Welcome to a new addition of Fragrant Femmes where we find out more about people behind the scenes in the fragrance world. Today I’m introducing Barbara Herman, the creative talent behind ERIS Parfums and author of the excellent book Scent & Subversion, a treasure trove of information and commentary on vintage perfumes. Prior to this she was the editor of a blog on vintage fragrances called Yesterday’s Perfumes. Barbara’s new perfume Mx. was introduced in 2017 and was one of the best releases of the year. So with that introduction, let’s meet Barbara who very kindly agreed to answer these questions via email.
You have written the great book Scent & Subversion and have a blog Yesterday’s Perfumes that focuses on vintage perfumes. And now ERIS Parfums, your collection of four fragrances. You obviously have a deep interest and passion for fragrance. What was the original trigger for your perfume love?
First off – Thanks, Megan! Both for the compliment and for the interview.
I’ve always loved perfume, but when I stumbled onto the subculture of perfume lovers online, and then saw that there were books on perfume — I truly fell down the rabbit hole. I felt like I had cultural permission to take it seriously. But it was animalics that really captured my imagination – dirty, sensual, human, imperfect.
How has your passion evolved – have you gone through various stages? If so, how would you describe these?
I’d say I went through a “promiscuous” student phase at the beginning when I’d smell 20-or so perfumes at a time, usually ordered in decants or minis. At its worst, I was spending way too much money of full bottles of vintage, contemporary, niche… I was always writing and taking notes, too, usually to end up on yesterdaysperfume.com, and then, for the book, Scent and Subversion. I just couldn’t get enough!
I’ve worked on four different perfumes with Antoine Lie, too, and each one is an exhausting process of creative brief, back and forth smelling of mods until it’s right. Mx. in particular seemed to be the most involved, so I was in a mania of smelling, taking notes, relaying my thoughts / suggestions to Antoine, then going back to the drawing board (sniff, take notes). To decide when something is “right” finished, is difficult for any creative endeavour. But for perfume, it’s gut-wrenching! How do you know it’s done? Luckily, Antoine is easy to communicate with, he “gets” my tastes, and so we work well together. We decided together.
But I’m toning it down a little now. It’s not like I’m taking a break from perfume, but I’m a bit measured now (until I start kicking into high gear again with the next one). I hardly wear perfume, and lately, I hardly try new perfumes! Occasionally, one will blow me away. (Ex: I love the new Naomi Goodsir by Isabelle Doyen.) The fact is, perfume has ruled my life for about 10 years now, which is when I started yesterday’s perfume. We’re out of our honeymoon phase, and settling into marriage. You’re interviewing me on my 10th anniversary love affair with perfume!
I really enjoyed the format of Scent and Subversion, the social commentary and the fabulous advertisements. Can you tell us how you came to write the book? I remember you saying in Florence that you were really driven to make it come to life.
When I fell into perfume and perfume-writing, it was a hobby. I had a full-time job as a writer, and would sniff at work and write at home in the evenings and weekends. But at a certain point early on (maybe two months?) with the blog, it became an obsession. I couldn’t get enough. And when I became interested in the cultural / sociological meaning of perfume, and in the vintage ads, and I began to collect those, I realized there was a book in me. A book that hadn’t yet been written. I wanted to combine all the things I was discovering (and theorizing about) in one place. Within a year, I quit my job, packed up and moved to New Orleans (I was in San Francisco at the time) and began work on the book, even without a publisher. I wanted to be in the most decadent, romantic city in the country to match my topic of interest. I went all in.
And now your perfume collection. In a way it seems like a logical step but what prompted you to start your own brand?
Everything I’ve done with perfume was unplanned. It’s all been intuitive, decisions that came from the gut, driven by a passion to delve into every aspect of it I can. When you smell all these gorgeous perfumes from the past — and continue to be inspired by contemporary perfumes — you begin to “think” in perfume, and there are feelings, stories, olfactory effects I feel driven to make come to life, that I won’t rest until are in a bottle. ERIS is the natural culmination of my perfume journey. I remember loving, but not quite understanding, something Jacques Guerlain said: — “I felt something so intense, I could only express it in a perfume.” To that I would add, that there are some stories that can only be told in perfume. That’s why I started ERIS.
What sort of collection have you endeavoured to create with Eris Parfums?
I fell in love with perfumes with strong signatures: animalics, super-green perfumes, perfumes with overdoses, powerful perfumes, “interesting” perfumes. I’m really not interested in “office” scents or scents that merely smell good. I like weird stuff! I find weird beautiful. So ERIS, like its troublemaking goddess namesake, celebrates unconventional beauty and subversive glamour. I’m not interested in polite, conformist, or perfect. I like unusual, in-your-face, statement perfumes.
You’ve worked with perfumer Antoine Lie for each fragrance in your collection. How did you come to select Antoine as the perfumer?
I quickly became intrigued by Antoine’s perfumes via ELDO’s Secretion Magnifiques, Rien, Tom of Finland and Blood Concept Red MA when I started collecting perfume and writing about it. I found them beautiful, slightly dangerous, and avant garde. I had a visceral reaction to them. I was never bored by them. I reached out to Etienne de Schwardt, ELDO’s Creative Director, to ask if I could interview Antoine for my book. (I’d already been writing fan letters to Etienne, and suggesting perfumes he should create, so I’m sure he already thought I was eccentric.) So he gave me Antoine’s contact info. We had a long phone conversation, and I realized we liked similar things in perfume. One of his favorite vintage perfumes was Chanel No. 19 (which I feel would surprise people!), it’s also one of mine. That interview about Secretions Magnifique is in Scent & Subversion’s “Scent Visionaries” section. So when I thought about doing an animalic-inspired first collection, he was a natural person to contact.
When you create a new perfume what is the process you go through? Is it always the same, or does it vary?
It’s a combination of thinking about the olfactive and more abstract aspects of what you want to create. The scent profile, the story, images that come to you, the name, the effect you want, etc. So the way I work with Antoine is that I’ll write out “effects” I want the perfume to have. I’ll list notes I love. Perfumes in the scent family (from the past and present) that I love. I’ll assemble a mood board. It’s all over the place, but that is generally how it happens. He’ll send me an accord, I’ll respond, and there’s back and forth, both in person and through the mail.
How do you work together? What informs the process? How would you describe your relationship?
Also: I wrote in Scent and Subversion that I felt that each perfume was a “Mute Invisible Cinema,” with its own story, characters, moods, mise en scène, etc. As the creative director of ERIS, that seems even truer, the metaphor of cinema with perfume. I’m like the director, he’s the cinematographer. I don’t have the training or the technical proficiency to create the perfumes I want myself (although I’d love to take courses to go deeper), but I do know enough about the language to communicate what I want, what I love, to someone who does. It’s a beautiful co-creation process, with Antoine of course having the indispensable role.
What sort of feeling do you seek to create with your perfumes for your customers?
Primarily? An emotional reaction. A visceral response. Curiosity. Puzzlement. A sense of novelty. “Why do I like this?” or “Why am I unsure about this?” Or, “what exactly am I smelling?” I don’t ever want them to think something is merely pretty. I want the perfumes to have the effect of butterflies in their stomach, like falling in love and being nervous about it! A bit of danger. It’s a tall order, but I think if anyone can create that effect, it’s Antoine! Some of my favorite reviews of perfumes — including ERIS perfumes — are the long narratives about first being unsure. Then being repulsed. Then being obsessed, etc. It’s the trajectory you feel with exciting lovers. That’s what I want people to feel about an ERIS scent: it’s a new exciting lover that will take a while to get to know, or to decide if you even like, or hopefully, love. It has to tantalize a bit — that is, torment, tease, seem unobtainable or perhaps not entirely knowable.
Do you aim to create a certain number of perfumed creations each year, or is it less structured than this?
I’d love to do at least a perfume a year, but I think it’s going to depend on inspiration and resources. Two things I’m certainly not in control of! I’m pretty exhausted after these four, though. I’m thinking about the next one, but who knows when it will come out. There’s no structure, is the short answer!
How do you balance the creativity along with the business side of Eris Parfums?
Not sure how to answer that question! My focus has been on the creative, and I guess the business side — promoting it, getting it into shops, going to trade shows, well, I do what I can! But I’ve been very lucky that I was not only able to get Antoine, but also a small investor, a major packaging designer (whose wife I met at a party!), and a wonderful business advisor, who has connected me to folks who help me get it all created.
What 3 words would you use to describe each of your fragrances?
Belle de Jour : Iridiscent, warm, singing
Night Flower : Sensual, exciting, romantic
Ma Bête: Regal, bejewelled, furry
Mx.: Cozy, transparently complex
Which perfume of yours do you feel closest to or like the most and why?
Belle de Jour and Mx.
Belle de Jour, because on my skin, it smells like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. An intense floral with a beating heart (pimento, incense, etc.) And because in some ways it’s not “me.” It really surprised me.
Mx., because its gestation was most painful from a creative side and a production side. (And I guess you can get attached to kids that were difficult to give birth to!) And because I love that I was able to name it something that marks a cultural moment — a moment when gender is being acknowledged as an increasingly blurred and creative experience for people.
But naturally, because I also love it. Mx. is complex, has a real olfactory arc from beginning to end, that drama I love, and it’s gorgeous! To put together pepper, ginger, saffron, sandalwood, vetiver, cacao, and leather (and lord knows what else) have the scent come out smelling so easy breezy and transparent but complex is no small feat. Antoine just makes things look easy. But look at that list of notes…which doesn’t exhaust what’s actually in there. There’s a lot in this cozy thing! I think it’s super sexy, too, in a quiet way.
How do you see your range evolving?
I just want to continue telling subversive olfactive stories through ERIS. This can mean a lot of things, and that’s what I love about perfume! Through perfume, you can say anything you want.
Thank you for answering these questions.
Thanks for the interview!
I do hope you all enjoyed reading about Barbara and her work with ERIS as much as I did. I’m fascinated to see what she does next as she’s definitely one to watch.
Notes : Images : Featured photo and final collage from Barbara Herman : Other photos Megan In Sainte Maxime.