Christopher Brosius: Would you like to try a spritz of roast beef, Madam?
July 5, 2011
Suddenly, off the hot, sticky streets of Brooklyn, I enter Alice in Wonderland. In one half of the small shop, little amber vials of liquid are arranged on white shelves, with labels such as strawberry shortcake, soaked earth, sticky toffee pudding, wet grass, Christmas pudding, gun smoke, dust, old fur coat, roast beef and snow.
When you unscrew the lids, those smells spring forth. (I had never knowingly smelt snow or dust, but they seemed “snowy” and “dusty”.) On the other side of the shop are bespoke scents, with names such as Winter 1972, recreated from the past of Christopher Brosius, owner of I Hate Perfume. “Smells are connected to emotion and emotion causes memory, which is why we remember smells,” he says.
The New York shop’s name encapsulates its owner’s philosophy: perfume should be memorable but not “offensive”, like the mass-market scents that, for Brosius, dominate through multimillion dollar marketing muscle rather than superior beauty or subtlety.
The shop is six years old and Brosius has reconstructed aromas for nearly two decades, using pipettes and 2,000 chemicals. Three customers relish wearing “roast beef”. One woman burst into tears when she smelt an ocean-based scent: her father had died and it reminded her of the family’s beachfront home. “I have a gift for accuracy,” Brosius says. “I love the smell of fresh runner beans when you first cut them; minutes later that smell has gone.”
The 48-year-old perfumier, dressed in black (T-shirt and heavy kilt), is cerebral, arch and precise. In tonight’s episode of the BBC Four series Perfume, he sets out to recreate the smell of 1930s rarefied London. The components are books, whisky, “the musty but clean carpets of old gentlemen’s clubs”, leather armchairs, cigars and rain. He sometimes works from a molecular profile (created from gas chromatography) of a particular smell, or simply experiments. “I can make roast beef without roast beef molecules,” he says.
Some aromas are simple: a just-opened chocolate box takes four chemicals; soaked earth comprises 35 to 40. Some take days to perfect, others months, with precise note-taking at every stage. “It’s fairly 18th century,” Brosius says with a smile.
His favourite scent is the stunning floral Cradle of Light, which includes he “absolutes” (the very fine extracts pressed out of flowers) of jasmine, gerberas, narcissus and lotus. For the base of many perfumes he uses cedarwood, “dirt smells” and the resin labdanum. For water-based sprays he needs “a good solvent, a couple of polysorbates and hydrogenated castor oil”. He also uses individual aroma chemicals, compounds, essential oils, resins and absolutes. “Most of all you need creative ability,” he says.
Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, Brosius recalls “the veil of perfume” left by his Aunt Corinne, an Avon lady, after she had left the house. “I also loved to dig in dirt, creating cities for my toy trucks. My love of water smells comes from the vines hanging over a river nearby.” He studied set and costume design, toyed with fashion and worked in the cosmetics department of Barneys department store. Magazine perfume adverts seduced him, “So when I finally opened the bottles I was expecting to faint with pleasure. It never happened. I was frequently bored; often they were unpleasant.”
As a student he drove a cab. “In the Eighties women wore expensive scents. Giorgio, Poison and Obsession were the real killers. I would finish my shift with the hugest headache and feel sick.” The first scent he wore was Czech & Speake’s Frankincense and Myrrh. Cicely’s Eau de Campagne “was supposed to smell of tomato leaves. Well, the tomato leaves went after ten minutes, leaving something disgusting”. He last wore a mass-market scent in 1990 (Guerlain’s Vetiver) and says that if perfumes are particularly obnoxious, “I put a handkerchief over my face”. He has chemical sensitivities to the synthetic musk Galaxolide and certain hexanols.
Brosius’s breakthrough — besides having a “brilliant chemistry teacher” — was working at Kiehl’s, where he experimented blending the company’s fragrance oils and learnt that “if the market is pushing one way, at least 5 per cent of people are running in the other”. He began his own company in 1992, creating his first perfume, CB93 (geranium, frankincense and galbanum), a year later. After conflict with his business partner he left in 2004, then opened I Hate Perfume.
Brosius has declined requests to recreate blood, pus, gangrene and cannabis, and rejected a theatre director’s desire for the smell of a dead body (“The audience would be puking”). He wants his scents to be “memorable, wearable, not shocking”.
His most sensual, including a “sexy” scent created for actor Alan Cumming, are “animalic” and musky. Piggy combines leather, rubber and white truffle oil. Beast (roast beef and beef jerky) “loses its meat-like quality on the skin and is spicy, crackly, smouldery and smoky”. Brosius is often asked if he uses chemicals. “Dear God, yes,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Our bodies are made of chemicals. But I use more natural materials than comparable perfumiers.”
Richer clients pay Brosius $15,000 (£9,000) to create their own fragrances. “Everything I do is designed to tint the skin, not say: ‘I’m wearing perfume’,” he insists, adding you should wear scents “anywhere where another person’s nose is going to be but not where you might be licked: so the neck, the front of the underarm, the feet or base of the spine”.
So far the smell of banknotes has eluded Brosius, because he cannot acquire the molecular structure of the notes’ ink because of the risk of forgery, “and gasoline, because the chemicals that make it smell like gasoline are highly inflammable or toxic. I can replicate a French baguette or cookie at room temperature, but the ‘fresh-baked’ element remains an olfactory mystery: how we get that smell of heat into a bottle.” He is “slowly zeroing in on dogs’ paws” and “would love to do a good lilac, lily of the valley, gardenia, peony or freesia”. His eyes dance. “Smell this,” he instructs. The vial reads: “Doll’s head”. I inhale. Wow, that really is my sister’s old Sindy.