Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Coversation with Neil Morris

The conversation with Neil Morris is also posted more completely at Perfumce Critic,

Abigail: Hello, Neil, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you for After our rather, shall we say, unusual introduction, it’s so nice to be able to do this!

If you don’t mind, let’s jump right into the good stuff!

This is my typical first question, what brought you to the art/craft/science of perfumery?

Neil: I have always been a scent person. Even as a child I would find myself paying close attention to the scents around me. So I realized at an early age just how powerfully evocative our sense of smell can be and how closely it's linked to our emotions. So working with fragrance became a passion for me.

Abigail: What is it that you enjoy most about creating perfumes?

Neil: Well, perfumery isn't really about scents, it's about people. It's a form of communication. Whether conjuring memories from our past or creating future memories for ourselves and others, perfume is about connection. It reminds us of where we've come from, for all judgments on scents are based on our experiences. Exploring the endless possibilities of where fragrance can take us is what I most enjoy about creating perfumes.

Abigail: Is there anything you dislike about creating perfumes? Is there a part that is tedious?

Neil: Well, yes. Making samples is quite tedious! That's all I can think of.

Abigail: I won't ask you to choose amongst your own perfumes, but what would you list as your favorite 3-5 perfumes? Or perhaps the perfumers / perfume houses that most influenced you?

Neil: My all time favorite perfume is Chanel No 5. It’s a singular act of brilliance, in my opinion. The scent is so iconic that it's as if the perfume has always existed and it was simply rediscovered. Ernest Beaux was a genius. I'm also a fan of Jean Claude Ellena and his minimalist approach to perfumery.

…ah…let me see… other perfumes I love: Nirmala by Molinard, Jean Claude Ellena's First, Maurice Roucel's Tocade.

Abigail: ....yes, Jean Claude Ellena is one of my favorites as well....

Now, let’s talk about the niche & indie perfumers. Which of this category, aside from yourself ;-) do you think is creating some beautiful perfumes?

Neil: In my opinion there are several niche perfumers that are creating gorgeous works of art.

Sarah Horowitz has created some truly lovely scents. My favorite of hers is Perfect Sunset. I also love Perfect Nectar and Beauty Comes From Within. She's also one of the nicest people I know.

Other niche perfumers whose work I respect are Andy Tauer, Ineke Rühland, Liz Zorn, Yosh, Serena of Ava Luxe...just to name a few.

Abigail: I’m also very impressed by many of the perfumers you just named... Each of them create at least one perfume that I love.

So, this is something I’ve wanted to ask you, what's your take on the distinction between fragrances for men and fragrances for women? Do you like to wear floral or not stereotypically masculine colognes yourself?

Neil: Ahh... one of my favorite subjects! In my humble opinion, there is NO SUCH THING as a fragrance for men or a fragrance for women! This is simply a marketing ploy to get men to wear perfume. Yes, some fragrances smell more like what we’ve learned to associate with a woman. But that doesn't mean that if you're a man who likes that scent you shouldn't wear it! By all means, WEAR IT! I often wear Chanel No 5 and I can't tell you how often people come up to me - both men and women - and ask me what I'm wearing! And do I love to tell them!!! You should see the looks on their faces. Priceless!

We've actually created a line called Flowers For Men just so men will not be afraid to try floral scents...true florals are frequently touted as being strictly for women…

So my advice - man or woman, wear whatever scent appeals to you and don't get caught up in labels.

Abigail: I thoroughly agree and I really hope this line of thinking catches on. It seems so limiting, otherwise. Not just for men, but for women as well…

Let’s see… for you…what have been the most difficult scents/fragrances/notes to create? Have you had one or more perfumes that took ages to perfect but ultimately worked?

Neil: Oh, took me more than 8 months to get CLEAR the way I wanted it. I wanted a fresh, clean scent but not like other scents in that category. I wanted something unique that would be subtle but would also have persistence. I went through 15 different iterations of CLEAR but finally got it where I wanted it and now it's our best seller after ZEPHYR and AFIRE.

There have been other fragrances over the years that have given me sleepless nights but most worked out in the end. Others I put away for another time.

Abigail: Obviously I need to try ZEPHYR and AFIRE since I haven’t yet. My favorite in your line right now is SPECTRAL VIOLET, it’s a gorgeous gorgeous violet and this is coming from someone who couldn’t stand violet perfumes until very recently!

How long does it normally take you, from the idea all the way through to a finished perfume?

Neil: It depends. If I'm creating a scent for a client and they have a deadline then I try my best to meet that deadline. But if I'm working on a scent for our own line then I give myself as much time as I need to get it right.

How do I know its right? That's a tough question and sometimes I just have to live with the scent to see if it's going in the direction I want.

Abigail: Can you explain to our readers, (in lay person's terms) how you go about creating a perfume? Approximately how many different ingredients are needed? How many "tries/tweaks" does it take? I personally imagine it to be very difficult, and am curious as to how you go about the process of making a fragrance.

Neil: When I begin a new perfume I first consider the theme. Almost all of our fragrances have a story behind them. In fact, I consider what I do "storytelling through scent". I then begin to dwell on which components will create the effect I'm looking for. Let's take STORM as an example. STORM is based on the memory of a summer thunderstorm on Cape Cod when I was 12 years old. I wanted to capture the feeling of the approaching storm so I combined Papaya and Lime with an Ozone Note. The Ozone Note runs through the entire composition. This gives the illusion of the charged sea air before the storm. We drove back to the cottage we were staying in as quickly as possible. Just in time too, as the storm crashed down around us. When the storm ended and the sun came out, I walked outside and smelled a combination of flowers that were growing in the yard, sea air and warm sun. To capture this I blended Hyacinth and Delphinium Notes with Ylang Ylang. I've created a gorgeous, warm Musk that I call Golden Musk and that, in combination with Tonka Bean and a hint of Patchouli, gave me the effect I was looking for to represent the aftermath of the storm.

As far as tweaking goes, each scent has its own personality and some take longer to create than others. I created STORM in a relatively short period of time - around three months - while others can take 6 months to a year to get right. Tweaking can become an ongoing event so at some point I just have to tell myself to stop!

So perfume creation is the same yet different for each perfume.

Abigail: The same, yet different, hmmm, that makes perfect sense! But it does...

Tell us, is there a trend in perfumery that you're excited about?

Neil: Yes! Naturally I'm excited about the continuing attention Niche perfumery is receiving. This shows that the perfume buying public is interested in trying new and different scents created by dedicated artists as opposed to the myriad floral/fruity things being pushed on us by marketing gurus who are out of touch with what many perfume lovers really want. There are future classics being created in the Niche perfumery realm and that excites me!

I am also excited about the attention being focused on the art of perfumery and the focus on perfumers in general. In his wonderful book “The Perfect Scent,” Chandler Burr talks about demystifying the fragrance industry and lifting the veil of secrecy, which I think is very exciting indeed. My business partner and friend, David Garten, compares this trend to what happened in the wine industry in the 1970’s. Back then the prestige brands were primarily French and your average American thought of wine as two extremes, either coming in a big jug or a box, or something you may order at a restaurant for special occasions. People were intimidated to ask questions or purchase wine. Then, serious artisan wine makers came on the scene in Napa and Sonoma California. They invited people into their world and educated people on how wine was made, how to evaluate wine, and gave some simple rules to make it easier to pair wines with foods (even putting some of this information on the label).

Abigail: That’s a fascinating point about the comparison between perfume and wine. I've noticed some perfume houses creating 'harvest editions' or 'limited editions' based on an especially good crop of mimosa in India (or insert any ingredient here) that year. This has always made me think of wine – and a good vs. bad year for the grape harvest. Given your expertise, are the Harvest Editions truly superior/unique or a marketing ploy?

Neil: Yes, there seems to be a similarity between perfumery and wine. Both rely on aroma and our sense of smell. Both are concerned with crop harvesting at the optimal time, such as picking jasmine just before dawn. And there are many similarities between attitudes and behaviors of perfumers/perfumistas and sommeliers.

As far as limited editions go, I'm certain there's some marketing involved. Perfume lovers will want to run out and buy it before supplies are depleted. It's similar to the concept of DVD Special Editions. Movie collectors have to have them.

But to answer your question of whether the harvest editions are superior because of claimed ingredients? You'll have to let your own nose tell you!

Abigail: Huh, that’s interesting. I’ve often noticed that those who love perfume and all things scented also have a similar enthusiasm for food & wine…since all of these things are sensory…it makes a lot of sense!

Onto a different topic…Do you read reviews by Chandler Burr, Luca Turin, Tania Sanchez and the perfume bloggers? What do you think of this relatively new phenomenon of perfume reviewers?

Neil: What is now happening in the fragrance industry is that you have perfume lovers and advocates coming forward, like Karen Dubin and Karen Adams of Sniffapalooza, Grant Osborne and the entire Basenotes community, as well as Perfume Critic, Perfume Posse, MUA and many other great forums where people can share their passion, opinions, and knowledge of fragrances and the fragrance industry.

My feeling is the more approachable we make fragrances and the fragrance industry the better off we all are. I’m a huge fan of Frederic Malle. I’ve met him and he is incredibly welcoming. I also love the fact that for each of his scents he includes the perfumer’s name on the package. With Neil Morris Fragrances, I include the inspiration for creating the scent as well as a description of the scent on the package. I want people to come into my world and understand where the inspiration for the perfume is coming from.

I think perfume reviewers are a good sign. To me it means more and more people are becoming interested in fragrance and learning about perfume through their writing. I could get excited to try a new scent that the reviewers are raving about.

...However, we must remember something very important. Few things are more subjective than what smells good. We all have different memories and emotions attached to scent. If you had a grandmother who was very loving and kind to you and wore lavender, then lavender will be a trigger for happy memories. If you had a grandmother who was mean to you and wore lavender then lavender will be a trigger for unpleasant memories. A perfume reviewer cannot know these things about you. He/she can only reference his/her own associations with scent. They may know many things "about" perfume that you don't know. But when it comes down to it, you have to rely on your own nose to tell you whether a perfume is right for you or not.

Abigail: Is there a trend in perfumery that disappoints you?

Neil: Not really. I think it’s mostly all good. Well...if you pushed me I would say the whole anti-synthetic movement seems a bit out of hand. (I think the term “synthetic” is off-putting and should be changed to “Art Essences.”) I think there is place for both essential oils and aroma chemicals in fragrances. Chandler Burr had a great article on this a while back and as I was reading it I was thinking “yes, yes, a major figure in the fragrance industry defending the use of synthetics!” My concern is by eliminating synthetics you are eliminating a huge portion of the palette from which to work.

Abigail: regarding synthetics / “art essences” I wholeheartedly agree. The anti-synthetic movement really makes me nervous. I understand and prefer your term “Art Essences.” Perfume has always been mostly synthetic, (aka man-made ingredients/aroma-chemicals) if these ingredients weren’t an option, none of the classics would exist! As a comparison, this makes me wonder how painters would react if they were told they could only use so-called “natural” paints derived exclusively from crushed berries and nothing man-made, no preservatives whatsoever...perhaps a slightly feeble example...but you understand what I mean.

So what's new for Neil Morris? Do you have some fragrances in the works that you'd like to tell us about?

Neil: Yes! Lots going on…my friends at Takashimaya New York asked me to create a new fragrance for them. We’re launching “Neil Morris for Takashimaya New York” perfume in September. We hope to launch it in Japan in early 2009. My goal was to create a scent that would encompass the beauty and serenity of the Japanese culture and also incorporate the stylish sophistication of Fifth Avenue. The reactions to the scent have been very positive.

Oh, and David has some other things up his sleeve for us, let’s just say it’s going to be an amazing year and we are enjoying every minute of it.

Abigail: Neil, thank you ever so much. Your enthusiasm is transparent and contagious! I’ve learned a great deal chatting with you and I look forward to trying more of your perfumes and especially your exciting new fragrance for Takashimaya! Takashimaya is a beautiful shop, a destination in and of itself, and I’m sure you’re excited about this unique opportunity :-)

Neil: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much, Abigail.

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