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Animal instinct

Fresh, clean notes are giving way to scents that bring out the beast in you. We catch up with perfumers who are riding the trend, making civet and ambergris appealing.

April 07, 2017 04:27 pm | Updated 04:46 pm IST

In perfume aisles around the world, there is a smell of change in the air, and it isn’t sweet. Rather, it’s stinky, musky, and even a little sweaty. Animalic scents have been trending of late and niche perfumeries have been fuelling it with concoctions that bring to mind a walk through bat-filled caves or cosying up to a wet beaver. In fact, according to Jahnvi Dameron Nandan, perfumer and owner of Delhi-based The Perfume Library, this is not only a reaction to popular sporty, ultra-fresh scents, but also to how impersonal we have become with technology and social media taking over our lives. “It’s a post-Facebook and Tinder world. There is a search for oneself, of smelling natural, for sensuality through the skin. Animalic perfumes are warmer, more sensual,” she explains.

Of course, true connoisseurs have always straddled this fine line, mixing a little funk with the more accepted. From Serge Lutens’ Muscs Koublaï Khän (1998, which brought to mind fur and tanned hides) to Antoine Lie’s notorious Secretions Magnifiques (2006, which smelled of blood, sweat and saliva), famous noses have created some stellar examples. “At The Perfume Library, we have an amazing animalic scent, Musk Tonkin by Parfum d’Empire, which plays on the ‘feline’ note in jasmine,” says Nandan, who is working on a new launch that is extremely animalic. However, though the ‘beastly’ trend has been cresting, it is still quite niche. “The inclusion of animalic accords is still not the norm in (popular) fragrance creation, as they evoke a sense of differentness for much of the global market. But the commerciality of animalic scents rests on their strong performance properties (projection and sillage), and with them being linked to luxury and rarity,” shares Eddie Bulliqi, the London associate of Zurich-based Scent Culture Institute.

We speak to five fragrance makers who are topping the charts with their beastly scents.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Being a synaesthetic comes in handy for Hurwitz. “It is an amazing aid in memorising thousands of materials but, as a classically-trained painter, it helps me transfer my visual aesthetic to a perfume design,” says the US-based perfumer, who has created aroma-art expressions for the Denver Art Museum. An avid collector of vintage perfumes, she is known for her gourmand creations (playing on notes of nutmeg, bergamot, cardamom, etc). But last year, she decided to do a U-turn and go animalic.

Her first outing was Rendezvous (released in January), where she created a feral jasmine with a sensual vibe, rich with civet and castoreum notes. Then, in October, she released Chinchilla, a musk that had a palpable sensation of ‘fur’ about it. “Rendezvous is meant to evoke a passionate, emotional fire and lust, while Chinchilla gives a nod to the vintage house of Weil and their great fur / animal perfumes. It has a very glamorous feel and is very retro nouveau,” says the winner of CaFleureBon’s Perfumer of the Year 2015.

Admitting that one of the biggest challenges of working with animalic notes is “controlling fecal / urine-like notes”, she believes the growing trend is a backlash against the overly sterile perfumes found in the mainstream. Currently, the 46-year-old is playing with two new animalic perfumes. “I want to speak to different aspects of what animal notes ‘mean’. Are they cosy? Do they represent luxury? Or do they represent our darker, more feral selves? There are a number of stories to tell,” she concludes.

$20 (₹1,335 approx, for a 3 ml sample) onwards. Details: dshperfumes.com

Victor Wong

In 2012, a burnt-out video game designer at a Toronto-based toy company found his calling in a hotel room, after smelling a musky bottle of Le Labo hand lotion. Wong recalls coming home later to trawl the message boards of popular perfume sites, Basenotes and Fragrantica. “People told me I should learn perfumery and design my own scents, but I knew it would take years of practice to become good at it,” he begins.

So when he decided to launch his own perfume line, Zoologist, he put out an open call. British perfumer, Chris Bartlett, answered it with the idea to capture the essence of a beaver — smelling of wet fur, musk and felled trees. The scent, bottled with a picture of a beaver in Victorian clothing, came out in 2014. And though the perfume blog, CaFleureBon, named it one of the best scents of the year, Wong admits “it was too challenging for many people”. So the duo revisited the formula, adding more “fresh air and river top notes”, and relaunched it successfully late last year.

Today, his menagerie of scents includes Bat, Civet, Panda, Hummingbird, Rhinoceros, Macaque and Nightingale. “Fragrances that are notorious for smelling very animalic get a lot of attention, but I wonder if it’s ‘all talk and no sales’. The challenge for me is whether to bring a strong scent to the market for a small group of people — for the name (and fame) — or something less aggressive for sales,” says Wong, who is working on a scent that will remind the user of walking by a pond.

$125 onwards for 60 ml (₹8,331 approx). Details: shop@zoologistperfumes.com

Ulrich Lang

Musk has been gaining ground for a while, especially with scents like Marc Jacobs’ Daisy Dream. But civet was not something people wanted to touch, until Lang launched Aperture three years ago. “Historically, animalic notes were used to make a fragrance ‘rounder’, and you can find them in many classics such as Chanel No 5 and Obsession. With Aperture, we wanted it to be ‘dirty’, with peppery notes on top and animalics (civet, ambergris, musk) in the base. Lucia van der Post, of the Financial Times, described it as smelling ‘dangerous’ and ‘very male’, and that’s exactly what it is,” shares Lang, who started his company, Ulrich Lang New York, in 2002.

The perfumer feels that people are no longer afraid to smell their own bodies and that has accelerated the development of these scents. In fact, this year, he says he won’t be surprised to see a big animalic fragrance coming out in the prestige segment as “consumers are hungry for new artistic developments”.

Lang, who did a perfumery course at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, is also known for centring his scents on the works of contemporary photographers. For Aperture, he teamed up with Aperture Foundation (an organisation that supports and promotes photographers) and worked with US artist Olivia Bee, who went on to do campaigns for Converse and Hermes.

From $120 onwards (₹8,005 approx), for 100 ml. Details: ulrichlangnewyork.com

Barbara Herman

The vintage perfume expert and author has always loved perfumes, but became enamoured with animalics when she began researching vintage fragrances. While interviewing French perfumer, Antoine Lie (of Secretions Magnifiques) — for her 2013 book, Scent & Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume — Herman fell in love with his approach. The two joined forces to launch her luxury fragrance brand, Eris Parfums, early last year, with a trio — Belle de Jour, Night Flower and Ma Bête.

Her inspiration was a story she had heard about the 1946 Jean Cocteau film, La Belle et la Bête . Reportedly, when the beast transforms into the prince at the end, actress Greta Garbo had cried out from the audience, ‘Give me back my beast (ma bête)’. “It’s an allegory for my discovery that vintage perfumes had this dark, erotic, emotional element that I felt was missing in most contemporary perfumes. So Antoine and I have reimagined the intensity and eros of perfumes of the past for a contemporary audience,” she says.

Herman believes the trend will keep growing as animalics will sway anyone “who likes so-called Oriental fragrances, like ouds, leathers and woody notes. I would say the profile of someone who likes this is a bold romantic.”

$150 (₹10,005 approx) for 50 ml. Details: erisparfums.com

Ellen Covey

Covey, the founder of Olympic Orchid, a US-based brand of handcrafted scents, teamed up with Wong’s Zoologist for Bat, which won the 2016 Art & Olfaction Award (independent). “I didn’t want to make a perfume that literally smells like a bat, but one that represents the cool, earthy, damp limestone cave where they live, the fruit they eat, and the clean, musky smell of their fur,” explains Covey, who trekked through the jungles of Jamaica in search of bat caves.

Though she believes working with animalics isn’t more challenging than any other scent — “it’s all a matter of balance — she believes this niche trend is in the forefront, with the mass market slowly catching up. “The early part of this century was dominated by scents that were ‘clean’ and ‘light’. The resurgence of animalic scents is just the fashion cycle coming back around,” says the perfumer, who is currently working on a scent inspired by a musical composition, which will have animalic notes.

From $18 (₹1,200 approx) for 5 ml. Details: orchidscents.com

Fragrant notes

On animalics going mainstream: “It is difficult to franchise an animalic-heavy creation across product forms, such as body lotions, shower gels, lip balms and candles. This often goes against brand strategies that seek to aggrandise touchstone scents,” says Bulliqi.

On the next big trend: “I hope it is not single note scents,” exclaims Covey. “Given the need for brands to constantly release new fragrances to remain in the public eye, perfumers may start releasing more limited-edition scents that are sold for a year and then discontinued, analogous to clothing designs.”

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