An Exclusive Interview with Christopher Brosius, Founder of CB: I Hate Perfume:
Does He or Doesn’t He?
By Michelyn Camen
BN: Let’s start with the 800 lb gorilla in the interview. Why did you name such a sublime line of scents “CB I HATE PERFUME”?
CB: Back in 1992 when I was planning my first company, I wrote a manifesto for myself explaining why I was making perfume in the first place. Since my training had been in art & design, this seemed a sensible thing to do and it was very useful. The manifesto was entitled “I Hate Perfume” and it was a simple list dividing everything I hated about perfume as I generally encountered it from what I thought it could be. I’ve made a few slight changes in it over the years but I’m still surprised at how well it’s held up. Everything I’d written then still applies now 15 years later.
BN: So, Do you or don’t you…hate perfume?
CB: There are a LOT of perfumes in the world that I loathe – they make me sick. The nature of my work over the years has taught me there are many common aroma-chemicals that I am highly sensitive to and I am certainly not alone. Since certain of these are found in the majority of popular fragrances, it means that a lot of perfumes are making a lot of people sick a lot of the time. As far as I’m concerned that is outrageous.
BN: How do your fragrances ‘speak’ to those who wear them?
CB: It makes them think…the point though of “I Hate Perfume” is to make people think: about what perfume is, what it can be, what it can do, what it expresses about those who wear it and about why & how it’s used. My work is about offering alternatives to people who hate perfume or sometimes who have never been interested in perfume before. I explore the relationship between scent & memory and the individual experience that creates.
Alan Cumming, BN Best Scent Award
BN: Congratulations; as the nose behind Cumming By Alan Cumming, which won a Beauty News and Sniffapalooza Best Scent 2007 award. According to Alan Cumming’s website, it’s a fragrance about…’Sex, Scotch, Cigars and Scotland.’ OK, what notes and/or accords did you use to create the scent?
CB: Thanks very much – that was such a nice surprise. Alan & I spent a weekend talking about what he wanted his scent to be. We decided it should be a fairly classic men’s cologne structure but with a very modern and for Alan a very personal twist. So many of the ingredients, like Bergamot, Black Pepper, Tobacco, Leather & Pine are fairly standard men’s fragrance ingredients. But in many cases I tweaked those to reflect Alan’s Scottish background. And a lot of the ingredients are just those that Alan loves.
BN: You were the nose behind Demeter from 1993 – 2004, when it was such a breakthrough concept. Demeter was one of the first lines to capture a particular odor in a bottle. Can you tell our readers, why smelling like dirt, tomatoes, or rubber is so appealing and which Demeter fragrances you created?
CB: All of them until I left that company in 2004.I think a lot of those began with my dislike of most commercial fragrances & my deep love of the smells of real things. Tomato Leaves for example. When I made my first perfume back in 1992/1993, I really wanted it to smell like fresh tomato plants growing in a garden – I’d always loved that smell but could never find a scent that really smelled like that. But at the time, since I was just beginning, I didn’t have access to the necessary materials nor did I have the knowledge to create such a smell from scratch.In the early days of that company, as I worked on new perfumes, I would always wear each ingredient individually to see how it lived on the skin. And I realized that a good many notes used in fragrance are marvelous on their own but the general public never had the opportunity to experience them individually. So in 1995 (I think it was) we began with a small collection of single note scents. It was also about that time that we began to attract the attention of some of the major fragrance houses. They were very kind in giving me access to their labs & technology and that’s when I really began exploring alternative scents – things that never before had been considered to be “perfume”. Scents from the garden are where I started but not the flower garden. I prefer vegetables. So we did Dirt (which was surprisingly a huge hit), Lettuce, String Bean and of course Tomato among many others. I’m often asked why I bother with such seemingly bizarre smells. Who wants to smell like Dirt? Or Crayon? Or Rubber? Well maybe not everyone does but for those who do, this is where to get them. The point is that these scents are important – these are the smells that speak of the lives we have, who we are and what makes us truly happy. These are the scents that Kipling describes as “making the heartstrings crack”.
BN: What did you do between the time you left Demeter and started your own company?
CB: For nearly a decade, I worked very closely with several fragrance houses to capture very specific scents – the smells of real things. Some were quite easy, others a bit more difficult but some seemed impossible. Like the smell of new fallen Snow. For about five years we worked on that with no success until finally, in 1999 I put it together myself. The result was two Fragrance Foundation Awards which still astonishes me.
BN: Like Demeter, many of your fragrances in CB I HATE PERFUME evoke a smell, or a certain place or time. After leaving Demeter what was your vision, because clearly your scents are at a whole different level.
CB: There are a great many reasons as to why I chose to leave my old company but the prime one was it was simply time to move on. The single note idea had pretty much taken over the company. Capturing every possible pleasant smell was all well and good but at the end of the day it didn’t add up to enough – at least not for me. I mean that having the scent of Gingerale or whatever in a bottle is all well and good and it certainly has its uses but there’s a good deal more to perfume than that. The scents in the collection perfectly captured the definitions of the smells but it all became too much like reading the dictionary – how much fun is that…? I felt it was time to begin using the olfactory vocabulary that I’d worked so hard to create to really begin expressing very particular ideas and go back to making perfume.
BN: So that’s really what you are doing now – olfactory storytelling.
CB: When I started over in 2004, I went back to the plan I’d originally written back in 1992, before my old company officially started and before I had partners involved in my business. And that plan has been working very well indeed. And that’s another very important aspect of what I’m doing now – Individuality. I couldn’t give a damn about “markets”, “trends”, “demographics” or “consumers” (dreadful word). Perfume is such an intimate personal experience so I prefer to offer my clients & customers as unique an experience as possible. Everything here is kept small, focused and often one on one.I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past few years refining my collection of accords and in making new ones. Since my skills & experience have greatly increased since 1992, I make a lot of the new scents myself – that’s been a lot of fun. But more to the point I now make proper perfume – they may not smell like what a good many people are accustomed to or what most think of as what “perfume” should smell like but they are complex blends that tell exactly the story I set out to tell. The magical thing though is that with scent that story is always different to everyone – no two people can ‘hear’ it in just the same way. That’s the thing I love most about perfume – its individuality.
BN: Your CB fragrance collection is grouped by specific series; they include CB Archetypes, CB Limited Editions, CB Experience, CB Metamorphosis, CB Reinvention and CB Secret History.
CB: I think the idea of grouping my perfumes into series also came from my art background. It’s common for a lot of artists to work out a particular idea across many canvases (or whatever) until the artist is satisfied that the theme has properly played out.
I have several overriding themes to my work – my own personal memories, common experiences that we all share, classic concepts of perfumery that fascinate me or, as with the Metamorphosis Series, concepts that lend themselves so elegantly to the art of perfume. Metamorphosis is all about Change and what art form apart from music can so perfectly capture that…? One thing evolves into another. It’s brilliant.
BN: For me, I am a Dandelion reminds me to be resilient; I love the way it smells on me. I am also a fan of CB Tea/Rose. Which individual scents are your personal favorites?
CB: That’s very hard to answer. There are several that I wear regularly depending on my mood and the time of year – they’re all special to me and they all have their place.
Patchouli EMPIRE & CB93 are staples but since I finished Wild Hunt & Fire From Heaven I’ve been wearing those regularly – sometimes together. I love Memory of Kindness but generally only wear it in the summer. I often start wearing Winter 1972 at the end of December and switch to Black March in the spring. And though I’m not generally fond of wearing floral scents myself, I do use I am a Dandelion & Wild Pansy sometimes in July or August when the mood strikes.
I suppose though my favorite perfume is that which I have not yet done.
In the Library, At the Beach 1966
BN: LOTS of buzz about two of your scents, At the Beach 1966 and In the Library. Does their popularity surprise you? How are they tied to your personal memories?
CB: Oh I’ve learned never to be surprised and yet to remain perpetually astonished. Maybe that’s a Taoist thing I couldn’t say for sure.
BN: We know you love the spirit and sensory experience behind Perfume, but I am betting not the hyped up marketing and constant churning out of mediocre to really bad scents in the industry. Is this correct?
CB: Yes. Well sort of. I personally cannot stand hype applied to anything – it generally puts me off. And yes I hate bad perfumes – those that tear the throat, kick the gut or can be detected a block away shouldn’t exist as far as I am concerned. They are the exact opposite of elegant and, as I have written before, as insulting as a slap in the face. And as far as I’m concerned, your right to wear Giorgio (or similar) ends where it hits my nose.
However I accept the mediocre. That’s necessary – it provides a backdrop for the unique.
BN: Who are some of your favorite perfumers and other than your own, some favorite scents?
CB: I rarely smell new perfumes these days – there are just too many of them and too few that I find at all interesting. However I’ve always admired the Hermes perfumes – they’re all so elegant. And I think Jean-Claude Ellena is absolutely brilliant.
CB I Hate Perfume Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
BN: A TEASE, PLEASE OF WHATS NEXT…
CB: Well as per usual I am working on a great many things at once. At the moment I’m working on three of the archetypes; a perfume that’s all about my neighborhood in Williamsburg and a new summer scent about swimming pools. I finished a scent a few weeks ago that’s based on my favorite cocktail but I’m holding that to be released probably sometime in May – it’s such a crisp summery scent.
Also this year, I’ve decided it’s high time to do things OTHER than perfume. Those projects are still in the planning stages but hopefully by fall there will be some news there.
CB I Hate Perfume
Christopher Brosius Limited
93 Wythe Avenue
Brooklyn NY 11211