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Beauty Disruptor Series: Saskia Wilson-Brown on Open-Access Scent

September 1, 2022
September 1, 2022
Institute for Art and Olfaction

In the Beauty Disruptors series, BeautyMatter speaks to those breaking the mold of the traditional beauty industry, from shining a light on controversial issues to paving an alternative discourse of its themes.

The fragrance world has operated on elusive chemistry and mythological histories for centuries. After all, is there not something fantastical about the transformation of mere molecules into blockbuster products or highly seductive potions that impulsively lure in fellow noses for a sniff? Magic and mystery is to a certain extent in the DNA of the fragrance industry, and in today’s landscape, olfactory escapism is a welcome adventure we enjoy taking our noses on.

From an industry perspective, however, there are challenges with this lack of transparency. Master perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, who recently launched The Perfumery Code of Ethics, and contributed a three-part series to BeautyMatter on the state of the industry and how it can be improved for the future, as well as others like perfumer and Scent Festival founder Yosh Han, are advocating for change. Another figurehead in the fight is Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO) in Los Angeles, a nonprofit dedicated to scent education. She worked in filmmaking and consulting prior to setting up the IAO in 2012.

Aside from hosting perfume history, scent culture, and fragrance-making classes, the IAO also hosts exhibitions, the most recent being “Bagh-e Hind: Scent Translations of Mughal and Rajput Garden Paintings.” The organization also stages an annual Experimental Scent Summit, a gathering of the most forward-thinking minds in scent, discussing themes ranging from perfume for avatars to creating open-source platforms for perfumers to share their formulas. The IAO also hosts the Art & Olfaction Awards, which recognizes excellence and innovation in independent and artisan perfumery.

Wilson-Brown sat down with BeautyMatter to discuss perfumery as a birthright, the challenges of access in a capitalist system, and growing a nonprofit in today’s challenging landscape.

In past interviews you mentioned fragrance first registering on your radar with the supermodel era and Thierry Mugler fragrance ads. How important do you think glamor and fantasies are in the depiction of fragrance?

Well, it depends on what your intention with the fragrance is. If you're talking about fine fragrance as a product on the market, from a marketing point of view, glamor and fantasy is a huge part of it. But from my perspective, glamor and fantasy tend to be more of a tool, something that people use in order to sell products. I don't know that I'm that interested in the idea of glamor and fantasy per se, except as maybe tools for things that can be dismantled. But there’s no denying that glamor, fantasy, and storytelling really are hugely important in fragrance, for better or worse.

I feel like with unisex branding, some of that fantasy element in advertisement got stripped away a bit. It's that Helmut Lang-esque, ’9​​0s, minimalist imagery, but then I guess it depends on the brand.

I would argue that there's still fantasy in that, it's just a different kind of fantasy. It's not the same as let's say a [Dior] Poison ad or even a YSL ad where they're selling this idea of Paris. Look at CK One ads, which were about as minimal as you can get: just a bunch of good-looking humans against a white backdrop. That was the fantasy of the time, in the grunge era. Maximalism wasn't in, at least for a certain segment of the population.

With your work at the IAO, you collaborate with everyone from scent historians like Nuri McBride to perfumers and museums. How important is that cross-industry collaboration to opening up scent to a new audience?

It's an interesting question. Collaboration is crucial, but our collaborations tend to be with institutions outside of perfumery. When I first started the IAO, I didn’t have much access to the industry, and so I wasn’t really able to work within it. And then, I generally don’t feel much fondness for corporations. Although they can do some good, they rarely have altruistic intentions.

Having said that, in running the Institute over the years, I've come to realize that we'd be doing a disservice to our community if we don't address the fact that perfumery does, indeed, live within a larger corporate industry. Over the years I've become more open to the idea of industry being a vital part of perfumery as a practice, even for experimental practitioners. No matter what you do, you're interacting with a corporation, even if it's just buying the aromatics. Nevertheless, we still try to prioritize independent and experimental practices. The space where academia, art, science, and storytelling meet is massively important to the Institute. A large part of what we do is try to create new inroads into every aspect of fragrance, not just for perfume-as-product.

On that point of the industry, how important is that educational aspect to furthering any creative medium?

To pretend that industry doesn’t impact creative practice, whether it be art, fashion, music, or perfume, is a bit delusional. As much as my ideals would have it that you have a practice that exists purely for the sake of the practice, the reality of the world we live in is that's not sustainable, generally, for the artist. At least not in the US, where there's little public funding for the arts. Teaching about the industry, critically but also pragmatically, is a more justified way of actually educating people. In the beginning, we were 1,000% indie, no interest in the mainstream industry at all. But over time my position has matured.

What are your thoughts on the industry at large? You touched on it with saying it has its good and bad qualities, shall we say the necessary evil of certain capitalist points of view for survival. What are the positive developments, but also points of needed change?

Let's start with the positives of the perfume industry: it fosters innovation, it employs people, it supports supply chains, and it pushes materials forward from a purely chemical perspective. These new molecules that people develop are fascinating. We're lucky to have that level of attention into chemical development. As for the negatives, they have a lot to do with consolidation of power. Taking as an assumption that we are discussing this in the context of an American-style capitalism, a construct in which these companies are beholden to their shareholders and need to always make more money, there still could be a better, more inclusive approach. Having more non-European perfumers is a great start, and I would like to see that expand to address the root problems, which are of course incredibly complex.

One of these problems is education: who gets access to the knowledge and tools of perfumery in the first place. What information is shared, and who has access to that information. And then there is the multi-headed problem of the aggressive capitalist construct that powers the industry, the constant drive for expansion and dominance. These business structures are not conducive to a fair exchange of ideas and information, or to other ways of engaging and thriving within the practice. Again, this is sort of a problem with capitalism as a whole, which values production and expansion no matter the social and ecological cost. Everybody has to be bigger, better, richer, more powerful, more influential … it's so tiresome. And, it’s hugely problematic for culture, and I would argue for the world as a whole.

I attended Scent Week and there was a lot of talk about decolonizing the senses.

That is such an important initiative. I commend Dana El Masri, Julianne Lee, Tanaïs, Yosh [Han] and everybody involved in this larger effort, and I think it warrants continued analysis. My belief is that we’ll never succeed in decolonizing the industry without rethinking the very global structures that inform the industry. But no one person can take that on. It's a structural change in how our companies, our governments, our world is run.

It’s that velvet rope which has been, at least for a certain branch of fragrance, what the industry was built on, this idea of exclusivity to further the fantasy.

To a degree, it has to do with who has access. The Institute for Art and Olfaction was founded on this idea that everyone should have access to the tools and materials of perfumery, because if perfumery is an art form and art is a human right, then we all should have a right to work with scent. It's super crucial to give people access to the tools for creativity.

But again, it's not just like, “Okay, let's make sure we have equal representation of women in the industry.” Let's look at the fact that we have to have this argument in the first place. Why is this knowledge so secretive? Why do women, for the sake of our chat, not have access to it? It's restricted, of course, because the industry is built on sales, and sales imply competition, and competition implies expertise, and scarcity. It's complex.

Effecting change mirrors the world at large. That's what makes it a monumental task.

But every little step helps. The more recent campaigns to remove the “o word” [Oriental] from the perfumer’s lexicon, for instance, is a little incremental step. If you change the language, you start to change the perception. You change the perception, you start to change the behavior, behavior changes create structural changes, etc. But is it enough? I’m not interested in fixing the industry, I’m interested in finding ways to bypass it altogether. I'm obviously political, and as I’m sure you can tell I’m appalled by how the world is going. I don’t like this current place we’re in, and I equate it to the incessant quest for power, dominance, and money. It's really hard to even begin to approach the perfume industry with all this in mind, because while the people are good—humans doing their best in the world, like all of us—the structures within which they work are stuck, and feel rotten. It's like the plastics industry or the fashion industry. Why are we making such a song and dance about producing all this shit that's going to end up in the ocean, anyway? What is this all about? What's the point?

There's a brilliant beauty journalist called Jessica DeFino, and she wrote about the irony of yet another sustainable beauty brand being launched. How about you just don't make anything?

Totally. The only sustainable brand is the brand that produces nothing. But we're humans. We like to produce.

On that notion of opening things up a bit, with the Open Source Smell Culture (OSSC) initiative, what has industry feedback been? Going back to the point of exclusivity, it's quite a radical proposition in the face of that.

The few people within the industry that I've spoken to about it, are like, “Okay, good luck with that.” It's evolved into the topic of my PhD, so it's gotten more complicated, but the principle behind the Open Source Smell Culture program is a fundamental idea that perfumery is an art, or at least a valid mode of creative expression. And as a valid mode of creative expression, everyone should have access: it's a human right to create. I believe that;, it's not even an argument, right? It's what we do. We're a creative species, part of that is sharing information, which the Institute has been devoted to from the beginning.

I’m interested in expanding the thinking around ownership within perfumery. You see it even with ideas—so and so is the first person to come up with this—and then someone else does it and they're like, “Oh, you copied me.” What is this competitiveness that we have? This obsession with being the first, the best, the most important? We're all competing for a tiny prize: a few more likes on Instagram, at best. So, the idea with OSSC was to create structures and conversation around sharing information and, in so doing, help relieve everybody of the constant vigilance and fear.

The big challenge there, of course, is that copyright law is murky in perfumery. How do you create structures for sharing when it's not protected in the first place? And then, how do you create structures for sharing that protect the human drive to create, while also allowing for the human need to gain information and expand and riff on ideas? Formulas are not copyrightable, so it's all a bit theoretical. But I’ve been interested in the idea of the public domain for a long time, first in film and now with perfume. In other media (film, music) things go into the public domain eventually, and there's no reason why perfume formulas that aren't on the market from the turn of the century aren’t following that same model. That’s what my PhD is exploring: how to create sustainable models for the public domain in perfumery, and how to create excellent structures for sharing.

"To pretend that industry doesn’t impact creative practice, whether it be art, fashion, music, or perfume, is a bit delusional."
By Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder, IAO

Two things that came to mind when you were talking about that are these “inspired by” fragrance brands, and the recent dispute between Charenton Macerations and 19-69 around the fragrance Christopher Street. Those are two examples where it is such a gray zone.

Meaningful cultural spaces—like Christopher Street—are complex entities, and I don’t think they can or should be owned by any one company. On the other hand, creative people have a right to defend their livelihoods, especially when they have meaningful connections to those spaces. I really can’t speak to the specific example, but more generally one could protect oneself through trademark law. However, if the transgression in question is a formula knock-off, there's no protection for that. That's why it's so prevalent. Maybe that's not a problem, but in my mind, if that were to happen, there would be acknowledgement and structures for crediting, for attribution.

A more expansive approach is to do one’s work and then dedicate it (or part of it) to the public domain. As an example, perfumer Andreas Wilhelm has been printing his formulas on the back of his bottles since, what, 2018? That model of ultimate transparency appeals to me. It’s generous: it allows people to learn, and to remix. Andreas' belief is that it doesn't hurt him if people do their own version of his perfume. They’re either going to buy it or they’re going to try to make it, and sometimes both. He's not coming from a place of fear, he’s coming from a place of abundance. This is a psychological difference that makes a huge difference in his approach, and reflects an excellent version of humanity, in my opinion.

Since you first started the IAO, how has it grown and developed?

We’ve gotten bigger, I guess? That we've survived at all is no small feat, especially because we very rarely take corporate donations. Additionally, we keep adding new programs. As one example, we expanded the Scent and Society program we started with Dana El Masri in 2018 with a series of talks brilliantly curated by Nuri McBride. We’re also working on a large public database of information in the form of a reference library of books and perfumes. But to be honest, we tend to work a little bit by the seat of our pants; we’re a very small team, and there’s lots to do. COVID obviously threw us off a bit, so we skipped a year of the awards and did our annual (sort of) Experimental Scent Summit online. Some other programs we've had to put on pause, but they're starting to trickle back. Focusing on our mission and maintaining the organization has been the name of the game. And we’ve shifted a lot of our talks and workshops to be online.

How has that online shift changed things? Obviously there are some in-person workshops that don't translate online, but for the most part, it’s opened up things even more.

It was weird, at first I thought we're going to have to shut down. But actually, I found that people's willingness to go online has expanded our audience and also expanded who we can invite to lend their expertise. It's not the same [as in-person] obviously, but people have really been enjoying it. We're going to keep it going, even as COVID restrictions are ending, in addition to in-person events. The online access is filling a need for the community. We had this whole biannual scent fair planned out in 2020 that we had to cancel, which was really a bummer, but it'll come back eventually.

It'll be all the better for it, people will be even more appreciative of it because it was taken away.

The other thing I've been trying to focus on with the Institute, especially recently, is an expansion beyond the perfume world, starting with our radio show [Perfume on the Radio]. Not to say that our lens is always going to be scent, but there's a huge world out there and in the perfume view, we tend to become so obsessed with certain aspects of it—the industry, the indies, the blogosphere, the YouTubers—but this is a drop in the bucket of the larger creative expression that is possible with scent.

There's so many people doing so many amazing things that have nothing to do with perfume or smell that can be drawn from. For instance, we have an episode of Perfume on the Radio called “The Perfumer’s Cat,” in which we have the cat whisperer from LA, Jackson Galaxy, talking about cats and how they relate to smell. Or another episode about cars where we speak to a few car aficionados about how scent relates to their engine repairs. We have all these people outside of perfume, talking about their worlds from the perspective of smell. It can be a bit goofy, but it keeps it fresh for me, selfishly.

What are those unique outside things that might not be what people instantly associate with scent, but are very much tied into that conversation?

Everything. Everything in culture and human experience, maybe with one or two exceptions. You could talk to an artist about their practice and suddenly they could be talking about the smell of their studio, or a neon vendor could be talking about the smell of melting glass. There's a way into smell through anything you encounter. Scent is such a human experience, there's a million ways of thinking about it that are outside of the perfume industry.

What has been the most eye-opening or unexpected event you've done in terms of audience feedback?

A higher-profile event that we did years ago was a project with the Hammer Museum in LA called “A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited” which is a restaging of a scented concert by Sadakichi Hartmann. The feedback on that was really positive; people were really engaged. But weirdly the things that have had the most impact are really small projects we've done. For instance, we did a smell map of all the aromatic hauntings in LA with the Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles. It was an easy-to-access project that actually got into deep questions: civic self-perception, and whose narratives we take on as our history. But really, what I’m enjoying the most right now is the radio show. I don't even know if people are listening, but I love it as a vehicle to express creativity and connect with super-cool people. With that in mind, my favorite programs are our weekly open sessions and the Experimental Scent Summit. People come together, talk, exchange ideas, make connections. It’s awesome.

In reference to the Art & Olfaction Awards, what perfumers, fragrances, and projects are you most excited about this year?

The Art & Olfaction Awards are great because they give voice to people who don't have marketing budgets or a market impact. It's judged on the juice itself. It sounds a little bit clichéd, but it totally matters. All the big budgets and design is stripped away. People really get a fair shake, and this is cool, to me. On the flip side, we're injecting more competition into an already competitive field, which I grapple with a little bit.

You’ve previously spoken about scent being quietly subversive, so I'm wondering what is one of the most recent acts of subversion you've witnessed with scent?

Top of mind, there's this brand now based in Texas called Xyrena. They put out a fragrance that was scentless [called $cam], which I thought was just hilarious, super clever. They were playing by the rule of perfume marketing to question the system of perfume marketing. There was fancy packaging for a perfume without a fragrance. The project effectively asked us to assess our own purchasing drive. Does the marketing make the product? The point I think is that people do it anyway. It's almost as if the product is irrelevant, like we're still going to buy the stuff, we're still going to sell this stuff because it's not about the product. It's about the system that sells the product.

The founder is named Killian Wells, he's an interesting cat because he's originally from New York City but came out to California in order to be a pop star. He made music videos, and then he started a perfume brand. Years ago he did one particular perfume that was a finalist at the Art and Olfaction Awards with a perfume called Dark Ride. He replicated the smell of a Disney ride. He does a lot of partnerships with pop celebrities, drag performers, but also pop culture-oriented scents. One is called Sneakerhead that smells like sneakers. He's really sincere in what he does, and I just get a kick out of his work. It’s unapologetically what it is and at the end of the day, if you're going to engage in commercialism and capitalism and all that, then at the very least be honest. Don't pretend that you’re all about the triple bottom line and for the greater good and all this nonsense while you pad your shareholders’ pockets and pollute the planet. Just own up to what you’re about. That's what I like about Killian, he’s just like, “Yeah, we're vegan, cruelty free, but also just about pop culture, and then making money.” It's refreshingly honest, and we know where we stand.

What do you think is something that perfumers, consumers, but also conglomerate heads can do to effect positive change within the industry?

It's such a multi-headed beast. It's a very complicated system and it begets itself. If you really want to change the world, it’s actually quite simple: stop making excessive, wasteful, unethical products. That’s the truth. If that’s not possible for you, then at the very least be more conscious of the language you're using and who you're excluding. For example, one thing that indies can do to effect change is stop saying things like, “Well, so and so is not a real perfumer because [blank].” It's nonsense. There is no “real” perfumer. Every practice is “real.”

Especially recently, this idea of clean perfume, sometimes as a journalist, can be challenging because of the whole debate around parabens or synthetics and so on.

It can definitely feel like a marketing angle. On the other hand, at least they got the memo, you know? There's this very famous artist in LA who comes from a very affluent, well-known family. She started doing social practices about 20 years ago; her art took the form of interventions in polluted spaces and thorny cultural issues. I remember a lot of criticism of her, people saying things like: “Oh, it's really easy for her to do social practices, she’s rich.”

I was talking to my dad about it one day, and he said, “Look honey, she could be taking those millions and shopping on Rodeo Drive.” So, the fact that she is even trying is a good thing and should be commended.

Having said that, when you have real power, it's not enough just to try. You have to also achieve. So, to the greenwashing thing—I commend small companies and individual people for being conscious and trying and I think we should extend them the benefit of the doubt. However, when it comes to the bigger corporations, the ones that can actually impact the planet, I think they have to be held accountable, whether that be through thoughtful engagement, direct real-world action, or global interventions. Calling them out on Facebook or Instagram or even TikTok feels like it’s not working very well.

The us versus them thing, polarization, can make it harder.

I’d rather be friends. When it comes to my own work with the IAO, I try to understand and figure out what my ethics are, and I try to abide by them. That's the best I can do. But of course, it’s sort of a human thing, isn’t it? The in-crowd and the out-crowd has been here as long as there have been humans. I try to remember that my in-crowd is their out-crowd. Who knows who’s right and who’s wrong?

In what other ways can the medium of scent be more democratized?

I know that democratization is a cliché now. It's become a bit of a catchphrase, but at the core, if you really think about it, it is valid. People are entitled to be creative. So, a good place to start is by being kinder, I think. And then, by understanding that when people don't know, it's not because they're frauds or evil or anything like that. Sometimes they just don’t know, or maybe they know and they don’t agree. That’s OK too. You can explain your perspective, or disagree, without being horrid to one another… And give them space to learn and do their thing, in their own way. There’s room for everybody.

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