The Stories Behind Zoologist Perfumes (Part 5)

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At the Art and Olfaction Award on May 7th, AIX Museum, Los Angeles

On April 14th 2016, Luca Turin reviewed Zoologist Bat and gave it a 4 out of 5 stars. I emailed the good news to Ellen Covey, the perfumer of Bat, and she replied, “I think Bat is a rare case of all the stars aligning just right (no pun intended!).”

Bat, unintentionally and unexpectedly, airlifted me to pass several milestones that I didn’t even set for myself and my fragrance house. Shortly after Luca’s review (whom I idolize), I had got a notification from the Art and Olfaction Award 2016 that Bat was a final candidate to win the Independent category – and win it did, beating 8 other candidates!

I remember fondly that shortly after Ellen had initiated the collaboration via email, she won the 2015 Art and Olfaction Award in the Artisan category for her scent, “Woodcut”. We had not even started the project yet, but I thought, wow, that’s pretty amazing.

The Bat project started when summer began. In the first set of prototypes, one stood out – the one when I first smelled it, I burst out in uncontrollable laughter. It smelled like a cave. A scary, hollow cave. I showed it to my friend, who loved perfumes, and she said, “wow, what a perfumer! How did she do that? But how are you going to turn it into a perfume that people want to wear?”

And so we spent the summer designing and fine-tuning the perfume, until we reached revision cycle 7, and we both agreed that was a dead-end. Summer was ending and Ellen had to go back to university to teach, and I said let’s use version 6B – it opened with some tropical fruits and banana notes, not too sweet, then moved on to a wet, damp, earthy cave full of minerals, and ended with leather, furry musk and vetiver.

Just before the launch, I wore it to work and a coworker asked, “Did the kitchen pipe burst? It smells mouldy here.” I sighed, but I clenched my fist and thought, “There’s no turning back. Let’s launch it on New Year’s Eve.”

I started sending samples to reviewers, and on Christmas Eve, Miguel Matos, a Fragrantica journalist, messaged me, “I am in ecstasy.” I replied, “Do you like it?” “Like it? I am madly stunned. This is not perfume, it’s a work of art.”

I know Bat is a scent not for most people, and I have read polarizing reviews. But in a recent conversation with a storeowner in Dubai, he told me that Bat was their bestseller, because Arabs in the 70s were poor, and they lived in wood huts and caves. Bat reminded them of their old days and history. And so, this proves that there’s no universal great or bad perfume.

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The Stories Behind Zoologist Perfumes (Part 4)

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“Mood Board” for Zoologist Hummingbird. ©Zoologist Inc.  Images in mood board taken from the Internet. Sources unknown.

It was a bright sunny winter day, my co-worker Shane and I were having lunch together in a restaurant near our workplace. Shane was leaving the company, and I wanted to thank him for helping me edit the contents on my website, which would launch soon. At work, we never really got along well, but I admired how he always wins a debate by throwing a lot web analytics terminologies at people loudly like a popcorn machine.

I told him I had imported 1000 bottles and got 1000 packaging boxes made, all I needed to sell were 300 bottles, and I should be able to break even. “Good luck with that”, he said. While I appreciated his honesty, I wasn’t feeling pessimistic – last I heard America had a population of 300 million.

Winter passed, flowers bloomed and leaves were about to fall again. I stared blankly at the 980 bottles, boxes, sprayers, caps and desktop shrinkwrapping machine sitting in my basement like I was in a safe room all prepared for an apocalypse. Youtube reviewer Fragrance Bros. just told me he would not review my scents for my own good.

I remember gifting a coworker a bottle of Rhinoceros, for he was my dutiful fragrance guinea pig. He told me he was not masculine enough to wear it, despite he had a face full of beard. I knew I had to create a scent that was floral and feminine because most perfume wearers are female, so I messaged Paul Kiler (the perfumer of Rhinoceros and Panda) if he knew any perfumer who might lend a hand. He recommended Shelley Waddington of En Voyage Perfumes. I told him I was too shy to ask, and he said he would give her a call. I asked him to be persuasive. Then I realized I had never smelled any of her creations.

After some emails exchange, Shelley agreed to design a scent named Hummingbird for me. The perfume would smell like spring, sweet nectars and a bouquet of flowers. I felt hopeful.

To kick-start the project, I sent her a “mood board”, a collage of images that I gathered. I am very visual person, and I think a successful “storyful” perfume could affect the wearers’ mood and get their imagination running.

The first set of mods arrived, and a few stood out. I asked for another round of revision and she sent me another set, each with subtle variations. Here came the difficult part – they all smelled fantastic and finished. There was one particular personal favourite that smelled like a piece of toast spread with condensed milk placed next to a bouquet of flowers in the morning. I almost cried smelling it. But that was not Hummingbird. I bit my lip and picked the one that I thought was the most representative of Hummingbird, and at the end, it was a big hit…

The Stories Behind Zoologist Perfumes (Part 3)

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Breakfast Television Montreal, Nov 1st, 2016

Just a month ago, The New York Times ran an article on the rise of animalic perfumes and Zoologist Beaver and Bat were mentioned. Such publicity had created a little ripple effect and a Toronto trend spotter contacted me and asked me to send her a few bottles ASAP to be shown on Breakfast Television Montreal. In the show, the handsome TV host, while holding a bottle of Beaver, jokingly said, “I have never smelled a beaver before, I don’t know what it smells like. Have you?” The next night, comedian Chris Hardwick also made fun of Beaver in his TV show, Midnight. I told the trend spotter that I didn’t find his skit that funny, and she asked, “Was the beaver joke lost on you? How long have you been in Canada?”

Oh dear, I know the beaver joke. In fact, I wanted such publicity in the very beginning, but it didn’t happen till three years later. I wanted people to have a giggle looking at the bottle but also love the scent as much as I loved Kiehl’s Original Musk, the scent that inspired me to start an animalic perfume line.

I remember receiving the first prototypes of Beaver from Chris Bartlett in a silver bubble envelope in the mail. My heart was beating so fast as I opened the package… and they were completely not what I expected, and I panicked. (He stated that he would only make two revisions for me and these starter mods really worried me.) I’d expected my perfumes to smell like perfumes that I liked, but what I got was something that I didn’t realize exist – indie perfumes. (Andy Tauer actually started off as an indie perfumer but he was one of the very few pioneers who succeeded to become a popular niche brand. If you have watched enough Youtube reviews, you might notice some people are crazy about his works and some who completely don’t.)

Opens like some light floral fresh air then aggressively turns animalic and musky and smoky, this unusual scent, was Chris’ interpretation of a beaver as a perfume: fresh ozone and linden blossom notes represent the cold wilderness, fresh water note and iris represent the river, woody notes and smoke and ash represent the beaver lodge, and castoreum and vanilla represent the beaver butt. I had never smelled anything like it and neither did the world.

It is easy to dismiss Chris’ creation when his scent is so radical and new perfumes are released every two seconds. In fact, I didn’t know how to appreciate it until enough perfumers had told me how skillful Chris was; people didn’t like it not because it’s badly mixed, it’s just that it’s not their cup of tea.

Fast forward two years, I was chatting with Chris on Facebook, and I asked him if he ever recalled receiving a decant of Kiehl’s Original Musk from me, so that he could use it as a reference. He said yes, but he intentionally ignored it. I didn’t get upset, because “I got it” now, in fact, I am glad that he had stuck to his guns and insisted on his creation. Perhaps his unique indie style, artistic integrity or stubbornness, combined with my lack of experience as a perfume producer/director in the beginning, unintentionally set the direction for Zoologist, turning it into a perfume house that people often refer it as, “niche within a niche”, “artistic and creative”, “I love/hate them all”.

The Stories Behind Zoologist Perfumes (Part 2)

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Zoologist Perfumes label illustration sketches © Victor Wong / Zoologist Inc.

I like to tell people that Zoologist Perfumes is a one-man company and hope that they will forgive its shortcomings. Now I think it’s really a multi-person company; often I see Indie perfumers design everything themselves, from perfumes to packaging to online promotional artwork, but since I didn’t know two cents about perfumery back then, I focused on what I am better at – graphics design.

I disappointed my typical-Chinese parents when I told them my true passion was graphics, brutally right after I had graduated in computer science. I had worked as a programmer intern for a bank for about three months and the thing that I looked at most was not the code but the clock. Subsequently, I went to college to learn computer graphics, and since graduation, my career somehow revolved around casino games. (I designed graphics for slots machines, bingo games, etc. for very small companies.)

In 2010, I joined the interactive art department of a toy company as a 3D modeller. They had a hit product in the early 2000s that made them billions of dollars. The owner wanted more, and converted their warehouses into offices, and hired hundreds of artists and programmers in hope of making another hit. During that period of time, I had met many great artists, some of them newly graduates whose artworks humbled me, and also a marketing department assistant who wrote Robin Hood fictions for teenagers at night. (She now edits the marketing blurbs you read in the sample cards.)

Shortly, stupid politics and job reapers from the HR started to appear, and that’s the time my perfume project idea sprouted. One morning, in the company kitchen, I asked Daisy, a brilliant illustrator if she would help me create artwork for my perfume labels. I thought I could draw, but after seeing her work, I realized I couldn’t. She accepted the challenge.

I have told Daisy many times, her artwork is the soul of Zoologist. I really couldn’t imagine what would happen if one day she decides not to make artwork for me. She uses an ink pen to do the illustrations and there is no undo if she makes a mistake.

What about the perfumes? I went to a forum in Basenotes.net and asked the question, “Who would help me design a perfume with a shoestring budget?” (Not exactly like that, but worded more elegantly.) Miraculously, two indie perfumers, Chris Bartlett and Paul Kiler came to help…

The Stories Behind Zoologist Perfumes (Part 1)

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Harmony Kingdom Figurines © Victor Wong

(Note: A Facebook perfume group named “Perfumed Passion” recently invited me to spend a week there introducing my perfume house. The group was set to “secret” and it had about 200 members. I thought I should repost them here so that 20 more people would have a chance to read them, too.)

Hello everyone in Perfumed Passion, thank you for having me. I will talk a little bit about me and my perfume house, Zoologist Perfumes.

I come from a Hong Kong family of nine siblings and I am the youngest. When I was 10, I was already an uncle to my niece. I came to Canada to study at the age of 18, and slowly fell in love with the beautiful, multicultural and slow-paced country, and decided to stay after graduation in computer science.

My friends and coworkers often ask me, “why perfumes?” To be honest, if a fortune teller told me 4 years ago that I would be running a perfume business, I would die laughing. Perfumes didn’t truly enter my life till 2013, when I first discovered a Le Labo Rose 31 scented hand lotion in a hotel where I was staying. I will skip the part how I quickly became a crazy man and couldn’t stop reading Fragrantica, Basenotes, Facebook perfume groups, writing nonsense perfume reviews and purchasing more and more perfumes.

The second most-asked question is, “How did Zoologist come about?” You might think I am crazy about animals and love to visit safaris, rainforests and endangered animals sanctuaries… well, while I do love animals, I am not an adventurer, but more an introvert nerd who love video games, comics, photography, graphic designs, and most importantly, collectibles.

I collect a lot of things, from pocket size LCD games that were popular in the 80s, to Starbucks mugs, many things… but the collectible series that influenced me most is something called Harmony Kingdom figurines. Harmony Kingdom is a British collectible company, and they make animal figurines that are actually lidded boxes, and you can put little things in them. Their in-house sculptors often pick unusual animals for their subjects and I was hooked on them since the discovery. Later I read a book about that company and the owner talked about how to run a “collectible business”, why it was important to discontinue certain products, etc. The whole business idea had planted a seed in my head.

Now back to where I was crazy about perfumes… one day I was walking home from work, feeling a bit frustrated and worried about my career, and I wondered, what if perfumes were designed as collectibles? I could make a series of perfumes that are animal-themed, and the cap of the perfumes are little animal busts, and they all wear Victorian style clothing…

Daniel Barros’ Perfumes

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Daniel Barros’ Cuir Mojito, Yuzucello, Sex on the Peach and Gincenso (9ml, 2016) © Victor Wong

After all those years, I can vividly remember two things that happened in my sister’s econo-lite wedding – she served raw cauliflower florets on a platter with some ranch sauce on a buffet table. Who eats cauliflowers in a wedding party? Might as well serve just one head of cauliflower; there might come someone who really wants to eat it and says, “excuse me, I hope you don’t mind, I really like cauliflowers” and takes the whole thing and starts chomping it away in a corner.

The second thing was that my sister asked me to be a bartender at the wedding party. She casually said, “Just mix vodka and orange juice together, I think it’s called a screwdriver.” I was really glad that none of her guests went blind after drinking my concoctions, for I had mixed them big plastic cups full of orange juice with a few drops of vodka, and vodka with a few drops of orange juice as the night started to drag. I really had no clue what I was doing, for I don’t drink beer or any cocktails at all.

So I guess my total ignorance and disinterest in alcohol is useful when I test my friend Daniel Barros’ brand new line of cocktail/drinks inspired perfumes – I don’t have any perceived idea whether the perfume is a successful reinterpretation of the cocktail that it is supposed to represent.

Currently his line consists of 12 scents, and he has sent me four.

After testing them, I have come up with this silly conclusion: his perfumes are like South Park episodes – super outrageous, creative, crazy, but all somehow end with a moral redemption, in a form of traditional, proper perfume dry down, for he knows what he is doing, but somehow the theme of the perfumes that he has chosen confines what the perfume should smell like.

Yuzucello – probably my favourite. The opening is like you have won the Superbowl and your teammates dumps a barrel of Limoncello over your head. Crazy strong lemon candy opening, surprisingly non-sticky, if you let the opening subsides a bit, you are rewarded with a very addictive great sandalwood/tonka/lily of the valley dry down.

Gincenso – A gin fragrance that’s actually more like an incense fragrance but somehow smells like a latex fragrance to me? This incense fragrance is masculine, respectful, and sparsely aromatic. Actually it is not at all a comedy fragrance, it’s a proper and properly made fragrance, but if it is a real drink, it is garnished with one blue plastic flip flop on a toothpick. I have said it many times, a lot of leather perfumes smell like plastic flip flops to me. I remember it was a group favourite.

Cuir Mojito – It’s refreshing like mint but rustic like brown leather hide; it’s clean like lime but damp like oakmoss and vetiver; Cuir Mojito is full of contradictions, the movie Cowboys vs Aliens, despite a bit confusing, it’s entertaining.

Sex on the Peach – there is a salty note in this fragrance that reminds me of the beach, and the peach accord is supposed to represent peach schnapps. So far so good, but I must confess I wish the cumin and black pepper isn’t that strong in this fragrance for it gives me a bit of seasickness.

Patchouli-themed Perfumes (Part 2)

Personally I prefer wearing mixed-media perfumes (synthetic ingredients mixed with natural ingredients) to all-natural perfumes because they are much more interesting and exciting to me. (Aldehydes, metallic notes, fantasy notes, etc.) Some time ago I have heard a perfumer say that a lot of natural ingredients are mini-perfumes themselves and not easy to finesse; and all-natural perfumes if not well-designed often smell “muddy” or “brown”.

Maybe patchouli essential oil is one good example – to me it is a mini fragrance. It is strong, full of character, herbalness, earthiness, and nuisances, but It also gives me uneasiness for I find them smelling “too close to nature” – too earthy, deep and aromatic, almost the exact opposite of smelling a synthetic white musk detergent. I can imagine a perfumer either using just a little of it in a perfume to add some character or “darkness”, or “go big or go home”, using a lot to make a patchouli-themed perfume with some complementary notes.

There is a patchouli-theme fragrance that I have recently discovered that makes me feel that the perfumer has tamed patchouli and turned this hobo into a fine gentleman – Dior’s Patchouli Imperial. The opening is smooth, ambery, sophisticated, mildly spicy, but undoubtedly patchouli, yet constrained. It is so impressive that I feel like I want to stay close and talk to him for hours, as if he has seen the world and now he is back to tell stories in tuxedo and sandals, but really, I should leave this handsome hobo alone after taking a selfie with him. As the perfume reaches dry down, there is something in it that’s really synthetic and borderline nauseating. (Synthetic vetiver, maybe?) But crazy enough, the opening is worthy of my purchase of a full bottle.

Then I rediscovered Chanel’s Coromandel (“Asian lacquered partition screen”). You didn’t know how much I disliked this perfume when I first discovered Chanel’s exclusive line of perfumes. It smells like… you are trapped in a wet, wood cabinet and forced to eat white chocolate flavored TUMS to survive. I threw the sample across the field like a quarterback superstar and hoped not to see it again. One day, while reorganizing my sample drawers here it was again, I sprayed some on the back of hand. The epiphany arrived – it’s a powdery patchouli scent. It’s as weird as avocado milkshake in a Vietnamese restaurant, but now I have seen through the unusualness and found it amazing. Hurrah for white-chocolate and patchouli flavored TUMS! (Amazing yuck.)