DG Q&A: Nicole Nelson And Barbara VanBok Of We Are Fragrances
When we gave away a copy of Alyssa Harad's book Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride (see the interview and excerpt below), the winner turned out to be a young perfume entrepreneur with an interesting story of her own: Nicole Nelson (left), the 27-year-old co-founder of Maine-based We Are Fragrances. She has teamed up with perfumer and aromatherapy consultant Barbara vanBok, 47, to create a line of fragrances, including both perfumes and wearable aromatherapy blends, made with essential oils and blended without alcohol.
We Are Fragrances launches its online store this Thursday with a fall collection of eight scents. The two co-founders talked with DG about the serendipity of how they met, the importance of creating scents in a “scrubbed and sanitized culture,” and how they're making a place for women of color in perfume culture. Plus perfume for newbies and the appealing scent of freshly turned-on air conditioning.
Be sure to register for We Are Fragrances' newsletter, and check back tomorrow to see how you can win a bottle of Turkish Embrace.DG: What were your backgrounds before WAF? How did you meet?
Nicole Nelson: In October of 2012, I borrowed a book from a friend that held Barbara’s aromatherapy card as a bookmark. I was unfamiliar with aromatherapy, but intrigued. It wasn’t long before we started gathering for weekly meetings where Barbara would teach me about the healing qualities of essential oils. I instantly fell in love with them and the more we worked together, the more I realized the potential of bringing their incredible beauty and uplifting qualities to a new audience. I have always been enamoured with beauty, nature, and with using fashion as a means of self-expression. My background in art instilled my belief that beauty is precious and something that we should all have access to. I’ve always loved pampering and being girly so I was happy to find another avenue to do that while also using my creativity.
Barbara vanBok: I had been studying aromatherapy and perfumery for close to 20 years, but I had a background in the creative arts: dance, music, and I had my own graphics design business. Friends and family had been telling me for years it was time to start doing something with my fragrance knowledge. I had a humble side career, creating custom aromatherapy blends for a few clients and had three blends out there in the world. However, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to put into launching an actual fragrance business on my own. Like anything in life, timing is absolutely everything! Nicole showed up very much out-of-the-blue. I got an email from her saying she was interested in hearing more about essential oils and how to use them. She had found my perfumery/aromatherapy business card lodged in a book that a friend had loaned her. For a couple months we got together and talked in depth about the essential oils, their properties, and I had her take home samples to work with on her own. It wasn’t long before it morphed into a full-blown business idea.
DG: How did you get interested in fragrances?
NN: My first fragrance was Pur Desir de Lilas by Yves Rocher. I had gone to visit Bordeaux (France) and I wanted to bring home a beautiful souvenir. That was in 2007. I wore that fragrance exclusively for about one year. After that, I didn’t wear perfume again, mostly due to working in environments where fragrances weren’t allowed. Also, very few people I knew wore perfume—or if they did, it wasn’t discussed—so it wasn’t very top of mind at that time in my life. When I met Barbara, I rediscovered how uplifting and fascinating fragrances are. Now I wear perfume every day.
BV: It would probably be easier to talk about when I haven’t been interested in fragrances. I think there was a brief time in 1982 when I rebelled as a teen and dramatically decided that I wasn’t going to wear perfumes! That didn’t last long.
My mother loved Orientals—Emeraude, Tabu, Chantilly. I grew up sneaking dabs of her perfume whenever I could...and bless her, she had the kindness to look the other way. I was always very much aware of odors in general and had a real fascination for them. The art of perfumery was still kind of a secreted subject when I was in school though. I didn’t realize it was something I could do as a job until I was well out of school and ran across books on aromatherapy. Of course, the advent of the Internet really changed so much for me. I found special interest boards and lots of generous individuals who had plenty of opinions regarding fragrance and perfumes. It gave me incentive to sniff a lot more of the classics before many of them were reformulated.
DG: We Are Fragrances features both perfumes and essential oils. What’s the difference? How are they used?
BV: More accurately, We Are Fragrances features perfumes and aromatherapy blends created from essential oils. Essential oils are the building blocks. They differ from synthetically created aroma oils as they are natural and extracted from nature.
Perfumes have their roots in histories and rituals from many different cultures. Why people have liked to wear perfumes throughout the ages differs greatly from individual to individual. Generally though, people wear perfume to smell good, lift their spirits and appear attractive to others. The added benefit of using essential oils to create perfume is their luxurious, naturally softer odors that stay closer to the skin and make the perfume a truly personal experience.
Aromatherapy targets certain areas of life in an aromatic way. Are you generally stressed out and would like to relax more? Do you wish you could fall asleep more easily at night? Would you like to have a fragrance that balances you and at the same time adds an introspective touch during meditation practices? All this and more is possible through the gentle effects of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is great because it’s non-habit forming and can be used safely along with other types of traditional and alternative therapies without interfering with them.
DG: How did you decide which fragrances to include in your initial line? Do you have a favorite?
Mostly it came down to following Barbara’s skill and intuition. I’d see her for our weekly meetings and she’d let me sniff a new fragrance she had been working on. Nearly all of those initial fragrances are now part of our current collection.
My favorite We Are Fragrances perfume is So Very Casablanca—probably because I named it (lol). Actually, what I find so intriguing about So Very Casablanca is its complexity and depth. It’s dark, smoky, dry, and gourmand all at the same time. When I first smelled it, I immediately got an image of Humphrey Bogart in a dark lounge with a dry desert background. It reminds me of something classic and romantic, a fragrance of a bygone era with a decidedly modern twist.
BV: I’m incredibly proud of all of our perfume blends and it’s awfully difficult for me to choose a favorite. We also have several other blends and products in the works that I’m excited about. At the moment I’ve been wearing a lot of Lotus Pose when I’m working. I love how it centers, calms and helps to bring me back to “the now” when I’m feeling overwhelmed with little details. It also gently wafts off my skin in this delightful way!
DG: How do natural fragrances differ from synthetics? Why do you prefer to use only naturals? Are you against synthetics as a general rule, or is this simply a personal, artistic preference?
NN: For me, whether to use naturals or synthetics comes down to how I feel when I use them. As I wear more natural fragrances, I find that synthetics often give me headaches, make me feel nauseous, or in the case of one I recently tried, I started to feel light-headed. That’s not to say that all synthetics cause such a strong reaction in me (and there are certainly many synthetics that I wear and love) but the point is, naturals just don’t. We created We Are Fragrances to use natural ingredients blended without alcohol that would allow for a personal and subtle experience while still being luxurious enough to attract people who are chemically sensitive but can’t stand the thought of giving up their perfumes. We Are Fragrances are a natural alternative.
BV: Simply stated, natural essential oils are the extracts of leaves, needles, petals, woods, barks, seeds, fruit rinds, grasses, resins, roots, rhizomes, etc. Synthetics are created by chemists in laboratories.
I’m not against synthetics at all. As a matter of fact I have an enormous collection of perfumes made with both synthetics and naturals and some of them I’m sure are composed completely of synthetics—just try and pry them out of my cold, dead fingers!
However there are several reasons I’ve decided to use only essential oils in my work. First of all they are gorgeous and natural. The palette nature has provided us with is exquisite, soft, and elegant. In this day and age when people are more and more encouraged to not perfume themselves because so many are chemically sensitive to synthetic odors, the essential oils offer a soft alternative. Scent is so very basic to all of us. It’s such a lovely, simple, human pleasure. We were meant to enjoy natural smells from nature. As we are pushed more and more to be a scrubbed and sanitized culture I can’t help questioning if we are losing much of our sensuality and humanity. I think that’s a very disturbing thought.
It’s cheering to me when someone who is chemically sensitive tells me how happy they are because they are able to wear and enjoy my perfumes without negative effects. Also, as long as we are replacing these natural resources as we use them, essential oils are friendly to the environment as well.
DG: What’s your favorite fragrance?
NN: My favorite scent is the smell of freshly cut lilacs. Not only do they remind me when my birthday is around the corner, but whenever I smell them, I am instantly taken back to walks in the gorgeous French countryside. There really is nothing like it. My perfume preferences change based on my mood and the seasons, but at the moment I’m split between our own So Very Casablanca and Daim Blond by Serge Lutens. They are two completely different fragrances. So Very Casablanca is used when I want to be cloaked in a warm, exotic, and mysterious perfume. I’ve found that on me, it wears really well in the dry heat of summer. I wear Daim Blond when I want something light and bubbly. The first note is so cheerful and it always makes me laugh. It’s such a magical fragrance.
BV: There are so many odors that I love, both simple and complex. I’m crazy about the Guerlain classic, Shalimar. It’s the ultimate Oriental perfume and sometimes I’ll admit I’ve gone overboard in putting it on, just because I do love it so much.
Another fragrance that’s terribly compelling for me would be considered more of an odor. It’s the smell of an air conditioning unit in very humid weather when it’s first turned on; after that first moment it’s gone. It’s kind of difficult to describe. The best I can do is to say that it’s the odor of humid air turning to cool, dry air—very elusive and ethereal.
DG: What’s your favorite fragrance story, either personal or historical?
BV: While the perfume isn’t for me, I love-love-love the story of L’heure Bleue. It’s said that one summer evening Jacques Guerlain was transfixed and overcome with emotion during the “The Blue Hour.” It’s the hour “when the sky has lost its sun but not yet found its stars.” Everything is draped in a soft, blue light. He tried to capture that melancholic emotion that he felt through his perfumery. Also, another interesting note that always gives me chills... It was said that since the bottles of L’heure Bleue and Mitsouko have the same design, the perfumes were meant to represent the beginning and the end of the First World War.
DG: What advice would you give to someone new who wants to learn about fragrances?
NN: Read as much as you can. Start with the blogs and small Internet communities like Bois de Jasmin, Osmoz, and Perfume Posse. They all do a great job of highlighting the best of perfume culture as well as providing tips for novice perfume lovers. Start with samples and decants and don’t EVER buy a full bottle of fragrance without first testing how it smells when you wear it.
BV: Honestly I’d say just dive in. This is not a time for restraint! Perfume is full of passion and imagination so go with abandon in the direction you are most pulled to start. There are plenty of wonderful blogs and so much general information on the Internet. Pick something you know you love, like a summertime bouquet or freshly crushed sage and lemon rind. Do a scent-search online. Once you have a diving off point, it’s easy to become immersed.
DG: How much of finding the “right” perfume is about your biochemistry and how much about your personality?
NN: I’d say choosing the right perfume is 50 percent personality and 50 percent biochemistry. Perfume is very much an extension of who you are. The wonderful thing about wearing perfume is that you can wear them according to your mood, the seasons, a particular occasion, etc. Certain fragrances suit different tastes and moods. But, when you put it on, whether or not it works on you is entirely up to nature.
BV: Whew! People have been engaged in lively discussion about this topic seemingly forever. I think it could be anyone’s guess. However if I have to take a stab at it, I’d say both biochemistry and personality play parts. I also think culture and time-frame have a lot to do with popularity when it comes to fragrances. Sometimes it might be difficult to find your “right” perfume because while the mainstream is into fruity, light-florals, your best perfumes are sultry chypres and at the moment, they happen to be out of favor. The best thing you can do is keep sampling and testing on your skin.
DG: You’ve described We Are Fragrances as “primarily, though not exclusively, targeted toward women of color.” How does that affect your marketing? Your product formulations (if at all)?
NN: The reason We Are Fragrances is aimed towards women of color is because, unlike the fashion and cosmetics industries, for some reason, black and Latina women have largely been ignored in the fragrance market. I want everyone to feel like perfume is for them, and if a woman of another race sees herself in our products then of course she should wear them. Still, being a black woman, I want to sell products that reflect me by using women of color as models and by creating products that would appeal to women like me. It is especially important for me to create a product line that puts women of color first instead of adding in a few “ethnic” products/models/colors, etc. as an afterthought.
This affects our marketing by showcasing women of color in our advertising and being a bit more sensual with our colors and imagery. Darker skin tones can get away with wearing brighter colors and we wanted to translate some of that playfulness into our website. We take some inspiration from Old World perfume traditions from places like Greece, Egypt, and Morocco. We also continue to research the best oils and fragrances for women of color but it’s an evolution. The biggest difference is seeing more women of color on our website. Our fragrances can definitely be worn by all skin types.
DG: Beyond the selection of models for ads, does traditional “perfume culture” exclude women of color and, if so, how?
NN: To answer this question, you have to think about what “perfume culture” means. When you look at today’s fragrance ads, there is a certain image that is being sold. There are generally two camps: either the woman is ultra-feminine, doe-eyed, and youthful or, she is sexy, mysterious, and slightly dangerous. Now, when you think about how women of color have historically been viewed in Western society, we really haven’t been allowed to enjoy our femininity or sexuality. Women of color have really had to create their own image of themselves because they don’t fit into commercial perfume advertising. Fragrance is so much about being authentic and there is still a lot of pressure to conform to a standard of beauty that is Western European. As a black woman, that’s just not me, so how can I wear those fragrances and feel authentic?
BV: Well, I don’t have as much emotional connection to this question since I’m Caucasian, so I’ll defer, emotionally speaking, to Nicole here. However I can say that historically the first recorded perfumes were made by a chemist in Mesopotamia and the art of perfumery has its origins in Egypt, later being refined in Rome, Persia and Arabia. Indian attars were recorded in the 7th century A.D. and the making of perfume and incense was also popular in Asian cultures early on. So, if we are discussing the earliest “perfume culture,” women of color were the first ones wearing perfumes before it spread to the Western world.
DG: When I went to the post office to mail your copy of Alyssa Harad’s book, instead of just the usual question about “anything liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous,” the clerk specifically asked me whether the package contained perfume, explaining that it could explode in the air. Do you have any problems shipping fragrances? How do you deal with postal restrictions?
NN: We Are Fragrances are created without alcohol so we don’t have a problem shipping fragrances nationally or internationally. I would love to have an answer as to why it’s a problem to ship alcohol but I have not found a conclusive answer to that question yet.
DG: What have been your biggest surprises in starting a business? Your biggest challenges?
NN: Biggest surprise: How I suddenly gained new respect from friends, family, and acquaintances when I said I was starting a business. I think what has most impressed people has been that I’m actually following my passion and taking action on it. I feel like a lot of people wait until they retire to be happy or just let life happen without going after what they want. For many reasons I refuse to live my life like that. I’ve never been one to settle for second-best. Now I’m seen as a role model in my community, which is pretty awesome.
Biggest challenge: Waiting. As with any new company, it takes awhile to build followers and I’m impatient. Even though I’m enjoying the journey, I always want faster results. Today’s consumers have so much choice so it can be hard getting people to pay attention unless you suddenly get a lot of press. I absolutely believe in our products and philosophy so I know it’s just a matter of time before we become well known. Still, the waiting period and building a strong business structure can be challenging. Luckily, every week things get easier and more people find us.
BV: I’ve had businesses before, but this one has been the most challenging because there have been so many details to work out in a relatively short amount of time. I’m beginning to hear, “Just this one more thing,” in my sleep! However I feel an incredible reward because so many people have been genuinely enthusiastic when they try our perfumes. I know what wearing a beautiful fragrance does for me and how it lifts my mood. I’m truly excited and humbled to be able to bring that experience to others.
DG: What makes perfume—or a particular scent—glamorous to you?
NN: The experience of wearing perfume is one that instantly creates a pulled together and even more gorgeous image of myself. If it’s one of our own perfumes, I also get the pampering and uplifting qualities of the essential oils. As long as a fragrance can do that, then I feel it is glamorous.
BV: It has to be a fragrance that on the dry down smells smooth and silky to my nose. It can be a big perfume, an austere one or even one that is bright, light and bubbly, but it’s the final dryout, the last lingering notes on the skin and how they hang together, that makes a perfume glamorous to me.