Tuesday, 28 April 2015

'Fake It Till You Make It' - An Interview With Papillon's Liz Moores

image: Liz Moores

When Papillon's debut trio emerged last year, it immediately caused a stir amongst scentusiasts in the UK. Tobacco Rose was the crowd pleaser, but the deadly Anubis and the more contemplative Angélique found fans too. As all three have just been shortlisted for a Fragrance Foundation award, the time is right for me to publish an account of my meeting with the brand's founder and 'nose', Liz Moores. We chatted several months ago at Portsmouth's Gunwharf Quays, covering issues both personal - she's the mother of children whose ages range from 20+ to below 2 - and perfume-related. But we began at the beginning, with the topic of how she slipped into her current role as perfumer and brand owner.

Liz Moores: I've always been really interested in perfume. I'd been buying niche perfumes for years. I started shopping at Les Senteurs probably when I was 18. The first perfume I bought there was Fracas. And then one day I thought, 'How do you make this?' It was something that really intrigued me. I really, really wanted to know what went into a perfume. We all know that it's flowers and oils and extracts. But I thought that it's got to be more than that. It's not just essential oils thrown together. So, because it triggered something in my brain, I thought I'd love to see if I could do it.

Persolaise: What were the first steps you took?

LM: Every avenue was closed to me. I don't have a chemistry background. The closest thing I could find to training was a 5-day course with the late Alec Lawless. I did those 5 days - about 5 or 6 years ago - and they were really, really great. But I still didn't feel that I had a perfume in my hands. I came home and I thought that what I'd made was rubbish. No reflection on Alec's teaching. I thought, 'Why isn't this smelling right?' Then came a period of self-study. Reading anything I could. I realised that the cost of materials doesn't matter. You can have some relatively cheap materials that perform beautifully and some hugely expensive ones that are just so difficult to work with. For me, it was all about trying to understand these materials individually, without getting too bogged down by the science. I read loads of stuff. I read reviews. I wanted to see how other people look at perfumes.

P: What was the point at which you realised that you were getting somewhere?

LM: I started making Anubis. I love leather in perfumes, and I had a particular material - pink lotus - which, in my head, I'd imagined as something really beautifully floral.But it's at the other end of the spectrum. I thought, 'How the hell would I put this in a perfume?' So that was how Anubis came about. I started playing around. It took a couple of years to make.

P: When you first started, you worked only with natural materials. Can you remember the first aromachemical you used?

LM: Goodness me, I'd really have to think about that. It would have been hedione, and some of the musks as well. The aromachems were almost like a revelation. All of a sudden I was getting close to a real perfume.

P: You must have had some sort of natural aptitude for all this. Did you work at it every day?

LM: Yes.

PS: So how did you manage that? Did you have a day job?

LM: No. I was a Mum, at home. I had a property business and I sold that back in 2002. I had the children and I was doing the perfume. I did have the free time to be able to impose the self study. And I bought myself journals and I would dip strips into things and I would see how long they lasted on the blotter, and maybe blend them with something and come back to it a week later.

P: Wasn't it tough to source materials?

LM: It was really, really hard in the beginning. Initially I was getting a lot of my stuff from Linda of Perfumer's Apprentice in America, because you can buy tiny amounts. I'd have a play and see what happened. In terms of buying in large quantities, again that was quite hard. Azelis - who I deal with for my aromachems - deal with the big companies, and when I first spoke to them, they said, 'Look, we'll send you some samples, but you do know our minimum order quantity on that material is 5 kilos.' And I'm thinking, 'It would take me 10 years to use that.' So many of my perfumes are made up of lots of different components, accords within accords, lots of different aromachems and lots of different naturals. To buy these by the kilo when I'm only using tiny amounts is really hard. I'm self-funded. We've gone without holidays. I sold my car. All of a sudden this hobby veered off into something different. And Azelis really helped me out, actually. They sent me some very generous samples. I think they took a punt on me. I think they thought, 'Let's give it a go.' But they've now enabled me to buy things in much smaller sizes. I got a quote for orris concrete, a Firmenich material, and I nearly fell off my chair, because it was £9000 a kilo. But they said, 'Look, we'll do you a hundred grams.' It's still expensive, but it's worth their while, because I'm ordering more.

P: When did you realise you had a brand on your hands?

LM: Well, I used to wear the perfume that I made out and about all the time. And people would say, 'You smell really nice, Liz. What are you wearing?' And I would sell it to friends in these really rubbish bottles. And it went on and on from there. And I thought I'd make another one. I was just tootling along. I suddenly thought, 'I'm selling quite a lot of this.' And people were talking to other people. I had someone wanting bespoke perfume for a wedding. I thought, 'I don't really know what I'm doing here.' It was a little bit like 'fake it till you make it.' And just one day, I thought: 'I'm gonna do this.' Then there was a point when I thought, 'If I'm going to do this seriously, these have all got to be IFRA compliant.'

P: How did you sort that out?

LM: I get Simon, my partner, to do that. He's really good at maths. I handed the three to him, with the breakdown of the constituents of all the materials I'd used. There was a 'heart in the throat' moment with Tobacco Rose because I'd used two types of rose in that. I knew that by doing that, I'm doubling up the allergens. It was a hell of a perfume to try and do. The industry rules really started getting to me.

P: But IFRA's standards aren't law. Why did you feel you needed to follow them?

LM: In my head, I always wanted to see the perfumes in a shop. That, for me, was the biggest accolade. My dream was to be at Les Senteurs.

P: What about all the peripheral stuff that goes with being a brand these days, like having an Internet presence?

LM: It just sort of has to happen, doesn't it? We don't have PR. I'm not very good with technology. With things like Twitter, I look at them, and I think, 'I don't know what I'm doing here.' It took me ages to work it out, but having teenage children helps! 

P: So do you think you're going to start renting stalls at trade fairs now?

LM: If I could afford it. It's really expensive. I think it's £5000 for Esxence. I don't have that sort of money. I don't have a background in retail. It's been a real learning curve. And I've handed a lot of it over to Simon. I don't think my business head is that great. You have to know your limitations. I deal with the suppliers and I love meeting all the people in the industry - the nice bits. I leave Simon with the rubbish bits, like safety assessments and costing things. Everything has been done on an absolute budget. It's been started at the very bottom of the scale. But if things go well, we'll have to really sort ourselves out!

PS Some of you may be aware that the release of Papillon's next perfume, White Moth, has been postponed. In an email, Liz Moores explained the reason behind the delay:

"I started creating White Moth at the end of my most recent pregnancy, and I picked it up again two weeks after my baby was born. I think that, emotionally, I was in a very different place, and now that I'm out of the blissful baby state, I'm smelling the perfume very differently. I still love it, but I think it's too easy going. Everyone who has sniffed it loves it, but I always said I would be true to myself and never launch a perfume I wouldn't wear myself. So the question is: would I wear White Moth at the moment? And the answer is: no. I'm taking the perfume back to the drawing board, so to speak, and I think it will be ready some time in 2016. My girls aren't very happy about this recent turn of events as it was their favourite perfume I've created so far. They think I've lost my mind, which I probably have!"


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