INTERVIEW: PERFUME SOCIETY'S SUZY NIGHTINGALE
Suzy Nightingale, fragrance expert and freelance writer talks scents, female strength and about her favourite smells with REEK Perfume. This is the kind of smelly chat that dreams are made of…
What brought you to the world of perfume?
Firstly, my mother. She has always been incredibly glamorous, and as a child I had that classic hankering for a dressing table filled with intriguing bottles and jars of mysterious, scented lotions and potions. We’d often go on holiday to Jersey – a duty-free haven of perfumeries – and my favourite memories are of spending hours in dimly-lit, velvet-clad spaces filled entirely with women, talking in hushed tones about secretive things while sniffing perfumes and exchanging beauty tips. I felt like I’d been given access to an inner sanctum of adulthood, a perfumed cabal of possibilities! I was allowed to choose miniature bottles of perfume to try, and my first full-size choice, aged ten, was Chanel’s Coco. Hardly a ‘suitable’ choice for a young girl, I suppose, but I wanted to grow in to it, and I’ve always actively revelled in being perceived as ‘unsuitable’! Later, when I was already a writer, I stumbled across the online forums of Fragantica (an online encyclopaedia of perfume) with people reviewing and discussing their own collections of fragrance. I enthusiastically joined in, and was asked by the editors to contribute articles to the magazine section. I became their UK Correspondent for a while, and quickly realised I loved the challenge of describing the artistry of perfumes – the stories behind them, the emotions inspired by them. Now I’m freelance as the Senior Writer for The Perfume Society website and magazine, The Scented Letter, as well as writing for industry magazines like Esprit, creating trend reports and fragrance forecasting for corporate organisations and providing expert consultations. It’s a fusing of creative writing and journalism, just as perfumery is a fusing of science and art; and all without a language of its own. There are hardly any (positive) words for smells alone. We are constantly forced to allude to taste, texture and deep-rooted feelings in those descriptions, to pass on a message. It makes my brain itch and my soul ache and I adore it.
Do you feel that women are celebrated in your industry? Tell us about some of the women who have inspired your own career?
Well that’s a very interesting question, because ostensibly they are, or at least they appear to be. You could argue the majority of the fragrance world is devoted to celebrating aspects of womanhood, with a perfume along the way for every stage of your life, your every mood. But in the past these were devised and decided almost exclusively by men, from the brief given to the perfumer to the perfumer composing the scent and through to the men making the advertising campaign, right up to men buying the perfume as a gift for their wife or lover. Now a lot of these companies are being run by women, many more perfumers are women… I think there’s still a very long way to go, particularly with advertising that can render what’s potentially an interesting fragrance in to yet another woman in a bra or a bikini looking breathless on a beach; but things are happening. As for women in the industry I admire – there are so many! I’m particularly inspired by characters such as Germaine Cellier, who was a pioneering nose in the 1940s, creating outstandingly new (and then scandalously daring) perfumes such as Balmain‘s Vent Vert – overdosed with galbanum and considered the first “green” perfume of its kind – and Robert Piguet‘s Fracas, a bombastic, room-filling, man-terrifying tuberose (which sadly I can’t personally wear as it feels as though I’ve been shot through the head with a silver bullet, but I love the mere fact it exists in all its audacity). She seems like a formidable woman who barged her way through at a time the entire world was otherwise dominated by male perfumers, forging the way fearlessly and stamping her mark in scent history. Cellier very much believed in doing her own thing. I’d love to have met her. Estée Lauder, too, was a perfume and beauty pioneer. Before Youth Dew was released in 1953 as a scented bath oil that could also be used as a perfume, it was seen as socially unacceptable for women to buy their own perfume – it marked you as some sort of whore, as opposed to nice, respectable ladies who used delicately scented dusting powder and perhaps dabbed their temples with rose water or Cologne after an exhausting day of looking decorative. Lauder was an incredible saleswoman – she knew what women wanted and how to give it to them. She forged an empire and paved the way for women to buy their own perfume and cosmetics, not just passively waiting for some husband or potential paramour to present it to them. I’m also really inspired by women like Monique Remy, who founded LMR (Laboratoire Monique Remy) in 1984, a manufacturing and processing facility for natural perfume and flavour ingredients. Her foresight guaranteed fair trade, good working traditions and long term investment in vulnerable communities worldwide. She strove for quality and sustainability at a time nobody else was really considering these values, and forced the closed world of Grasse to begrudgingly accept and carry forward her demands. And Chantal Roos! She’s legendary in the fragrance world for commissioning and launching some of the biggest fragrances of all time – seeking out the best of the best way ahead of her contemporaries. Lovers of Yves Saint Laurent‘s Opium and Kouros, Jean Paul Gaultier‘s Classique and Issey Miyake‘s L’Eau d’Issey have the gutsy marketing savvy of Roos to thank. Now she’s working with her equally talented (musician and composer) daughter Alexandra on their own perfume line, Dear Rose. Ballsy women with a vision, all of them, and there are countless others…!
What gender equality causes mean the most to you personally and why?
I’m really moved by young women highlighting issues of concern for their generation – I think for my (Generation X) contemporaries, we’ve seen this gradual backwards slide in equality, young girls feeling uncomfortable about identifying themselves as feminists, putting up with terrible abuse on all forms of social media just for being female and having an opinion or not conforming, being objectified and sexualised at an early age… I’m heartened the younger generations are increasingly not only aware of this, but trying to address it in their own way. It gives me hope.
What women do you most identify with from history to the present day?
Good grief, where do you start?! I’m going to have to begin with Aphra Behn – one of the first women to earn a living as a professional writer. I’m with Virginia Woolf when she said “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Harriette Wilson has always seemed like a bit of a goer. An infamous courtesan, she seduced men with her passionately worded letters and – in later years – made a pretty penny by offering them a special chapter in her memoirs unless they paid up. We all owe a huge debt to the brilliance of Ada Lovelace, who ushered in the digital era. I was the first girl in my class to get a computer, and used to pretend I was Ada while attempting to program my ZX Spectrum. I wonder what she would have made of my failed attempt to make an American flag digitally wave while playing a tinny tune? I admire the biting sarcasm and wit of women like Dorothy Parker – how glorious it must have been to be part of the Algonquin Round Table – and Bette Davis. Now there are two women you didn’t want to cross. And my god, who doesn’t adore women like Helen Mirren and Judy Dench, who continue to excel at an age most women in their profession have long been sadly discarded? I am inspired by women who speak their mind, ask difficult questions and don’t attempt to hide their cleverness.
What signifies female strength to you?
Refusing to shut up. Bravery balanced with dignity. Persisting through everyday battles perceived as trivialities. Being yourself, whatever that means to you personally.
What smells remind you of femininity?
Outrageously opulent and musky smells that are seen as ‘a bit much’ are the very essence of what femininity means to me. Women have long been told they should smell clean and simple – nothing to startle the horses or children or tremulous men. I say dare to at least sometimes wear a fragrance like a weapon or a suit of armour and leave crowds trembling in your wake! I’m not really a clean and simple sorta gal.
What are your five favourite smells and why?
I can’t possibly do this in order, as that fluctuates depending on my mood and what I need… but here we go.
1 – Vicks Vapour Rub. I used to rub it into the fur on the neck of my toy rabbit (which I still have, though she’s a bit of a bald rag now, bless her) and sniff it until I fell asleep. It makes me feel comforted and cared for. My mum also used to slather me in it when I had one of my many rounds of childhood pneumonia and various coughs and colds. I associate it with a cool hand on a fevered brow.
2 – Books. Old books foraged in dusty second hand shops and found in libraries, new books with that delicious just-printed smell (particularly those expensive, small-press coffee table type arty books). I always smell a book before I read it. If they don’t smell right, I’m bitterly disappointed.
3 – Necks. That warm-skin of your lover’s snuggle smell, or the neck fur of a beloved cat or dog. Or even a toy (see my previous Rabby Rabbit scent memory), favourite jacket or scarf – I’m probably seen as a bit vampiric because I like to lean in for a good neck smell. You can’t beat it.
4 – Orange blossom absolute. It sounds as though it should be so delicate and pretty, but the properly good stuff is hypnotically indolic and utterly filthy.
5 – Oriental/vanilla perfumes. My first and forever love. I refuse to choose a favourite. Give me opulence abounding!
What makes you a Damn Rebel Bitch? Tell us what kind of bitch you are.
I always end up saying what I think, I cannot sit on something I feel to be unjust or untrue and hold my tongue. I find it physically impossible. I don’t give voice to absolutely everything I disagree with, these days, because life is short and I’ve learned to edit and prioritise my extreme displeasure. I am extremely – fiercely – loyal to those I love. I think I’m a funny, sarcastic bitch at times, but it’s nuanced with a huge capacity for love and kindness. I enjoy everyday acts of rebellion by being myself, and enjoying it. I refuse to give in to my own worst fears, which are manifold. I like scaring people, sometimes. Including myself.