"I like places with a bit of grit and a bit of underbelly," says Nick Steward. "Real places."
His words may seem a touch incongruous in the context of tea and canelé at Piccadilly's opulent Maison Assouline, yet for some reason, they ring true. Perhaps it's to do with his unostentatious appearance: inquisitive smile over a slender, Breton-stripe-wearing frame. Or maybe it's his tone: measured, reflective, gentle on the consonants. But whatever the cause, when the 40-something, London-based, self-confessed product-obsessive presents his new fragrance brand, Gallivant, it's difficult not to be won over by the manner in which he describes it.
Formerly a member of the marketing teams at Puig and L'Artisan Parfumeur - organisations which brought him into contact with some of the world's most prominent niche perfumers - Steward says his nomadic upbringing wasn't marked by life-changing fragrance epiphanies. "My mother had worn things like Diorissimo and Diorella, but it wasn't like she had some perfume altar at which we all worshipped. I fell into Puig because I spoke languages. I guess I'm a linguist who fell into perfume, and then I found that I really enjoyed it."
This somewhat meandering approach to life is reflected in Gallivant, whose debut quartet draws on Steward's love of globe-trotting and his favourite cities. "I'm a travel nerd," he says. "I keep files of cities, classified by continent and country, and I've been doing this since I was about 15. I just find cities really interesting. And they can be ugly cities. For example, I would rather go to Warsaw than to Cracow."
To realise his fragrant ambitions, Steward turned to two independent, female perfumers: Karine Chevallier and Giorgia Navarro. "I liked the idea of working with women. I think it's a bit weird when you're in a room with only men, talking about the creation of something that women are going to wear. I'm not sure I could identify it, but it feels a little bit like something's missing."
Inspired by the Pet Shop Boys' West End Girls, his olfactory vision of London is as humid as it is bitter: an evocation of a suede-like rose drenched by a summer shower. The perfume, Steward explains, tells the story of where he strolls in his hometown. "I live in Islington. So I walk along the Regent's Canal. I walk east to Hackney. Second-hand leather jackets. Wetness. The idea of a tattoo. A rose on skin. But I think it's also got some West End glamour. And that's London for me. Grit and glam. The grit's been power-washed away in some places, but it's very tenacious, I think."
The headier notes of jasmine take centre-stage in Tel Aviv, a brasher, more strident composition, akin to a pulse of defiant, dazzling incandescence. "Tel Aviv is somewhere I've been a lot," says Steward. "It's a bright, white, Bauhaus city. It was founded in 1909, so it's a new place. Beaches. Beautiful people. Heat. The Mediterranean. It's a bit crazy. People speak loudly. So this perfume doesn't mind being noticed, but it really doesn't care."
As a former resident of Damascus, Steward considered making the city the subject of one of his scents, but decided this would be inappropriate, given the current situation in Syria. So he turned to Istanbul, his gateway to the Middle East. The result is an amber creation - full of familiar, vanillic, balsamic notes - made cool and modern with the inclusion of cardamom: a perfume equivalent of an Asian trinket shop inside a gleaming mall.
For him, Steward explains, Istanbul is a place of "density, claustrophobia, noise and crowds. A din. A little bit of melancholia. A feeling of the glories of the past. But I didn't want the perfume to be about the past. I was also thinking of modern Istanbul, the motorways, the whoosh. There's this feeling of height, of openness, the modernity of the skyscrapers. It's a living city, not a museum."
His fourth creation, Brooklyn, isn't strictly named after a city, he concedes. "It's a city within a city. I always associate it with the month of May, when the light is really bright. People have to wear sunglasses not because of the fashion, but literally because the sun is so bright. There's a sharpness in the way the people dress, the way the houses are. That's why this perfume had to feel really clean."
The cleanliness manifests itself in an overdose of velvety, skin-hugging musks, illuminated by a generous helping of lemon: droplets of citrus juice suspended in the soft rays of dawn. "It's new and optimistic," Steward continues. "It has a lot of American energy."
Housed in their airport-friendly, 30 ml bottles - bearing maps and cityscape graphics designed by Steward himself - the Gallivant brand represents his insistence on allowing his wanderlust to guide him. "I've always wanted to be my own boss. The freedom. I'm not someone who's really into corporate life. I don't get excited by that. And I think perfume needs to go back to simplicity a little bit. All I'm trying to do is create something that is beautiful. And wearable, which seems almost revolutionary now to some people."
As he tucks into another bite of his canelé, Steward pauses for thought. "I was listening to Grayson Perry the other day on the radio, and he was saying that people working in the art world sometimes forget that people go to museums on their day off to enjoy themselves. And it struck me that there's an analogy there with the perfume world." He smiles. "I'm just trying to make something enjoyable."
[In the UK, Gallivant is exclusive to Roullier White.]
[In the UK, Gallivant is exclusive to Roullier White.]