We’re all in such a trance with our infinite scroll, that I sometimes find myself wondering what the world would be like if we gave our other senses a chance to shine. I’m so busy eyeballing other people’s lifestyles that I rarely take the time to reflect on my own. It made me wonder whether the long-term implications of our digital addictions might impact our future physiology, so I decided to kickstart conversations with other women from the Studio Nicholson community – all of whom have built successful careers on an exemplary use of their own sensory faculties. The series begins with the perfumer, Lyn Harris.
Like most women, I wear scent. Smell-wise, things started in the early 1980s with a love of scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers, moving swiftly aged 10 to ‘Little Blossom’ by Avon. Chemist shop favourites, Anais Anais and LouLou (both by Cacharel) were the whiffs I bought with Saturday job wages through my virginal years, culminating in 2 years of A-Level studies smothered in 100% health-food shop patchouli oil. Every bottle sparks a different memory and I’m sure it’s the same for all of us. One sniff and we’re transported back to double Geography, illicit drags on a stolen cigarette, or our first kiss. They’re all stored in the deepest vaults of our olfactory memory banks.
Few of us will ever become a ‘professional nose’. It takes years of rigorous, intensive study – all of which would be entirely pointless without the innate disposition to differentiate one aroma from the next. Harris is clearly a bone fide expert. The only classically trained female ‘nose’ in the U.K. she’s spent the last few decades building a serious reputation as one of the country’s leading independent perfumers. After the triumph of co-founding Miller Harris in 2000, Lyn decided to start a new solo venture, based in London’s Marylebone. Part concept store, part laboratory, Perfumer H was launched in 2015 and gives customers a bird’s-eye view of the alchemy needed to create luxurious fragrances, breaking the so-called fourth wall of perfumery.
Do you think our ancient, olfactory senses have been altered by the lives we lead today?
They are disguised and hidden by modern life. I think we don’t understand the difference between what’s real and beautiful, to what’s tenacious and invasive. I feel strongly about how the industry bombards the consumer with sweet smelling products that get rid of the inevitable bad odours of living at home; but also completely invade and take over anything that potentially could exude a smell of beauty – like the basil plant in the kitchen, the smell of books, a real bar of soap in the bathroom, the waft of blue ink as you write, the smell of leather shoes, the smell of your cashmere drying.
Nobody experiences these anymore because they’re overpowered by all the household products we’re using. Things like washing powder and fabric softener or shampoo and conditioner are all heavily over-scented to make the consumer feel ‘safe and secure’ – and so that everyone close to them thinks they are ‘clean’. People are petrified of smelling ‘bad’. But adding these synthetic chemicals dominates and destroys our ability to smell nature. It’s sad that our olfactory senses don’t get talked about as much as the others. Smell is always overshadowed by visual or sense of touch. I think this is because these ones are easier to explain. Smell hits the limbic part of the brain, which is why it often triggers a memory or a feeling we can’t comprehend. It’s much ‘deeper’ than the others – it triggers pain as well as happiness, which is why we sometimes might struggle to articulate it.
You’ve been a fan of Studio Nicholson for such a long time now. Is there a particular brand redolence you experience when you wear the clothes for the first time?
Opening a package from you is always pure clothing heaven. I get taken straight back to my grandmother’s workstation with all her fabrics and the sewing chest stuffed with thread and needles. I’ve always been aware of the brand’s distinctive smell and if I think about my most recent items, I can definitely break it down in a scientific sense. Starting with the Vega Mac – I got a faint wisp of sandalwood molecule polysantol and then a soft white wood with milky undertone from the buttons. The SNJP Matsumoto hoodie had a slightly sweet rose with a coating of gentle musk. The cotton of the Conde Jacket had a damp, faded floral note of white lilac with a wash of ylang ylang. Fused together I was getting the smell of rain and humidity. When I’ve worn linen pieces from Studio Nicholson in the past there’s been a resounding aroma of heat with dull, warm spices like saffron and nutmeg. Everything you produce has its own unique, beautiful odour.
How can we improve our sense of smell?
We can learn to trust our senses better by being more in touch with life, people and our environment. For the past 45 years we’ve been bombarding the planet with the pollution of consumerism; think of all the chemicals that are destroying the ecosystem – well, they’re also incredibly bad for us. We’re been indoctrinated into believing that everything needs a smell and if it doesn’t have one, then something is wrong. We can all take steps to re-train our senses, but it is, quite literally a case of smelling everything and making a mental (or physical) note. By repeating this process you’ll soon start to build up your own olfactory vocabulary. This is why I create smells for the home that replicate the seasons and nature – I would never formulate anything that invades and crushes the beauty that is already out there.
Which ingredients are most popular?
The aroma of green woody forests is universally loved, as well as citrus fruits, that bring so much energy and positivity. Women will often say they don’t like musk because it’s seen as very animalistic, basic, skin-like. But then some of my most popular floral scents have tons of musk in the formula. Over the years, I’ve found that customers respond well to smells they can relate to and connect with. This is the same for perfume, as well as candles, which are just as important. The flicker of a flame brings us hope, even the act of lighting it is nostalgic – the whole ceremony feels so real and harmonious.
Smells touches us deeply and I think if you can wear a fragrance that not only smells good, but makes you feel good, then my job as a perfumer is done! It’s a profession that’s normally so guarded, which is why I’ve made it my mission to be honest and let people know how their products were created. Offering this insight is central to the concept of Perfumer H. I’m just so lucky that I’m able to give the pleasure of this ritual to people.
Leanne Cloudsdale is the Studio Nicholson Editor-at-Large