Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A Product Of The Blogosphere - An Interview With Matthew Zhuk Of Ex Idolo

Matthew Zhuk at Fenwick,
the latest retailer to pick up Thirty Three

Matthew Zhuk is in an interesting position right now: his brand, Ex Idolo, attracted serious attention in 2013, but it's still far from being a household name. So the 30 year old, Canada-born, London resident has had to find a way to strike a balance between raising the profile of his work and protecting the air of mystique which he's been careful to cultivate. The tension between these two objectives made for an interesting interview experience with him: he was very keen to chat about his fledgling company (which to date consists solely of the majestic Thirty Three) but he was also determined not to discuss certain aspects of his entry onto the crowded fragrance market.

I'd say that's fair enough: if Chanel are allowed their little mysteries, then so should a tiny niche set-up. My email conversation with Zhuk may have yielded several instances of a polite 'I'd rather not get into that', but I think the record of our Q&A makes an insightful read. It highlights some of the difficulties faced by small-scale operations these days. It charts the progression of one individual from self-confessed fragrance nut to brand owner. And it suggests that it is still possible for one-person projects to raise their head above the scented soup and attract the attention of paying customers. As for the questions that were left unanswered, well... it's often been said that what's concealed is as telling as what's revealed, so I'll leave you to do your own hunting between the lines.

Persolaise: Let's start with the perfume. How did Thirty Three come to life?

Matthew Zhuk: To tell the ultimate truth, Thirty Three never really started as a commercial venture. The final formula which is the product that is sold today has been in constant evolution. I can trace some form of work-in-progress of the fragrance to about 5 years ago or so. My interest in oud actually started many years before that when I had got hold of an extremely expensive oud-based perfume made in Saudi Arabia. This was around 2004 and I had never smelled anything like it at the time. It immediately made me a fan of the whole genre, and I suppose Thirty Three is my take on the style which I grew to love. It has long been my dream to share a perfume with the world, and realistically, doing it commercially is the only feasible way.

P: As you know, the field is now well and truly overrun with contenders for the agarwood throne. Indeed, it's almost become cool and commendable not to have an 'oud' perfume in one's range. So why do we need yet another niche 'oud' fragrance?

MZ: It's a bit of a coincidence, and a somewhat unwelcome one as the genre is rapidly commercialising. First cheap harvested ouds were used and now synthetics are growing to replace real ouds even in some high-price offerings. On one hand I'm glad to see the Arabic style of perfumery taking its well-deserved position on the international stage, but a little disappointed with the negative effects of the boom phase. To get back on track to answering your question - I suppose I don't really pay as much attention to what's going on in the market. Thirty Three was not intended to be a commercial blockbuster, but rather a specific work made for those who appreciate it for what it is. The movements of others therefore, theoretically, shouldn't have too much impact.

P: What's your personal explanation for why all these oud scents - regardless of their quality - are so popular at the moment?

MZ: I think that the rise of the Middle East, especially the UAE, on the world scene has led to an upsurge in general interest about the Arab world. I’m actually very happy to welcome the newest (new to us) 'fragrance family' arguably since the gourmand and the aquatic of the 90's to the West.

P: One of the selling points of Thirty Three is that it contains an oud oil that's been aged for several decades. How did you come across it?

MZ: I've been working with, appreciating and dealing with ouds, agarwood oils, chips, since around 2004. I know many suppliers and vendors across the world. At one point I even had a contact from a plantation Fedex me some seeds and grew my own aquilaria seedlings. I would just like to quickly mention here that the vintage ouds used in Thirty Three are wild harvested and not from plantation trees.

P: Where are the ouds from?

MZ: There are three ouds in Thirty Three, a Burmese, a Chinese and a Borneo oud.

P: And where do your other materials come from?

MZ: Trade secrets unfortunately. But as I mentioned, I do source my ingredients from trusted suppliers. An interesting note on this subject: I have just bought the remaining stock of the key oud used in Thirty Three, assuring continuity of availability of this 33 year vintage formula for some while longer. I've also gotten my hands on some great Omani frankincense - something reminiscent of what was used in 'vintage' Amouage. Maybe this will make an appearance in some Ex Idolo release at some point in the future. I'm having a lot of fun with it right now.

P: What would you say is the main difference between your aged oud oil and a non-aged oil?

MZ: The ageing process is similar to the ageing of wine. An aged oud is much smoother, more subtle, but without losing any potency. An aged oud may lose its harsh or 'barnyard' aroma as well - ageing will bring out more complex scents - depending on the type of oud these may be sweetness, earthiness, transparency, smokiness, pepperiness or spicy elements. Above all, the oud feels much less 'heavy' without losing any of its spirit.

P: So what's your personal background? How did you get into perfumery?

MZ: My surname is of Russian/Belarussian origin, but my family is mostly culturally Polish, due to the fact that my father lived there from a young age. I was born in Canada, so it's fair to say I'm mostly Canadian. I came to the UK in 2010 after being unable to find a job after the mid 2008 financial crash, having graduated with a finance degree at the time. My great-grandmother and grandmother - who were actually descended from a wealthy family of land owners - engaged in the business of sourcing rose oil from Bulgaria and selling across Europe. I only learned this after I got heavily into perfume as an interest, but it's a cool little factoid. My science brain tells me perfume interest is likely not a hereditary trait, but nonetheless...

P: And prior to your revelatory oud moment in 2004, what had your interest in perfume been?

MZ: Well, I had been a fan of fragrance a few years prior. Before anything oud-related it was probably Ambre Sultan. I think that was the first modern niche fragrance I tried and it was a total paradigm shift for me. I think that's also the first perfume (other than Coco which I had known all my life as my mother's perfume) that really inspired me to want to shift more from solely being on the 'appreciation' end and think about releasing a fragrance of my own.

P: As the owner of a new brand, how important would you say the blogosphere is to you?

MZ: In terms of the blogosphere, I'm a product of it. I remember when Luckyscent had barely 15 brands, when Basenotes was a new site. I remember when EnvYus was still in college and a new user and I was coaching him on fragrance choices via PMs. I remember everything, the endless Creed threads, Méchant Loup, Geir, when those were the hot topics.

I digress. I think blogs are probably the most important channel small brands and increasingly even big brands have to carve out their niche. Blogs (largely) speak the truth, and the truth is something of a rare commodity in this industry. Blogs often contain well-written criticisms that can be decoded by the reader to fit their own personal framing. I'm happy to receive a factual, negative review on anything I do as it would likely be based upon some slice of reality and that will help me both as a creator and as a business. For the time being, I have no fear of blogs because I believe Thirty Three can stand on its own two feet. A negative review here and there wouldn't bother me. I think as long as a producer is being honest with their fragrance, blogs are their most powerful ally. If you churn out some POS, they can also be your greatest enemy :)

P: What are the main difficulties and issues your brand faces right now?

MZ: The biggest difficulty for me right now is maintaining a constant source of inputs. This is a prime concern of everyone using natural ingredients (ie: good/bad harvests etc). I've already started scouring all my sources for new ouds to eventually sort out this problem and keep continuity of Thirty Three. This also has problems, as likely I'm going to need to find another vintage oud of similar character. Luckily, Thirty Three has two additional ouds in it, which is a bit of a safety net as I will be able to recreate the overall accord with more ease given that 'wiggle room' - much in the way that whiskies are blended to always taste the same even though the actual composition may vary year by year. This won't happen for quite a while anyway.

P: You mentioned growing your own aquilaria trees. How did you get on with that?

MZ: Actually, almost all of the trees didn't survive, and from the 400 seedlings I started out with (no kidding!) only one single tree is left! I'm not quite sure what the problem was but they had a lot of difficulties with mould indoors. My mother is an avid gardener and even she couldn't save them. They struggled for about 3-4 years, taking 2 steps forward, then 3 steps back - the herd thinning by a few saplings every week or two. There is currently one survivor which has actually outgrown its health issues - it's rather stunted for what is now a 5 year old tree but seems to be doing ok. It's in the care of a friend of mine in Canada.

P: And finally, aside from Thirty Three, which oud scents would you recommend?

MZ: I like Francis Kurkdjian's series, and I think it's Velvet Mood from him which is my favourite. The Xerjoff oud series are quite nice as well. But my top oud is probably Al Haramain's Khaltat Al Muluk: approximately USD 860, but you definitely get what you pay for.

The sole surviving aquilaria tree



  1. I was interested to read this interview with Matthew Zhuk and learn more about the background to Thirty-Three, which was my favourite oud release of 2013, not least for its delicate wearable quality - the sort of 'careful whisper' of a scent I favour. I am not big on oud as a rule, but this one won me over. That's bad luck about the aquilaria trees - what would they be worth otherwise? ;)

    1. Vanessa, thanks for stopping by. I have no idea what aquilaria trees are worth when they're 'oud-less'. I could try to find out... but I doubt it's the sort of question anyone will be able to answer at my local garden centre.

    2. Haha - you'd have more luck with the likes of pieris and potentilla, I sense - maybe an *aquilegia* at best!

    3. I'll just pretend I know what all those things are...

  2. I remember smelling Ambre Sultan for the first time and thinking 'now this is a real perfume'. Great to learn more about Matthew. Looking forward to his next release. An Oud plantation was a fantasy of mine; growing older and wiser amongst the trees. That remaining tree is clearly a survivor and could well produce amazing resin if the fungus is induced at some stage.

    1. Jordan, perhaps we'll all be growing our own oud soon!


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