|James Heeley at Les Senteurs, London, in May 2014|
image: Callum Langston-Bolt
In the run-up to their 30th anniversary celebrations, the fine folks at Les Senteurs hosted an event in May at which guests were invited to enjoy a relaxed conversation with the creative forces behind some of the brands stocked at London's venerable perfumery institution. James Heeley was one of the figures mingling with the city's scentusiasts, and as I'd never met him before, I asked if he'd be willing to give me a brief, impromptu interview. To my delight, he accepted, so off we went to the more quiet atmosphere of the spacious basement at the Seymour Place branch. Immaculately turned out in a bespoke, grey suit, and with a subtly francophone inflection to his diction, the creator of Cardinal, Sel Marin and L'Amandière, amongst others, gave me his full attention and considered his answers carefully before speaking, as though he'd been expecting our appointment for weeks.
An Englishman by birth, Heeley has been based in Paris for several years, during which he has established a well-regarded brand and, more interestingly, taught himself the craft of perfumery. It was this aspect of his biography on which I particularly wanted to focus at the start of our discussion, so I began by asking him how he got into the perfume industry. I knew he's a trained barrister, but had he always been interested in scent?
James Heeley: I think I was always interested in perfume. But how much of your memory is what you want it to be as opposed to what things really were? I'm not quite sure. But I've always been very, very picky about perfume. I'm actually very picky about a lot of things. I remember smelling perfumes as a boy, in shops. During my school holidays, I'd smell perfumes at department stores.
P: Would you say your barrister's training taught you the discipline and clarity of thought needed for perfumery? I've never met a barrister who isn't sharp.
JH: I know a few! But I actually read Philosophy at University. And I think that's the point of no return, when you read Philosophy.
P: No return from what?
JH: Truth. Precision. Logic. I think you have to try and find your way in the world. Maybe reading Philosophy opened my eyes to another world. I'd always wanted to do something creative. First of all, I wanted to be an actor, an architect, a sculptor. I didn't come from an artistic background at all. I just wanted to do something creative. But I had no idea about how to work in the creative world. When I left Bar School, I realised that I didn't want to just earn my living as a barrister. I thought, 'I've just got to get away.' When I arrived in Paris, I worked as a graphic designer because I couldn't speak French. I just became obsessed by graphic design, by the precision. And it kind of opened up a whole new world to me. I suddenly saw perspective and lines and correlations.
P: How does someone just slip into graphic design? You must have had an aptitude for it.
JH: Yes. I always had immaculate notes and I was always very precise. I was always into form. The most important things to me are aesthetic.
P: Would you say that you were an artist who just went down the wrong path to start with?
JH: I was, I think. Well... I don't know.
P: How did all this lead to perfume?
JH: I set up my own design company. Through my design work, I met Annick Goutal. I discovered that perfume was actually made and that there was a whole world behind it, and it just fascinated me. I wanted to go further. So I had this crazy idea to make a perfume, as a small project. And it really grew from there. I started off like a sort of Artistic Director, but it wasn't even a brand. I had no intention of making a brand.
P: Did you make that first perfume?
JH: No, I didn't. It was Figuier and it was made by Takasago. And then Takasago started saying to me, 'Well, you've now got to make a minimum order of 50 kilos,' and for me, that was just way too much. So I thought that if I want to continue to learn about perfume and edit perfume, I would have to do it myself. Which is what I did. I found a lab in the south of France, a small, family-run company, who were making soaps and air fresheners. I used their facilities. It's there that I learnt to make perfume, over 12 years, working alongside other noses.
P: Which was the first perfume you made yourself?
JH: I suppose Menthe Fraîche is when I started thinking like a perfumer. I had an idea to make a mint perfume. I didn't know how to do it. I made it in a lab, and I had a lot of help from other perfumers. Making a perfume is like solving a puzzle. The more experience you have, the more you realise that you can predict how accords are going to work, or you can have a good inkling. You start to get to the point more quickly.
P: Are you worried about the number if niche brands popping up everywhere at the moment?
JH: I suppose I am, kind of, but I've never really looked too much at other brands and what's going on around me, because I think there's so much. If you smelt everything on the market, it doesn't leave that much room for free creativity. You might start seizing up and wondering what you're going to do next. And I don't think perfume is really about trying to be original. I think it's good if that happens, but I think that if your main purpose is to just be original and create something you've never smelt before, odds are it's not going to work. It's just such a huge, huge, enormous market that it's frightening to think about it and to worry about it. If you're creating a scent and your passion goes into it, then it is what it is, whether it's been done before or not. Some of the scents I've done have actually been based on old scents, or scents that I've already smelt. Everything's based on something. Esprit Du Tigre was based on Tiger Balm.
P: Would you say that you have your own criteria for what makes a good perfume?
JH: I suppose you could say a good perfume has to behave like a perfume. It has to have a certain depth, longevity, balance, and it has to fulfil a promise. Originally, I was drawn to perfume through really fresh scents - that's what I personally connected to - but fresh perfumes, by their very nature, are going to be ephemeral. So you should actually let them be ephemeral. A fleeting, ephemeral perfume doesn't stop being a good perfume to me. People say a good perfume is one that stays and has a great sillage, but I don't think that's necessarily true. I think there's a time and a place for everything. Some of the most ephemeral things in life are the best. Beauty is not based on longevity.
P: Does the world of perfume blogs impinge on your work in any way?
JH: No, it doesn't, for sure. I like reading blogs about perfume, but I don't read a huge amount of perfume blogs, because I think writing about perfume is very subjective. I think perfume helps you dream. It gives some kind of reality to dreams. It's a great starting point for writing. Perfume and writing go hand in hand.
P: What are you releasing next?
JH: I have two new scents. One of them I'm going to release in about three weeks. It's called Vetiver Veritas. It's actually a perfume that I wore myself for a long time. I used to just wear a dilution of Haitian vetivert. Eventually I thought I'd really like to edit it as a perfume. I thought I can't just do a 100% vetivert. But then I thought maybe I should. So in the end I did a compromise of 90% Haitian vetivert, which is exceedingly high.
P: How many ingredients make up the remaining 10%?
JH: Four. The perfume reverses the olfactive pyramid. You start with a traditional base note. You smell dry grass and clean earth, almost a kind of potato scent. And it develops into grapefruit.
P: Finally, what are some of the perfumes you used to wear when you were first discovering the world of scent? Did you have any favourites?
JH: I did. As a boy, I actually wore Habit Rouge. I didn't know if I liked it or not, but I actually found it interesting. And I like Eau Sauvage. At one point I wore Antaeus, I think, which I quite liked as well. And a perfume I liked but I never wore was Fahrenheit. But I think a lot of these scents have changed.