For my first blog post of 2014 I wanted to write about Neela Vermeire Creations, a collection of perfumes that pay homage to Creator, Neela Vermeire’s birthplace, India. After spending the past three weeks travelling in India, I feel more connected to these perfumes having experienced India’s diverse smellscape firsthand, even though I have been a fan and follower of Neela since we first met in 2012. I was introduced to Neela, a Paris-based perfume lover turned perfume entrepreneur in Florence, Italy where she was presenting her collection at the annual perfume exposition, Pitti Fragranze. To realize her vision Neela worked with two creatives, both leaders in their respective fields. The first was Bertrand Duchaufour, a French perfumer who needs no introduction to devotees of niche perfumes. As the ‘nose’ behind Neela’s fragrances, Bertrand combined a rich palette of exquisite notes, a true reflection of the perfumer’s modus operandi; innovative perfumes built with the most exceptional raw materials. The other creative Neela worked with was perfume bottle designer Pierre Dinand. Pierre has designed perfume bottles for fashion houses such as Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein. Chances are, if you have worn perfume in the past fifty years, your hands have touched his work. Although this partnership was undoubtedly a strategic arrangement on Neela’s part, the pairing seems almost serendipitous. Bertrand is known for fragrances that evoke travel to exotic lands and India is a place he admires greatly. After studying art in Paris during the early 1950s, Pierre’s link to ancient Asian civilizations began when he studied Asian temples and sculptures for more than a year and attended courses at the Royal Art School of Cambodia after being drafted by the army for the Vietnam War. Working with Bertrand Duchaufour and Pierre Dinand, Neela Vermeire has created what is for me, one of the most interesting and personal perfume collections to be launched in recent years. In 2012 when I met Neela in Florence her collection numbered three and a fourth was in development. With her fourth perfume now completed, her collection takes its audience on four unique yet connected journeys, exploring India’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.
Trayee delves into the heart of India’s primordial wisdom, the Vedas. Since the beginning of time, the Vedas have been handed down from guru to disciple beginning with Lord Brahma, the God of Creation. The Vedas’ hymns, incantations and mantras are the foundation of India’s Vedic social and religious system, commonly known today as Hinduism. A large portion of the Vedas is dedicated to yagna or sacrifice. Far from the Western fantasy of sacrificial offerings, Vedic sacrifice prescribes offerings of grains and butter into the sacrificial fire coupled with very precise chanting of Vedic mantras. Animal or human sacrifices are never offered and would be considered impure and untouchable by the priestly brahmins whose duty it is to perform these ceremonies for the spiritual welfare of the population. Trayee captures the mood of these intricate ceremonies with notes of incense, Mysore sandalwood and “ganja effects,” a reference to the worship of Lord Shiva, one of India’s most popular deities. Tulasi or holy basil is used in Vedic medicine and followers of Lord Vishnu worship the plant as it is said that “whoever will be moistened or anointed with the water that has been sanctified by Tulasi leaves, will reap the benefits of having bathed in all the sacred rivers and performed all kinds of sacrifices.” Basil is a prominent note in Trayee, bringing its characteristic greenness to the beginning of the fragrance, and blending well with spicy notes as the perfume progresses towards its incense-fuelled finish. The entire fragrance is garlanded with precious jasmine sambac and anointed with auspicious saffron.
Ashoka pays tribute to Emperor Ashoka, the third monarch of India’s Mauryan dynasty. The young prince was ruthless in his quest for the throne and during his reign as Emperor; Ashoka’s armies attacked and conquered Kaligna. Legend has it he was horrified by the death and destruction caused by his conquest and this lead him to a change of heart. The Emperor dedicated the rest of his life applying Buddhist principals to the administration of his empire. Ashoka makes the heart surrender to a unique bouquet of water hyacinth, jasmine sambac, rose and lotus. References to the lotus flower are common in classical Indian literature; it is used as an adjective and comparison for various types of beauty. Deities and heroes are often described as having “lotus-eyes” or “lotus-breath” and Buddha is often pictured seated upon a lotus flower. Although I had smelled lotus absolute prior to this visit to India, it wasn’t until I smelled freshly cut lotus flowers in the flower markets of Madurai that I began to appreciate the flower’s subtle charm. For Ashoka, the lotus accord is brilliantly coupled with a soft fig milk accord, which later merges into the milky notes of sandalwood and heliotrope that are positioned in the base of the perfume. Symbolizing the Emperor’s evolution from tyrant to benevolent leader, Ashoka unfolds on skin like the petals of a lotus flower, revealing ever-increasing levels of tenderness.
Mohur is the scent of decadence. Whilst the Vedas prescribe a life of simplicity and Ashoka speaks of humility, Mohur revives all the spoils of life enjoyed by India’s Moghul Empire. Mohur is the name of India’s most valuable gold coin, which was minted until 1918. No doubt a fair number of gold coins were required to create Mohur’s juice, which has been packed with costly natural raw materials. The perfume takes inspiration from the powerful Moghul Empress Noor Jahan, who following the death of her husband, spent the remaining years of her life devoted to the art of perfumery, a craft that had been past down to the Empress by her mother. Mohur is an opulent rose perfume (the formula requires no less than 11%) using rose oils and absolutes gathered from various countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Just as the ancient trade routes opened Moghul-ruled India to new experiences; Mohur is a melange of exotic essences gathered from abroad. Mohur’s floral bouquet is completed with jasmine, violet flower and iris, which lead to a base of subtle oriental notes, sandalwood and oudh. In perfumery, rose is often described as the King of Flowers and Mohur’s rose is pure blue blood, dignified and regal.
Bombay Bling is another masterpiece of combinations. The city of Bombay, modern India’s beloved Mumbai is a city of contrasts; East meets West, affluent movie stars and business people live alongside the less fortunate and the traditional values of the past underpin a city that desires to move forward with a modern India. This dynamic city that never sleeps is summarized by Neela’s Bombay Bling, a fragrance built by clever contrasts. To pass Bombay Bling off as a tropical fruit perfume misses the interesting complexities that lie beneath its mango and lychee top notes. Below this fruity veneer, which also includes blackcurrant, lies a complex mix of white florals, gardenia, rose and jasmine. Paired with the fruit accords is a contrasting mix of cumin, cardamom and cistus. Unexpectedly, a base of patchouli, tobacco, woods and vanilla bring the fragrance to its conclusion. Bombay Bling might begin as a beach party in a bottle, but as the perfume evolves on skin, it develops into something much more profound.
Since discovering Neela’s collection, Mohur has always been my firm favourite but after travelling through India with samples of her collection, Neela’s Ashoka has become my new favourite. Thinking that my love of fig perfumes ended with the seminal Philosykos by Diptyque, Ashoka has given me a refreshed appreciation of fig notes in perfumery. During my time in India, Neela was also visiting, although our paths did not cross as I was in the south and she was further north. Instead we exchanged emails and I had the opportunity to ask her ten questions.
Ten Questions for Neela Vermeire:
WMSSL: Knowing that you created your brand from the ground up and it wasn’t a case of customizing existing perfume formulas and bottles to suit your design brief, what was the biggest challenge you faced during the early days, starting out?
Neela Vermeire: There were too many challenges to mention. We found our way with some great help from friends in the perfume world and also from good suppliers. I experienced enough challenges, ups and downs to write a book.
WMSSL: Did you have any major realizations along the way that made you transit from Neela Vermeire the perfumista to Neela Vermeire the experienced brand owner?
Neela Vermeire: It was when I understood, after meeting several independent perfumers that my homage to India could take place in the form of my three initial perfumes. It was my way of reconnecting with the India that I had left behind.
WMSSL: What has been your proudest brand moment so far?
Neela Vermeire: When we saw our new bottle and packaging. It was a reward for a few years of hard work.
WMSSL: How does a collaboration between you, perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and bottle designer Pierre Dinand take place? You all have unique skill sets yet you depend on each other to take a perfume from concept to a finished product.
Neela Vermeire: My collaboration with Bertrand has been for longer as we co-developed a total of four perfumes together. With Pierre Dinand, it was to develop our own NVC flacon that would be owned by the company and be exclusive for our creations.
WMSSL: No doubt during the creative process, you have been exposed to many of the raw materials used in fine perfumery. Do you have any favourite raw materials, notes or accords?
Neela Vermeire: Sandalwood and Iris stand out for me among many.
WMSSL: What can we expect to see from Neela Vermeire Creations in the next 12 months?
Neela Vermeire: Mohur Extrait will come out next in 2014. We always have a few projects but it is too early to mention when they will be ready.
WMSSL: With the perfume industry constantly evolving, is there anything you think is greatly lacking in the way perfumes are currently made, sold or appreciated by the public?
Neela Vermeire: No comment although I think many people underestimate the difficulty in creating true niche fragrances and the cost of creating these perfumes. The larger public appears to be taken up by mass-prestige brands that often (not necessarily always) have lower unit costs.
WMSSL: If you had the choice to be reincarnated as a Vedic sadhu, a Moghul Empress, a Bollywood starlet or a Buddhist monk in search of enlightenment, which life would you choose and why?
Neela Vermeire: If I had to go back to the past it would be as a Mogul Empress for the fabulous food, life, jewels, clothes, perfumes (to participate in Empress Noor Jahan’s fragrance hobby), and for the arts and architecture.
WMSSL: If you, Bertrand and Pierre were driving from Mumbai to Mysore, who would be behind the wheel, who would be giving directions and who would be in the back seat taking in all the scenery?
Neela Vermeire: I have driven with Pierre and he is a fantastic driver. I have never driven with Bertrand. I too love driving. To answer your question – I think Pierre would be the main driver but we would all share turns (it is a long drive!). We would all get the opportunity to navigate and enjoy the scenery. Realistically speaking – as everyone does – we would get a driver in India to drive us around.
WMSSL: Finally, what are the must-see or must-smell things that every perfume lover visiting your fragrant birthplace should do?
Neela Vermeire: Visit the local flower markets, spice markets, shops where traditional perfumes like attars and other perfumery materials are sold, handicraft stores and emporiums – India has some of the most wonderful handicraft items. You should also experience the “chor bazaars” as they can be real treasure troves. I would avoid all those newish shopping malls! The bazaars have so much more character.
For more information on Neela Vermeire Creations, visit www.neelavermeire.com