Interview with Laurie Stern of Velvet and Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery
by Matt Morris, 09/23/21
As readers may have noticed, I’m very interested in the places where perfume and art blend into one another. I also cherish truly unique perspectives in perfumery. So when I was introduced to Laurie Stern’s work at her Velvet and Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery late last year, I was instantly a smitten kitten, eager to fully immerse myself in the fantasy world Laurie has made. The Purrfumery is at the center of it all, and on the occasion of her latest release Pangolin Violette Rose, I sought out a conversation wherein we talk about the art project we worked on together this past spring, and this new brilliant fragrance it has yielded.
If you want to learn more about the exhibition that we reference, a lot of information and images can be found here.
Matt Morris: One of the absolute highlights of my year has been getting to experience your newest perfume Pangolin Violette Rose in extended, excessive ways. It’s gorgeous in both its liquid and solid versions, with deeply romantic florals highlighted by a truly innovative candied violet accord that you compliment with cocoa absolute and a rich bed of aged sandalwood you’ve been holding onto for nearly thirty years. Not to mention its good cause and the environmentalist pursuits that propelled the perfume’s development. Honestly, it’s all spellbinding! I thought we could talk about some of the background on the scent and why I’ve gotten to know it so deeply. Thank you for taking the time for this conversation. I’ve come to adore any chance we get to talk since we met virtually at the end of last year.
Laurie Stern: Thank you so much for your lovely compliments and for taking the time to ask me about my work. Creating my new pangolin perfume for your exhibition The Red Wedding was an amazing experience for me! It’s been such a fun ride and a deeply profound experience to get to know you virtually. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my vision and collaborate with you.
MM: Last year I came to exploring your Purrfumery after we’d been following each other on Instagram for a while. Your style is so distinct and original both in the branding for Velvet and Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery and, as I came to discover, in the blends you formulate as well. How do you describe your aesthetic leanings?
LS: Giggling… My aesthetic language is cats, purrfume, lace, velvet, vintage millinery flowers, bonbons, and much more. That’s what I love! It takes me back to my childhood, to my first business sewing one-of-a-kind lingerie and camisoles, to my wedding flower business, all the way to this moment. When I was dreaming up the packaging for The Red Wedding, my dear friend and artist Lisa Rappoport letter-pressed an artist statement on French ribbons: Meow meow frills, furbelows, kitty tutus and tiaras, meow deep love for our planet, meow it’s magical diversity of cultures, flowers, plants, and animals (especially cats)!
This statement captured the feeling and aesthetic that flows through my work and my life. I love all the richness that the natural world has to offer, and I think of all the fancy fun stuff as precious jewels to mix and mingle together.
MM: After selecting your Luminous Lemurs as the best new release of 2020, I began organizing an art exhibition in Chicago at the gallery RUSCHMAN. I’ve been including perfumes and other olfactory components in my own art exhibitions as far back as 2008, and in recent years I’ve worked with brilliant conceptual artists who work in scent as a medium, such as the Glasgow-based Clara Ursitti, on exhibitions. I wrote to you, rather tentatively, to see if you’d be interested in being involved in this exhibition that I was calling The Red Wedding. Your response was so enthusiastic and game! Exactly my favorite kinds of collaborators. What got you excited about presenting perfume in this kind of art context?
LS: I had been following you on Instagram and really loved your art and your sensibilities on romance and gender, and I had no idea that you also wrote for Fragrantica and taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was completely blown away when I received your message that you had selected Luminous Lemurs as best new release of 2020 for Fragrantica!
I knew immediately that I wanted to participate, and the more I learned about you, the more excited I was about your project. Your art really speaks to me because I love the decorative arts, and especially women’s arts. Your paintings and hats are so beautiful, and they also made me think. You are doing something different and it’s reflected in your approach to these traditional arts. That’s genius is my book—looking at something that’s familiar but approaching it in a completely new way. You use modern culture, gender, and the boudoir to question preconceived ideas and invite curiosity. You turned it upside down and so did the artists that you invited to The Red Wedding.
I only commit to projects that excite me and align with my values. So, when you asked me to make a perfume for The Red Wedding, I knew that I wanted to be a part of your new way of looking at culture and art. Perfumery is an art and to make a perfume that would also be experienced as art on a fan was exactly my cup of tea!
MM: I’m curious what formative memories and encounters with art you feel has shaped you. And if you see ways art has influenced your approach to perfume and building your vision for the Purrfumery. I seem to recall you mentioning visiting Feminist Art goddess Judy Chicago’s studio; what was that like? What are some other memorable experiences?
LS: When I was in my early 20s, I came to California from New Jersey to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts, and I heard about The Dinner Party and Judy Chicago. I visited her studio in Benicia and it had a profound effect on me. Women were beading and sewing and making pottery—it was an amazing collaborative project. I wished I had the time to contribute. By the way, she loves cats too, and I also have her cat book!
My older sister was my biggest inspiration and teacher when it came to art. She started painting when we were kids and she became a museum curator and director. She focused on exhibiting under-represented artists and immigrants. My sister hated the word “tolerance” because that was not enough for her. She wanted people to really look at history, art, and culture and find the richness in diversity. She wanted people to be curious about our differences and stop being prejudiced.
My sister also loved flea marketing. She took me on her adventures along Route 9 to Cape May and I would buy kitty postcards and advertising cards because I only had kid money! I still use them in Velvet & Sweet Pea’s advertising and scent cards. Nothing is thrown away at the Purrfumery! When I was teaching myself perfumery during those early delicious years of my business, I collected antique bottles from the Alameda flea market and used them for making tinctures and bottling my perfumes. I had so much fun decorating them with the vintage flowers and ribbons from my previous businesses. I felt like I was still making bouquets too, only now they were more ethereal. I was quite isolated in those days with very little outside influence, and it led to a meditative inner journey of trusting my nose and aesthetic.
MM: One of the early magical coincidences as we began to make plans and collaborate on the exhibition was that I remember writing to you about cosmetic notes, lipsticky perfumes that I’ve written about somewhat extensively for Fragrantica (here, here, and here, for instance), and in particular rose, violet, and iris notes. You wrote back quickly to say that you’ve also been thinking about these floral combinations. Kismet! What do you remember were your early inspirations for using these notes in a fragrance?
LS: That was crazy! And another sign! I love roses, violet and iris! It seemed like a dreamy combination that needed my further exploration.
MM: I imagine it would have been near impossible for you to formulate a new scent in the six months between my initial invitation and the exhibition opening, had you not already been mulling on these scent profiles.
LS: The serendipity of that was so magical to me! I knew I had to do it! I had deadlines in the wedding flower business, where you can’t start until the last minute and then you scramble until you’re finished, and there is no option of blowing it! So, I am very familiar with deadlines. But I never have imposed them on myself while making a perfume.
Perfumery is such a magical art to me in the sense that you are really creating a new flower when you mix all of these molecules together, I love the alchemy of it. There are endless combinations, and you need to experiment until you know it’s finished. I love that part, where it’s not working, it’s not working, it’s not working, and then… voila! That’s it! One little drop and you know it’s done!
MM: The resultant perfume is Pangolin Violette Rose, which was displayed in an art installation meant to recall historical department store presentations. You sent a set of exquisite bottles from your collection along with the various versions of the perfume you formulated.
LS: I just love the perfume bottles of yesteryear. When the perfumes were gone, you still have a lovely souvenir. I want my perfumes to be like that, that’s why I love elaborate packaging! The packaging on Pangolin Violette Rose was the most fun ever! With your encouragement, I went all out! Letter-pressed French ribbon statement and a kitty vintage flower corsage, in a tiny hat box, all numbered and in a limited edition.
There is a big-time collector of my work who won’t even open the packaging to wear the perfume! Fleur de Caramel is one of the perfumes she has collected, and she won’t even unwrap the candy packaging. Now that perfume was fun to package—I used florist foils that I had, they were purrfect. And, see again, nothing thrown away!
MM: The gallery RUSCHMAN ended up working with your Purrfumery design team (shout out to Emerald!) to design the brand identity for The Red Wedding exhibition, including a set of paper fans that were freely distributed to visitors. We spritzed each fan with Pangolin Violette Rose and offered them to guests as a souvenir of the show. The effect was this dreamy atmosphere where people practically floated in your rose-violet-cocoa cloud while they looked at artworks from a group of artists that span generations, nationalities, races, sexual orientations, and gender identities. Laurie, the hundreds of folks who came through the gallery were frankly enraptured by the time they spent in the space, fanning themselves with Pangolin Violette Rose!
LS: That just delights me to no end! What a rush! Utopia! You and Eric Ruschman are brilliant visionaries that cohesively bring such diversity and talent from all over the world to be part of such a delicious extravaganza for visitors to experience! I loved the art and the atmosphere that you created at the gallery.
MM: Have you ever done anything like this with your perfumes? You clearly have impeccable instincts for staging an event.
LS: When you create floral designs for weddings, you build a magical atmosphere. That experience influences me a lot. But fans have been a part of my aesthetic for a long time. Ten years ago, I made a Velvet & Sweet Pea’s fan for the first Artisan Fragrance Salon in San Francisco. It was a nod to the advertising art I have collected, and the fans I have from Victorian times. My fan for that show had two kitties drinking tea and we printed it with, “I inhaled (deeply) at Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery.” My joke being that Clinton didn’t inhale, but Obama did. I went crazy when I saw a hundred people fanning themselves everywhere with whatever perfume they wanted to sample of mine. I didn’t expect that! So I loved that you wanted Emerald to design a fan for The Red Wedding. It was so generous of you to give every visitor a souvenir fan.
MM: What if anything changes when we think of perfume as a form of art?
LS: Perfume can be perceived as superficial, especially if you look at ads and commercials. But they are quite profound. They can change your mood, transport you to another place, bring you a sense of calm and peace, stimulate you, even intoxicate you. And you can try on a different persona, which is fun too. There were different perfumes in my life that really had an influence on me. Forty years ago, I went to France and Belgium to buy laces at the flea markets for my lingerie and camisole business. I wore Lauren perfume and it captures the entire mood of that trip for me. I also went to the perfumeries in Grasse on that trip, never knowing I would become a perfumer! When I would go to New York on my selling trips, I always wore Halston, it gave me the courage to sell to Bendel’s and Bergdorf’s. Even though I was a hippie, it was the disco era, and I had to pretend I was at Studio 54! So, we can wear perfume and use it for many reasons. Maybe play with your diva side? And I think that is what art does—it makes us think and question. We look inward and it changes us from within when we experience it. Making perfumes has always been deeply psychological. I am challenging parts of myself, and working through grief and loss. Art transforms us, and perfume can do that too—we’re calling on our most underused sense when we experience it.
I also think of antiquity and history as part of the art of perfumery. I delved into some incredible books when I was teaching myself. I have a lovely library of books from the 1800s, like “The Art of Perfumery” by Piesse, “The Book of Perfumes” by Rimmel, “Practical Receipts for Perfumes and Cosmetics,” and so many more. Reading them was so exciting and taught me so much about creating and experiencing something new.
MM: Maybe we could get into some more of the specifics that you’ve built into Pangolin Violette Rose. Could you tell us about the different formats you developed?
LS: Yes, keep reading!
MM: Rose is a material that you’ve used in really different ways in a number of your previous perfumes. Could you characterize the different personalities and tones that you’ve coaxed from a range of rose materials?
LS: Rosy perfumes are some of my favorites. Rose Jasmine from my Kittylicious line is rich and yummy and always makes me feel like everything is going to be alright. The rose and rose geranium really stand out in this perfume.
Rose Encens is based on frankincense and rose. I wanted something soft and soothing, especially for loss. I added Rose Edward, which is very rich and restful. I used Rose Edward in this perfume and in Rose Jasmine because it’s so deep, rich and honey like! Of course, frankincense tears come from a wound in the Boswellia tree, so you know it’s good for sadness and loss.
In Jewelry of Heaven, I use a rose-jasmine fond that has a real vintage feel. I was thinking about vintage Joy, a favorite of mine. I use Turkish and Bulgarian rose because they are both very sweet and perfect for the feeling of this perfume.
MM: There are historical distinctions that have designated perfume more as a craft akin to cooking or annexed into the space of an apothecary more than associated with art and museums. We could even identify histories of the guild system in France that supposed these differences. But for a long, long time there have been artists using scent in their work and perfumers who approach their work more like an art practice than as an extension of the beauty industry. In the best cases, I see folks operating in both spaces simultaneously, blending them together. Does that kind of creative freedom inform your approach to maintaining an independent perfumery?
LS: Oh yes, I wouldn’t know any other way to approach it. I studied all of the natural essences and kept diaries on how I felt from them because I don’t believe aromatherapy books until I experience how an essence affects me. After a few hours of sniffing a scent strip, the essences will tell you who they want to mingle with. That was the start, and I spent a few years doing that. Amazingly, Christopher of White Lotus Aromatics lived across the street from me and would let me sniff to my heart’s content from his collection of natural essences. He was busy working and shipping and would put a little coffee absolute on my wrist (it was 8 a.m., for goodness sake!) and it woke me up and I would just sniff and write in my diaries. This taught me what was real or synthetic, a good or poor distillation, and I got to know what I wanted to use in my own perfumes. I learned I loved so many natural essences, like the jasmines, orange blossom, osmanthus, boronia, and lots more! Of course, I went nuts on all of the roses, but I also learned the difference between ottos, absolutes, CO2’s, phytols, and the terroir, or somewhereness, that describes how a rose from India, Turkey, or France can be very different. An example would be that high mountain lavender from Kashmir is very floral, as opposed to others that smell more medicinal. Every year the distillations vary because of rainfall and climate. Climate change is affecting all of the growers too. It’s tragic and we need to get our acts together fast.
Most of all, I’m inspired by the natural world and that’s where it all comes from. That’s why I choose naturals, and no isolates.
MM: Over the past few months, I’ve often switched between Pangolin Violette Rose and your earlier Bed of Roses, which is comparably warmer. While PVR has an erotic darkness to it, Bed of Roses is possessed of a dark fruity base that waltzes through festive boozy notes. What are the ways you distinguish them?
LS: I agree, they are very different perfumes. When I made Bed of Roses, which was the name of my flower business, I wanted to create a new rose. To do that, I blended a rose accord from nine of my rose distillations. It was very complicated because some roses took over through the blend and others got lost! I spent months trying to hear them all so no one took over. I love rose phytol, but it grabs the mic and won’t let go! I also wanted this new rose to be deep, not light and airy. My favorite garden roses are super stinky and I wanted a heaviness like that. I used absolutes and ottos of Moroccan Rose, Rose de Mai, Turkish Rose, Indian Rose, Persian Rose, Rose Edward, Musk rose phytol, Rose CO2, and a rare rose leaf. I was also experimenting with different base accords and came up with the caramel accord, but it wasn’t perfect with this perfume. I used it later in my Fleur de Caramel perfume. I love oakwood absolute and that seemed to ground it with a boozy scent, along with cognac, tobacco, and even Agarwood. There are 75 materials in Bed of Roses and 5 different accords! I wanted this accord to have all of the ranges that a rose has, from light to heavy, and sugar sweet to a deep honey caramel.
In Pangolin Violette Rose, I wanted the violet and iris to come through and needed to figure out how to get some of the notes that were not available in naturals.
MM: You work exclusively with natural perfumery, which is noble, impressive, and no doubt challenging. Many fragrances in even historical perfumes have been synthetically constructed because there’s no reliable means of extracting from any number of flowers and other prized references in perfumery. For PVR you developed an effective, roundabout approach to a candied violet accord that begins with blush-inducing jasmine before giving way to a brilliant carnation and eventually settling into violet leaf and a little bit of oak moss that keeps things cooled down in that dark purple way. Without divulging trade secrets, I wondered if you could talk to me a bit about how you approach developing these kinds of fantastical substitutions.
LS: There are many flowers that you can’t coax a scent from. And it is a challenge to try to replicate them. There is no violet flower essence. There is only violet leaf, which is green and dreamy. And it is extremely demanding to work with. Orris is also very challenging. Rose is my best friend, and it creates a bridge. When I wanted a candied top note, I experimented with jasmine sambac and carnation absolute, as they both have a candied richness, but I didn’t want a fruity top note to take away from that. That’s where it’s good to know the rules and break them when you need to.
Making a perfume usually take six months to a year or more from start to finish. That includes my scent cards, art, and marketing. But I had to speed things up a bit, so instead of my usual go into the zone method of intuition only, letting the puzzle pieces flow into my head as I construct the perfume, I experimented with tons of accords. I have a drawer of hundreds of them from when I was teaching myself. I used more of a left-brain approach, like the Jean Carles method. That stretched me big time, and took me back to when I was just starting to learn about accords. And I actually hadn’t made a perfume working on a deadline before! So, it was great to use all of these aspects together and I saw that the solid and alcohol-based perfumes were going in different directions and I liked that!
MM: A velvety cushion of orris plays an important role here too.
LS: Oh my goodness, I LOVE orris! I have the concrete and absolute and it’s so yummy and we know it puffs a powdery fluff on everything, especially in the dry down. It’s actually very cocoa to me, with some raspberry notes along with earthy, rooty notes.
MM: Many gallery visitors noted the subtle but clear differences between the liquid and solid versions of the perfume. I’m very glad to be able to live with both! They’re formulated a bit differently, yes? I find my solid version silky, smooth, and a bit gentle, whereas the liquid is intoxicating, a bit earthier, and characterized by a richness where all the flowers seem to linger in a full bouquet rather than the lyrical succession they parade through in the solid.
LS: I liked the way they evolved differently as I was blending them. And I think that is the magic of perfumery. There is a point where you need to let the materials do their own thing and honor that they have a life of their own. I think the individual notes come through much more in the solid perfume. It’s the nature of solid perfumes. But in organic alcohol-based perfumes, I can get much more complex. The base for the perfume is a 20-year aged Tahitian vanilla bean in biodynamic alcohol that I had been saving for 20 years. I think it added the perfect richness. Adding these layers of in-house tinctures really enhance the overall effect. I always formulate my perfumes in tinctured organic alcohols. I make them with so many things, frankincense, my garden roses, gardenias, scented geraniums, Irish mosses, I have about 40 of them.
You have to let the flowers express themselves. Oak moss really married well with the solid perfume and enhanced it with a mossy smoothness. It didn’t work as well with the alcohol-based perfume.
MM: I want to ask you about packaging. It’s such a considered aspect of your brand. Some bottles are historically sourced. Some solid perfume lockets are fabricated in collaborations you’ve made with artisans. And everything is ornamented with festoons of ribbons, vintage millinery accoutrement, paper goods, custom printed sachets, and lots of other details to explore. Can you tell us about your approaches to these vehicles for your perfumes?
LS: I’m a packaging freakazoid! Physically and metaphorically, I never throw anything away. My first career was making one-of-a kind camisoles and lingerie with antique laces and vintage style beadwork that I sold at fairs and eventually at Bendel’s in New York City. They used to have an artists’ day where you could come in and a buyer would see you and you could sell out of a suitcase! I would bring my great aunt’s brocade suitcase and the people at Bendel’s were wonderful! They always paid on time and with much respect. I still remember a camisole that I sold there… it was a pale pink silk charmeuse with a beaded kitty playing with a ball of yarn. I used tiny pink and silver beads from a damaged antique beaded bag to create that camisole, and I still miss it!
Then I became a wedding florist. I started out having a modest stand on the street in Berkeley, and it grew exponentially to where I just did wedding flowers. That was where I could be most creative and have a budget to do so. I loved ribbons and lace so these materials naturally became a part of my work as a wedding florist. My business was very successful, but it was also super stressful! It wasn’t the brides—I loved them! I enjoyed my brief, intimate interactions with them and making their dreams real. But waking up at 2 a.m. to purchase flowers took its toll, plus the arranging and making deliveries and setting up. Eighty-hour weeks were the norm. I was sitting in my hot tub one night and I knew I needed to stop—the stress was getting to be too much. I had saved a little money, so I decided to take a few years off to see what was next in my creative life.
When I discovered the world of perfumery, I merged all of my previous careers. I combined a love of flea markets, antiques, ribbons, laces, flowers, corsages—and most of all, kitties! I had a period of around three years at the beginning when I experimented endlessly making accords and perfumes and keeping a diary of hundreds of scents and how they made me feel. Those were the most delicious three years of my life! I researched the most beautiful bottles and used antiques for everything, from tinctures to infusions. So, as you can see, my business naturally evolved from sourcing the prettiest things that I could find and decorating them in a way that delighted me. I gave away my scented art creations to friends and family and then Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery was born!
MM: Would you want to tell us more specifics about the packaging of the different versions of Pangolin Violette Rose?
LS: Now that was some fun! Here is my mantra: I have everything that I need to make what I want. Years of collecting what amused and delighted me has been a good thing, because by now (I just turned 65), I have a fabulous stash of ribbons, containers, vintage flowers and leaves, assorted compacts and other silly beautiful things. I had exactly enough purple hat boxes, and I thought that would be fun to use them because you are such a hat maker extraordinaire! And I had lots of vintage velvet flowers and I was seeing in the fashion magazines that men and women were wearing them again now. And I had the purrfect little kitties to add to them. When my sister got married, I added vintage kitty ephemera to her bridal bouquet and I remembered that. We both loved cats and she supported any crazy idea I had. And I had a limited amount of the violet porcelain boxes that I purchased 20 years ago, and a stash of my custom jewel boxes. I sewed many of the rhinestone velvet pouches a while ago and they were just waiting for Pangolin Violette Rose solid perfumes.
Yes, I am a serious pack rat! I bought the little purple lemurs that adorn the collector’s edition of Luminous Lemurs in Chinatown 35 years ago, and my husband Gary just shook his head at me. It turned out they were the perfect purchase! I say trust your instincts, and don’t be intimidated into not indulging in something that you love, no matter how silly!
MM: As I’ve been learning more of your portfolio of fragrances, I’ve so enjoyed finding places where your love of history and antiquity appears in the formulations as well. Moonlight, for example, is transportive to a very specific kind of vintage fantasy that I love to live in. What are some of your vintage inspirations in perfumery? Are there specific historical scents that have made indelible impressions on you?
LS: I had no outside influences when I started this creative journey. I took a simple introductory class in natural perfumery, and I disagreed publicly when I learned that perfumers were using animal musks in their products and not disclosing that to people. I have been an animal rights advocate my entire life and I would definitely want to know if there was an animal musk in something I was wearing. I was ostracized for my views, and shortly after, I made the choice to study on my own. I trusted my intuition, read perfume books from antiquity and bought antique perfumes from the flea market. And I connected my previous businesses and love of Victoriana into this new and beautiful art I had discovered. I lived in another world and time and was able to create my own style of very rich, floral perfumes. A few years ago when my husband and I went to France we visited the Osmotheque, and I was so excited to smell many of the vintage perfumes that informed me along my journey. I experienced vintage Iris Gris and Diorissimo and more. The Osmotheque has my Fleur de Caramel, by the way!
When I formulated Moonlight, I wanted to just go crazy on rich florals. I love the jasmines, carnations, and ylangs, and I wanted to surrender to the richness and intoxicate myself! If it worked for others, that would be wonderful! Vintage perfumes are usually really floral and rich, and that’s what I love! I also love making solid perfumes. They seem more playful to me, and I don’t need the months of exacting formulating. I use beeswax from our bees, and I love to apply the solids. Plus, there are so many cute pots I can use for them!
In ancient Egypt, perfumes were made as unguents with beeswax. The hieroglyph of Bast (the Egyptian cat headed goddess) translates to “she of the unguent jar!” The ancient goddess of perfume was a cat! Doesn’t it all make sense now?
MM: Laurie, occasionally in our conversations you use ‘bonbon’ as an adjective and I just love it. The way you use it takes on more than just a reference to little candies; it’s almost like a lifestyle—adjacent to rococo or decadence. Could you tell me about ‘bonbon’ in relation to your overall Purrfumery endeavors? And in relation to Pangolin Violette Rose?
LS: What’s there not to like about a chocolate bonbon? A little treat for your senses in an exciting wrapper! I see perfume as a bonbon—a decadent treat. I did want there to be a dusting of cocoa in Pangolin Violette Rose to add to the overall treat factor.
I loved making my Kittylicious Black Cat perfume because it seemed ridiculous if I didn’t do one for Halloween. It took all of about 5 minutes because it was obvious it would have cocoa, vanilla, aniseed myrtle for some licorice, blood orange and fruity ylang ylang. The perfect bonbon to elevate Halloween!
I love Rococo, especially in Mexican architecture and in Antigua, Guatemala. It’s a rustic Rococo, and that suits me fine. When we went to Versailles, France a few years ago, we only visited the gardens and the Queen’s Hamlet, the fake rustic village, because that was more interesting to me. There is a pigeonerie there and I had to see that, as I love pigeons. I have a Victorian aviary for rescued pigeons, just a few steps away from the Purrfumery.
MM: I know that animal conservation and protection has been a long time passion for you. Was Luminous Lemurs the first perfume dedicated to fundraising a portion of sales to be donated to environmentalist efforts?
LS: Yes. I have always donated my perfumes for silent auctions to different animal rescue foundations, but in 2019 a dear friend brought me some gorgeous ylang ylang from Noisy Be, an island near Madagascar and asked if I would make a special perfume to help Dr. Patricia Wright of Centre ValBio and the lemurs living there. Then COVID hit and knowing how deforestation is the largest problem to the lemurs in Madagascar and other animals in the wild, I knew I wanted to do something in a bigger way. I knew I wanted to use materials that were indigenous to Madagascar, I was envisioning what the forest smelled like to the lemurs! There is nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, and of course ylang ylang. There’s more and that’s perfumery. I researched lemurs and I read that the males exude a fruity floral smell from their wrists and rub it on their tails and waft it to attract females! Isn’t that perfect? Luminous Lemurs is a fruity floral! So, thank you folks, as this perfume has enabled me to send support to the lemurs! They need it, especially now, and Centre ValBio is helping communities in Madagascar to survive by planting vanilla and other crops. They also opened a health clinic there for surrounding villages.
I have always been interested in helping animals. Over 20 years ago when I took that introductory perfume class, I learned that animal musks were being used to fix and add an animalic note. I wanted to learn more and started to research it, and I said perfumers should at the least be transparent about using them. I was ostracized for speaking out, but the silver lining was that I went on to teach myself and it was the most creative and satisfying time of my life. To mix and match endlessly and decorate little bottles and source materials and of course to be studying all of the materials at Christopher’s. My own world, and as Gary calls it, “the Laurie World!” So being in meditative isolation was pretty magical.
I have spent years researching the hell out animal musks. In “Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin.” I have a manifesto on my website with my research. My dream is to make retirement homes that can protect civets. I don’t fully know how to do that, but it led me to learn much more about conservation so I could be part of a solution. Ideally, I see civet retirement homes in a large sanctuary compound where they can press their butts against trees and bushes and their excretions could be gathered up at no painful cost to the civets. Investment in local women’s cooperatives could facilitate the building and collecting. The civet musk could be sold to help support villages with a sustainable method. I would love it if perfumers stopped using it, but I don’t see that happening yet. Civet retirement homes would at least be progress. I also have an artist friend who helped animals in Africa and had a rescued pet civet. She told me how adorable and fantastic he was, and he played with her cats all the time! To capture an animal from the wild and subject it to what captive civet cats go through is unacceptable. We need to find a way to help them.
MM: The sweet little pangolin looks like a Pokemon cartoon character. And the poor dears are much maligned, aren’t they? Illegally traded for all sorts of reasons, and then last year hypothesized as one of the animal species that passed COVID-19 along to Chinese populations. They can’t seem to catch a break, so it appears to be very timely to be devising ways to direct aid to the pangolins.
LS: I know, they are so adorable! When I heard that COVID most probably started from bats to pangolins I knew what I needed to do next.
Pangolins are native to Asia and Africa, and they are among the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world, poached for their scales and meat. Now, they are in danger of extinction, and they need our help.
I knew about pangolins from going to the World Conservation Expo in San Francisco for many years. I love learning about endangered species and the creative people who help them. And you have to be creative to approach communities to help everyone see the value in conservation. Most importantly, communities must take ownership for it to really help themselves and the animals. I heard about the Pangolin Crises Fund, and they raise money and pay for projects that are working to stop pangolin poaching, reduce demand for their meat and scales, and raise awareness about their plight. I also like that they send 100 percent of their donations directly to the field without taking overhead.
My husband and I went to Kenya a few years ago—it was so important for me to see wild animals in their home. It affected me profoundly and I learned so much. Over 20 years ago, I read Cynthia Moss’s book about the elephants in Amboseli and we went there! I cried and cried when I saw her little hut and desk! She is the one who researched them, gave them names, and learned that they were matriarchal and mourn their dead. When she comes back there the elephants know and waltz through the bush where she is! We went with a leading conservationist and other conservationists, and it was the trip of a lifetime. We also visited Lewa Conservancy, a model for conservation in Africa. Anthony Bourdain visited it on one of his last shows and even he is teary eyed on his visit there. They work with local communities and are helping keep the rhino from extinction.
MM: With Luminous Lemurs there’s a direct connection between the dominant vanilla and ylang ylang notes with Madagascar and the lemurs there. I suspect the ways you relate the pangolin to these romantic, yummy, cosmetic notes is more associative?
LS: I was thinking of pangolins, and how cute they are, and so utterly defenseless and how they roll into a ball when threatened. I think of roses as being so rich and gorgeous, but they are about vulnerability too, protected by thorns. And we have lots of violets in our garden, and you have to really look for them under the leaves. Pangolins are solitary and secretive and rare to find, and they scent mark too. I think violets are secretive too, you have to know the leaves and where to look. And irises! We have them in our garden and I LOVE orris! Very rare and super expensive! Iris has a signature of being very protective. They have petals that rise up and protect the fuzzy insides where they get pollinated. I have an interest in botany and studying flowers. I sit in the garden and try to feel what they can be about emotionally. So that’s the beginning of Pangolin Violette Rose!
MM: Once we got to finalizing the artists and artworks in The Red Wedding, I was struck by a contingency of strong women artists working on the West Coast who brought so much to the exhibition, many of whom are from a similar age range and generation: you; Dorrie Lane, originator of the Wondrous Vulva Puppet; artists and environmentalists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens; Vaginal Davis, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles until recently relocating to Berlin; and the performance artist Barbara T. Smith, who is a bit older than y’all, but working in many of the same traditions of empowering women and working for a more compassionate world. I wonder what you make of such a group of super sheroes? Do you see a shared legacy in your efforts that traverses artistic mediums and milieu?
LS: Definitely! They are all super sheros! Fully expressing who they are and sharing their exuberant art in such a courageous, and beautiful way!
I loved Dorrie Lane’s vulva puppets in the show! They were outrageously beautiful! Satin rosy ruffled lushishness. I see a pussycat bed…
Living in the Bay Area, I’ve heard about Annie and Beth—they are hilarious and deeply earnest about their love for pleasure, the planet, and its water in particular! Their work for The Red Wedding was both beautiful and funny.
I’m new to Vaginal Davis and Barbara T. Smith. I read that Vaginal Davis uses makeup, perfume, eyeshadows and much more in her paintings, and her paintings are really beautiful. They must smell interesting too! I need to read up on Barbara T. Smith. I could see the trappings of femininity and feminism bursting through her work.
All of the artists’ work in The Red Wedding spoke to me. I’m amazed that you put me in such company! It was mesmerizing to see such a feminine, gorgeous show that was so powerfully feminist, strong, and thought-provoking about gender and its assumptions. Everyone destroying the expectations and fully realizing their whole and true self. Self-actualization and self-love come through as themes for me throughout the show while you bathe in the comfort of soft rosy pinkness, flowers and scent.
The thread I see connecting our work is in taking risks with our art to delight, and also to question and be the change we want to see in the world. Helping marginalized people is so important! You have to be brave. I see my work as very feminine but I’m also vigilant in my desire to help animals, protect them, and stop their suffering. I love making kitty tiaras and tutus, but I’m badass when I see an animal being mistreated. It’s why I want to educate, find a solution and see perfumers shift away from animal musks. It has no place in honoring the natural world! I feel the same way about fighting prejudice, and support that fight in myriad ways, but I focus on helping animals now. I will keep trying as Velvet & Sweet Pea were both lab animals. That’s why we are cruelty-free and Leaping Bunny certified. From that lab, those two cats moved on and started an internet-based perfume company! It’s all about transformation.
Speaking of marginalized, I have an aviary of injured rescue pigeons. An injured pigeon walked through my cat door with a broken wing 7 years ago and I took it to WildCare, a wildlife rehabilitation center that I volunteered at many years ago. They fixed him up and he met a mate in their group aviary, so I brought them home and we built them an aviary! People have no idea how funny and wonderful they are! I got another couple from our local Palomacy Pigeon and Dove Rescue (who knew!). We could fit four in the aviary, so we helped another pigeon couple.
MM: Your approach to every aspect of your Purrfumery is distinctive—aesthetics, value system, unparalleled quality of materials, and the great relish that perfumer collectors experience when they receive a package from you. I’ve found that you make perfumes to heal, to relax, to rejuvenate, to recover from grief, to get involved with the rumblings of our planet and the other living creatures with whom we share it. In closing, I wanted to ask you about learning to trust your own instincts, having the courage to put such articulated visions out into the world. And, really, I think these are questions about self-love as well. What are the lessons in loving and trusting yourself that have been integral to building this magical world that you’ve created?
LS: That’s a big one! It’s been a long road. Actually, that’s what my Highway perfume is all about! When I started making Highway, I wanted to challenge myself to make a perfume where I wasn’t using all of my favorite materials and accords. I wanted to stretch myself beyond everything that I was comfortable with and knew. So, no sandalwood! And I wanted to use labdanum, but I wanted it to be a light touch and not take over the whole thing as it always tends to do. I also wanted to incorporate some difficult essences, like black currant bud, which needs a lot of dilution. After about 5 or 6 months, it seemed impossible. I actually thought I may not be able to complete it. I had a huge loss of confidence because I love this work and I hoped that I wasn’t losing my skills. I just kept at it and finally got there, and I really love this perfume.
Highway is about being in uncomfortable places and not giving up, having faith in my path, and knowing I will find what I need just around the bend. It’s about trusting in my own spirit.
The scent card reads:
Inspired by the layers of the soul, this perfume is a blend of free-spirited materials, like ambery Labdanum and juicy black current bud, and evolves with incredible richness. Opening with citrusy hues of green mandarin, yuzu and black current bud, it finds its heart in floral notes of neroli and rose. This perfume finishes, woody and warm, in Labdanum’s healing embrace and dances among the contented heart notes that remain. Complex and diverse, this perfume is a mirror of the human spirit that maintains its strong, rich essence while constantly changing, evolving, and looking forward to the mysteries that lie ahead.
Perfumes have helped me heal. The intuitive nature of making them means you need to trust yourself implicitly, every step of the way, because no one but you and your nose can decide when you are finished. You are your own best teacher.
I know that having my wedding flower business influenced me so much too. It was so insanely stressful that I knew I needed to have a lot of fun with this new venture and incorporate everything that I love in it. I had already pulled off serious responsibility, making money and working my ass off. So I was ready to move on…
Having my own businesses since I was 20 years old required me to put myself out into the world. Showing up at craft shows, creating my flower stand, and letting my creativity flow through me, while also making a living were big challenges. I had to face my fears and stretch myself when I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. I learned as I went along, and I’m glad that I tried new things when I wanted to move on. I’ve learned that I just love to make things. But perfumery has been my favorite, because it’s so meditative and the essences make me feel so good!
As for self-love, I am finally doing just what I love, and it’s taken a long time to get here. At 65, and with everything going on in the world now, there is so much uncertainty. I am taking the time to rest and rejuvenate because we need to have the resilience to adapt and constantly hold it all.
I am very grateful to know you, Matt. You are Eric have brought so much richness to my life. You are so kind and lovely, besides being brilliant and hugely talented. You and Eric are true visionaries living and creating the world I want to live in! I deeply thank you. Bless your sweet hearts, as my Nana used to say!
This leaves me with so many questions I want to ask you! There is no one like you and I want to know how you have made your choices, as you are so brave and delightful, and you share that in your work, and you also bring out the best in your collaborators. You’re not afraid of sharing and knowing that the whole can be better than the sum of its parts! Heart Matt Morris!
MM: My hugest thanks for sharing so many insights into your process and inspirations for perfume, Laurie. I can’t wait for our readers to get to smell Pangolin Violette Rose.