By Michelyn Camen
“She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…”(2)
– Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1: Swann’s Way
Neil Morris stands out in a crowd; both the man and his amazing line of fragrances. At 6″ 6, Neil towered over the genteel diners at our breakfast meeting at the fabulously opulent Hotel Algonquin’s lounge. He walked up to me as if we had met before, gave me a giant hug and in a surprisingly soft spoken voice for such a big man said, “You must be Michelyn and you are wearing Aegean“. (Aegean is one of my favorite fragrances from his line of eight spectacular scents). Neil introduced me to his business partner David Garten and we all got comfortable over cappuccinos. In speaking with Neil, his approach to fragrance is unlike any other perfumer I have met. The fragrances are based on actual life experiences. For example, he does not use the familiar perfumer vernacular, top, mid, and base notes; for example he describes his latest scent Storm as opening with the “calm before “, morphing to the down pour and settling into après le deluge. We began the interview on that totally different note.
BN: Neil, your approach to fragrance reminds me of the great author Proust’s approach to literature. Explain to our readers your relationship with fragrance.
NM: Our sense of smell is intimately connected to our experience of the world around us. Without us knowing, it governs what we choose to eat, who we love, why we hate, and how we remember; yet, we pay very little attention to the profound effect that scents have on our everyday lives.
BN: You have a custom clientele in Boston and fragrances were created for individuals only. When was the retail business launched?
NM: I met my business partner David Garten in 2003 while I was operating as an independent perfumer. Our incredible passion for fragrances led to a discussion about establishing a fragrance company that could expand beyond the custom fragrance market and introduce a ready to wear line of fragrances that would allow a larger group of fragrance lovers to experience and enjoy Neil Morris perfumes. Over the years I’ve created a catalog of over one hundred fragrances, most inspired by my own personal experiences and memories. From that catalog, we chose six favorites to launch. The initial line of six fragrances (Clear, Zephyr, Aegean, Quest, Afire and Midnight Flower) was launched at a New Year’s event held at the Montage Laguna Beach, CA.
BN: What are your two newest scents? And of course, what are the “stories” that influence you to create them.
NM: Coral and Storm. Here are the stories behind them. Storm is based on a memory of an approaching summer thunderstorm on Cape Cod when I was 12 years old. I remember the sudden quiet and the “smell” of the storm – ozone in the air – that charged the scent of everything around me! The trees, flowers, grass – everything! Then the storm was upon us and we ran for cover! The aftermath left everything – the flowers, sand & trees – wet and fragrant. I blended notes as follows: pres-storm- Papaya and Lime, the downpour leads to a Floral Heart of Delphinium and Purple Hyacinth. “Après le deluge” is a blend of Tonka Bean, Golden Musk and Marine Notes.
Coral was inspired by a three hour walk I took along Laguna Beach. It was a GORGEOUS late afternoon as can only be found in Southern California. The ocean had that “scent” that tells you – without a doubt – that you are on the West Coast and not the East Coast! I was completely tuned in to my surroundings and fully present in the moment. The Sea Birds, The Wet Sand, The Dry Sand, The Flowers growing on the nearby cliffs, The scent of the Fruit Juice I was sipping, EVERYTHING! It was a completely magical experience.
BN: Although your focus is on growing your retail business, I know our readers would love to learn a little about your custom clientele business. Ok, pretend, I am a new customer and I want you to create a fragrance just for me. Then what?
NM: First, I would serve you a cup of tea and appreciate that you did not wear any manufactured scent when you came to my studio (Neill sniffs Michelyn’s elbow which has no added scent). I detect signature body chemistry to you…. It’s milky. Others may have salty, airy, powdery, etc. I don’t have a list of set names but go by my nose and instincts when smell-testing a client’s skin. That is why fragrances smell better on some people than on others. I don’t have a list of set names but go by my nose and instincts when smell-testing a client’s skin.
With your milky natural scent, I would immediately think you are not a floral person. Amber, Vanilla, Benzoin and Sandalwood- Afire would smell great on you. I would ask you about happy moments in your life, ask you to describe favorite art, books, music, images, memories, passions, etc. (the total session is approximately one and one half hours). I then choose a selection of appropriate aromas from a collection of over 700 fragrances for you to sample. After you’ve chosen the aromas you find most appealing, I build the fragrance directly on your skin – drop-by-drop – until it becomes the right scent for you!
BN: BTW, I have trouble wearing florals, you are right. They smell too strong on me. Neil, any DO’S and don’ts of wearing fragrance in summer?
NM: A good question. Generally it’s best to avoid heavy, dense fragrances during the summer such as Shalimar or Chanel #5. The heat and humidity tend to make them a bit too “lush” for the average person. A light floral or fruity perfume usually is best for summer. Zephyr and Clean are favorite summertime choices for many of my clients.
BN: Ok, here’s the fun part. What are two things about that our readers would be surprised to know about you?
NM: I love vintage Sci-Fi movies from the fifties! I’m also in love with Drive-In movies theaters! I go with a group of friends as often as possible during the season.
BN: David, you have been so quiet, what is the biggest challenge in growing the Neil Morris Fragrance retail business?
DG: Not being able to have Neil in every store to personally introduce the fragrances to each client. His love of fragrance is only matched by his passion for meeting new friends and introducing them personally to his perfumes (but we are working on that).
Neil Morris Fragrances
221 Massachusetts Avenue
Boston, MA 02115