Christopher Brosius started exploring the world of fragrance while he was working at Kiehl's. In 1993, he left Kiehl's and founded Demeter, where he eventually built up a huge "fragrance library" of individual smells translated into perfume. You can hear Christopher talking about his work at Demeter on the radio show Studio 360.
Demeter specialized in capturing a specific odor, or scent memory. In retrospect it seems like a brilliant idea, but I am wondering if you were surprised by how successful the company became?
Yes actually I was surprised – I knew on an intuitive level that there were a lot of people who wanted something different from fragrance but wasn't really prepared for just how many. I'm still slightly astonished sometimes by the number of people who respond so powerfully to my work. It's really wonderful though!
Many of the fragrances you created for Demeter were inspired by memories of your childhood on a farm in Pennsylvania. Is there a particular smell from that time that you love but that you have not yet captured to your satisfaction?
Birthday candles – that scent has been particularly elusive. I'm still working on it though. Puppy has also been very hard but I'm actually very close to solving that scent.
I have a new collection of scents that will be appearing in my gallery beginning later in the year that are all about memories of my childhood – the collection will be called Secret History.
For a number of years, the scents that I love best myself have been the most popular with my customers and clients – that’s always astonished me. Still the wonderful thing about any scent is that no two people smell it in just the same way – my memories are always different from those of my clients yet each person who chooses to wear one of my fragrances has a unique association of their own with the scent. I think that's one of the most magical and marvelous things about scent in general.
And are there any notes that you dislike and prefer not to work with?
There are a number of commonly used aromachemicals I personally cannot stand - hydromercenol is one such. Indole is another chemical that I am very sensitive to and keep it to a bare minimum in the white flower scents I create.
I loathe the majority of synthetic "musks" and will not have a pure "musk" scent in my collection - at least not until I can either get real musk which I understand is now being farmed once again in China (they've found a way to extract it from the deer without harming them although it's prohibitively expensive at the moment) or it can be successfully genetically engineered.
Any clients or customers who insist on having "Musk" I direct to Kiehl's - they have the best Musk I've smelled - I can appreciate it objectively but still can't stand it!
I do have a number of accords though that I use in place of musk as the base of a number of my scents: Old Leather, Cistus, certain Ambers, White Truffle and Oakmoss can all be combined to give that beautiful deep rich sexy skin note that "musk" is supposed to evoke.
As a matter of fact, I'm working on a "Skin" series now - they're going to be a small collection of scents that just make the skin smell like SKIN! I'm hoping to have this collection complete by the fall of this year - I'm planning on having these individually available but am also planning on using them in the bases of some of my custom perfumes. I'll keep you posted!
Many of your scents for CB I Hate Perfume also seem to be evocative of a specific place or time. Other than the obvious fact that you will be able to work on a smaller, more personal scale, how do you see your focus now as differing from Demeter?
I’ve gone back now to making true perfume – my mission has always been to use the "notes" created to tell very specific stories with scent. My scents are now far more complex yet still very special and unique.
My perfumes are not now about simply causing "sensation" but using that sensation intentionally to make the person who wears the scent feel really wonderful and special. It's the difference between "oh my god this smells just like dirt!" and "I love this because I love gardening and I'm always happiest then".
Because the sensations evoked by fragrance are so individual and unique, I prefer to work on a small scale – this keeps me in close contact with all the people who use my scents – I want to know how they use them, why they use them and what they really want to smell! I've always chosen to create perfumes that do something for those who use them – they must make people feel GOOD.
Alan Cumming appears to be having a blast promoting the Cumming fragrance, and I would imagine he was fun to work with. Did he approach you with specific ideas about what he wanted his fragrance to smell like, or how did you develop the scent?
Alan is having a blast and he is great fun to work with. I've known him for years now and he's always been a great fan of my work. CUMMING the Fragrance started as a personal scent that I was designing for Alan himself. He was completely involved with deciding what the scent was going to be and what was going to be in it – it's made from Alan's favorite smells.
It was our mutual friend Jason Schell (the former creative director at Kiehl') who had the idea of turning it into a scent we would actually sell and came up with the Theater Of Fragrance idea that the promotion is all about. I've been approached a LOT over the past ten years to do "celebrity" scents but Alan's is the first one that seemed like a really good idea – that it would be fun – fragrance takes itself far too seriously too much of the time...
The whole project has been a blast to work on. Alan is charming, witty, sexy, extremely talented and versatile in the work he chooses to do and is very funny to boot. Making a fragrance that says all that and smells great when you wear it (if I say so myself!) was SO much fun!
Which of your perfumes are you most proud of and why?
Now that's a tough question and I'm not sure how to answer it. I really don't think about my scents in those terms. There are a number I love though – CB93 for instance, which I'm just about to release – it's one of my personal scents and I wear it a lot in the summer. It's so bright and green...
I was very proud of Snow – I worked such a long time on capturing that scent although now I'm redoing it. I realized that I can now capture it far more exactly than I could back in 1999 when I first did it. And that means that I can finally after ten years, do the perfume that I originally created Snow for...
I think though that I am proudest of the effect that my scent have on people – there's a wonderful smile they get when I create something special for them or they find a perfume I've made that they really love. The scent truly means something to them and they really light up. That's always the effect I go for and it's really wonderful to see!
You have said that before you became a perfumer, you almost never wore cologne yourself. The obvious question from a fragrance addict: when you did wear cologne, what did you wear? And are there certain lines or perfumers whose work you particularly admire now that you are in the field yourself?
I did wear Chanel for Men ages ago as well as Guerlain's Vetivert. I also had a bottle of Penhaligon's Quercus when it was first introduced although I didn't wear it all that often. These were good but not quite exactly what I had in mind.
I've always very much admired the Hermes scents – they're brilliant and now that Jean-Claude Ellena has taken over creating them, the new ones are really marvelous.
I also tend to like very much the Serge Lutens scents.
Your first book, on the art and science of scent, is due from Harry N Abrams in the Spring of 2006. Can you tell us what it will be about? Will it be a "how-do" book?
It's not going to be a "how to book" per se – making good perfume is very tough. My book is going to be largely about "aromachology" – the study of how smell really affects us and how that can inform the art of perfume. Everyone knows how powerfully and deeply scent can touch us yet most people take it totally for granted. We all have this marvelous tool literally right in front of us and my book is going to encourage people to understand how it works, what we can use it for and how scent can and does really make us feel GOOD!
Thank you to Christopher for participating in this interview. He is working on establishing an online sampling program, meanwhile, if you're in Brooklyn, you can visit the CB I Hate Perfume store at 93 Wythe Avenue. You can also read more about the store, including a review of his new Russian Leather scent, on This Bananafish Smells Like Leaves.
Tomorrow: Cumming, the fragrance. Wednesday: The CB I Hate Perfume line.