose. But again, it’s the difference between the synthetic rose that your grandmother used to wear, that had maybe 10 aroma chemicals in it, and a really beautiful Moroccan or Bulgarian rose that costs seven to 10 thousand dollars a kilo, and is really complex, and beautiful, and rich. And that is what the synthetic is trying, very poorly, to replicate.
SYMONDS: People who work in lingerie stores for a long time can often figure out a woman’s bra size as soon as she walks into their store. How much, when a client walks in, do you involuntarily think, “Oh she’s going to like x, y, and z“?
BROSIUS: It’s absolutely impossible. That’s one reason why, when journalists contact me and say, “Hi, we’re doing a story on perfumes and this kind of personality or that kind of woman,” I’m like, “Well, thank you, please call someone else.”
BROSIUS: What people truly, truly, truly love the smell of, has absolutely nothing to do with the way they look. Not at all. I have very high-powered women who come in here, and who you’d think want something crisp, and sharp, and businesslike, and you could put them right into this category over here. And they come up with things that run the gamut. The sense of smell really does not work, in any way, like any of the other senses. It is so primal, and so driven by personal experience, that the only way to really completely know what a person is going to love or respond well to, is to really literally know who they are. Until I know who they are, I can’t really put a perfume together for them. That’s one reason, when someone comes in like, “Oh, what should I wear?” Well you’re going to have to sniff around, pull forward what you really like the smell of, and we’ll go from there. And they’re like “You can’t just tell me?,” and it’s like “Well, no! You’re going to have to do a little work here.”
SYMONDS: That probably really fits in with the ethos of how you distinguish yourself from the traditional perfumers. The way fragrance is marketed, is so, “If you are x type of person, wear y scent.” If you’re sexy, wear this Calvin Klein; if you’re career-focused, Jil Sander or something.
BROSIUS: Oh, sure. See, the other thing that I came very, very quickly to understand, is the perfumes a designer puts out may have absolutely nothing to do with your imagining of them. For example, I remember the first time I ever smelled any of the Chanel perfumes, I was hideously disappointed. I hated them all! [laughs] I remember there were parts of Chanel NË?19 that I really liked. It was like the sharp green, bitter sort of top note, but it just dried down to this thing that I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is so old-lady-like, and this is not how I expected these perfumes to smell at all.” I remember when Issey Miyake released L’Eau d’Issey back in the mid-’90s, and I was like, “Oh my god, I love Miyake, this bottle is beautiful!” I mean not only are his clothes wonderful, but he’s a wonderful person, and his bottle is beautiful, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it because I’m sure it’s going to be something interesting. It made me throw up. It was one of those sad ozonic perfumes that just, literally, make me nauseous. And I was like, “Oh, crap. Oh dear, oh dear.” I think it’s one reason a lot of people have been going back to buying perfume from perfumers. You know, like why Guerlain has become much, much more popular again—being a company that’s like nearly two centuries old, you know, certainly they’ve had their moments—why they’re becoming popular again. Why companies like Serge Lutens are becoming popular, why Annick Goutal really happened. Because we are focused on making perfume in a way that is divorced from, “Now we have a collection, now we have to make a statement, now we have to do another thing to slap our name on to really get the licensing out there.” Perfume is not a fashion accessory in the same way a purse is. It just doesn’t work the same way at all.
SYMONDS: Do you ever do complementary perfumes, for both halves of a couple?
BROSIUS: I have done that in the past, but it’s very rare. On the rare occasions I will agree to do a wedding perfume, and those are very few, I will insist that both parties be present at certain stages of the process, and that both parties are really loving the final smell.
BROSIUS: It’s something actually that I encourage. With Valentine’s Day coming up, again, it’s the story of, “I want to get my girlfriend or boyfriend perfume, what do you recommend?” I recommend you bring that person in here and the two of you actually choose it together! That’s what I recommend. If you want to be lazy, go to Sephora, grab something off the shelf. If you really want to do something special for this person, take the time to do it. Not only does that ensure that both people are going to be happy with the perfume, but the act of choosing it together becomes a bonding experience. Make that thing special!