Bohemian Rhapsody

Sarah Rotheram, CEO of Miller Harris – is famed for her offbeat, somewhat maverick approach. We caught up over cheese and cocktails (our kind of girl) to chat all things fragrance...

I first met Sarah when she was Group CEO of Penhaligon’s, at a dinner party held in an NCP car park to launch the brand’s (now well-loved) fragrance ‘Juniper Sling’. They’d decked the place out to look like an underground speakeasy, complete with bathtubs full of gin. Needless to say, it was a memorable evening. Sarah held court, striking with her white-blonde cropped hair and red lips (reminding me of a childhood fixation with Annie Lennox) and knew this was someone I had to get to know better.

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She famously transformed Penhaligon’s from fusty “olde-worlde” English perfumery to the alluring, offbeat scent haven it is today. I remember walking into their Covent Garden store – still fairly new to the world of beauty and fragrance - and being mesmerised from the offset. This was a world away from how perfume was sold in department store beauty halls: pretty apothecary-style bottles, the fun tongue-in-cheek branding celebrating Edwardian English eccentricity, while offering up some of the most intriguing, complex fragrances I’d ever encountered.

Since sadly departing from Penhaligon’s, Sarah took some time out of the industry, spending several years as CEO for luxury leather goods brand Aspinal. But the allure of perfume soon called her back and she’s now working her magic at the helm at Miller Harris.

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Already a cult niche brand before Sarah took the reins, Miller Harris were renowned for their nuanced and sophisticated concoctions (my favourite, La Pluie, was inspired by the scent of earth after a downpour). Founded in 2000 by trailblazing perfumer Lyn Harris, Sarah seemed a natural successor, her passion, vision and not to mention her personal style, making her stand out from the normal corporate clones you encounter at the top of the tree. There also aren’t many CEOs who ask perfumers to walk with them around London in search of new inspiration for a scent (“I was inspired by the notion of foraging”).

As she did with Penhaligon’s, Sarah has brought a new lease of life to the brand without alienating their original clientele – a tricky feat that many others have tried and failed to pull off. So what was the key to Sarah’s success? You could argue it’s her offbeat, creative and slightly irreverent approach - without losing any of the glamour, something that we’re seeing more and more of in British perfumery – and it’s arguable what sets us aside from the US or continental Europe.

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“When I took myself out of the industry and became a customer, niche was becoming quite high brow and elitist – particularly the [marketing] language that was being used. Perfume shouldn’t be about that - it’s an emotional response. You love something or you don’t. It’s not that much more complicated than that.”

For the latest two Miller Harris fragrances ‘Tender’ and ‘Scherzo’, Sarah gave two perfumers a piece of writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel ‘Tender is the Night’. The result is two completely different concoctions: ‘Scherzo’ by Mathieu Nardin is the brighter of the two, with tangerine, dark rose, patchouli and vanilla; “classically floral” while still retaining a peculiar charm all of its own. While ‘Tender’ by Bertrand Duchaufour is a deeper, darker affair, with pink pepper, leather, saffron and musks - the type of scent you wear to sport a floor-length velvet gown and lace gloves. These are fragrances with guts and a story behind them, worlds away from your flippant, sugary department store fare. The preview held for press and customers last year featured magnificent floral displays, art installations and experts and perfumers on hand to talk guests through the ingredients that were used. It’s the kind of accessible, immersive experience should be the norm in perfumery and the way people engage with it – but sadly isn’t.

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There’s more to come, Sarah tells me, for when the scents hit the shelves. “We’ve got scented books coming out, as well as scented pens you can write on your skin. Imagine leaving a number on somebody’s arm and it being scented! In my head it was this whole playful thing about leaving a memory.”

A former textile designer, when Sarah first moved into fragrance before the niche market took off. She was introduced to scent working at Molton Brown as their UK Retail Controller, “I joined them when they were still small, I was incredibly lucky to walk into this very niche, fast-growing company. I remember sitting there during my product training and learning about the different ingredients and how you can use scent to help you feel a certain way. From a timing perspective it was brilliant.”

When she later went to work for Penhaligon’s, it was somewhat of a pastiche of what a historic English brand should be. “I noticed the floral wallpaper and carpets, drawing rooms and fake flowers and the naff Victorian art. I remember saying to my partner – ‘just imagine if you got rid of all of this noise and told the story of Penhaligon’s…’ I was very lucky, I learnt so much, so fast. I met the perfumers early on, who were a bit surprised when I went into their labs to play around with the ingredients! That was how I learnt, it quite an organic journey, quite by accident but have had a lot of fun on the way.

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 “What I loved about Penhaligon’s was that it had a fabulous history and the archives were stunning. My task was to take a brand that had been around since 1860 and make it relevant again. You could say Miller Harris is a contemporary version of that. I met with their team, not really with any intention of joining them. But then afterwards I jumped in the cab and thought, ‘they should do this, this and this...!’ And that was it. I went home and started filling up notebooks about what I would do. If you go back and smell their fragrances in the archives, they are beautiful. It’s all about the raw materials – plus, there’s an integrity and commitment to quality. Niche should always be about that, about the journey and integrity of ingredients.”

What is her main vision for Miller Harris? “I want to celebrate the fact we are an urban, London brand telling contemporary stories. I want to be disruptive – it’s a challenge running a small business. But we’re on the right track and we’ve got some exciting things coming up.”

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So how does a new perfume come into being? “At the moment, projects are being generated by me. It’s about understanding who we’re trying to be, as a contemporary urban London brand telling olfactory stories.  What we tend to do is come up with an idea (we usually have a number of them on the go at once) and find a perfumer we think fits the brief. Sometimes it’s relationship-driven. With ‘Tender’, I’d known Bertrand [Duchaufour] for years, we were really good friends so it was a natural fit.”

As well as established ‘noses’, Sarah is also supporting and nurturing new talent.

“I’m working with one girl who’s a star – we’re finalising her fragrance in the next 12 months. We’re also trying to collaborate with lots of up and coming creatives. Our store in Canary Wharf is based on an artistic concept, with different artworks displayed throughout the year. In an ideal world, I’d like to use Miller Harris to showcase London talent. Our next store in Westfield is based on poets, so we’re talking to emerging artists for this.”

And what are her favourite London scents? “Walking along the Thames reminds me of being younger – the Thames has got a definite scent, not around Parliament, but further east – around the docks it has a definite smell about it. Elsewhere, SoHo in New York has a distinct, ‘downtown’ scent. In Hong Kong they have a type of heavy rain call ‘black rain’: when the rain hits the pavement, it has a really distinct smell.”

Like many others in the world of perfumery, for Sarah it wasn’t part of a life-long plan – but an unexpected love affair. “When I was at school I wanted to be a ballerina. When I left, I graduated as a textile designer, that’s what I wanted to do at the time, but I never had a life plan. When I give people career advice, I’d say if you do something you love right now – even if you don’t plan on doing it forever - you’re going to succeed much more than hopelessly following a dream you’ve mapped out for yourself. Sometimes you just find yourself in a situation that was never part of your life plan, but it feels good. I never really grew up thinking I wanted to work in perfume. But we’ve all got scented memories and that connection to fragrance is so strong – that’s why I’m so passionate about it.”

Tender and Scherzo are available at millerharris.com

The main Miller Harris stores are in Cabot Place, Canary Wharf London E14 4QT and Unit 16 The Market Covent Garden, London WC2E 8RB. They also have stockists nationwide and in Europe.

All imagery courtesy of Miller Harris.