In Conversation With Perfumer, Alex Lee

  • Posted on 24th August 2017 by Guest - Alex

  • How did you start out in the Perfume industry?
     
    In 2007, I left my home of California for Lyon, France, in order to study French. I knew the French language would be critical to work in the industry. The beginnings of my perfumery studies started a few months later at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, where I fell in love with the city of Grasse and its expertise in natural ingredients. Upon graduation, I moved to Paris to study at the Institut Supérieur International du Parfum de la Cosmétique et de l'Aromatique Alimentaire (ISIPCA) in Versailles. In 2011, I was accepted into the internal perfumery school at MANE, the company where I currently work. Since completing my training late 2013, I have been working on fine fragrance projects in MANE’s Parisian creative center.
     
    What drew you to the world of fragrance? Did you always know you wanted to be a perfumer?
     
    I was born far from the fragrance capitals in California’s Silicon Valley, to a Taiwanese mother and Singaporean father, both with scientific backgrounds. For as long as I can remember, I was drawn to scent: I have vivid memories of chasing young girls in kindergarten to smell the shampoo in their hair. My pursuits in adolescence changed to perfume itself, and collecting and learning about perfume became a hobby.
     
    In America, documentaries about Grasse or perfumery were not prevalent. Not knowing the perfumer career existed, I focused on a different calling: to care for people through medicine. I pursued bioengineering in college in parallel with a pre-med course load. A series of unexpected events led me to realize that perfume could be a form of medicine—a medicine for the spirit—and a fortunate encounter with someone in the perfume industry turned my compass towards Grasse.
     
    Describe your style. Is your personality reflected in the fragrances you create?
     
    My ideas come from new ingredients associations combined with raw material overdoses. I try to resist external pressures to draw inspiration from or create towards existing olfactive forms that we know ‘work’. Ultimately, a brand’s internal strategy dictates how much olfactive risk to take, which affects creativity. Personally, I am not truly satisfied with the final creation unless I have brought something new to the perfume art. With the Penhaligon’s Trade Routes project, I was given carte blanche to create two purely creative fragrances with the only directions being the two themes: incense and spices.
     
    How long does it take you to develop a fragrance?
     
    The length of development time (sometimes up to a few years) depends on the deadline and the brand’s satisfaction—most often than not, it is the deadline that dictates when the fragrance is done. Perfumery is an art and I am a perfectionist—the more time I have, the better the fragrance. But, what may be more critical than time is olfactive leadership. The Penhaligon’s duo took only a few months; each round of reworks was efficient and moved the note forward quickly. This was pioneered by great olfactive vision and direction from Penhaligon’s. In fact, we finished Paithani with just one round of reworks. It was pretty much the initial idea straight into the bottle! Agarbathi took a bit longer as we needed to improve its signature and power.
     
    What are your favourite materials and scents to work with?
     
    I have no favourites. They are all indispensable in the different contexts of perfume creation. But in this moment, I do like milky ingredients.
     
    When did you first discover Penhaligon’s?
     
    When I finished high school, I discovered the niche perfumery world. It did not take me long after to find Penhaligon’s!
     
    Do you have a favourite Penhaligon’s fragrance?
     
    My first favourite was Blenheim Bouquet. My most recent favourite is Much Ado About The Duke.
     
    Tell us about the briefing process for Agarbathi and Paithani?
     
    The night before I received the brief, I was so excited I could not sleep! Penhaligon’s wanted to expand the Trade Routes collection with a new destination: India. Two fragrances needed to be created to complement the Trade Routes collection inspired from the incense and spice trade routes. At the briefing, I was reminded of the three technical values of Penhaligon’s fragrances: the fragrances must be powerful, rich, and leave a strong sillage. Then Penhaligon’s sent me back to the lab to play.
     
    Where did you draw your inspiration from?
     
    For Paithani, I drew inspiration from the Indian masala chai drink: the delicious spicy black tea of cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, and other spices with milk. The idea was to create the smell of the spicy cocktail with an emphasis on the milky note and the leathery aspect of black tea.
     
    Agarbathi is meant to transport one inside an Indian temple. I wanted to create the smell of sandalwood and burning incense sticks dancing with the intoxicating sillage of jasmine garlands donned by the worshippers. In the background, there is the smell of milk being offered to the Hindu Gods.
     
    Have you ever been to India?
     
    Sadly, not yet, but it is one of my next trips!
     
    Why do you use Milk in both fragrances?
     
    When I saw the brief, I was immediately drawn to the idea of masala chai. Milk is already an ingredient in the tea recipe; the initial idea of Agarbathi did not contain milk.
     
    I knew milk is something very symbolic and sacred in the Hindu religion. At one point, I remembered that out of worship to their Gods, Hindus made offerings of milk. Milk was the final touch we put in Agarbathi to complete its story, ultimately linking the two fragrances together.
     
    How is it possible to use Milk in fragrance?
     
    Due to technical reasons, perfumers cannot use natural milk directly in perfumes. But thanks to our scientists who synthesize perfumery molecules, perfumers have a small palette of ingredients that can help create the olfactive illusion of milk. Sulfurol is my favorite milky ingredient and I used it in both creations. This molecule, which also exists in nature, is used mostly in flavourings and has more of a warm milk facet.
     
    What does the Milk ingredient bring to a fragrance?
     
    Sulfurol imparts creaminess, volume, and a new type of addiction to a perfume.
     
    Is Milk the future?!
     
    I hope so! 
     
    When you are in London, what are your favourite places to visit?
     
    Liberty London. I cannot seem to have enough of it.
     
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