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In an industry dominated by a select few, Bee Shapiro, the founder of niche fragrance brand Ellis Brooklyn, stands out as a trailblazer. The Taiwanese-American faced numerous challenges in breaking into the perfume world, which still has few women, much less women of colour. In a candid interview with Refinery29 Australia, Shapiro shares her journey and offers valuable insights for those seeking their signature scent.
"To be honest, breaking into the industry was not easy at all," Shapiro admits. With her background as a longtime New York Times beauty columnist, one might assume that she had a leg up. In her decade-long career in beauty journalism, she's interviewed everyone from Lizzo to Naomi Watts and Hailey Bieber. However, she shares that she encountered many difficulties, and needed to leverage her industry connections to get a foot in. "I had to ask a lot of favours within the beauty industry in order to get an introduction," she says. Initially, her cold calls and emails proved fruitless, and obtaining scent modifications and submissions for her ideas presented additional hurdles.
Despite these obstacles, Shapiro's passion and perseverance propelled her forward. Collaborating with master perfumers such as Jerome Epinette, Frank Voelkl and Pierre Negrin, Shapiro has learned that creating a shared 'scent vocabulary' is key. "I work very closely with [perfumers] and over the years I’ve realised that creating a scent vocabulary together is more important than any 'creative brief' you can have," she says. "We would smell different single notes and accords together to create and decipher a scent vocabulary between us." This common language means that when Shapiro is working with a perfumer and wants to make something smell 'cleaner' or 'sexier', they have a shared understanding of the creative vision.
When asked about her advice for finding a signature scent, she encourages an open mind. "A lot of times, I will meet someone who tells me they hate florals or woods or so on," Shapiro says. She shares that many scents are blended notes, making it challenging to pinpoint individual elements. Instead, she suggests considering the mood you wish to evoke — warm and cosy, fresh, playful and sweet, intense or mysterious — and using that as a starting point to narrow down your options.
Having covered beauty at the New York Times for over a decade, Shapiro has gleaned numerous beauty tips, but one stands out for her: "Work with the face in front of you." Just as top makeup artists avoid forcing trends onto faces, Bee applies this principle to the fragrance world and emphasises the importance of understanding our own scent undertones and getting to know ourselves on a deeper olfactory level.
A Georgetown University law graduate, Shapiro made a career switch that eventually led her to the fragrance industry. Feeling lost after law school, she realised the need to step away to explore her passions fully. Through trial and error, Shapiro discovered her love for writing, which led her to the New York Times — and ultimately, her entrepreneurial journey in the fragrance industry.
As Ellis Brooklyn expands its reach to different markets, Shapiro shares her admiration for Australian consumers. She says that Aussies have a great balance of European scent knowledge with a modern perspective, along with a strong connection to nature — a combination she loves, and which resonates with the essence of Ellis Brooklyn's fragrances.
When it comes to fragrance trends, Shapiro finds the current diversity exciting. While not directly influenced by PerfumeTok, she considers it a valuable platform for feedback and discussion. She is particularly intrigued by the "dark feminine" hashtag, which challenges the traditional notions of femininity, or as Shapiro puts it, "an interesting take on what is classically considered girly". Ellis Brooklyn's Bee and Super Amber align with this trend, offering alluring 'darker' fragrances.
Beyond perfume, Shapiro reveals her holy grail skincare and makeup products. She praises Westman Atelier's Super Loaded Tinted Highlighter and Vital Skin Foundation & Concealer Stick, complemented by NARS' primer for long-lasting wear. She also swears by Omorovicza's Thermal Cleansing Balm and Ultramoor Mud Mask, Dr. Barbara Sturm's Super Anti-Aging Serum for travel, which she says is "a must", and 111 Skin Rose Gold Eye Masks for a luxurious travel pick-me-up.
Among all the scents Ellis Brooklyn has to offer, one holds a special place in Shapiro's heart: Myth. As the first scent she created, she says, "I made it for myself. It reminds me of New York City; it’s the ultimate Brooklyn scent. It’s chic and sophisticated." What started as Shapiro's personal fragrance has now become a beloved hero scent for the brand.
Bee Shapiro's journey in the fragrance industry has been one of resilience and creativity. With Ellis Brooklyn, she continues to captivate the world with unique scents while inspiring people to explore their olfactory horizons.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.