terça-feira, 19 de janeiro de 2016

BeauFort London: a Year of Reflection in Fragrance

by: Suzy Nightingale

I first encountered the triptych of BeauFort London fragrances some time before they launched, meeting with the founder, Leo Crabtree, and his PR lady in the womb-like wood-paneled historic comfort of Liberty's cafe. Rather hesitant and slightly nervous at first, Leo began explaining his reasons for launching the fragrances, his love of maritime history, literature, art and growing up on boats, surrounded by the sea literally and metaphorically.
He'd started with a moustache wax - having a rather luxuriant example of facial hair himself, and standing on a boat in a fjord during a storm (as one does) while being whipped by his own moustache and thinking he should probably find a better way to tame it. Having searched and ultimately been disappointed, he tried making his own, and wanted to scent it (being a lifelong fragrance lover) so began a trial and error quest to dabble with essential oils - eventually realizing he required the help of a professional. The wax was made to his satisfaction, friends asked to purchase their own, and BeauFort then snowballed as a grooming brand - sort of by accident, but a happy one that led Leo further up the fragrant path than he'd perhaps imagined at the beginning. He found a perfumer willing to listen to his 'crazy ideas' and put all his energy into making three fragrances that would express at least some of what was going on in his head.
As Leo talked at that first meeting, his passion grew, his quest to marry the transcendental poetic notions of history with scents that tapped into a kind of shared consciousness. He didn’t set out with the notion they could be challenging for many, but hoped that some would just click, they'd 'get it', they'd understand what he was trying to do. Not that he fully understood that, yet, himself, he freely admitted. But it was clear how much this meant to him - the authenticity of his convictions was beyond doubt and just shone through as he spoke, excitement and fear battling it out in his voice. He talked eloquently about fragrance, his music, obscure historic stories, art... and seemed driven equally by all these passions - this was no concocted 'back story' to make the fragrances sound interesting - everything about them are distilled essences of his very soul. And the fragrances themselves were truly incredible, really unlike anything I had smelled before - and yet familiar, too, somehow. Challenging, perhaps, though I would rather say surprising, a little unsettling even, yet strangely comforting. They tickled at my own consciousness, they made me think. I 'got it'.
A year on I met with Leo again, in the very same location, having kept in touch with him and watched with great interest as public and press alike began to trickle and then swarm; word of mouth and a few features leading to bloggers, small press and then national newspapers (august publications like the Financial Times even sitting up and listening), glossy magazines and some of the leading scent critics scrabbling for a sniff. BeauFort London began making the end of year 'Best of' and 'Ones to Watch' type lists we journalists delight in at a time there are few new launches and so we find ourselves taking stock, looking back at what the year gave us while looking forward at what is yet to come. Indeed, I chose East India as one of my own top three selections for Fragrantica's Editor's Choice at the end of last year.
And so, in this strange limbo, this period of new beginnings and looking back as we seem to straddle the year that has not quite gone and the year we're not yet fully committed to - I wanted to ask Leo to look back on his first, rather momentous year as a founder, and reflect on the difficulties along with joys he's experienced. There can surely be no more nerve wracking venture than to create a thing and set it free - to be examined, picked over, lauded or derided - and with it, elements of yourself. So what would he do, now, differently? Where is he going?
Leo Crabtree: What I am trying to do is get away from 'Rum, Sodomy and the Lash' somewhat (he throws his head back and laughs, wryly) - and revert back to my original idea. I feel as though it's kind of departed from that a bit, in translation, which was supposed to be the forces of nature - the nuances between them - like the wind caught in sails. I don't know if I told you my original concept of doing thirteen different fragrances all based on the differing wind strengths. A fool's errand! To try and convey all of those separately in a fragrance is very difficult, it turns out. If not impossible. Because all the wind strengths themselves don't have strong enough characteristics poetically to stick anything to. The logical thing in my mind then was to think about what the wind propels, and that grew into ships, and that shaped some of the fragrances - picking up semi-autobiographical references along the way. For me they were partly an exercise in finding out what it means to be me, what it means to be living in London or means to be British. So you have the traditional trappings that go with that - the trade and history and art. But if you look below the surface of those things you find all the nasty things that are part of what made that happen: the imperialism, the opium wars, those chapters of history that get shoved aside and sanitized.
Now, it may be because it's grey and cold and January, or it may be that I've just been reading Sylvia Plath; but basically London is a graveyard built on the idea of 'the great Empire' - and that meant slaves, the squashing of native people - really horrible, brutal things that happened to shape us. And that's what I like addressing and exploring through those initial fragrances - that's what made them so interesting for me to think about. We're built up from all these things that happened - a patchwork of historical events - and I think there's still a tendency to gloss over…
Suzy Nightingale: Do you think people have taken it rather literally?
Leo: Well yes, but why wouldn't they? They can't get inside my head and know everything that's going on in there - my head cave of ideas! - and know every nuance of what led to them and how they've evolved.
Suzy: And not everyone is going to 'get' what you're trying to do, but neither should they...
Leo: Well exactly, nor should they. But it's not an exercise in being provocative, it's about trying to do something slightly different, because if I was going to do this at all, I didn't see any point in doing something the same.
Suzy: I know we've talked before about not wanting to compromise too much and how that important that is in creativity because it's a very slippery slope...
Leo: I struggle with that on a daily basis really, because... Well okay that's not exactly true. It's not a daily basis. There are some days I wake up and feel really positive and know exactly what direction it has to take. Those are the good days. Then there are the bad days where you start thinking 'maybe I should try and please everyone! Maybe I should listen to people saying make it quieter, make it easier...' Those are the days I try and ignore because I have to if I want to keep authentic to what I wanted to achieve with those perfumes. I mean, I was quite happy just pootling along and knew it wasn't going to be obvious - it was never going to be mainstream - but all of a sudden it was being talked about as something really avant-garde - and that's not what it's about for me - I just thought it was normal! It's perfectly normal for me, all those concepts and that mixture of smells of the strength, I wasn't trying to shock or be outrageous, it's just what I liked! And then some reactions were people saying 'what the hell IS this? What's going on with this?' and I guess that's when some self-doubt started creeping in.
Suzy: You're quite a sensitive person aren't you? I mean, from what you've told me before, and this... So have you been upset by some of the negative feedback or cringed at things you've read that weren't positive?
Leo: Um, yeah.... (he pauses)
Suzy: Can you distance yourself from it or does it always sting and feel personal?
Leo: I used to take it really, really personally but learned a long time ago that you can't listen to your critics - good or bad - all the time, either way. Because one way leads to complete self doubt and the other leads to...
Suzy: Rampant narcissism!
Leo: (laughs) exactly! Be that in music or writing or whatever, or even in relationships, I am trying to listen more to my gut and zone yourself out from what people are saying, because nobody can 'get' what's going on in my or anyone else's head most of the time! You know.... I don't, even in my own head, so how can anyone else?! I've been taking this time to look back at my original ideas, the various briefs, the collaboration with perfumers... and there's something like 85 projects that have been started, picked up, moved around, shifted in emphasis - it's so much work, and that doesn't include those we've completed already, these are just things in flux. There's probably two dozen other fragrances that have come out in my head as ideas and that for me is the problem, of not being able to sit by myself with a load of stuff and make a perfume there and then. Of course, I have to go through the process of going to the lab and asking lots of questions and pestering them - 'will this work? What if we do this?' - and then they go away and think about it on a molecular level and convert it into something that will, theoretically, work. But that entire process can take days and days.
Suzy: That must inevitably distance you from your original impetus, no?
Leo: Yeah, of course. I mean I think I once told you about my horse idea?
Suzy: Oh yes! Now remind me though, was it a hoof you sent to the perfumer?
Leo: (sniggers) No, it was a lock of hair, well mane...
Suzy: Oh that's right, I knew it was a bit of a horse anyway...
Leo: (still giggling) Uh yes, and that was shortly after I'd sent them some racy underwear, too, for another project.
Suzy: A rather literal 'brief'
Leo: (snorts)
Suzy: I'd love to be in the mail-room of that perfumer's lab. There must be some raised eyebrows!
Leo: I think they're kind of used to me by now. Like the incident with the grater I told you about....
Suzy: Oh my god, yes, that was hilarious. (Leo sent a cheese grater from his kitchen and a lump of particular wood to the perfumer, as he wanted to stress the note he wanted to achieve was freshly grated wood rather then dry sawdust. But in attempting to grate the wood, managed to rather mangle the grater beyond repair...)
Have you now replaced that grater?
Leo: Um, I think so, yes! The great thing about having a good relationship with perfumers is that over time, you build a commonality of language, so that you can discuss in greater depth these poetic concepts and how exactly they can (or cannot) translate into the finished fragrance. But that's a difficulty in the perfume world generally, the communication.
Suzy: Well yes, there is no shared language of scent - we are forced to refer to other things, like taste and texture, and make comparisons that don't always fit.
Leo: And of course there are many references we see as normal because we've personally experienced them, but they're not always shared.
Leo talks about a discussion on smoke laden fragrances he had with Oxana Polyakova at Bloom - the lady who set up her first independent perfume store in East London, and last year opened another in Covent Garden.
Leo: Oxana was telling me that some of her younger customers always say it smells like burnt sausages or a barbecue. And she wondered why this was. She came to the conclusion that perhaps it was because they hadn't had the childhood experience of growing up with a real fire, or of going camping and making fires, so to them smoky things remind them of their main experience with that smell, which is charred meat. So it depends on your cultural reference point, what's personal to you. But that's what makes fragrance writing so fascinating - and what promotes incredibly diverse opinions. There's no right or wrong, good or bad, and the fragrances people are smelling and buying have never been more diverse, either!
Suzy: And therefore provocative to a huge range of opinions. But that's a good thing, it's okay not to like something.
Leo: I think it's become apparent to me that with BeauFort, some people of some cultures 'get it' more easily than others. The fundamental basis of theCome Hell or High Water trio was birch tar, and that's because tar - if we're talking in poetic terms again - was the glue that held the Empire together. They called the sailors 'Jack Tars' because they coated the ropes with tar to stop them rotting. And so if you subscribe to Jung's notion of shared consciousness - that may be something that resonates more deeply in the British psyche than others, as it's part of our history. But Russians love the smell of birch tar, too - because they apparently used to use it to polish their boots, and so that's a shared memory, too.
What I wanted to do was to dig into that British psyche and examine where we're from. It was a personal journey, too - my great grandparents were born in India and China and having family members who fought in the opium wars, family members who were in the navy... all this stuff, that's personal to me, but personal to a lot of people in this country. Obviously a lot of things have changed for the better - we're far more multicultural, thank goodness, but the bad old days (and they were bad old days!) are behind that, it's a patchwork of what makes us, us - and me, me. And that gives me a nice jumping off point to do the next thing. Whatever that may be.... ha! But what I was trying to say at the start of our conversation, is that it's been good to look back at my original theme or concept of using the strength of wind as a metaphor rather than being tied to that forever. I've done what I wanted to do with those stories or themes, and don't necessarily want to be seen as someone who only ever makes fragrances based on one concept. It could get really one-dimensional.
Suzy: It's obviously been important for you to work through, though, because it's own story, too, but it's not everything. It was a starting point. But you obviously have a lot more to say - those 85 fragrance projects in one year alone, some of which may see the light of day, others may never get finished... It would be awful if you got bored, or sick of being defined in one way.
Leo: Absolutely! But there's also the fact that you have people saying, "why don't you just ease off on that note and make it another way?" and I could do that, but I don't really want to. Because that's not really me. It's not what I set out to be.
Suzy: Do lots of people say that to you?
Leo: People that I listen to? No, not really. I try not to engage with the criticism at all if possible, because then you're just changing to try and please everyone. I had one of my American stockists send through some of their customer reviews, and they were just stunning on the whole. But some of them really didn't like it and said something like "they clearly have an obsession with smoke" and I thought, well, yeah. That's kind of the whole point. I wanted to get back to experiencing smoke as a primal thing that resonates with everyone to a degree. Good or bad.
Suzy: And smoke isn't an easy thing to love in a fragrance - especially when it's very strong. It's a divider of opinion that's for sure! But the origins of perfume are in smoke...
Leo: ...yeah, it's in the name, darling! One of my French stockists said that it's hard for people to get their head around, the whole concept they were built on - and I suppose that's kind of set me off wondering if people DO always need to know about the story of a fragrance before they smell it. Do we then build up preconceptions that shape the way we smell? I still don't know. But one of the things that delights me the most is when someone has smelled it, knowing nothing about it, and it's done something to them - spoken to them in some way. And one of my stockists in London told me it wasn't the usual niche perfume lovers 1805 had sold best to - they were city gents in suits with briefcases who just really liked the smell! And of course some people will just hate it, it's not them at all. I totally understand that. But it was the first to completely sell out, so it's definitely speaking to some people!

At the time of writing, East India has also sold out, and Leo is now wrestling with the everyday practicalities of stock control and re-orders and fulfilling shipments to their ever-growing stockists in far-flung places around the globe while continuing the expansion of distribution - unimaginable difficulties he cannot have predicted when first began. Even the birch tar - the backbone of BeauFort - is problematic, with the discovery that fresh batches can dramatically change in color and strength from year to year. Bottles, packaging, display stands, colors and availability of raw materials - even the names of the scents themselves are all things that many independent fragrance houses must grapple with in the early years; and those are daily battles that Leo now finds himself fighting while trying to work through the philosophical, poetical and creative battles within himself.
His work ethic is, well, crazily tenacious. He does this not so much because he wants to, but needs to. To me it seems similar to the urge to write, personally speaking - an itch that has to be not just scratched but constantly poked at before it builds up inside of you and drives you demented if you don't listen to those creative impulses. And bear in mind this isn't even Leo's main 'day job' - I mention this in passing, because it simply isn't salient to the fragrances themselves; but Leo happens to be the live drummer for one of the most prolific UK bands of the last 25 years who seem almost constantly on tour. Keeping these ‘day and ‘night’ jobs going, and having the passion to dedicate equally to both must be intensely draining, but he’s driven by that need to express himself. You'll have to excuse the dreadfully flawed musical metaphor, but there are clearly many strings to his bow.
Leo is, of course, somewhat sensitive to criticism for something so intensely personal - but they are huge fragrances designed to provoke a reaction, but not simply to be provocative or shocking for the sake of it. There’s a distinct difference. It's perfectly alright for you to love something that the next person loathes - how dreadful it would be if all fragrances had to conform to a panel-tested acceptability. Uniformly tolerated but adored by none. Do we really want everyone in the world wearing perfumes you have personally approved? I certainly don't! Not least because my opinion fluctuates all the time, dependent on my mood, the weather, the time of day, what I'm wearing. There's this peculiar thing that happens - a certain intangible way of selecting the 'right' fragrance for that moment, that plugs you in to the mainframe of the universe you inhabit and the energy that flows smoothly through it. Choose the 'wrong' one and the world becomes a jagged place of disconnection, a severing of your nerve-center, a pebble in your shoe. Fragrance should never be a one size fits all endeavor, and we desperately need independent houses to continue surprising us, even if we don’t like or understand them. Unless you’re being forced at gunpoint to wear them, it’s okay not to like something. I cannot repeat this enough!
I for one am hugely relieved that BeauFort fragrances are so authentic to the vision that triggered their birth. Vast, expansive, heartfelt, profound. To wear them is, in some ways - to borrow terribly from Nietzsche - to embrace the moment the abyss begins also to gaze into you. Darkly redolent they have all drawn me in, though East India and Coeur de Noir resonate most strongly for me personally. I endlessly vacillate between them, the fathoms-deep spiced booziness of the first, the inky leather pipe-smoke of the last - they stop me in my tracks and make me ponder at various points during the day and seep into my dreams at night. Stormy seas, black water tipped with moonlight, the dry rustle of manuscripts shuffled... The first triptych of fragrances have definitely made their impression on me.
I have had a sneaky sniff of what is to come, and cannot really say much about them, other than watch this space - the journey continues apace, in differing directions that may surprise you in all sorts of ways. Proust, clocks, the concept of The Fallen Woman, a Hogarthian Cologne, the redolence of longing: all of these ideas are in the melting pot, and I genuinely can't wait for the next chapters of BeauFort London to be unfurled...