Today I am pleased to feature Kaitlyn ni Donovan of Vireo Perfumes! As a perfumer and musician, you can experience the synergy of these two art forms in her natural perfumes, offered in solids and liquids. I hope that you enjoy learning from Kait.
1) Can you tell us a little about your journey in becoming a perfumer? I know that you are also a prolific musician and composer. What prompted you to open a perfume shop?
It started like a fairy tale long long ago in a land far away. Well, in Juneau, Alaska. As a kid I was extremely sensitive to odors. A trip to the gas station or a fresh tar road could make me nauseous or give me a splitting headache. I always had a deep reverence for perfumes. I grew up in pretty dismal conditions. When I would visit young girlfriends’ houses I would see their moms’ beautiful dressing tables and their sparkling perfume bottles with exotic scents in the air.
Since then, perfumes have symbolized an escape from the dreary, the smell and feel on your skin of luxury and glamour, a fantasy land where all is normal or you could be transformed into an early Hollywood movie star. I made sure when I grew up I had at least one bottle of perfume at all times. It was a necessity for feeling pampered, sexy and acted as an antidepressant.
When I read Patrick Suskind’s Perfume in the early 1990’s my olfactory world went into hyper drive. I already had a deep connection with the “scentual” world but from then on I paid very close attention to what this earth had to offer up in smells, be it the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak. Unfortunately I started suffering from cluster headaches and couldn’t be around synthetics without potentially triggering one.
Years before the headaches started I had taken a bit of pride layering different perfumes and mixing essentials and perfume oils as people would often comment enthusiastically about what I was wearing. I ventured into the world of natural oils to begin learning to blend my own special perfumes. Regarding the opening of a shop, I was encouraged by my first “guinea pigs” who were friends. I would endlessly pester them with gifts of scents whether they asked for them or not. I am surprised they didn’t beg for me to stop.
Then they started asking for custom scents. I had made up a ton of lapsang souchong tea infusion and Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla oil because I wanted to use it in perfume and I couldn’t find anyone making it. Voilà. I had to share it with others who may need some as well. The Etsy shop was born. “Vireo” is a haunting song I love by a musician friend of mine named Rachel Taylor Brown.
2) What do you do when you are not making perfumes?
In between writing music, I have a lot of little projects going on. I also love to relax by watching great cinema, reading, and knitting badly.
3) Describe your creative process. How do you usually get ideas for a new perfume, and what is your process for creating and testing it?
It can be as benign as wanting to build around one note that intrigues me or a name for a perfume I have picked out. Often it starts as a custom perfume gift or a request from a friend or client. Then there are the times as if Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard suddenly makes a dramatic entrance in my mind. It’s as if I’m being projected into a film or work of great literature I love, along with all the emotions that go with it. The fragrance notes and accords I need seem to naturally follow. This is where I grab a pen and an index card. On one side I put adjectives for the perfume, all the fragrance notes that are coming to mind or might mix well with one another and on the other side the actual recipe I am developing. Often I end up with more than one card.
The making of every perfume starts with a completely sanitized working area as if I am performing surgery. I organize the oils and absolutes I need starting left to right base notes to top. I use paper testing strips where I judge a couple notes at a time, almost always base notes are first unless I am building around an accord or the perfume’s theme note. An example of that would be in “A Street Car Named Banana.” I roasted and infused organic banana chips. The infusion turned out rather light. I was so excited about the creation I didn’t let the banana sit long enough. I also wanted a slightly unripe banana note. So, I built from the middle outwards: Banana, a light green banana accord, florals, base then top.
4) I love many of your perfumes, from the lullaby that is Sweetgrass, to the sexy and seductive Hedone, the elegant, glam Hollywood Babylon, to the hypnotic, woodsmoke languor of Smoke Follows Beauty. It seems that you are inspired by many different things in creating your perfumes, from human friends, to furry friends, to memories, and much more. How do you keep track of all of these sources of inspiration? What helps you translate an idea or an inspirational thought or feeling into a concrete (and gorgeous) product? Do you ever find multiple sources of inspiration wanting to enter into your creative process at any given time?
I keep notes in journals, have the recipe cards and keep unreleased perfumes and their scent stories on the computer. What helps me translate the immaterial into the material is researching the history about every natural fragrance note I am working with. This goes for any part of what has inspired my creation as well. “Coco Violette” lead me on a journey learning about its role in Greek mythology, history, astronomy, botany and its medicinal and culinary uses. Putting that whole Josephine and Napolean violet love-fest aside, I even found out some pulp trivia.
A lesser known figure in history was a beautiful Ringling Brothers’ side show woman named Violetta who was born without arms or legs. Multiple sources of inspiration coming into the process can be problematic. This can occur when making a custom perfume for a client. Often I have never met the person I am making the perfume for. It is possible for my imagination to fill in blanks. There is always anxiety as well that I am not translating their vision into what they want. It is also problematic when I am working on a perfume and an unexpected note that works too well suddenly dominates the note I was originally inspired with. That is a real pain.
5) What I really appreciate in addition to your beautiful artistry is that fact that you’ve managed to keep your perfumes pretty affordable. I know that this has much to do with offering smaller sizes so that the price point is not as steep, but I think it also has to do with making conscious efforts to create scents that more than those with excessive disposable income can enjoy. We know, too, that historically perfume has been a most expensive luxury, and today even many synthetics by top perfume houses are not “cheap.” Still, there are many people would like to try natural perfumes but cannot afford them (or believe that they cannot). Do you have any suggestions for other perfumers who may want to reach a wider customer base by offering affordable luxuries, but have not yet been able to do so?
I enjoy the low stress, slow pace of my store but I have lots of tips if you want to go for it! You can start close to home by giving out samples and business cards to friends, family and local stores that carry natural products. You can share a booth at a farmers market or craft fair. Online you can set up a Facebook page or blog site. Etsy has excellent tips and opportunities for shops to give themselves more exposure. Every Tuesday on the Natural Perfumery Group on Yahoo you can advertise specials you are having: http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/NaturalPerfumery/ You also can get daily updates. I learn something new almost every day there from extremely knowledgeable, friendly people who are always willing to answer a question.
6) What do you do to continue to learn more about perfumery, to hone your artistic skills?
The best way I can hone my artist skill and everything in my life is to reign in my over excitement to create. I have so many ideas that flood at me at once and when this happens I do not realize there are limits to my ability and resources. Restraint, patience and the urge to not endlessly mess with finished perfumes is very hard to control because I have ultra rapid cycling bipolar disorder that is hard to manage. The bursts of manic artistic grandure have created great works but also costed me countless dollars worth of precious oil having to be dumped in the trash. I see now where less is more.I could speak for hours on this subject but will move on.
I learn more about perfumery through my endless love of research. Most importantly will be the life long journey to familiarize myself with notes and their characteristics, from top to bottom. By pushing myself out of my comfort zone by accepting custom work is one way I learn. I have a huge fear of disappointing people. They have expectations and I want to please. It can be a little intimidating but with any art you need to try to have faith in your self, a thick skin, and know the limits of your ability. I have always believed if you want to learn something you don’t always have to go to school. I started learning from trial and error and the wealth of knowledge that is available on the internet and in books. Now the books have been put away and I trust my nose to create my own style. That has been crucial to compose with wild creative abandon and now I have goals for perfumes that are luxuriously reminiscent but unique from the retro classics of perfumery. There is always much to do in the area of exploring more oil infusions, tinctures and building a repertoire of accords.
7) Can you describe the best feedback you’ve ever received, or describe an interaction that you had that made you feel good about your creations?
The feedback and kind emails are what has kept my store going far more than sales. I have to say the day my fiancé realized my store was more than a manic episode was amazing.
8) What plans do you have for your shop in 2011? What should we be looking out for?
Many of my Etsy perfumes have been reformulated, many into extrait / eau de parfum strength. I will have a “parfum indulgences” section on Etsy for custom made perfumes I have made. Many of these have incredibly rare, expensive gorgeous absolutes you could just drown in. It may cost more but you will feel like you are stuffing your face right into a flower. Custom requests are becoming a larger percentage of my sales. People seem to be happy to have their perfumes featured. There is a facial and scar oil I have been making for friends for years I would like to sell as well. The sky is the limit! Well, time is, actually.
9) Do you have any favorite crafters or artisans that you would like to share with us?
Laura soaps from Urban Eden blow me away. Her products are a natural, excellent replacement to luxury perfumed synthetics. The depth, complexity, and staying power of her soaps are just what I have been looking for. Arabesque Aromas combines history with the making of her perfumed products which I am a total sucker for. Not only does she make perfumes and candles but scented pillows with recipes taken from recipes the royals would use in the 1500’s. There are so many people to admire: Roxana Illuminated Perfumes, For Strange Women, to the success of Spa Goddess here in Portland. My attention is always perked by perfume houses large and small still using natural ingredients.
10) What advice would you give to budding perfumers and other artisans who are looking to present their wares to the public?
I believe there is a niche for true individual perfume artistry. But this kind of art does not happen over night and is like learning an instrument. You need to find and trust your own “nose buds,” be patient with letting your blends age and with yourself as that one extra drop of ginger ruins your once perfect creation. Don’t rely on “blends with” lists. It is crucial to learn with your nose. Realize what you put out there is reprsenting the natural beauty product industry. Be honest and clear about what you are putting in your products. Keep your wares clean.
Thank you, Kait, for such wonderful advice and insights!