I have a long personal history with fragrance. As a child when my bedroom doubled as a guest bed for my grandmother on her visits, the smell of her skin creme (circa 1980s Lancôme) was so special to me I wouldn’t let my mom change the sheets. And like many, I’ve kept the T-shirts of a lover and hoped the scent would never leave. Such is the power of scent. Scent helps us recall memory better than all the senses – we recall the least visually, we recall more auditory memories, and the most scent memories. It’s powerful stuff.
So the thought of dedicating your life to the power of scent, the mixing and matching of it, and navigating the subjective layers of it is fascinating to me.
Historically perfumers can be elusive, or mysterious, caged or guarded – they hold many lovely secrets for sure. Josh is completely different, a 21st century perfume expert indeed. Open to sharing his process and product, we met at his studio in NE Portland. He is one of the more friendly and unpretentious people I’ve ever met.
Born in Hermosa Beach, California and grew up in Colorado. He went to school to study English and has lived in Portland for 12 years. And much like some of the more brilliant creative people in history (e.g. John Chamberlain as hairdresser before selling his sexy crumpled cars for millions in galleries) his vocation has roots outside perfume. He burnt out in real estate, and decided to take a 6-month hibernation period.
During that time he became healthily obsessed with all things shaving. Procuring creams and straight edge razors on eBay, he connected with a fellow obsessed in Boston. The Boston-based man who sharpened Josh’s razors for him returned his freshly sharpened razors with samples of mens fragrance. These samples were the seeds to josh’s journey into all things fragrance.
Initially he wanted to design fragrance for men – a new kind of fragrance without a department store entry, perhaps more accessible to the adventuresome yet fragrant-reticent male. A year or so into his experiment, like most things evocative and scent related, women have caught on and are enjoying his fragrance. Myself included.
On first blush his process looks fairly simple given the layout of the studio. Shelves with well labeled and bottled liquids, some measuring equipment, a table spread of hundreds of smaller bottles, also well labeled. Then I started looking closely at the names (did I just read “carrot”?), and glancing at his notebook (numbers, quantities, lists), and listening to all kinds of new terms such as “chord”, and realizing this is not easy at all, and could overwhelm the faint of heart.
He let me smell all kinds of goodies from sweet fig to the bitter, funky and famous juice (can I call that animal secretion juice?). I’m realizing he gets to do this all day. Jealous.
My favorite part of his fragrance is definitely the Imaginary Author twist. The fragrance is designed, which then inspires an imaginary novel written by an imaginary author. Brilliant. An excerpt from one of the descriptions of the fragrance Falling Into the Sea:
At the age of nineteen Nica Galas published her first book, the autobiographical tome Falling into the Sea which chronicled her short and torrid love affair among the hot beaches and lemon trees in the Gulf of Naples. The breathtaking story opens with Nica and her girlfriends picking bunches of jasmine flower for boys while they cliff-jumped into the sea. An innocent first kiss erupts into an ardent summer entanglement which is cut short one moonlit night when her lover leaps into the dark abyss never to surface, leaving Nica naked on the cliffs screaming his name.
WHEN TO WEAR: This scent is sunshine in a bottle. Wear on cloudy days to invoke the ardor of summer.
I am currently wearing his latest Cape Heartache on my right hand – an initially heavy, impetuous fragrance fit for a lumberjack that evolves into a sweet bouquet (the stuff left on the aforementioned T-shirts). On my left hand is a gorgeous, much lighter fragrance made in collaboration with a brand new (beautiful) apothecary here in Portland called Spruce Apothecary. Josh has just designed these fragrances, though the imaginary authors are yet to be assigned. I’m having fun considering both fragrances and can’t wait to see who they come up with, and what novel did they write?
Since he is marketing his work as pretend authors, I asked him about the real authors he enjoys. Citing David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” as a seminal book for him, he also mentions postmodernist 60s authors John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. The reader’s digest version of what postmodernist 60s means, and even a bit of David Foster Wallace’s work, is that it’s writing about making worlds, the difference between imagination and reality, lots of parody, self consciousness and a large does of humor. Which I can see even in the perfumes he creates – a great deal of wit and creating worlds. I especially like that his fragrance Soft Lawn has an eau du clay courts and tennis balls. Anyone who has ever played tennis can think fondly and conjure quickly the opening of a new can of balls. I hope one day he might be inspired by the chlorine of pools, or maybe pool toys some day – now that would be an epic fragrance!
I mentioned my current series of work to him regarding Psyche, her latest task is on forgetting. My work in the studio has been all about this idea of forgetting – purposely and by accident. Having fragrance as something that evokes incredible memories, could something be bottled to help you forget? As I do more research and am ready to include this in my suite of work, I know who to call when I’m ready to get messy with the chords, sillages and thingies. A sillage by the way is my favorite new word – it means the trail of a scent.
Thank you Josh for that too brief, but exciting introduction to the serious play in your scent studio, bravo!
Fragrances to spark your imagination (all from Imaginary Authors web site):
The Cobra & The Canary
Falling Into The Sea
Memoirs of a Trespasser
The Soft Lawn