Master perfumer and noted nose behind the likes of Aesop’s Hwyl and Le Labo’s Geranium 30, Barnabé Fillion talks synesthesia, the connections between photography, whisky and perfumery, and the makings of his new sense-blending French fragrance brand, Arpa.
The way you discover and design scents is fascinating, because you include all the others senses of sight, sound, touch and taste. How would you describe your multi-sensory olfactory process?
“I am not an academic perfumer—I graduated in photography and worked with the likes of Helmut Newton and was building a good career for myself but at a certain point I felt the need to further stimulate my practice and my was was to look for another connection, another medium.That’s how I fell in love with the language of perfumery. I went from shooting textures of the vegetal world with an SX 70 camera—which is the Rolls-Royce of Polaroids—to being obsessed with plants and went on to study naturopathy, phytotherapy and aromatherapy. All these form my multi-sensory olfactory process.
“When creating a fragrance, I start with a blurry image—much like how I used to shoot textures in macro—and ingredient by ingredient, I don’t stop until the scent becomes a full, focused image.”
Synethesia—what is this to you, and is there a particular visual story you see with any of your favourite fragrances?
“For me, synesthesia is about being present and the idea of sense-blending. Where you can hear what you see and touch what you smell—it’s all about the different impressions of tactility. It can just be a good tool for creativity and stimulation.
Can you pick 1-2 fragrances to talk about how you composed it with your different senses?
“One of my perfumes, Aesop’s Hwyl, was developed after a walk in two different places in Japan. The first was the Shinto shrine of Isé. I wanted to capture the silence of the forest and the temple within it as well as the balance of elements from the minerality of the river and smoky haze of incense, to the woodiness of the trees like cedar, cypress and hinoki. The second place was Yakushima, which to me, has such a strong dialogue between the antique musk of Japan and the vitality of a thousand-year-old virgin forest.
For Rozu, which is the latest fragrance I created for Aesop, we created a beautiful rose in homage to the life of Charlotte Perriand—the architect, designer and pioneer of modernism in France—and the Japanese garden rose that was created in her name. Beige was used a lot in her modernist works, so that was our starting point, but little by little it started to fade to greyish, metallic tones and we wanted to capture the smell of the texture of the rose as well. This then evolved towards the smell of Japanese washi paper, which I use a lot of in the perfume.”
What other elements (like clay art and whisky) come into play for your olfactive creations?
“Clay has always been a material I’ve been fascinated with. The origin, the soil, the differences in porosity, its finishes and the way scent develops on it. I’ve used it to discover fragrances and to showcase it—compared to paper, testing a scent on clay smells much closer to how it would be if worn on skin for hours. I also love how you can warm it up and it opens up to fill a room. This is why I chose ceramic jars for Aesop’s new candles.”
I also find inspiration in music, movement and art, but travelling recharges my creative batteries the most—like visiting different whisky distilleries and discovering the know-how of the Scottish.”
What is Arpa all about?
“Arpa is my first brand and I like to describe it as an institute of synesthesia. It’s all about expression, different senses and blending with the main language of perfume, communicating with other forms of art like music and sculptures.”
What’s a perfume-inspired love story that holds special meaning to you?
“A couple I know was separated because of Covid-19 for six months, and the boyfriend went to bed wearing his partner’s fragrance because he missed him so much and wanted to feel that connection with him once again. I found that so elegant and sensitive, and loved how perfume was used to serve emotions and needs, and deepen their love.”
Where do you like wearing (and smelling) a fragrance on the most?
I wear fragrance to work on it, mostly, and I have to use it on my skin to taste it. But I do like using fabrics to capture scents as well, be it on the clothes I wear, or on pashmina towels while travelling to “carry” specific scents that encapsulate the trip. That said, I love the smell of a perfume most when it’s on a woman’s skin.