The Nose: Barnabé Fillion

Perfumer Barnabé Fillion on about his latest collaboration with Aesop, the influence of photography on his work, and going to work with the flu  

Barnabé Fillion never set out to be a perfumer. Having trained and worked as a photographer, he became interested in exploring other fields and collaborated with architects, poets and botanists before eventually meeting a perfume maker. It would make a huge impression on him. “They became such a strong source of inspiration for me,” Fillion tells me from Paris, where he currently lives and works. “From that point on, my passion has always been to learn more about the olfactory world.”

The process of creating a perfume is deeply personal and intimately connected with memory. As an apprentice under Christine Nagel, the nose for Hermès, Fillion had to learn to identify over 3,000 different scents and says, incredibly – having produced fragrances for a number of different brands – that he can still go to work when he has the flu.

“When I’m in the process of designing a fragrance, I don’t necessarily need to smell at all points,” he explains. “It’s much more important to be able to stimulate memory.” And although he adds the caveat that his job would, of course, be impossible without any sense of smell, interestingly everyone has an inability to smell certain ingredients: “I have some friends who don’t smell cedar, for example, and there are certain musk scents that I don’t smell as much as my colleagues will. It just goes to show how subjective the art of fragrance making can be.”

For Hwyl, his second collaboration with Australian luxury skincare brand Aesop, Fillion drew inspiration from the Koh-do, the Japanese incense ceremony from the Edo period, which he describes as a “sophisticated game that creates a sort of alphabet of smell”. Fillion wished to capture the multi-sensory emotions conjured up by walking in an ancient Japanese forest, “the rich aromas of wood, smoke and moss; the minerality of the water running over stones; the vivid silence of the forest; the inexpressible texture of nature…”

In offering such a description of the fragrance, it is clear that a visual aspect to Fillion’s approach remains from his experience as a photographer. “I’m not sure whether I see an image when I begin making a perfume, or whether that image forms during the process,” he explains. “But most of the time, after I’ve finished, I always have the impression that I have been running after that one particular image.”

Photography (bottle) Robin Broadbent

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

A Journey Through Scent

Explore five fragrances featured in an immersive exhibition, which allows you to see, hear and feel scents from pioneering perfumers

© Laziz Hamani

The Japanese tradition of todo – translating to ‘the way of fragrance’ – has for centuries encouraged an unusual interchange: to listen to smell. Of the other senses, as early as 1928, the scientist and surface physicist H. Devaux had ‘The First Photographs of Smell’ published as a visualisation of camphor and lily. Now, an exhibition at London’s Somerset House, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, invites audiences to take part in an olfactory journey allowing you to see, hear and feel scents.

In the East Wing Galleries, installations in this exhibition highlight ten pioneering perfumers and a respective fragrance from each, drawing on their inspirations and core ideas. Carefully chosen by coordinators Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House, and fragrance writer Lizzie Ostrom, these scents have been much celebrated over the past two decades. Here, we look at five fragrances featured in the show. 

Comme des Garçons 2 – Mark Buxton

After entering perfumery through an unusual route (a game show) Derby-born perfumer Mark Buxton has established himself as a leader in creating iconoclastic fragrance. His 1999 scent Comme des Garçons 2 is one of these. Intended to capture the smell of Japanese calligraphy ink, called sumi, and counterbalanced with more natural notes including magnolia and cedarwood, Buxton’s eau de parfum would become a signature scent for Rei Kawakubo’s fashion label.

© Kim Keever, Courtesy Waterhouse & Dodd

Dark Ride – Killian Wells

In 2015, perfumer Killian Wells modelled a scent on a commonplace smell: chlorinated water. In doing so, he created a fragrance for Los Angeles-based perfumery Xyrena that would be underscored by hints of mildew that nodded at one of its original inspirations, the Pirates of the Caribbean log flume. Dark Ride – a sensory simulation of a water theme park – was born.

L’Air du Désert Marocain – Andy Tauer

Cumin, coriander, petitgrain, rock rose, jasmine. These are the notes at the centre of Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer’s L’Air du Désert Marocain, developed in 2005 for Tauer perfumes. Thinking fondly of a night in Marrakech, Morroco, Tauer imagined this unisex eau de toilette as something that resonated with the Sahara Desert – dry and heady.

Iris © Givaudan

 Charcoal – Lyn Harris

Placing importance on raw materials and sourcing her ingredients from places including the Island of Reunion and Haiti, British perfumer Lyn Harris developed her 2016 fragrance, Charcoal, with the earth in mind. A training background in the traditional methods of perfume making, Harris, founder of fragrance atelier Perfumer H, matches notes of cade with juniper, patchouli and frankincense, to name a few. The result is a composition remnant of hot smoke and time spent in Scotland with her grandfather.

Molecule 01 – Geza Schoen

In Geza Schoen’s Molecule 01 is focused on a single aroma-molecule, called Iso E Super. The success of the fragrance – launched in 2007 for the Berlin-based perfumer’s label Escentric Molecules – has been its ability not to dominate its wearer but to meld with their natural pheromones, taking on its own identity. Simple in its make-up and widely known for its subtly, Molecule 01 is defiantly contemporary. 

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is on show at Somerset House until 23 September