Monday, July 31, 2017

Two American Perfumers And Their Modern Approach To Fragrance


The year was 2005 and people who love perfume had more places to visit on the Internet. Just as independent blogs provided more venues to discuss fragrance, people who has small businesses making and selling their own perfumes opened online stores. Several of them were Europeans*, but the biggest boom was seen in North America, and the majority of these indie perfumers were American women, who joined perfumers such as Maria McElroy (Aroma M), Mandy Aftel of Aftelier, and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz who've been running their own businesses for several years at that point.

If I were to stick pins in a US map to mark the locations of indie perfumeries you'd see a large cluster in California, and a smaller but substantial one in Brooklyn, NY. However, the two of the most fascinating perfumers I could think about are outside these areas in more ways than one. Both Serena Ava Goode (Massachusetts) and Liz Zorn (Ohio) launched their online stores, Ava Luxe and Soivohle, in 2005. Their work couldn't have been more different from the very start.

The first devoted followers of Ms. Goode found her because they were yearning for perfumes that were quickly becoming extinct. Her version of the classic Crepe de Chine is still in her catalog for a good reason: it's fantastic. Ava Luxe perfumes became cult favorites first for the true chypres, probably because 2005 also marked the beginning of IFRA restrictions that practically eliminated them. Then there was Ms. Goode's special touch for creating animalic musks, gourmands, and perhaps my favorites: fig perfumes. Fans cite Ava Luxe's Loukhoum as superior to both Serge Lutens Rahat Loukoum and Keiko Mecheri's Loukhoum. I'm not going to argue with that, as I wear all three (not together, I promise). The Ava Luxe interpretation is, indeed, heavenly.

The aesthetic sensibility of Ava Luxe perfumes has always seemed centered around the pretty and feminine. Bold or soft, the fragrances evoke the classic sensuality often associated with (French) perfume. There's a fascination with the exotic and orientalism that can be traced to the early days of the modern fragrance industry;  these are perfumes that were meant to smell like Perfumes and do so unabashedly. The more modern gourmands scents in the line also make a statement. They're literal and satisfying, offering the comforts of wearing not only Turkish delight but also condensed milk (Milk) and cookies (Madeline).

Soivohle perfumes come from a different place. Answering my question regarding her start as a perfumer, Liz Zorn says:
"I was particularly seduced by the idea of free form artistry juxtaposed against a backdrop of rigid structure. I am a painter and former graphic artist, so creatively there was a bit of an overlap that felt natural to me". 
Ms. Zorn is an abstract painter (you can view her visual art here). The canvases bursting with shapes and colors are not unlike her perfumes. The first whiff always takes me by surprise with a bold stroke that sometimes goes where you think it might, though not always. The collection relies on natural materials (90% and higher). If you've ever smelled raw ingredients in their pure form you know that they're not necessarily pretty. It's the alchemy and synergy of the blending that makes them wearable. It can be an acquired taste, since as Liz says, she enjoys working with "quirky smells" and lists some of her favorite notes: agarwood, mushroom, linden, earthy, green, waxy, gummy absolutes and concretes, lotus blossom and boronia. While not everyone is amenable to mushroomy perfumes, many Soivohle perfumes lean towards chypre, especially leathery or green ones. I was not all that surprised to hear that the one perfume outside her own collection Ms. Zorn wears is  original Caleche. You won't find a smell-alike in Soivohle, but the love of oakmoss is there, whether you go straight to Green Oakmoss or in the wild thickets of Meerschaum.

It's interesting to compare Liz Zorn's untamed chypres to those of Serena Ava Good. These are two different worlds and sensibilities, but sometimes all roads lead to oakmoss. Or to leather. I've been thinking about one of my favorite perfumes in the known universe,  vintage Jolie Madame. There's nothing quite like that anywhere, yet in Soivohle oft-discontinued Purple Rain Smoke you can smell a hint of that, only deconstructed and then reconstructed in an avant-garde way. It's not wistful or vintage-inspired, it's just an extraordinary perfume.

Speaking of violets, I went digging in my sample cabinet (yes, I have a separate cabinet for perfume samples. It's perfectly normal) when preparing to write this post and dug out Soivohle Lilacs & Heliotrope, which Liz Zorn describes as having "vintage feel with a modern twist", and Ava Luxe's Doll Face. So many of the notes are similar, with the delicate florals taking center stage while sitting on a very musky base. Where Lilacs & Heliotrope is a pulled-together grownup, Doll Face is, as Serena Goode says, "precious". It's a comforting and vanillic take on a subject we all know from Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue, with the twist here is the lacy white curtains and delicate miniature china tea set. It's definitely not a case of "If you love this you'll enjoy that", both are wonderful in their own way and deserve the attention of lilac lovers at least for the experience.

Now let's go back to where it all started, in 2005 as online conversation about perfume became more popular right along small artisan perfumeries. The Internet is not what it used to be. Social media has become the obvious place for marketing and introducing everything, from blockbusters to obscure products in every category. It's the new word-of-mouth that was once limited to websites like Makeup Alley and those in the know. In the new reality where self-promotion seems non-negotiable and utterly necessary, Ava Luxe keeps the most minimal presence if any. I'm pretty sure I haven't even gotten a newsletter in years. It hasn't stopped me from buying and restocking my favorites (being able to buy very small bottles means that one actually uses up things), but I'm pretty sure it's limiting the possibility of growth, especially since the glut of new releases obscures the view. It's hard to keep up as it is, and it's easy to forget the It Perfumes of yesteryear.

In comparison, Liz Zorn's perfume business, while being what we call "micro-niche", has a strong visibility inside our not-so-little bubble. In my opinion, Ms. Zorn has managed that which impossible: promoting without being obnoxious about it.  In her words:

"From a business standpoint it’s [social media] a good fit for us. Being in Cincinnati and not New York, having quick access to the public, being able to share our news with a larger audience via social networking is a big plus. I do the day to day social for our brand, and try to keep up with messaging, responding to requests and questions from our social network outlets. I think social has taken the place of the press release. We no longer send out press releases.
As far as how it affects the larger picture, it is somewhat of a double edged sword. There can be a big buzz about something one day and it’s forgotten the next. A story may circulate for a day or two with comments and buzz, then it’s gone forever. This can happen to new launches,events, etc. The constant stream of virtual imagery can be overwhelming. The trick I guess, is finding that happy place between promotion and real information. "

This brings us to the reason for this post. It started on Twitter, when several perfume writers were discussing our disappointment with an Allure magazine piece, The American Perfumers Modern Approach to Fragrance. There are various reasons to give the side-eye to the magazine and the writer, but the most obvious to us was the near complete exclusion of women perfumers. Yes, they do mention Estee Lauder, but as pioneering and inspiring as the grand dame was, she was not a perfumer. She did not compose any of the fragrances bearing her name. Youth Dew, which is discussed in Allure, was created by Josephine Catapano, who deserves to be celebrated for her achievements, as do other women perfumers, American and foreign, especially those who also run their own businesses. We came up with so many of our favorites during that Twitter chat that we decided to do more research and write our own articles. This was the result.

You can read more on Bois de Jasmin, EauMG Perfume Professor, The Scented Salamander, and this guest post by Alyssa Harrad on BdJ. 



*This is where we all should thank French perfumer Victoire Gobin-Daudé who launched her eponymous line in 2002, clearly ahead of her time, and was completely gone from the scene by 2005-2006.


Art: Rudolf Ernst,  The Perfume Makers, late 19th century to early 20th century.


One last note: None of the links above is affiliated nor do I get any monetary or other gain, and they're only included for the reader's convenience.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful article. I have enjoyed a few of Liz Dorn's scents, but not Ava Goode's yet. I really like Ms. Dorn's comments regarding social media. I had become somewhat slack in keeping up with new fragrances, etc. and had not purchased anything new lately. I feel excited and encouraged by this post to begin again (although not necessarily with "new" ones). It's always a special pleasure to find a new post on "The Non-Blonde." THANKS...Judy

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    1. Don't know why I put "D"orn. Sorry LiZ Zorn.

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  2. Thank you for linking us to Liz Zorn's paintings- how beautiful! It seems almost a little unfair for someone to be so talented in multiple creative pursuits. (I have the same "complaint" about Andy Tauer!)

    The ways the internet has changed is on my mind a lot lately, too. Increasingly, I blame Facebook, buying up every other social media outlet and imposing its algorithms. How many authentic voices are lost beneath all the Sponsored Content? Instagram is a particularly bitter loss- it was pretty much perfect pre-Facebook (although Stories is a nice feature).

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  3. Just chiming in to say that I am a huge fan of the Soivohle and Ava Luxe lines, and often daydream about finding a dusty bottle of Gobin-Daude's Nuit au Desert at the bottom of some department store clearance bin....

    Ava Luxe No. 23 (unfortunately discontinued at the moment) is one of my favorite perfumes, and Liz Zorn's creations consistently provide an intriguing olfactory experience. That last might sound like faint praise - it's really not. The "intriguing olfactory experience" is what makes her scents so compelling.

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    Replies
    1. Gasp! No.23 discontinued? Good thing I have bottles in every formulation Serena ever made. ;-) Of course, I remember Bois Exotique disappeared for a while, but it's back now and every bit as good as it ever was.

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  4. Thank you for this thoughtful article and for reminding us of Victoire Gobin-Daudé. I remember asking her about a possible relaunch of her perfumes, but, alas, she seemed completely uninterested. That was about a decade ago. There are two Ava Luxe scents I personally love and recommend, Café Noir and Frangipani (hope I got the names right off the top of my head)

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