Whether it’s the lack of Black perfumers at leading fragrance houses or struggles to access capital funding, there is still more progress to be made when it comes to representation in our industry. Hispanic and Black consumers wear more fragrance products than the general US population (85% versus 78%), but the number of perfumers and fragrance brand founders in the space doesn’t correspond with those figures.
“Representation is everything. What I know is that when we show up and we have a place at the table, then it inspires our community,” Rodney Hughes, the creator behind natural and organic perfume house Therapeutate Parfums, stated at the 2021 Digital Scent Festival. Working hard to increase the number of seats at that table is Elle N., founder of BlackPerfumers.
A perfumer, scent artist, and writer whose interests lie at the intersection of creativity, anthropology, and social entrepreneurship, she created the initiative in 2020. BlackPerfumers aims to highlight and push the presence of Black perfumers and fragrance brand founders in the industry, inspire others to pursue STEM careers in the fragrance world, and visualize the contributions of the Black Diaspora worldwide to the contemporary landscape of perfumery.
The platform also highlights conversations with Black founders and voices in the industry, which so far have included Rashad Roulhac of boutique batch perfumery Rose & Fontes; Olunife Ofomata, founder of holistic skincare range Sweeter Juice Skin; Ezra-Lloyd Jackson of deya; and Bayyana Davis of International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF).
For aspiring talents, BlackPerfumers has offered a Train Your Nose Scholarship and currently provides industry resources and consulting. The initiative recently released an expanded fragrance finder to better connect consumers with Black-owned fragrance brands. In May 2023, the organization was recognized with the 2023 Scent Culture Award at the Art and Olfaction Awards.
BeautyMatter sat down with Elle N. to discuss the innovators redefining Black representation in fragrance, the questions that our industry needs to be asking, and crafting creative solutions.
How would you describe your own journey within the fragrance industry?
Equity, diversity, and inclusivity are buzz words right now, but they mean real things to a lot of people and are words also close to my heart. My father is a Nigerian immigrant; he’s a retired pharmacist now, but I recall those days as a child seeing him struggle to make ends meet because people didn’t want to hire him based on his ethnicity and heritage. Ironically, growing up as a pharmacist’s daughter, I never saw myself pursuing a career in STEM. The math seemed too hard, chemistry too tough. Today, I know there are kids like I was who feel disconnected from STEM subjects for similar reasons. Through fragrance, I think we can spark connections.
My mother also sold Avon and Mary Kay when I was a child. I’d be by her side as she went door to door, with me sniffing catalog samples. She never could afford expensive perfumes—but regardless, she instilled an appreciation in me for scents, how they can enhance how we feel. There was a time when I didn’t like perfume because it triggered sensitivities; then later, aromatherapy helped me through pregnancy, and, eventually, I rediscovered my love of scent and learned how to create fragrances that I could wear. It was during my journey learning how to make fragrances that I became acutely aware of a disparity between how Black people spend in the fragrance industry versus how Black people are represented within the industry, in particular as makers. It was strange realizing, wondering—where are all the Black perfumers?—since all my life I’ve known Black people to be fragranced from head to toe. Fragrance is a big part of Black culture, and how we spend in this industry reflects it. After a lot of research, I learned there are Black perfumers who have contributed to the industry in big ways, but why was this information hard to find? Why wasn’t there more knowledge about Black contributions in the fragrance sector beyond celebrity endorsements? I didn’t set out to be a fragrance diversity, equity, and inclusivity advocate, but I feel I am now.
What have been the challenges of increasing Black visibility and representation?
The challenge is to accept that people struggle with change. It’s hard to take a look at an industry that has existed for so long in a particular way and then, seemingly out of the blue, people start looking at it through different lenses and different shapes, asking questions about why it’s this way instead of that or even-—how did it become this way?—and then be expected to do something about it.
We’ve seen great articles come out, and there have been more brands getting in stores. We’ve had a Black perfumer (Brianna Arps of Moodeaux) on REVOLT and Target’s “Bet on Black” series; and in Credo, we have November Nichols of Chémin partnering with JCPenney, which is amazing—yet for all that is happening in fragrance from the Black community, which is a very diverse community, mainstream visibility seems to move at a slower pace.
What successes and advancements have you seen since founding BlackPerfumers?
Definitely more collaborations across the board. More founders being visible with their brands. More resource sharing and a deeper interest overall in exploring scent history as it pertains to Black heritage across the globe. More brands than I’ve ever seen are taking pride in where they come from. To me, this is an advancement, because there was a time I remember when it wasn’t so popular to say you’re a Black perfumer or to highlight ingredients from the Black Diaspora that weren’t already well known like, for instance, frankincense or myrrh. Now you’re seeing fragrances connecting cultural identities and botanicals that help tell shared stories of the Black Diaspora experience.
We’re also seeing an increase in Black fragrance creators doing workshops and classes with corporations and youth, and then there’s the sheer number of new brands emerging on the scene—these are all successes to me.
Not too long ago, sometime last year, I had a situation in an airport at a duty-free where I was fragrance browsing, and a Black man near me was wavering between boxes, clearly struggling with making a choice and probably worrying if he’d get what he needed before he had to make his flight. I remembered I had one of my platform’s postcards with me in my purse. I took one out, politely asked him if he was struggling with deciding on a fragrance, which he confirmed, and then he shared with me what he was considering. I helped him narrow it down, then shared my postcard, inviting him to check our platform out if he’s into fragrance and was interested in being a patron of brands by Black perfumers. He took it willingly and even told me that he’d been thinking about supporting Black-owned fragrance brands lately. I can’t know if he has or not, but I can say he took his time checking out both sides of the postcard, which confirmed for me what I believe: There is a growing interest in brands made by Black perfumers.
What has the feedback from the industry been regarding your mission?
I’ve received really great support and encouragement from people, from day one. Amazing people who see and understand the need for what I’m doing and who appreciate the ways in which I’m doing it. Those who get the mission and purpose and have advocated in their respective areas for it; by making introductions, doing collaborations, or utilizing their own platforms to spread what’s happening with BlackPerfumers' efforts. For this support I’m extremely grateful. Everyone is busy with their own things, so it’s really special to know this vision is meaningful to others and not just me.
Of course, there’s a little pushback sometimes from people who don’t get why I say Black perfumer. A perfumer is a perfumer. Okay, that’s true. A doctor is a doctor, but we do say Black doctors, and people seem to be okay with that. Why not with perfumers? I say it because, when I go into fragrance boutiques or the fragrance counter in the mall and ask if they have any brands by Black perfumers, the reps do start wondering why they don’t have an answer to that. I often get, “Oh, I’ve never thought of that before, let me check,” or “No, I don’t think we do.” Usually, this opens up more questions where the fragrance rep wants to know more about these brands, and that’s where I see an opportunity for the industry-at-large.
A situation like this happened recently at my local Sephora. I asked if they had any fragrances by Black perfumers, and they pointed to Fenty and mentioned Chris Collins. I asked the rep, who was really sweet, to take me to where Chris’s fragrances were, but she couldn’t find them. She apologized, started looking around, and admitted she was embarrassed because she thought they were supposed to be on the shelf. She told me she’d look in the back. She came back with a discovery set, which I thanked her for, and because there was no tester, she opened it and let me spend some time putting them on the shelf. After I enjoyed spraying and sniffing (it was that kind of a day), she told me I could keep them out—that his brand should have always been on the shelf as a tester and not in the back. We had a really great conversation afterwards about representation and Black presence in the industry. She was a white woman, and her team members were Black, and they were all really interested in the topic. I shared my platform, and they were excited to know there was a fragrance finder. I see it often in the fragrance sections of department stores, even perfume boutiques. There’s a disconnect, and the work happening with BlackPerfumers.com is one of the ways to help bridge it.
How can the fragrance industry improve representation?
I have a hundred ideas. My mind works overtime thinking of what this can look like. BlackPerfumers Directory is one of them. It’s a convenient searchable database of fragrance brands and boutiques by Black founders to make it even easier to find these businesses and diversify fragrance collections. I’m hoping boutiques and department store fragrance buyers will use it to help stock their shelves. I hope journalists at beauty magazines will use it for research. I hope shoppers will use it to search for gifts and self-care.
My ideas can be very ambitious, but at heart, I’m an artist, so I’m always thinking creatively about how to solve problems. There are so many things that can be done to improve representation. Some are very simple: loosen up exclusivity. Prestige doesn’t necessarily need to mean jumping through hoops. BlackPerfumers.com began with accessibility in mind; for example, the platform has always been for emerging and established fragrance creators. You have to start somewhere. Another simple one is: promote the independent brands. There are so many, and yet only a handful are represented consistently in traditional media. That could improve for sure. I love Le Labo’s mobile perfumery that came to New Orleans. I could totally see something like this traveling across the US, but instead of just one brand it’s a bunch of different Black-owned fragrance brands showing their work, blending on-site, and having meet and greets.
It's really about education and sharing it where beauty consumers will come in contact with it. We do this virtually to an extent, but it’s in constant motion and fleeting. I’m going to say this education is even more important to do in the physical space. Beauty consumers start young. So at the Sephora’s and Ulta’s and other beauty stores, I imagine how cool it would be to see a screen where you can see and hear interviews from Black chemists working in fragrance houses on perfumes stocked by that store while doing your shopping. You could also do that with the independent brands. That could be a documentary series.
I’d love to see a fictionalized series too. [The drama series] Riches touches on it. But if someone puts together something like [the television show] Insecure with a little bit of Silicon Valley where the main character is a Black perfumer—that’s going to be a lot of fun while also connecting with new audiences.
I’d love to see Black perfumers of independent brands getting traditional book deals or self-publishing. To see these stories and experiences outside of the bottle and in bookstores and libraries, or as documentaries that are going to improve visibility. If I had the time, I’d research and write a book about the aromatics of the Black Diaspora, but I can’t do it; someone else has to pick up that baton. There’s something long-lasting about a book. Perfumer Ethan Turner of MOI Fragrances has just released a book for his new brand Empyrean Parfums that is a delight. I hope more Black fragrance creators will expand in this direction.
Then you have platforms like Black-Owned Fragrance Week by Glenn Davis aka Mr. Cologne 76, Maiya Nicole’s Black Girls Smell Good, Taylyn Washington-Harmon’s Black Girl Perfume Club, and then people doing in-person experiences, classes, youth workshops—all that’s so important. The industry can also do more research of its own scent history: to ask questions, to find answers, and then bring this information into the collective knowledge bank about where Black people have existed in the fragrance industry timeline. Representation is also about equity.
We know for example that Haiti has and is an important part of the fragrance industry. We know that New Orleans is considered to be home to Peychaud’s Bitters, which was created by Antoine Amédée Peychaud who was born in Haiti and came to New Orleans after the revolution, eventually opening his apothecary. I wonder though about Peychaud’s assistants; Who were they? Black Creoles? I wonder about the family recipe that contributed to the bitters recipe? Were slaves a part of that development? I don’t know, no one knows, because these questions are not asked, so we don’t have those answers. I’m thinking of Edmond Albius with vanilla cultivation, and there’s a researcher in Kentucky, Erin Wiggins Gilliam, who comes to mind too, researching slave and African American contributions to the distillery industry about bourbon in Kentucky.
This is the kind of research the fragrance industry needs to improve representation. To simply ask: Where have Black people contributed to the modernization of the perfume industry? Then there’s also highlighting the growers of these beautiful botanicals used in the fragrance industry like what we see in the coffee industry. When you go to a coffee shop, you’re seeing the people who grow the coffee in conjunction with the brand in some ways. We don’t really see that with fragrance, but why not? I could see videos of these botanicals and the people who grow them at the fragrance counter in the mall, no problem. That could be the first time a consumer makes the connection that there are ingredients in their fragrance actually grown by people from the Black Diaspora.
What have your experiences of working with the next generation of Black perfumers through the Train Your Nose Scholarship program been like?
The Train Your Nose Scholarship was how I officially launched BlackPerfumers.com. It was really a call to action. I knew there were people out there seeking support with materials and access to classes, but that the costs of these can be intimidating. With that call, I was able to get a behind-the-scenes look at what’s beneficial for someone wanting to level up their fragrance creation from beyond a hobby and to gain insights from the Black community. I was fortunate to be able to grant one perfumer, but without the capacity, I haven’t been able to continue another round. What is great, however, is I realized what I want my next gen work to look like, and that’s more collaborations around STEM and youth.
What perfumers and brands are the new innovators of our industry?
I could list quite a few. Of course, I don’t know every brand or what everyone’s doing, but when I think of perfumers and fragrance brands who are new innovators in our industry from the Black Diaspora—to me these are people or brands whose approach redefines or attempts to redefine assumptions about Black representation in fragrance and our relationship with the industry. This takes different forms. It may not seem like innovation to some people, but it is to me.
Accessibility and community are a part of that too. Makeba Lloyd of Butter by Keba who has created an algorithm and app for her wellness brand Scentonomy to help curate blends for users. Kimberly Waters of MUSE in Harlem who saw a gap in the industry and brings her years of experience leading her fragrance retail destination and connecting with consumers of color to companies like Symrise, Natura, and L’Oréal. You have deya by Ezra-Lloyd Jackson focused on transparency in the creation process and building direct links with distillers and making formulations that consider better hydration for melanated skin. Turner of MOI Fragrances/ Empyrean Parfums looks at the way people in tech solve problems to inform his process and has just released a book accompanying a new fragrance collection whose imagery was inspired with AI.
The brand Nadra Safiri brings untapped natural African essential oils through its direct relationships with growers and then tests these in Capetown labs. There is Terry Carter of Travertine Spa, Inc., formally trained and a dynamic example of a top-notch multifaceted luxury brand sourcing excellent materials, who is also accessible and teaches classes. Arps has the Black in Fragrance initiative, Bambi Montgomery of Hive Fragrance Studio offers unique fragrance experiences in Mexico, and Travaulya Wallace (a Nordstrom beauty stylist and certified fragrance expert in NYC) brings fragrance experiences to Black communities and has featured brands by Black founders. There’s Tatiana Fortune of Aromatic Perfume Oils who is upgrading oil-based fragrances, Terees Western of FragranTed and MIXERS who is committed to introducing the fragrance industry as a career path to underrepresented youth, and Davis who started Black-Owned Fragrance Week, which is going on its third year.
What are the most overlooked or unacknowledged aspects of Black perfumery history and creativity?
I can’t speak for all, but for sure there’s Edmond Albius of Reunion and vanilla cultivation, the Haitian people and their integral vetiver crop, perfumers like Joseph Cassey and the other unnamed individuals we don’t know about because we haven’t yet dug deep enough. In my research, I was surprised to find out about perfumers like Howard E. Kennedy and Jimmy Bell who worked on iconic fragrances, and about Roger Howell of Alpha Aromatics and Lionel Nesbitt of Berjé. There are also these amazing fragrance traditions across the Black Diaspora. The Senegalese, the ancient Egyptians, the Himba people’s scent traditions, the conditioning and spiritual oils from people of the Southern United States. There’s so much. I have a section called Perspectives on my website where I add little bits and pieces that I think are relevant to anyone who enjoys fragrance culture. But I know there is so much out there we don’t yet know; it’s a lot to keep up with, but I try.
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