We have a 'nose' around the Camden atelier of Hollywood's star perfumer ...
When you ponder how many millions of dollars big perfume companies and designers pour into celebrity endorsement, it's pretty amazing how perfumer Azzi Glasser can rattle off a list of A-List clients that reads like the Oscars red carpet roll call. Many of whom go into raptures about her scents that she creates for them, in ordinary English, not some marketing tagline ("Here's to life.... here's to myself..." Ugh!). There are no celebrity faces gazing wistfully into the distance on her bottles, instead just a curly typeface and a scent that will transport you into another - rather curious and spectacular - olfactory dimension.
Azzi kindly let me pop down to her studio in Camden - a Merlin's den where all manner of olfactory alchemy takes place - to tell me all about her new venture, the Bespoke Atelier - a personalised perfumery service she is currently offering in Harvey Nichols, together with her new collection The Perfumer's Story. As mentioned above, this lady has an impressive client list. Creating scents for the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Orlando Bloom and Kate Moss, she has also been responsible for a number of well-known perfumes including the award-winning Agent Provocateur which was launched in 2000 as well as Illamasqua's Freak EDP.
Azzi has also collaborated with the likes of artist James Lavelle, scenting his Meltdown festival on the South Bank in 2014, as well as with the late, great Alexander McQueen on several of his shows. ("Lee [Alexander] was commissioned by the French government to do this art piece; he got Nick Knight to do the visuals, Björk did the sound and I did the smell." she told AnOther Magazine.) She has also created a number of scents for close friend, the designer Bella Freud.
The Freud perfumes in particular - as with her many others - have guts and a story behind them. These are not 'pretty scents' for the Marc Jacobs generation. They rather remind me of a David Lynch film: as beautiful as they are, there's something dark - almost indecent - lurking just beneath the surface.
"If you take a rose oil, a really nice rose and you mix it with saffron, oud and vetiver it then becomes quite dark, dangerous and naughty so its character changes," she remarks.
On a grey and rather dreary English Monday morning, visiting Azzi and her lovely assistant Victoria is like an Alice-In-Wonderland trip down the rabbit hole - she brings out a sample of a perfume she created for acclaimed director Jonas Åkerlund (who recently worked on Beyoncé's latest visual album Lemonade). The scent in question is inspired by a ditch ("but a Mulholland Drive ditch, not a Camden ditch," Azzi helpfully explains).
Despite her formidable stature, Azzi has one of those personalities which instantly puts visitors at ease. So one can see how clients might be able to easily open up to her in the consolation for their bespoke scent, what she calls a "fun therapy session".
"When clients come into the studio, I’m interested to know what they like but it’s not about fragrance really. I want to know about them as a person, as an individual how they see themselves and how they want others to see them. Generally you can get that by talking about what films and books they like, where they go on holiday, the way they dress etc. But you need know what you’re doing with bespoke perfumery. I've had 25 years in the business - you can’t just step into it and start doing it."
At £15000 a go, it's certainly an investment us mere mortals can only dream about (at the end clients are presented with an engraved Lalique glass bottle containing their fragrance, as well as 20 miniature bottles). But the fact that many of her clients rarely ask her to change anything about the perfumes she creates for them speaks volumes about her ability to tap into their respective personalities. And when you're dealing with notoriously private - and particular - Hollywood actors, that's no mean feat. (One imagines the celebrity beans she could spill would probably put Vanity Fair out of business.)
"The process of creating a scent is very instinctual and psychological, it’s a lot to do with the brain and olfactory and how it works," she muses. What's more, as the scents aren't for sale, she's not bound by FDA restrictions, meaning one's bespoke scent won't suffer the fate of many iconic perfumes of the past, forced to alter their formulas (and resulting smell) as certain ingredients become prohibited. "That person can have that smell for as long as possible - unless the ingredient runs out somewhere in the world."
It's always nerve-wracking to ask a perfumer about the process behind scent creation. ("You wouldn't ask Da Vinci how he paints!" a famous nose once snapped.) But Azzi is more than happy to talk me though it - and expound some of the industry's marketing nonsense at the same time.
"All perfume companies - even niche ones - work around a top middle and back notes. They're all keen to tell you it’s got ‘oud’ and this or that special ingredient that’s in there. Which is great, but there are also 100 other ingredients in there. Its not just made of three ingredients, so what relevance does it really have?"
"The way that I work is completely unique and different, it’s not in the traditional fashion. But I know the ingredients and how they react when they come together with other ingredients. It’s a bit like a film director when you’re making a film. They’ve got an idea of a story they want to create and they pick which actors and actresses who could play that role well. In terms of ingredients, in a similar way, you have the main characters and supporting ingredients. They’ve been picked because of the story they’re telling not because ‘I like jasmine and I like rose'. It’s because they’re playing a part. Some I stick to certain favourites because I know that they always come up trumps: frankincense, myhrr and vetiver. I use them quite a lot." Which would probably explain the smoky, almost otherworldly - and undoubtably sexy - quality you get with one of Azzi Glasser's scents.
Keep an eye on Scents and the City for Part 2 as we delve into Azzi's new collection: The Perfumer's Story
Azzi Glasser scents and Bespoke Atelier service are both available at Harvey Nichols.