Perfumer Isaac Sinclair was only supposed to be in Brazil for six months before the country seduced him to stay. For good reason too, “Brazilians just can’t get enough fragrance, they love it!”
Raised in New Zealand but trained as a French perfumer, Sinclair travels to and from Paris throughout the year, however calls Sao Paolo home. Sinclair primarily works for Symrise, the international fragrance house, amongst other international perfumers yet often accepts independent opportunities.
Recently he has been an integral part of concocting Amsterdam based perfume label, Abel’s scents. Founded by a New Zealand wife and husband team, Frances and Dave Shoemack, Abel is purely organic. Abel’s second scent, Tonic, is a Mojito inspired fragrance with all ingredients independently organically certified.
‘Tonic’ is actually edible… have you ever tasted it?
Yes and at first I was like, this is really weird. It was sprayed onto a cocktail and I thought it was interesting, because it went really well. Since it has juniper berries, it has [the element of] gin and it has mint, so mojito… lots of elements that naturally go well with cocktails. Having the fragrance in there it made the cocktail multi sensorial. I was really surprised… it made the contrast more extreme. It was weird but enjoyable.
What’s it like working on an organic perfume?
It’s a huge challenge! Most fragrances today are basically synthetic; we’ll have 2000 materials in the collection, out of them maybe 200 are natural, so already doing a natural fragrance is pretty difficult, but then within the 200 natural materials even less are organically certified. It’s such a challenge to make it smell good because, my personal opinion is that most natural fragrances stink since they smell like geranium and citronella; cheap stuff, which is really strong. So, fortunately, Abel really opened their wallet so I could put in ingredients like natural sandalwood, which is $10,000/kg. It was a huge challenge but we came up with stuff that is kind of cool.
Do organic perfumes have an expiry date?
They have an expiry date when it’s left in the sunlight but I would say its more about the smell, you will always be able to eat it. Most fragrances have sun filters and anti-oxidants in the fragrance, which are totally un-natural, and Abel didn’t put any of those in Tonic. They were a little bit worried about the longevity, which is why they put the wood on the sides to stop the sunlight getting in. It’s protection and looks cool. At the end of the day, you can smell a fragrance when it starts oxidising, so when it starts smelling weird, it has run its course.
Abel’s attitude is, “gender doesn’t matter”, when it comes to scent. Do you have a preference of working with male or female fragrances?
It’s hard to see the barrier when you’re a perfumer because it’s really just a marketing ploy. At the end of the process the marketers will decide whether it’s more marketable [for female or male]. For example Old Spice was launched as a feminine fragrance and it was a flop, so they re-launched the same thing and said it was masculine, but it was originally conceived to be feminine.
“For the Latinos, they couldn’t care less about smelling hygienic, they want to be sexy!”
Latino audiences wear perfume to seduce and you like making scents for that reason – what are the best ingredients to create a seductive fragrance?
It’s more to do with fragrance families. As soon as you have something that’s sweeter, or woody or oriental, it’s going to be more seductive than a cologne or fresh water or fruity [smell]. In America, Australia and New Zealand, [they] want to smell clean and hygienic. For the Latinos, they couldn’t care less about smelling hygienic, they want to be sexy! A Brazilian girl gets dressed up and puts her make up on to seduce and the fragrance will go with it; when the Brazilian girls go out, they’re on a mission!
Have you ever been seduced by a fragrance?
Definitely, but not in the classical sense. Often when I smell a fragrance and it’s mysterious to me, I have to smell it again and it’s like, “woah, what was that?” and that for me is a form of seduction.
Do you have any ingredients that you want to experiment with?
I go through fetish phases. At the moment I’m on this huge vetiver oil buzz; I just can’t get enough of it. Of course I’ve known this ingredient for 20 years but for some reason I’ve gone on this craze.
How long does a fetish last for?
It depends, usually 6 months, but usually no longer than a year. Then after a year I smell them and think, uh that’s so old.
Like fashion designers, you like to reinvent styles from the past for fragrances. How do you ‘modernise’ a fragrance?
Most of the modernisation has been through synthetics. You have these crazy scientists who search for new molecules that smell, and so that adds something because it didn’t exist before, it’s like playing God. Another way is overdoses; for example there will be an ingredient that’s always been used in perfume but nobody has asked, “what will happen if we just blow the whole fragrance out with that one thing”. For example, Eau Sauvage from Dior had a little bit of hedione, only 1%, so it doesn’t really do anything and in the eighties someone asked, “what happens if I put in 30%”, and so suddenly you had this fragrance that was totally different by using an overdose.
Geoffery Beene had already put lots of violet leaves in Grey Flannel, but why was Fahrenheit such a huge success? Because they just overdosed the violet leaves. So even if you’re using the same tools, you can build a house much differently.
Do you think you’ll ever start your own company?
I like balance and I see [my work] like film directors; what I do most of the time is like Hollywood, doing big blockbuster movies and when you get to the 6th sequel and they’re all the same you get over it, like kill myself, you know? Then you have stuff like Abel, which for me is like an independent film. But if you were just doing independent stuff, every now and then you would want to do a blockbuster and vice versa.
So, we’ll never see an independent Isaac Sinclair fragrance?
If I did start a brand one day, I wouldn’t quit my job and just do that, it would have to be something just on the side. What I like is [brands like] Abel, but it’s also really nice when a massive commercial fragrance for Natura [does well] and I’m walking down the street and a girl walks past and she’s wearing the fragrance… it’s a different kind of perfume but it’s also nice to know that millions of people are wearing the fragrance.