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Boujee Bougies: An Ode to Postmodern Perfumery

Published August 27, 2023
Published August 27, 2023
Boujee Bougies

Boujee (short for the French term bourgeoisie) is a term that in some circles has been synonymous with the fragrance industry: the velvet rope, veiled trade secrets, the unseen behind-the-scenes magic of fragrance creation. But for all the glamour, there was also an element of alienation.

As industry veterans, Pia Long and Nick Gilbert were all too familiar with the difficulties of access in perfumery. Long’s career trajectory includes acting as Junior Perfumer at Lush, a Technical Manager at Equinox Aromas, and contributing a monthly column in Perfumer & Flavorist magazine. Gilbert is a former Trainer and Fragrance Ambassador for Penhaligon’s and Store and Online Presence Manager for prestigious London-based fragrance retailer Les Senteurs. Their combined industry knowledge spans retail, ingredients, as well as fragrance marketing and development.

In 2016, they founded the fragrance house and consultancy Olfiction, offering perfume creation, storytelling, and copywriting opportunities, as well as training to interested individuals and corporations, with Long as Head Perfumer and Gilbert as Creative Director, accompanied by perfumer Ezra-Lloyd Jackson and perfumer/chemist Marianne Martin. Clients have included Unilever, Designer Parfums, and Charlotte Tilbury.

In November 2020, Long and Gilbert launched Boujee Bougies. Underpinning the brand is a postmodern perfumery manifesto, which defines a postmodern perfume as a product which “ can be created by anyone, anywhere, using any creative direction and pragmatic methodologies.” It’s a stand against the “overly marketing-led and artificially gatekept perfumery paradigm” existing within a Eurocentric perspective. Whereas “modern perfumery” was born in the early 20th century France, today the landscape needs to include a more diverse and less prescriptive approach to creation that doesn’t turn its nose up at creativity exiting outside of the “standard” industry framework.

The brand debuted with Boujee Bougies, a range of full-bodied home fragrances (made with responsibly sourced soy, rapeseed, and beeswax, contained in recyclable glass packaging) with tongue-in-cheek inspirations. Long and Gilbert desired to pour the same craftsmanship and high-quality raw materials usually reserved for personal fragrance into candles.

To date, the Boujee Bougies home fragrance lineup includes seven candles. Cuir Culture, a cheeky play on queer culture, is a luscious leather scent with animalic notes and patchouli. Succulent is botany captured in a candle with olfactory facets of cactus, cassis, jasmine, and clary sage—gloriously green. Gilt begs the question “If the walls in a church could talk, what would they say?” The answer is a mysterious yet grounding concoction of black pepper, lemon, cedarwood atlas, and frankincense; as if someone took a nimbostratus clouds of incense smoke and sheered it out into a cirrostratus shape—a scented gauze veil draped over its surroundings. 

The strikingly named Hellflower is named after an old sci-fi novel, a “post-apocalyptic floral.” The word apocalypse may strike fears of an intensely heavy floral, but the creation strikes a balance between a refreshing burst of grapefruit in the opening; a bouquet of neroli, jasmine, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, and magnolia in the heart; as well as mineral sulphur notes and a musk in the base. Queen Jam, an ode to a Finnish raspberry and bilberry conserve, blends bergamot, cassis, rose, raspberry leaf, and patchouli for a delightful fruity floral creation with sophistication.

The two newest releases are Thorny and Tart. Thorny is described as “a rose born from the symbiosis of pain and pleasure” and like its namesake, it is designed to provoke a reaction. Its notes include rose absolute as well as rose oxide (plus notes of geranium, which are often used to create a rose-like effect in fragrances), accented with tart lemon and green notes, as well as animalic and deep hints of cistus, costus, and musk. Tart is an olfactory rendering of herbal and fruit teas, described as tangy, sharp, and juicy. It creates this uplifting effect through a host of delicious materials like mint, blue ginger, green plum, rhubarb, and basil.

Eau de Boujee is their line of eau de parfums, debuting this September. Each fragrance is an evolution of the candle releases but with enough distinction and character to be a standalone product. 

Verdant, a vision of a foliage-drowned skyscraper, marries a concrete accord with tomato and violet leaf notes, the blooming greens boosted by notes of white flowers, neroli, and vetiver for a dewy, aquatic green scent. Compared to its candle predecessor, Succulent, it doses up on spicy Timur pepper, adding grit to the growing greenery.

Queen—the perfume partner to Queen Jam—takes the candle’s juicy rose and berry composition and adds a hint of darkness to the mix through notes like black tea, myrrh, opoponax, and benzoin. Iris, geranium, and violet boost the floral factor in the heart notes, while rhubarb, nutmeg, and carrot seed add a refreshing zing in the opening. The scent was inspired by Alice in Wonderland, with its protagonist  stepping through the looking glass,  crowned queen, and throwing a tantrum that results in disarray of jam tarts and spilled tea.

Gilded, the story of golden light in a celestial temple, builds on Gilt’s incense-heavy focus with frankincense and labdanum but throws in some buttery suede notes and warm saffron. Quir conjures up a world of leather and pleasure, in the same manner as Cuir Culture, but goes for a more smokey interpretation with tobacco absolute, softening its sensual strike with Cashmeran, Amber Xtreme, and rose absolute. If Cuir Culture is the BDSM dungeon, Quir is the 1920s speakeasy above it.

In the lead up to the release of Eau de Boujees and following the range’s debut at Esxence, BeautyMatter spoke to Long and Gilbert about longstanding fragrance myths and the challenges of translating perfume inspirations between mediums.

Where did your love of scent begin?

Pia Long: I was surrounded by perfumes even in childhood and being a Finn means I spent my summers at a cottage by a lake. Ours didn't have any electricity, but it did have abundant flower gardens and wildflowers, all kinds of berries and vegetables. There's a story that my first word was "flower" (kukka in Finnish), uttered after I'd shoved my face into some pansies.

I started working in fragrance and beauty retail in my teens and while I didn't think at the time that it was going to be related to my future career, I felt at home among the perfumes and fragrant face creams. Everyone has formative smell experiences, of course, but when you become a perfumer it's almost irresistible to start thinking about your history as though it was meant to be and crafting some kind of spin about it all. I don't know about that, but I do know with crystal clarity that I was always consciously aware of smells, exploring them around me and thinking about them a lot. 

Nick Gilbert: It started very early on—but I don’t recall a particular moment that I completely fell for scent. I remember a lot of scented products from my youth and being completely obsessed with the honeysuckle in my Nan’s garden. When I started working for Boots in my teens, I felt a “calling” to the perfume counter. After my first three months they asked where I wanted to work in the store and I requested to be moved to the perfumery and electrical personal care side so I could have an excuse to smell things and talk about them. I realized I had a natural ability to talk about fragrance to customers that the other salespeople didn’t. Then there was a new counter manager who started working in the store who told me about a website called Basenotes. After that, the search for knowledge spiraled, and I couldn’t imagine working with anything but scent!

What made the time feel right to release your manifesto about Postmodern Perfumery?

PL: It's been brewing in my mind for decades, after being so closely involved in the selling, marketing, training about—and for the last 15 years, also formulating—perfumes and fragrances. Launching our own brand also made us think about a lot of things from a different perspective. It made us think of the perpetuated myths and types of marketing that we see; so much still rests on a foundation of decades-old mythology or twisted half-truths. When you take any formal perfumery course, there is this fascinating timeline that culminates in "modern perfumery" which started over 100 years ago.  

Why are we still talking about our craft the same way? Why are we brushing aside that perfumery has been a global practice in a myriad of ways through history? Why are we still creating Mad Men-type narratives about perfume wearing and shopping? Why are so many new brands trying to emulate outdated marketing? Why are we allowing whole new mythologies of misinformation about nonsense concepts like “clean beauty” to be built? And why are we not broadening our discussions on the origins of raw materials to how colonialism underpinned a lot of the European "discoveries"? We’ve been actively striving to deal with things as they actually are, be real about ourselves and the trade we operate in, and as part of this process, trying to help movements like the decolonization of perfumery and better consumer education. 

NG: We’ve had a lot of discussions about our approach to the industry and the way perfumery has continued to evolve. The postmodern perfumery manifesto was the result of those discussions. We were thinking about our values, and during that came the idea of a manifesto, then Pia got to writing it based on all the things we’d been talking and thinking about for years. It made sense for us to put it out when we decided to launch the perfumes; to explain to people where we’re coming from.

What are the biggest fragrance myths perpetuated by the industry and consumers that need to be dispelled?

PL: That perfumers are born, not made. Learning perfumery is primarily brain training and you aren't born with the skills, though you may be born with some aptitude. Learning perfumery is also not just about learning the mechanical and technical skills of how to weigh and blend your materials. There are two myths, like the two sides of the same myth coin: one coming from the trade that perfumers are inherently special and can only be produced by specific kind of training schools; one coming from the artisan/indie side that perfumery is purely about learning to blend, and the idea that it takes years to become a perfumer is industry gatekeeping. Neither of these are true. 

The reason it takes years is that your brain's neuroplasticity has to have time to do its thing. Your brain transforms and becomes better able to memorize, recognize, differentiate, and communicate about smells. Your brain actually changes. This is what takes time. Perfumers are made through repeated exposure to perfumery problems and raw materials. There is no shortcut. In that way, learning perfumery is like learning to become a concert pianist or a professional athlete: You have to change yourself through repeated practice, and then keep practicing. But you do not have to go to specific schools or be born special to do that.

Another myth is that the origin of a raw material automatically determines the raw material's safety. That's not true. Dose, context, how it's used—those determine safety. Also that chemicals are inherently evil. All matter is chemicals. Essential oils are super complex chemical mixtures. And if we don't respect them for that, they will accidentally get regulated away under demands for stricter chemical regulation. I wish this was hyperbole, but it's happening right now.

Finally, the myth that there is anything wrong with being a creative director, visionary storyteller, or a brand owner who uses perfumers to realize their vision. Old-fashioned thinking was that you had to pretend to be the perfumer. 

NG: There are so many! There’s a lot of marketing and discourse around perfume that came from the ’80s and wasn’t even true then, but somehow it’s taken as gospel—and even perpetuated by certain industry organizations, which doesn’t help any of us either sell more perfume or improve actual education around it. Smelling coffee beans is one that bothers me. You’re better off sniffing the crook of your elbow or getting some fresh air.

Notes lists are not ingredients lists, and they are not definitive. They are impressions the perfumer and brand want to get across, but they are not infallible truths. France is not the be-all and end-all of the fragrance industry. The romanticized and euphemistic views and presentation of colonialist practices in relation to growing and supplying raw materials also need to be smashed apart—with actual ethical change that enriches the growers. One of the main problems that faces the industry is that fragrance formulas aren’t protected by law, which means that the industry has had to be secretive, and knowledge is gatekept. That secrecy has impacted us all. But the realities of formulation, creation, how raw materials are sourced, how molecules are created, all of it, is absolutely fascinating.

"Learning perfumery is primarily brain training and you aren't born with the skills, though you may be born with some aptitude. Learning perfumery is also not just about learning the mechanical and technical skills of how to weigh and blend your materials."
By Pia Long, Co-Founder, Boujee Bougies

Having worked on both your own brand and as consultants, how do the challenges between creating your own products versus creations for other brands differ?

NG: Any idea we want to bring to life in the Boujee Bougies universe, we can. With other brands, we have to operate within their world, the odor profiles of their existing products and ranges, and create to their vision and for their customer. It’s interesting and enriching to create in both ways. We’ve got the good fortune of being able to work on all kinds of projects.

PL: The main difference from a perfumer's perspective is that when you create for your own brand (especially with a tiny team who know each other very well), you're cutting away a big stage of fragrance development: the part where you initially spend time developing a mutual understanding of how you relate to smells. It's great to be able to express an idea and know you are on the right track because you're part of the decision making about that. On the other hand, there's a risk of getting lost in ideas, and it's good to have some creative boundaries. Then there's the whole bit about having to actually run the brand itself, which is a big deal when your part usually ends at the point the client has signed off the fragrance.

What birthed the concept for Boujee Bougies?

NG: It might sound silly, but I dreamed of the name and thought it was funny. I told Pia, and as a fellow lover of puns she agreed that it would be a great name for a candle brand. We spoke to some people in the trade that we trust, and they believed in our concept and Pia’s perfumery. So we decided to do it: launch Boujee Bougies as an olfactive playground for our own concepts that didn’t have homes in other brands we were working for. We set ourselves a guiding principle for the fragrances, which is that they must be “boujee”—to have power, distinctive character, and be worth the cost.

What inspired you to segue from home fragrance into personal fragrance?

PL: We've been creating both personal fragrances and home fragrances for the seven years of Olfiction, our perfume business, so this was a really natural idea to us. At the start, we did think of having separate brands for candles and fine fragrance, but the more our fragrances developed and our ideas evolved, it made complete sense to extend the existing brand instead.

NG: Honestly, our customers were asking [for it]. Friends were saying they wanted to smell of Cuir Culture. That was our first finalized personal fragrance. After that, we decided to work up the “OG” fragrances and evolve them into fragrances to wear.

What were the challenges of translating the original inspirations into eau de parfums?

NG: Ensuring we kept the character and spirit of the original scent but moving it along into something that people would love to wear. We had to find our sweet spots and differentiate the scents while also keeping the essence of the originals in some way. For each perfume, that was different.

PL: I was adamant that the perfumes needed to be built as perfumes from the ground up, not as "modified candle fragrances." In some cases, like Gilded, I was able to do some things that the candle format restricted me on (the amount of incense resin used can be much higher in the perfume because in a candle, after a certain amount, it would stop it burning as the resins collect into the wick). With others, I kept breaking things on purpose and putting them back together again over and over until I found a strong path to follow. We wanted the perfumes to represent a cinematic scene, and the candle fragrances to be a single frame of that scene.

Which scents of yours were the hardest to create and why?

NG: Gilt, because I was being pedantic about introducing more frankincense resin, which doesn’t burn very well in wax. I kept pushing Pia to put more of it into the fragrance, and we kept ending up with the same problem. She was humoring me but also proving her point, because I’d take away the sample candle to burn and it wouldn’t burn as effectively as I wanted, so I’d go back to her with my tail between my legs and we’d move on to the next version. We eventually arrived at a very happy compromise thanks to Pia’s perfumery skills—and I’m sure a lot of eye-rolling at my demands. I love Gilt, though, I’m so enamored with that fragrance. It was definitely worth all the work that went into it. With Gilded, it feels like I have my own bespoke perfume. I’m thrilled that other people are responding to Gilded as positively as they are.

PL: Gilt, for the reasons Nick mentioned. He kept insisting I put in more incense resin into the candle and the bloody thing wouldn't burn; the wick would just curl up and self-extinguish, so, I'd reduce the incense resin and then it'd burn, and Nick would come back with "put more incense resin back in." And I didn't even murder him. In the end, I used a combination of incense (olibanum), essential oil, and resin in the candle. 

Would you consider outside investment to help grow the brand?

PL: We are happy to be independently owned, partnered with some amazing people, and in full control of the creativity and direction of the brand. We are in this for the long haul and relish the opportunity to have our own creative expression out there, on our terms. If some kind of perfect investor were to materialize and demand nothing more than beautiful fragrances and a nice return on investment, we might consider that, but we don't want to pursue investment pathways on purpose at this stage.

What launches and activations do you have lined up for the future?

NG: We just finalized the next fragrance, which we plan to debut in the spring at Esxence in Milan. We’re going to focus on perfumes for now. From a purely business point of view, they will drive growth and interest in the brand. Some will align with candles; some will stand alone. We have plenty more concepts that we want to develop.


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