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.

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 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…