Strange Invisible Perfumes was founded in 2000 by Alexandra Balahoutis; the house was named for a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: "From the barge, a strange invisible perfume hits the sense of the adjacent wharfs".
Alexandra spent over 4 years studying the art of botanical perfumery, and her line is made without the use of synthetic notes or fixatives. She distills many of her own essences, using organic materials whenever possible, and favors the use of hydro-distillation rather than steam distillation or chemical extraction methods.
Her new boutique-perfumery will open on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California in late September, and 10 of the perfumes from her Signature Collection will be coming to Barneys New York in October.
You have said that "making perfume was never a choice, but an involuntary obsession – there was simply no way I could ignore the impulse to make perfume". Did this obsession come out of an appreciation of aromas or smells in general, or more specifically out of an appreciation of perfumes, and if the latter, what are some of the first perfumes you remember being captivated by?
I think that it sprouted from a love for aroma and a passion for ideas. I loved the way an aroma could summon a feeling of what inspired it. I wanted perfumes that smelled like my ideas, associations, and inspirations. I loved the idea of piecing aromas together into these invisible story boards. I wanted a perfume that didn't exist. There were other perfumes that I loved, however. The first perfumes I ever fell in love with were Violetta and Elizabethan Rose by Penhaligon's. My mother wore these most of my life. In high school, I wore Folavril by Annick Goutal. I also loved Cuir de Russie by Channel. Something would come over me the few times I heard people speak about perfume-making in Europe. I was mesmerized by the idea of mixing things. When I was very little, I had a Barbie perfume maker. I loved it but even then it didn't quite provide the palette I desired.
You have rejected the use of synthetic chemicals in your own line. Was this something you set out to do from the start, or was it was a decision that you came to gradually as you learned more about perfumery?
I wanted to make irrationally precious perfumes. When I was first collecting essences, the only ones I fell in love with were natural. When I smelled them I felt the immeasurable possibilities of interpreting them into compositions. They were rough, hypnotic, concentrated, and alive. I was so excited by the challenge of smoothing them into one another and taming them politely and respectfully. I just didn't feel that potential in working with synthetics, nor did I feel the eagerness and electricity that a flavorist feels when they are completely inspired by the preciousness and rarity of their palette. Artisan wine makers and chefs, for example, are rarely beside themselves with anticipation to incorporate artificial flavors.
Have you had any mentors, or are there specific perfumers or perfume lines that have influenced your style?
My mentor is Jack Steele. He has such a vast and rich understanding of aroma because it is reinforced by his knowledge in so many other intriguing, and often esoteric, fields. He is a botanical perfumer and expert in the shamanic uses of essences. He is also an archaeologist and anthropologist. He is a double rainbow of knowledge and inspiration. His approach is so full of vision and sincere philosophy. I am very grateful for his guidance.
Are there particular fragrance notes or ingredients that attract you and that you like to work with whenever possible? And are there particular notes that you don’t care for and would rather not use in your own work?
I love blue lotus, frankincense, tuberose, and cardamom. I love all of the essences that I use. Certain essences are more featured, while others have more supporting roles. All are of the utmost necessity. The only essence that I did not like so much was myrrh because I didn't understand it yet. Then a distiller I know told me that frankincense was the first breath you take and that myrrh is the last. I then realized that myrrh had something to do with death and after that I understood it. I like it now but still have not incorporated it into a blend. That is something still culminating in the back of my mind.
Which of your perfumes is your personal favorite, and why?
My favorite is Galatea. I made it for myself so I suppose that explains my love of it. It is so deep and enticing but still so transparent. It is both ethereal and sensual, which can be a challenge for a perfumer, especially a botanical perfumer.
Tell us about your new boutique and perfumery that will open in late September.
I am so happy with the design of the new store. It is very modern without sacrificing femininity. It is luxurious without being aristocratic. It is a shrine built to our company, our approach and our collection. We want to take excellent care of the people that visit us there and truly acquaint them with our style of doing things. We wanted to create a modern atelier to suit our contemporary interpretation of artisan perfume making. We will have a bar for tasting hydrosols and sampling fragrances. We will have a lab and sink for customers to use when trying on perfumes and creams that we make. There will be a modern coach in the shop to provide privacy for custom blend consultations. The store will be beautiful and experiential without a corporate bone in it's body. I can't wait!
What are you passionate about besides perfume?
I love to cook. I also write poetry and short stories to calibrate and understand things more clearly. I love photography, as well. That I love to do because my brain quiets. It is completely visual. I also love the duality of its technical nature and its demands for intuition and a pair of clean eyes. Honestly, I love downtime as well. I love to spend time with friends and family. People I have known so long we barely have to speak in complete sentences. Foolishness is very important in life.
Tomorrow: the Strange Invisible Perfumes Signature Collection