The art of stepping out of the comfort zone

My first impression when I discovered Olfactif (via a post on Twitter) was that I felt intrigued. It felt new, somewhat mysterious but I instantly saw signs of promise of some great perfume coversation.
After reading through a well-written website I understood what it was all about. Olfactif is a new subscription service that offers monthly carefully curated collections of niche perfume samples. The perfumes are selected to show the olfactory width and depth of how a theme can be explored by skilled dedicated perfumer. A theme can be for example ”spring” or an ingredient or something more conceptual. The fragrances are delivered to your home with accompanying ambitious information about noses, brands etc.

This idea appeals to me in so many ways. It will help more people discover the adventures that scents offer us. There is definetely a conflict between the ambitions, artistry and dedication that perfumers have for their craft – and how little of that is offered to consumers in terms of communication. What we get as a result of that is people spending loads of money rather arbitrarily, making error purchases, missing out on the sensations that perfumes can give us. Niche perfume brands are definetely making a difference because many of them tend to be more open, more prone to close dialogue with consumers and build brands in completely different ways than the massmarket does.

I sent the brain behind Olfactif, Tara Swords, some questions thinking I would select a few good quotes and some useful facts about Olfactif because I wanted to share this treasure with you. But I basically cannot bring myself to editing the interview because I like every single sentence of it too much. I hope someday Tara and I will have a coffee and a long conversation about scents and the olfactory aspects of life (and travelling!). Here is our first long wonderful multi-faceted inspiring conversation. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Tara, Olfactif is focused on niche perfumery. So let’s start with this – how would you define niche perfumery?
This tends to be a divisive question, because there are so many criteria you could use to assess it. For our purposes, niche is harder to find. It doesn’t hew to trends. It tends to come from people who care deeply about quality and originality. It appreciates complexity and weirdness and doesn’t worry about appealing to the greatest number of people. It explores what lives at the margins of beauty, which is one reason niche perfume is so interesting to experience. It’s not afraid of making people a little uncomfortable—or of entertaining them.

My favorite difference, though, is that niche perfume is marketed totally differently than mainstream perfume. Mainstream perfume is treated like a beauty product that will make you more attractive to potential mates. That’s the low-hanging fruit for marketers, and if they can go there, they will every time, because it works. But perfume isn’t a beauty product like mascara. If you see a woman wearing the same mascara your mother wore when you were five, what will that make you feel? Probably nothing, because you wouldn’t even realize it. But if you could smell, right now, the perfume that your mother wore when you were five and your little face was buried into her neck, you would probably have an emotional reaction. I think all perfumers recognize that powerful connection between scent and memory and emotion, but niche perfumers allow themselves to do more meaningful things with it.

One final point: there’s a lot of room at the niche table. I’ve noticed that people who are really into perfume can sometimes get a little cynical about it, bemoaning that there are too many brands, that everybody’s calling themselves niche these days, that it’s impossible to keep up, and that there’s too much low-quality stuff flooding the market. I can understand those feelings. But I also think that a lot of these things are cause for celebration. The fact that more people are making perfume means that more people have the freedom in their lives to do something that brings them happiness. It means that more people are taking the chance to be happy, which is an incredibly brave and risky act. It means we live in a time of human history when many people have the luxury of creating. And it means that the Internet has revolutionized the perfume industry in a way that makes you in metropolitan Stockholm aware of Laurie Erickson in hilly little Healdsburg, California. I feel a surge of gratitude and admiration when I see people trying to make a career doing creative work. I see only good things here.

Why is your focus on niche perfumery?
The focus is on niche perfume for a few reasons. First, for people who get big, conscious joy out of the sense of smell, niche perfume is a fascinating space because it really engages your brain and makes you aware of the act of smelling. When you walk into most of the stores where people buy perfume, you don’t find many perfumes that take risks. You find things that are safe or trendy. A lot of people find comfort in safety and in things that have gained mass acceptance, but a lot of people feel bored by those things. The first group can easily find what it wants, but the second group has to look pretty hard.

That leads to the second point, which is that niche perfume is just much harder to find. A lot of this stuff can’t be experienced in person unless you go to cities like New York or Paris. A lot of it can’t be experienced unless you order it online. And in either case, you won’t go look for it if you don’t know that it exists—and most don’t.

So there are consumers out there who would love to explore niche perfume if they knew that it exists. And there are perfumers who would love to have bigger reach but don’t have an easy way to introduce themselves to consumers. The goal is to help make that connection.

One other reason: niche perfume comes with stories. Stories about the individuals who make it, stories about the way it’s made, stories about the reasons it’s made. That’s why a big part of what we’re trying to do is to tie the stories and the artists to the scents. With perfume as with any kind of art, understanding who made it, and why, rounds out our understanding of the art itself.

How do you choose which brands to work with? Who curates? 

I curate. This is an important point: I don’t claim to be an expert in perfume. The people who are experts in this field are the perfumers who can call to mind some 6,000 perfume ingredients and who have so much experience that they can tell you, on command, what each smells like and how it interacts with the others. That is expertise. I am someone who has loved perfume her entire life, and who has smelled—and spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking about—many hundreds of perfumes. And I believe there are a lot of people who could describe themselves the same way.

But while curation is a somewhat subjective process, it’s not just me choosing three scents that I like every month and putting them in a box. In fact, I would argue that curation is actually mostly objective. What are the facts of the scent? Is there something unique and different about the way it is made or the way it stands alongside other things on the market? How do others experience it? What does it seem to evoke in them? What might it evoke in our particular subscriber base, who may be unaccustomed to the type of thing that’s in this bottle? That objective process of research and observation is a much, much bigger part of curation than the subjective.

The selection of perfumes is a long and fairly agonizing process that involves both creative things and less exciting things, like availability. When I put together all of the perfumers who have agreed to work with us, and then pick out all of the possible scents and combinations of scents, it’s a bit like putting together giant puzzles in the dark.


Can you give me an example of a theme?
The April theme is Vignettes of Spring. By the time spring rolls around, I think people are longing for smells that echo the natural changes in their environments, and these first three scents are so full of life and nature that it all came together quite easily. Future themes might be straightforward, like “Tobacco,” or more conceptual and fun, like “Dirty and Delightful.”

Did you have a certain type of person or target group in mind when creating the service?
I have two types of people in mind. The first group—and the much bigger one—is people who love perfume but aren’t aware of the niche world. The second is people who may be aware of the niche world but haven’t really fallen down the rabbit hole and invested the extraordinary time and energy involved in discovering, researching, and exploring new brands. In either case, I think about people who want to experience smelling actively, not passively.

When will Olfactif be available overseas? (For now it is limited to the US).
Overseas shipping of perfume is a pretty costly endeavor. Shipping—on top of the monthly subscription—is probably cost-prohibitive for most international consumers. But if we hear that a lot of people would be interesting in paying the cost of international shipping to join a service like this, we’d certainly consider it. And there may be some other creative ways that we can expand to serve other markets down the road.

A last inevitable question, what perfume are you wearing today?
Today I’m wearing Week-end à Deauville by Parfums de Nicolaï. I can’t get enough of it. The way it transforms over time is captivating.

Thank you Tara for your time. And here are my absolute favorite Olfactif words:


“Practicing the act of stepping out of your 
comfort zone will turn you into a person who can 
find comfort nearly everywhere.”

One thought on “The art of stepping out of the comfort zone

  1. April 13, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks for the great interview! I’m loving getting to know Olfactif! :)

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