It is the most pervasive of accessories. Unlike a scarf or bracelet, once put on, it cannot be removed. It’s odd that most of us take the artistry required to develop our favorite fragrances for granted.
“It’s an invisible art,” says Anne McClain, founder of MCMC Fragrances. Citing her beginnings as a visual arts major with a focus on photography, Anne is no stranger to the power the sense of sight has over the sense of smell. “I had a strong connection to photography, particularly because I love to travel. It was so easy and fulfilling to take my camera with me and shoot photographs. It was my attempt at capturing something visually appealing from my experiences. But technically, I never excelled.” It was by chance that Anne attended a random perfume class in New York while working in interior design. “It occurred to me then just how evocative scent can be and how closely it is tied to our memories. You can walk into a space and if you’re familiar with the smell, a feeling washes over you. I felt that this was a more appropriate medium for me to express my stories.”
It was with the goal of recreating her memories through scent that Anne developed her first line, The Stories Collection. “The conceptions of these fragrances are original. They come from emotional places. I would start with a story or memory and then figure out the ingredients that fit into the narrative. Then it was about editing. Most of your time as a perfumer is spent editing.” According to Anne’s process, the inspiration for the perfumes comes easily. She begins each new scent with a list of elements she wants to incorporate. It’s time-consuming, however, to develop that idea into a wearable fragrance. “Fragrances are really different in the air than they are on the skin. Perfume can change on you.”
When it comes to creating a new scent or advising others on how to pick one for themselves, Anne’s methods are seemingly obvious. “You need to let your nose guide you. One of the reasons I wanted to create my own line of perfumes was because I realized that the smells were getting lost amidst brand marketing.” Indeed, a shopper looking for a new perfume in the fragrance department is likely to seek out the bottle plastered across Vogue’s ad pages or those prominently displayed in-store. By the time they actually smell the fragrance, customers are already attracted or repelled based on a perfume’s campaign. “A lot of perfumes succeed because of the brand. When I started, I really felt like consumers were using their eyes, not their noses. I try to keep my imagery ingredient-based. I think that as soon as you start to incorporate other elements like a model or environment, you take the product into the fantasy realm and away from the actual smell.”
Most of the branding Anne refers to is produced by the major corporations controlling the market’s share of the scents available at stores such as Sephora. “Perfume is typically controlled by big companies. When I was studying in Grasse, my professors thought it was ridiculous that I wanted to start my own business. Generally, there is only mass market perfume and then really high end, niche market perfumes–which are usually made by those same big companies. My ambition was to slip in between those two realms, offering an option for the customer who wants something different. I wanted to make a niche perfume that doesn’t emphasize the luxury aspect so much as the indie aspect. I wanted to create a truly independent line made by an in-house perfumer. I wanted to make the perfume ‘niche’ aspires to.”
Most consumers don’t even realize that they have such options. Many don’t even know what constitutes the difference between niche and indie perfume. “There are a lot of great scents amongst mass market perfumes. Sometimes they are amazing because they have professional perfumers working on every aspect of the manufacturing. Consumers can be assured that those perfumes have been approved by many levels of management. And when you buy a really expensive niche product, you are usually paying for better, more natural ingredients. But when you buy an indie label, you can be sure that an individual has hand-crafted the scent.”
Given the limited knowledge most of us have on the perfume industry’s inner-workings, Anne decided to incorporate an educational arm into her company. By offering perfume-making courses out of her studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, she is sharing her expertise with curious perfume-lovers. “I’ve had a lot of demand for the class. It was always something I wanted to do as it’s surprisingly difficult to get hands-on experience in the field even in New York. I really want to be that resource for people.”
When conducting her classes, Anne gives students the opportunity to create their own “stories” scent. After smelling a number of different ingredients, participants are asked to conjure a memory of a specific place or person to be used as an inspiration. She then helps each person recreate aspects of the memory. “I remember one woman who grew up in San Francisco had this memory of jasmine blossoms growing up on walls all around the city. We worked together to create a jasmine-based scent around that recollection.”
Perhaps some class participants will be inspired to continue down this path of creativity. But they should keep in mind that the art of perfume, as Anne tells it, “is an ongoing process that takes a lifetime.” She herself has over 500 scents committed to memory thanks to her year of study at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery.
As for what she will do with all this knowledge in the future, the perfumer is ready to depart from the Stories collection and into new creative territory. “I have three scents floating around in my head right now. Their inspiration doesn’t come from the same place as it did for Stories. These scents have been sparked by smells alone. As an artist, you are always excited for the next project and you always want to do better. After spending so much time developing the business, I want to see if I’ve grown as a perfumer or if my tastes have changed. Now, I’m looking to make universally awesome smells. I just want to make something that people love to smell.”
Beyond the creation of objectively lovable scents, Anne is also continuing to expand the Causes collection. On a yearly basis, she plans to travel to a new volunteer destination and use her volunteer experiences as a source of inspiration for a new scent. A portion of the fragrance’s sales will then be donated back to the volunteer organization. “It’s important that I incorporate giving back into my business. Along the way I’ve realized how important it is to be a giver. And on a personal level, for me to stay in perfume for the long term, I need to feel spiritually connected to the process. If I can infuse what seems like a superficial market with a good social cause, then I believe I will have done my job well.”
For more information on the line of fragrances, class offerings, or to shop, visit mcmcfragrances.com.