Nature Girl: Interview with Perfumer Nancy Meiland

For urbanites who occasionally long for the country - Nancy Meiland's perfumes are just the tonic. We caught up with the lady herself to find out more ...

As much as I proudly like claim to be a city-girl-till-I-die, there is something calming about green spaces (even though more that two days in the countryside has me running towards the nearest wifi signal like a parched desert-wanderer towards a babbling stream).

Yet it has to be said, I'm not too fussed whether a scent smells 'of nature' or not. I'm not a purist when it comes to natural ingredients either - hit me with all the synthetics you've got: sparkly aldehydes, sexy civetones, you name it. I spent most of my childhood living (comfortably) in flats in London and the suburbs; I never grew up surrounded by nature - and as they say, "what you've never had, you don't miss." Indeed, my only childhood memories of it are being dragged scowling on a long afternoon walks by my father, or one or two outings blackberry-picking (where I promptly scoffed my freshly-picked loot to the point of nausea). The smell of lavender reminds me of being bored on family holidays in Winchester and wishing I was home playing with my Barbies. (Incidentally I did once find a scented candle which smells like a plastic Barbie head, that I became obsessed with ...)

However, Nancy Meiland's fragrances - an ode to the beauty of nature - would make even the most hard-nosed city girl like yours truly want to kick off her Louboutins and go skipping and spinning through a meadow Julie Andrews-style. (I feel similarly towards other UK perfumers inspired by green spaces, there's just something about the earthy, rain-sodden British countryside that lends itself rather well to perfume...)

You always have an image of someone in your head before you meet them. To be honest, I was expecting Nancy to be a softly-spoken, Brönte-reading country girl (albeit a glamorous one, à la Savannah Miller), pausing our conversation to whimsically gaze into the distance every now and again. A far cry from the chatty, effervescent blonde sat opposite me - and all the better for it. I'm surprised to find out that Nancy is a city girl herself - a fellow North-Londoner no less - whose fond memories of visiting her grandparents as a child inspired her olfactory journey. She now lives with her family in the sleepy country town of Lewes near Brighton, and fondly recounts tales of the annual bonfire celebrations (which often make national press in the UK, due to their Wicker Man-style burning of effigies of politicians).

She began her career as an apprentice to a bespoke perfumer. "This lady was based in St James just by the Ritz she had this tiny library with hundreds of oils from ceiling to floor. One of her clients was a world-famous entrepreneur – his mood board was all about space domination, etc. Yet his final perfume was tender whisper of a scent, really beautiful. None of the 'macho-ness' you would have expected. It was very interesting how we managed to get underneath that."

Nancy still does the occasional bespoke work herself when she has time. "I only do a certain number of those per year as it's very time-consuming, but it's my favourite kind of work. You get this high-powered executives for whom money is no object, yet they come to learn the value of perfume through the process we go through. There was one client whose attitude was 'I don’t like smells I’m just here because it’s the thing to do now.' So I thought to myself - you are going to enjoy this! And eventually this guy ended up getting into it so much, he called the process ‘spiritual and organic’. Bearing in mind, this coming from a hard-nosed ‘no nonsense’ executive, it was quite a transformation! People grow and learn through the process, I would really recommend it. But my ready-to-wear collection is important as well, as you can’t just live in one colour." 

Which takes us to the trio of scents themselves. When creating, Nancy first devises a rough formula (or 'sketch') for each one, which she then refines with other professionals in the lab. Rosier is as one might expect, a rose-based scent but this is not the king of 'sanitised' rose that saturates perfume counters and department store beauty halls across the land. Here, the plant is celebrated in its entirety: stalk, leaves, thorns and all. The result is a far more sophisticated and somewhat melancholic rose.  

"I wanted to depict both the light and the dark shades of it, as opposed to this pretty, twee and girly rose that's become slightly old-fashioned," Nancy explains. "What I created was a 'soliflore' - treating it like a life study where you depict all you find. Black pepper and pink pepper were the thorns, while the leaves were galbanum [a note associated with typically 'green' scents]. There’s a moment where a dew drop lands on the petal - it’s got a slight bite to it, so I made it slightly acidic at the top. I wanted to draw out all the things I loved about rose. There's cassis in there as well, which adds a 'brambly' note, the smell you get when you walk past a vast expanse of roses growing on a wall. I didn't want it too ordered or too controlled - yet it stays very tender, stays very light.  It's interesting how it changes and expands on the skin. You get a sense of each note - there's buttery mimosa in there, a touch of tobacco as well, it tends to soften towards the end."

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Although a fan of naturals, Nancy isn't too much of a purist when it comes to using them in her scents. "I found my wings were clipped creatively by using predominantly natural and organic notes. These notes aren't necessarily the kindest on the nose, you don’t get any nuance at all. So I'm not averse to using synthetics - it’s about balance. There’s an old saying - the naturals are like the soul of the fragrance and synthetics are more like the magic. Somehow everything comes to life, I think it’s because of that magic that makes us want to engage with perfume."

The next scent we examine is a fresh citrus scent, Illuminé. "With a cologne, there’s only a finite number of things you can actually use to fall into that fragrance family," she notes. "So I wanted something that was high citrus, to capture a certain moment, post-downpour where everything has this kind of ‘zing’ to it. The top notes are quite refined mandarin, lavender and bergamot sparkle in the formula - and then you go into grapefruit, ginger and a few aromatic notes followed by a lemony, minty chlorophyl. A particularly emblematic plant is the absinthe artemesia. This scent is designed to develop on the skin (all of mine are actually). So later on, you get notes of lily and iris, which have a kind of dampness to them, and then the green galbanum."

The scent is pretty much summer in a bottle -  truly exhilarating, as citrus scents go.  "It's totally enlivening," she agrees. "My brother is a DJ and he wears it constantly. A good perfume will always be well-balanced enough to appeal to both men and women."   

But the one you might call her pièce de resistance is the critically-acclaimed Aquilaria - a dry woody chypre inspired by the tree which produces the ingredient 'oud'. It does this by secreting a special sap when it gets infected by a fungus - nice eh? Yet this is one of the most precious and highly sought after ingredients in perfumery. 

"I wear this if I’m going out to feel 'put together', with some statement jewellery. Normally, oud scents tend to be very ‘ka-pow!” but this one doesn't hit you over the head. You've got the violetty notes, the smoky and sweet notes - and we've gently weaved in rose, juniper berry and tonka bean." Oud scents are indeed very 'ka-pow!' as Nancy describes - the perfume world has been quite literally saturated with them over the past few years; you only need to walk down Knightsbridge to get suddenly knocked for six with a sharp whiff of it from glamorous passers-by. Yet this is a far more gentle interpretation - a bit like listening to a mellow acoustic cover of a hard rock song. 

"This one is sensual and sexy, it's got sandalwood in the base, but also more masculine notes in there too." So possibly not for the shy and retiring types? Nancy disagrees. "You shouldn’t always literally match your personality to your scent – say you were a wallflower, you might want a statement fragrance because you are more introverted -  to help counterbalance that a bit. Saying that, I think you have to make sure you are definitely wearing the perfume, not the other way around. One or more of the raw materials should remind you of a place that sparks joy."

Before she leaves, I get a sneak preview of her upcoming forth scent. "It's inspired by a place in Denmark where two seas meet. It’s called Grenin [the place], where the waves come together and kind of 'kiss.' It's absolutely beautiful, the way they overlap over the sand - I wanted to get that warmth and the drama of the moment. This one is going to smell slightly different; you get all the salty saline notes, ambrette seeds and crushed seed and then a few different synthetic notes that give it that kelpy-seaweed effect to create that olfactive impression of the sea. I wanted something with gravitas and more drama and that’s what the fragrance is. It's got rich creamy tuberose (what we call a 'fatty floral') and there’s even a touch of cinnamon in there as well which is interesting." It reminds me of a gourmande - a vanilla-confectionary family of scents. "It’s exactly that. I’d call it a marine floral but actually it is a grown up gourmande!"

I mention that a lot of exciting things are happening in perfumery at the moment and that perfumes like hers are a far cry from the more homogenous scents that were around 10 or 20 years ago. "Roja Dove always says this to me, we’re on the cusp of a golden age of perfume - it sits hand in hand with art. It's a very exciting time to be involved."

Nancy Meiland Parfums are available at Roullier White, Harvey Nichols and online at www.nancymeiland.com priced at £105.