A Perk Of Being A Top Perfumer? Traveling With Oscar de la Renta

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Award-winning perfumer Calice Becker has been the nose behind some of the biggest perfume blockbusters of the past two decades, including a multitude of By Killian fragrances, Marc Jacobs’s Lola (composed with Yann Vasnier, 2009), Christian Dior’s J’Adore (1999), and Tommy Hilfiger’s Tommy Girl (1996), which respected perfume critic Luca Turin has argued is one of the greatest fragrances ever made because of its influential tea-floral accord.
Although she’s considered one of the best noses around, Becker is charmingly down-to-earth, and has said that she believes perfumers are more like designers and artisans than artists. We might have to disagree with her on that point, after sniffing her perfumes and talking to her about her latest scent collaboration with designer Oscar de la Renta.
The Essential Luxuries collection she composed for Oscar de la Renta features six fragrances influenced by the people, places, and things that have special importance to the designer, including Santo Domingo, where de la Renta was born, and Mi Corazon, created for his daughter and inspired by memories of the dew he collected from ylang-ylang petals when he was a teenager. As Becker and de la Renta traveled together, she listened to his stories and memories, touching the stones of a small chapel in his hometown where a favorite flower grew on a vine, smelling the seaweed in the Sargasso Sea, and hearing the cool sounds of the courtyard fountains in southern Spain’s Andalusia, where he started his career with fashion legend Balenciaga.
In describing each fragrance and how she arrived at its composition, Becker opened a window onto a perfumer’s creative process, which in this case involved immersing herself in specific locations, translating both the tangible (flowers) and intangible (moods) into the language of perfume notes, and telling stories with perfume.
Granada, Sargasso, Oriental Lace, Santo Domingo, Mi Corazon, and Coralina are each like perfume biographies, with Becker as the ghostwriter, coauthor or biographer. “Perfume is a story,” she says. “And to be a composer is to dive into someone’s world.” Here, she talks about her creative process — and what it's like to work with a fashion legend.
Photo: Courtesy of Calice Becker
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When you began working with Oscar de la Renta, did you start by talking about notes or ingredients?
We talked about ambiance first, and after, the ingredients are up to me. He’s the muse, and I’m the painter. For example, seaweed grows in the Sargasso Sea. Oscar loved the smell, so I collected it and did an analysis of the smell. When they’re just freshly on the beach, and they begin to dry, they smell a little like cooling artichokes. Very lemony, marine, watery and with a bit of cucumber. Sargasso, then, is a unisex fragrance, energizing and refreshing.
Can you say more about what “ambiance” means?
We had a list of eight places to go. He described each place to me — the feeling of it, the materials — like the stones of the chapel. With the perfume Sargasso, ambiance meant both the seaweed, and the feeling of hot sand and the sea breeze, the feeling of the freshness of the water and the contrast between warm and cool. For example, I added a touch of mint. You can’t really smell it but it adds a cool feel. Sometimes ambiance means something more precise, like with Oriental Lace. We took the headspace of the unusual Hoya carnosa flower at a chapel — literally the scientific capture of the air — and then we reconstituted it. (Note: Headspace is a technology in which all scented molecules from a source are captured, analyzed, and reproduced, like an olfactory photograph.)
It seems like perfumery involves lots of synesthesia, or thinking about smell in terms of other senses.
Yes, there are textures, feeling, velvet, spiky, sleek like a stone, temperature.
What are your favorite notes to work with?
That is so difficult to answer because there are so many. I love all natural oils: floral, spice, bark, woods, herbs, leaves…
Are you still surprised by anything in perfumery?
Each time we create the formula for a fragrance, and wait for it to come back from the lab…you can still be surprised by what you get. Sometimes it’s a good surprise, sometimes bad. This still surprises me.
It sounds like you’re still surprised that you can be surprised!
It’s also still a surprise, sometimes, which scents become huge successes.
What do most laypeople not know about being a professional nose?
That you can train your nose to be accurate, and that you can train it not to be as fatigued by the end of the day. For example, if you don’t work out a lot, the day after working out you might be too sore to do it again. But a champion can do it day after day and not get sore. It’s the same with your nose. You can train it.
Photo: Courtesy of Oscar de la Renta
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