On the evening following Peony Haute Parfumerie’s launch of Arquiste Parfumeur I was invited to a dinner with Carlos Huber, the creator of Arquiste and Jill Timms, the owner of Peony Haute Parfumerie. Our host was Frances Peterson, the distributor of Arquiste here in Australia and New Zealand. Seated at a table scattered with picked gardenias in St Kilda’s chic Café di Stasio I was enjoying the diversity of the company I was sharing. We all came from very different backgrounds; we are all on different paths, each of us representing different elements of the perfume industry; the blogger, the retail entrepreneur, the distributor and the brand owner. Frances had offered me some time with Carlos at the bar to conduct an interview but I could see the conversation created by all four of us together was rich and well worth documenting. Putting the list of questions I had prepared for Carlos in my notepad aside I asked the table if they approved of me putting my recording device on the table and we continue our conversation over dessert.
Below is an edit of that conversation, which I hope translates well for you the reader, coming into our discussion towards the end of an evening. For me personally, I left this dinner feeling very inspired and I think many of the points Carlos, Jill and Frances were making were relatable for anyone, regardless of background or pursuit in life.
Clayton: I wanted to ask everyone; what are the experiences you have had that have contributed to you being here on this table tonight?
Carlos: That is a very good question. I did my degree in architecture and preservation and I was always brought up to think I was going to be a straightforward architect. But when my Dad would say, ‘imagine designing an airport’ I would think, ugh, I never want to do an airport, or a hospital or a corporate office building or anything like that. I think my life has taken me out of a lot of these conventions. I’ve been thrown into situations that are out of the norm, especially after high school. Before that, I had a very rigid, very square, proper upbringing. I was told this is what you do, this is the kind of school you go to, these are the kind of friends you have. I spent a full summer in Italy by myself and it really opened my eyes to a different kind of life where I was less bound. It is all a big chain of events, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be in New York if I hadn’t lived in Paris and I wouldn’t have gone to Paris if I hadn’t lived in Italy and learned Italian; feeling adapted and comfortable in Europe by myself. New York has been incredibly significant in my life because it is a melting pot of everything I have lived through so far; hence, when I got to New York I really felt strong. I felt I had a lot to give. And with any venture there are challenges impossible to predict. Jill, you might say the same thing; if anyone asked you, knowing how hard it is to do what you do, would you do it again? I did not stop to really ponder on how hard it could be, but would I do it all over again? Absolutely!
I don’t have a lot of technical knowledge about perfume, I don’t have years of experience in marketing or distribution or fragrance design but I know that I love all of it and that is the most important thing for me because it is about passion, and I know that with that passion I will force myself to learn as much as I can and read as much as I can, to be there for the store or for the distributor. To be there for the filler, for the perfumer and be there on Twitter if I have to be because I love what I do.
Sitting down on this table with all of you, is a good cross section of the industry; it’s remarkable because each of us can have a very specific take on our world. It is like a thread in a piece of fabric. If you pull one thing out then everything else doesn’t quite make sense and it will all come apart. For me, it is about risk, about journey, about travel. Travel has changed my life. I mean, the fact that my family had the insight to send me to Italy when I didn’t want to go to Canada for summer camp, instead sending me to Italy at 17 by myself (which is not that young, but I was quite a guarded child). That changed my life. It gave me a lot of courage. I have been through a lot of hardship and I have been through a lot of fortunate things as well but all those factors, even the hard ones have contributed to this moment, so it is good. What about you Jill?
Jill: About ten years ago I was frustrated with my working life, I felt very unfulfilled and I had a couple of years off and I did a lot of things at home, renovated, did all the things I wanted I do then I was bored and my husband said to me, OK you have always wanted to open your own store so he gave me a modest budget. I won’t even embarrass myself by admitting how small the amount was but he said OK go and find a store. I did it all by myself. I signed the lease, chose the name for my store and bought all the stock. I had no retail experience but I felt that it was meant to be and I love the fact that people come in and you engage in lovely conversation and maybe you entice them to purchase something. So ten years ago I opened my little store and I am really happy. It has been a lot of hard work and I have met some extraordinary people. What I love about the perfume world is that they become like a big family so when I travel they are all embracing. One of my favourite people is Gilles Thevenin (Lubin). In Paris, when you go to meet him, his office is in a very old building and as you walk up the stairs you are walking through centuries. His desk is filled with bottles. The last time I was there he was working on a formulation which didn’t have a name yet, it was just a number and I felt so grateful he included me and asked me what I thought of it. To me that is the best.
Frances: From the beginning I was a risk taker, I had no experience of what I was going into but I had been bought up to believe in myself without being cocky and to think that I could do anything. And I did things all along the way that challenged the norm and I have loved every minute of the journey, the last few years of Cire Trudon, Fornasetti and then the fortuitous discovery of Arquiste nine months ago. I had been searching for a fragrance brand for Becky Minty and Peony for years and the opportunity presented itself. It felt right. It’s all about knowing where the next step is and what you want to do. Not to necessarily analyse it but just to say, this is right and from the moment I was introduced to the name Arquiste, I understood the reason Cire Trudon were making the connection, the collaboration (Frances refers to the recent collaboration between Cire Trudon and Arquiste) and then Carlos and I emailed, we spoke on the phone and we started business together. It was right for the moment and it is a joy, a pleasure and a delight like with everything I do, I am involved and simply delighted by the opportunity I have to do what it is I do.
Carlos: Actually I have to say everybody feels that with you Frances. One thing that has been constant in my visit, everyone agrees on how dynamic, how passionate and how involved you are in everything. And I can say the same thing. I know that if I write an email or we are having a conversation, like, oh can you do this? I know I am going to get a response the very next day (with the time difference) and you are going to get a response from me the next day. And that is what you can expect from Frances. Everyone from Becker Minty and World and I am sure, Jill you will agree, everyone is in awe of how you carry your business. It’s amazing.
Frances: I love it so much. It is something you live and breathe. It’s not about the money or the success, it never has been. It is about the people who are involved, the relationships, it’s all of these elements. As I said, it is that serendipity, where you can meet someone that is interested in what you have to say, in what you are doing. This is the joy of it.
Carlos: So what about you Clayton?
Jill: Do you get to answer the question?
Clayton: I guess I should, it’s only fair right? Well, to me this moment signifies life. Here I am in St Kilda, a place where I lived 5 years ago, actually we are just around the corner from my old apartment. It is 2013 and now I am here sitting with three very different people. Carlos, I met in person this week. Frances I met two weeks ago when I went to her apartment in Sydney to collect Carlos’ perfumes to review and Jill I met through my blog. Actually Jill was the second person to follow me online. I remember receiving the email to say I had a new follower and I recognized the email address because Peony was a place I loved to shop. Actually my first purchase from Peony was a set of Cire Trudon candles. So this is what I love about life, this string of connections, people constantly coming into and out of one’s life. I never feel like a goodbye is a goodbye because there is always going to be an overlap somewhere down the line. This is also why I love perfume because perfume doesn’t know time. It sounds like a cliché but whenever I smell a perfume it can take me anywhere in time. I love to travel and I have always been fascinated going somewhere with historic significance like when I was in Versailles and I thought, the only thing that separates me from Marie Antoinette is time. I am standing right here in her home and if there was no such thing as time I would be face to face with her.
Jill: Isn’t that beautiful?
Frances: The thing is everyone at this table would have been comfortable speaking with her.
Jill: I would have been dumbfounded.
Frances: Oh you wouldn’t have. (Frances laughs) Four different personalities, with believe in self, in our own different ways, walking along the oak paths of Versailles, language barrier not withstanding, we would have been totally comfortable speaking with her, and I think that is an essential element. Wherever we got it from, we have all been audacious in our own ways. We have pushed the barriers.
Carlos: I think yes, you need self-confidence but I also think you need an amount of fear and doubt. This is very valuable, very productive and very humbling and I think the most successful people are always the ones that don’t quite believe the stories people make about them. You have to have some doubt and a little bit of insecurity. That is always valuable because it drives you to be better and it keeps you in check, it keeps you grounded.
Clayton: Carlos, what has been your biggest challenge creating Arquiste?
Carlos: There are a lot of challenges establishing a company like this; beyond the perfume, it’s also a business. In order to produce these fragrances you need enough of a return to then invest it back. I didn’t know much about business management, numbers and financials. So to learn more and to understand why I need to do projections is a challenge. This is an industry that is always about newness and improvement. Everyone expects something new and something better, so you always have to be mindful of this constant pressure. Nevertheless, I have been very fortunate. I have had a lot of support from critics, reviewers and bloggers. Everyone has had a positive perception of the brand. There were a few people in the beginning who said, ‘oh another niche line, etc?’ And that is yet another challenge, to not take it personally. Sometimes it’s just someone else’s idea that they are projecting on your creation. It is their own idea, taste or expectations. It has nothing to do with your value as a business owner, as a creative director, as a perfume brand. There is nothing that means we failed in that sense. There is always something to critique and there is always something to improve and that is OK. That is also our challenge, to sometimes step back and say it’s OK, it’s not the end of the world if this person likes a different type of tuberose.
Jill: So in terms of critics and reviewers, do you have much to do with them? Like Chandler Burr or Luca Turin?
Carlos: Having the connections in New York and Paris is fortunate of course; I was able to meet Octavian Coifan (www.1000fragrances.blogspot.com) early on and it was great talking with him and developing a relationship. Then I was introduced to Chandler Burr in New York and actually, I was really scared when I met him, but then we worked together on a scent dinner that went beautifully.
Jill: (Laughs) is he a scary man?
Carlos: Well people had told me he had a very strong opinion.
Jill: Well that is what you are supposed to have as a reviewer right?
Clayton: I met Chandler Burr for the first time in Florence last year and he is a big personality, in a sense he is a larger than life. I was fortunate to attend one of his scent dinners where he discusses perfume as art. And this is one of the questions I wanted to ask you all. Chandler Burr has positioned perfume as art and there is a large divide between those who agree and those who debate his stance. As a perfume blogger this is one of my challenges, to find appropriate language to describe perfume. There is a lack of language and disconnect between people discussing perfume in social media and the conversations that take place within the business or with the perfumer. How people describe and share a perfume experience over the Internet is often challenging for them. Taking critical practices from the visual art world, is this the answer?
Carlos: Architecture has given me an understanding of art that is different from the more conservative notion of art in a museum. What Chandler has done is very ambitious because he has placed fragrance in a museum saying this is beyond your practical appreciation or its function in your life; this is art for art’s sake and of course, this is very polarizing. Some critics say a scent is nothing without the person smelling it. And I think art placed in the exclusive domain of a gallery, museum or a collection can have that thing of it being just about the artist; what the artist was trying to do and what they were expressing. In my case, coming from architecture, art can be functional and technical; it always has to be inclusive. There has to be a certain degree of flexibility, a degree of, ‘well yeah that is quite perfect aesthetically or expressive but then where is the emergency staircase?’
I think fragrance is like that. It is functional, it needs a user and yes, it is for sale. Perfume can be a stunning work of art for art’s sake but it doesn’t have to be understood exclusively through and academic lens to be considered “artistic”. And that’s OK. I think this is the challenge Chandler probably battles with. That said, it is wonderful that someone is putting the discussion out there because it is forcing us to talk about it.
I don’t believe life is exclusively separated between highbrow and lowbrow. There are remarkable and despicable things in all domains.
I am going a little off topic but it adds to the point. With technology and everything like Instagram, Twitter and all these things, there is a certain comfort I have reached because I see that a lot of these technologies come in and then out of our use. It is comforting in the sense that I think a lot of our notions of how we live in this world right now might soon change and we will become simpler and we might step away from some of these notions that are actually toxic. Maybe at a certain point this kind of debate of classifying something as highbrow or lowbrow is not going to be important. I don’t know if that will be in our lifetime.
Jill: I don’t find social media always connects people. I think there is a lot of loneliness out there. People think these things connect people but I don’t think they always do.
Frances: I agree. I have embraced social media a little bit because you are all involved in it and it is interesting but it is not like the conversation we are having in this moment.
Carlos: We’re all trying to understand how it will ultimately affect our lives. For me there’s a parallel between Facebook and living in a city like New York. There are a lot of young people moving there from all over the world, to work, to study or to have something happen in their lives. It is like Facebook in real life. You are constantly meeting, meeting, and meeting people. And everyone just wants to make friends because everyone is alone; everyone wants an “inner circle” and everyone wants a partner.
Jill: It’s nice.
Carlos: It is lovely- but can also be disappointing. You meet someone and you “connect” and you open yourself to start building a relationship. Sometimes it works out and they become true friends but most times you realize that just because you met them at a party, or at work and have a similar life in the city, it doesn’t make it a more in-depth connection. When people say this about social media that is it “disconnecting” it is granting relationships before social media a lot of credit, as if every relationship before Facebook was the most significant ever. Before or after Facebook some people just don’t connect or communicate well, so I think it is also a human thing, not exclusive to technology. Now, with social media there is more opportunity to connect. People that are good at communicating are able to connect easier and the people that are not will continue to be that way.
Frances: There is more opportunity now.
Carlos: Yes there is more opportunity now. Oh but this is a whole discussion on social media and not perfume!
Clayton: That’s OK.
Carlos: I find it wonderful. Particularly because I am from Mexico, I lived in Europe, I’m living in the States and now I am here in Australia, completely at ease and at home. I could live here if you put me here tomorrow, I absolutely could. I find the world we live in terribly exciting and I am very grateful for everything that makes that possible.
Clayton: And then to talk of perfume, what do you think is the future, particularly with niche? Do you think the term niche needs to be revised or do you think it is still current?
Jill: I don’t like the word niche. I try not to compartmentalize things to make the experience of visiting my store very accessible to everyone. Maybe, as we were talking about perfume as art, I like the term artistic perfumery. For me niche or artistic perfumery is not like mass perfumery where there is perhaps a more modest budget and the finished product has to be a perfume that is more accessible or more approachable. So often I approach a visitor to Peony from the point of; if you want to smell unlike other people, hopefully together we can find something that marries beautifully with you as an individual. I don’t like the term niche and I don’t like the term unisex either. We don’t present our perfumes as being gender specific. I wish men would wear more florals but they just… I don’t know it’s a boy thing. We should break down these barriers. If it had Homme on the bottle, if it was a floral he would wear it. Women are more active in choosing a challenging fragrance, there are some polarizing fragrances in my store but there is that magic moment when someone comes in and they find something they really adore and they want to take it home. I remember someone being asked what their definition of a niche or artistic perfume brand is and he replied he once gave a brief to a perfumer to make a perfume that only three people in the world would like. I think it is about pushing boundaries, using new techniques, new technologies and in the end making something that is beautiful. There are some truly horrible artistic perfumes out there and some terrible commercial ones. But my point of difference is to try and showcase smaller brands that don’t have extensive advertising budgets. It is all about what goes into the bottle. There is an integrity and love that goes into them. With most of the brands in my store, I have met the brand owners and the perfumers and I like that. I like to be able to tell their story.
Carlos: I think we will see. But I think the trend for individuality is going to continue to grow. For example, I think it is very significant what you are doing with your fragrances Clayton (earlier in the evening I discussed a plan to create my own perfume line- a very small numbered edition I would make available to readers of my blog). And I think that is a marker of where we are going to go. There is more access now to distribute your passion, to bottle your own dream and spread it. I think that will happen more and more. People are increasingly more educated and people are more curious, which is the most important thing; more than being educated, curiosity is the thing. I think more and more it will become normal for people to wear something bespoke or unique. I don’t know if it will take 10, 20 or 50 years, but I think individuality will become the mainstream.
Frances: And don’t we have a parallel in the wine industry worldwide? There are young winemakers doing what the young perfumers are doing, expressing their individuality.
Carlos: You know, this is accepted now and it is encouraged. Actually now it is expected.
Clayton: How do you think the public will differentiate? Because with the opening of this floodgate, where you have everyone doing something, now there are so many niche or artistic lines being launched, some good, some bad, there is no benchmark or quality control established.
Carlos: It’s like evolution. Only the strongest survive.
Frances: Yes, like last night. Peony’s clients knew Jill was introducing something new, and they knew they could trust her and she was presenting something worthy of them coming to experience. And when you put on your blog that you have perfected your first endeavours.
Clayton: I don’t know about having perfected anything Frances.
Frances: But you will have perfected it, because you will say, this is it.
Jill: Maybe striving for perfection?
Frances: Because of the respect you have, people will respond.
Carlos: And again, the ones that don’t make it and “fail” are only shaping the best ones to come. Who knows where I will end up, but it is still good to be out there.
Clayton: It is a great journey.
Jill and Carlos: You have to participate.
Jill: You have to engage. Standing on the edge looking in is not participating. And as you say, that fear of failure keeps you motivated.
Frances: I know people who don’t have self-confidence or the ability to meet a challenge, to take a risk or whatever. It must be a very frightening world, a daunting world; not nearly as comforting as somebody who can step out there and think it is OK.
Jill: Oh we are getting very philosophical!
Carlos: I think it is a new world. And I love that about where we come from. It is about building, it is about being entrepreneurial, and it is about endeavouring.
Clayton: I also have to ask a question from one of my readers who won my Arquiste competition.
Carlos: Oh yes, that’s right.
Clayton: Choosing a favourite perfume note is like choosing a favourite child but if you had to narrow your choice to one, what would it be and why?
Carlos: I think orange blossom for me.
Jill: I knew you were going to say that.
Carlos: It is the beginning of life and the end of life. You have the orange fruit and at the same time the indolic smell of, how do you call it, the smell of sanctity? In the Catholic Church they say when saints pass away they give off the odour of sanctity. Well it is basically the cells breaking down, the separation of sugars from the molecules. It is the start of putrefaction. The orange blossom has a note of that.
I think the orange tree and the orange fruit is the smell of the planet earth. It encapsulates everything from mineral to herbal to floral to animalic. It can be sweet, it can be bitter and it can be sour. And I think it is relevant for different cultures for different reasons. It certainly is part of my culture and I just love it in every way: I love orange blossom in colognes. I love it in heady Middle Eastern fragrances that focus on it; it is the one accord that resonates with me more than all the roses and musks used in this style. It represents so many things in the planet, including the human race, and above all of that I just love the way it smells, it is pure and innocent but so mysterious and complex.
Jill: It is a very honest ingredient.
Carlos suggested I read El Naranjo (1994) a book by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. I have since found a copy- The Orange Tree in English. Following this conversation I have embarked on a perfume-making journey to create a fragrance inspired by this dinner conversation and the orange tree.
Photo: Bill Henson (this untitled image hangs in the dining room of Cafe di Stasio in St Kilda)