Since Aesop began making fragrances in 2005, the cult Australian brand has maintained an independent voice within the beauty industry. Instead of releasing a predictably composed perfume, Aesop’s first fragrance, Marrakech, was an elixir of essential oils and Mystra, Aesop’s second fragrance, was even more unorthodox. Following a recent shift in focus, Aesop worked with Mane perfumer Barnabé Fillion to recut Marrakech in 2015. The new version was called Marrakech Intense. Then came IFF perfumer Céline Barel’s Tacit, a salty vetiver scent garnished with basil and radiant citrus fruit.
In September Aesop launched a new fragrance called Hwyl, which was another collaboration with Barnabé Fillion. Once again Aesop proved its ability to find the sweet spot in creative perfumery where nature meets chemistry and science meets art. Hwyl is a shortlist of carefully curated botanical ingredients, unified and given structure with modern synthetic ingredients. An element of Aesop’s style I appreciate is the balance the brand’s creators strike between nature and that which is manmade. The natural ingredients’ rawness is left intact and nature’s flaws are left exposed. It is a balance all photographers have to find – when to stop retouching an image. Perfumers face the same challenge with all the special effects they can apply to a fragrance using synthetics. When I smelled Hwyl for the first time I was immediately transported to a cool and misty forest. Below the canopy I could smell wood and damp mosses and I could imagine the texture of corrugated tree bark in my hand. There was no mistaking the image Aesop wanted to conjure with Hwyl.
Barnabé Fillion was in Sydney for Hwyl’s launch and he spoke about the inspiration behind the fragrance he created with Aesop’s Dr Kate Forbes, General Manager, Products and R&D. “Since the beginning we discussed the recapturing of a feeling of stillness and silence, something very particular that you can feel when you are alone in nature and this was much more amplified by some different travels that I have done in Japan, and how I had so much admiration for their veneration for ancient trees. I walked into this forest and there was this three hundred year old Hiba tree. I got the idea to have a strong verdancy from the forest. It’s the idea of awakening the senses. The idea when you smell this perfume is to make you feel how you feel when you are quiet in nature. Hwyl is a woody smoky perfume. It is focused on the aromas of the mosses you can find in the forest. But you also have these robust spices. I would say that it starts with this smokiness and we didn’t want it to be too strong so there is this contrast from the beginning from the freshness of a lime-thyme extract then the heart is definitely all the smells of the forest. The main one is cypress so it is quite green and lush. There is something about the way they evolve. You go into the under woods and this is a sensual earthy smell and it comes from vetiver. Then you have, for me, a very strong resin smell, which comes from this idea of scratching the trees and getting more in the details of the smells of the forest, and that’s the frankincense.”
Over the years I’ve written on my blog about consciously traveling with a new fragrance so that the memory of a foreign place becomes attached to a scent I wear. Coincidentally Tacit reminds me of a small Airbnb apartment in Barcelona because I wrote my review from there. Although Hwyl reminds me of Aesop’s press event for the fragrance where guests had to cloak their shoes and walk barefoot down a path of wet moss to the event, which was also memorable, Hwyl reminds me mostly of Vietnam, because it was the fragrance I wore when I was there in October. Ho Chi Minh City had no ancient Hiba forests but there was certainly a parallel between the fragrance and this chaotic city, which is embracing the 21st century and globalisation even if the culture is still closely linked to and dependent on nature.
Hwyl opens with a fizzy pink pepper note, thyme and elemi. Pink pepper and elemi both have a green, fresh resinous facet that connects to frankincense in the base. This verdancy in continued by cypress as the heart note with suede and a hint of cooling geranium. As these dynamic notes subside the stoic woody notes begin to take control. Like a 300-year-old tree, measured and patient, the scent of moss and cedarwood gradually builds presence. A wash of transparent woods keeps the fragrance buoyant, modern and relevant to skin, which is important. Many indie fragrances are interesting smells but they lose sight of the fact that the fragrance needs to be wearable. Even if Hwyl tests this boundary (the fragrance would be amazing in a candle) it works as a body scent. Sandalwood, vetiver, myrrh and patchouli add to the complexity of the base built from cedarwood, moss and frankincense. Hwyl, which is a Welsh word that means to stir an emotion of motivation and energy, evokes this intangible experience and is one of my favourite new fragrances for 2017.
Olfactive direction: Dr Kate Forbes
Perfumer: Barnabé Fillion (MANE)
Release Date: 2017
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Dry woods
Notes: Pink pepper, thyme, elemi, cypress, suede, geranium, sandalwood, vetiver, myrrh, patchouli, cedar wood, moss, frankincense