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 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…

Mendittorosa Odori d’Anima’s Nettuno (2016)

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Mendittorosa’s Nettuno © Victor Wong. Painting by William Hawkins

In 2006, Pluto was declassified and no long considered a planet in our Solar System. I was giddy about the declassification because Gustav Holst’s “The Planet” orchestral suite was perfect again. (Finished in 1916, Pluto was discovered in 1930, so the suite didn’t have Pluto in it.) Later I discovered that the declassification had caused other problems – people who were “governed” by Pluto suddenly had lost their planet and the astrologists needed to come up with some excuse to sooth the lost souls. One astrologist on TV said, “it doesn’t matter. It still is governing you.”

At one point I found astrology fun and briefly wondered if people were governed by big bodies in outer space. However, the most interesting talk about “something governing something” was given by my computer science professor who casually mentioned the father of computer science, Alan Turing and his “Turing Machine” – Can everything be represented by a Turing Machine? If so, does that mean our future is predetermined? It was mind boggling, also, I nearly failed the class.

So I found Mendittorosa’s Nettuno inspired by the planet Neptune quite interesting, and thought it’s about time that someone made a perfume dedicated to a planet. But, why Neptune? On their website it says, “Nettuno Extrait de Parfum is the scented vision of mirror of the soul, olfactory tribute to the Neptune. Mesmeric cosmic dust, planetary mirror of our potential, astral reflections of infinite freedom and possibilities.”

What this perfume has succeeded, is the ability to release a wonderment, mysteriousness and etherealness. It is both light and dark, rich, and very abstract. It shoots out dusty powdery pastel floral colours (iris and musk) that contrast against a three dimensional, darker, slightly medicinal aroma space (leather, vetiver, nutmeg). The scent expands very quickly then slows down, and it is not easy to tell what notes are in this perfume. It never reaches full floral, and never touches full masculinity. But one really shouldn’t analyze too much, but enjoy the little cosmic space it has created.

Modern “Chypres”

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Serge Lutens’ Chypre Rouge & Grossmiths Golden Chypre © Victor Wong

I once wrote about Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete and how much I liked it, and a Facebook friend told me I was a “closeted chypre lover”. Poor me, it’s not me who was in denial, it’s just that I didn’t know this summer perfume from the 90s was actually a chypre.

By “definition”, a chypre is a perfume with an accord composed of citrus, labdanum, oakmoss and musk. I am lucky to have a small decant of the very first chypre, “Chypre” by Coty (1917), so I know what this classic accord (perfume in this case) smells like, and without better words, it’s the “grandma” accord. The chypre accord is unique, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Imagine if I say chypre is the colour brown, but you have never seen such color and I say it’s the result of mixing of yellow and blue and red, maybe you will have a hard time “visualizing” what it is like. However, if you have smelled it before and are able to “memorize” that smell, you can tell there are countless vintage perfumes that share the same chypre common denominator – one sniff and you can tell Guerlain’s Mitsouko is a chypre, Aromatic Elixir is a chypre, Dior’s Diorella is a chypre, Paloma Picasso is a chypre…

Then come the modern perfumes who claim that they are chypres, but I just couldn’t recognize them as chypres. You know, in the old days, in art classes as a kid you would draw people of different nationality circling around the Earth hand-in-hand, a Dutch is a white milkmaid wearing wooden shoes and an American wears a cowboy hat, but now I can call myself a Canadian but boy, do I look Chinese even holding a cup of Tim Hortons coffee. This chypre genre has blurred so much that my nose needs yoga training for flexibility and enlightenment.

Serge Luten’s Chypre Rouge (2006) and Grossmith’s Golden Chypre perhaps are two good examples of dubious chypres.

I remember two ladies in a Facebook fragrance group both say Chypre Rouge is one of their favourite perfumes. If I didn’t know the name of the perfume, just by the smell alone I can see why it’s attractive to them. It smells like the red gooseberry sauce that IKEA cafeteria serves when you order a plate of Swedish meatballs. On top of that, you have the beautiful sweet aroma of red wine mixed with honey. It’s quite romantic, “rouge”, maybe too sweet for me, but no way Jose it’s a chypre. I refuse to acknowledge it. Sorry. Ok, maybe, I don’t know, but the sweetness and fruitiness of this perfume cover whatever chypre element there is.

Grossmith’s Golden Chypre, on the other hand, is a real chypre, but it took me a few wearings to recognize it because the chypre part is very light. (I am sure some people can recognize it right away.) Golden Chypre really is golden, but not vulgar like Paco Robanne’s gold bar shaped bottle One Million, for the smell is like the shimmering blurry ocean of the California coast at dawn. Initially light and citrusy, then the warmth and the rich powderiness of geranium, accentuated by the spicy nutmeg and deep patchouli slowly spread around. The chypre-ness actually flashes before your nose when you first spray it, and shortly goes away like the Big Bang, and reappears faintly when the perfume reaches dry down. An excellent modern perfume, but not as “granny” as I would have expected from Grossmith, a brand since 1835.

Now I shall reach for my bottle of Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete to study it again.

A comment from my Facebook friend, Henrique, on chypres:

I think that what people miss on the chypre is that it’s not a closed system. It’s a texture, an idea of contrast between the aforementioned elements. Like Fougere, the idea was abstract enough to let you modify those elements, extend it through the different fashions of each era. After all, if we made the definition stiff, what would come next wouldn’t be classified as a chypre. For me, for instance, the 80’s floral chypres are hardly classic chypres, but they are able to convey the light-darkness contrast in a different way.

Modern chypres do this also, but they are more subtle in this contrast. Still, they don’t claim to be classic chypres, so it does make sense. And for those that say they are repetitive, classic ones were also too, if you start to test one after the other you’ll see that. This is what happens when a trend, an idea or olfactory family becomes popular. The only difference is that classic chypres arrived on a time that we didn’t have social media to talk and compare them. And we didn’t have either as many launches as we have today, which makes this sameness pop out more easily.

And since you mention art, I would like to point out that many art movements rescue something from an old art movement and put it in perspective with what is happening at that moment. Perfume is not different and we shouldn’t expect the same olfactory themes to remain the same as the times goes by.

Atkinsons’ Amber Empire (2015)

Atkinsons' Amber Empire (2015) © Victor Wong
Atkinsons’ Amber Empire (2015) © Victor Wong

I remember listening to a radio show on which the host asked listeners to call in and talk about their favourite movie director. A guy called in and said his was Tim Burton. When asked which movies of Tim Burton he liked most and why, he could only name “Nightmare Before Christmas”. Ridicule ensued.

I was like that listener when I declared Maurice Roucel to be my favourite perfumer two years ago, partly because he was one of the very few high-profile perfumers whose name I could remember (due to CRNCNTWS, Can’t Remember Non-Chinese Names Too Well Syndrome), and also he was the nose of one of my favourite perfumes, Le Labo’s Jasmin 17. (I was senselessly madly in love with Le Labo back then.) However, I was very troubled by the fact that I didn’t care about his most famous work, Musc Ravageur.

Now I don’t think I have any favourite perfumer, although I have a few favourite perfumes and perfume genres.

I admire Mr. Roucel’s ability to create hits out of shoestring ingredient budgets, like DKNY’s Delicious (2004) and Nautica Voyage (2006). His style to me seems to be all over the place, but when he is given a bigger budget and freedom (this is purely my speculation), his affinity towards certain style of perfumes becomes more apparent.

When I found out recently he had created a perfume named “Amber Empire” for the British brand Atkinsons, I was very intrigued. To my knowledge, I don’t think he has designed any amber themed perfume before. And the main supporting note that he picked was unexpected, too – oolong tea (a type of Chinese green tea.) This big amber/tea combination is quite novel to me (Annick Goutal’s “Duel” being the only one that comes to mind), and neither ingredient steals the show. The opening is mildly sweet and herbal, like an ice tea sweetened by light brown sugar. Shortly after, the shy tobacco flavoured tea note appears and disappears. A rather simple and intoxicating perfume, both grand and unassuming at the same time, and it’s a joy to wear.

Byredo’s Mojave Ghost (2014)

Byredo's Mojave Ghost (2014)
Byredo’s Mojave Ghost (2014) © Victor Wong

I remember how disappointed I was when Mojave Ghost came out in 2014. It smelled pale, non-descript, something sweet, something faintly floral and fruity. Actually, this is what I get now; two years ago it was just a sweet nothing scent to me. I also remember when it debuted my fraghead coworker and I went to sniff it, and I said I didn’t find it interesting at all, but she said, “Oh really, I think this scent is so you.”

Two years later, out of boredom, I re-smelled again in a department store and suddenly I found it very attractive. The nuances that I didn’t detect all became vivid. Maybe on that day it was the first bottle I sniffed and my nose was very sensitive.

To me, Mojave Ghost is a bottle of irony. Firstly, It is supposed to be a soliflore, a fragrance that mimics the scent of a type of flower that blooms in the harsh condition in the Mojave desert. But I doubt most anyone has smelled it before. Has the perfumer succeeded in bringing you the scent of that flower with her creation? No one knows. Secondly, the nature of this scent is of a vague fruity floral perfume, kind of like the soft sweet scents of cactus pears or sugar-apples, but unnaturally, this perfume lasts and lasts for a whole day. My deduction is that in this perfume they use some very powerful and long lasting synthetic aroma chemicals or boosters to make it stick. A perfume that smells pale, subtle, rather complex and smooth but has such powerful longevity and yet no hard edges, is quite impressive to me.

At one point I wanted to learn perfumery and have bought an aroma chemicals starter set to play with, but I just didn’t have the time and diligence to explore. I don’t know how challenging it is to make something like Mojave Ghost, but I feel like you have to be a very well-trained perfumer to come up with something like it.

P.S. I got my bottle from eBay brand-new at a very good price and was surprised by the deal. Maybe it didn’t sell very well?