James Heeley Discusses the Quest for Perfection in Perfume for A Shaded View On Fashion

Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,

If every fragrance can be considered a story, then James Heeley’s art of narration shines through as exceptionally modern and refreshingly clear. Sel Marin equates to an afternoon standing on the docks during a clear spring day, the salty sea spray refreshingly hitting the skin, while Cardinal cradles one in the spiritual sanctuary of a church, standing amongst the smooth mahogany wood benches and incense scented air.

With ten Eau de Parfum and three Extrait de Parfum scents currently produced under his independent fragrance brand Heeley, the England-born and Paris-based perfumer has established his own trademark of uncomplicated elegance, managing to even turn notes such as mint or tiger balm into highly refined products.

In the space of his flagship store, James Heeley sat down to express his thoughts on the perfume as art debate, the eternal search for the perfect fragrance and experimenting with scent outside of the perfume bottle.

What was the first perfume you ever wore?

The first perfume I ever wore, that I remember anyway, was Habit Rouge by Guerlain. I wasn’t actually sure I liked it, but was born in Yorkshire, and at the time there wasn’t a huge variety available. I was pretty young, in my early teens, and it was just the best I could find. Shortly around the same time, I discovered Cacharel Pour Homme, which came in a whisky bottle. I don’t like it as much as I used to, perfume changes over the years or you change but it’s difficult to know. I loved Eau de Rochas. I remember the black bottle and green, herbal scent. And then of course Eau Sauvage, that is always a classic for me, and Givenchy Pour Homme.

You once said that you have to be passionate to make a good fragrance. What is it that strikes your passion for perfume?

When you say passionate about perfume, it implies being very much concerned with getting the result that is in line with your expectations and designs. It’s like feeling your way in the dark. I really like smelling, creating, and putting things together to make a perfume. I’m more passionate about the process and creation.

Because there are so many infinite possibilities with that, aren’t there?

Yes, it’s like a journey into the unknown. For me, perfume is not based on a feeling, I see things in a very visual way. Scents create an image. They have texture and colour, create a certain amount of emotion or an aesthetic set of values that helps you dream, project, and move elsewhere. It’s a bit like daydreaming. I’ve always been a dreamer, thinking and imagining what a place is like or what people are like in a certain situation. Scent really helps you with that. It’s a very similar thought process.

It’s multi-dimensional like a dream, you start off somewhere and then towards the end it can go somewhere totally different.

It’s like images without seeing. For example, one of the first things I did which was quite naive I suppose, was to create a fig scent. I didn’t know that there were any on the market because I didn’t come to perfume as a perfumer. Everything I’ve done since leaving university has been as an autodidact. Perfume is like creating an olfactive image of, or an interpretation of, a scent or a moment. That scent doesn’t necessarily exist as an extract, there is no raw material that corresponds to that one scent so you have to build it using others. In a way, you are creating a landscape. You could close your eyes and imagine being in a certain place at a certain time or in a certain climate or in a certain mood.

Like by the sea [Sel Marin] or under a fig tree [Figuier].

Exactly, it’s quite geographic, contextual. 

You studied philosophy and aesthetics, how do you think does that shape your work?  You came to perfume through learning by doing, but I could imagine that sort of basis, even in some minuscule way, might filter through into what you do? 

It’s difficult say, but I know that studying, particularly something like philosophy, does structure your mind and gives you confidence in your ability to answer a question and get an answer when you know that there is no real answer to anything. That’s maybe what helped me make my own way in a creative world, because you’re not frightened of the unknown or going somewhere in the dark. I’m not sure if I’d read something which was really practical and very narrow, I would have had that same kind of confidence to do something as esoteric or as abstract as perfume, which is in fact very practical, but until you start doing it, you don’t know that it is. Just like cooking or music, it implies a technique, a knowledge of raw materials and then putting them together. It requires a certain creative sensitivity and skill. 

Speaking of cooking, if there was a meal that represented Heeley, what would it be?

It would be pretty vegetarian, lots of spring and green vegetables, something like a country salad. It’s funny that you say that because we were discussing rose yesterday and maybe doing an almost chocolate, dry, powdery rose kind of scent. I remember seeing a film in the 80s which I really found fantastic, Like Water for Chocolate, the whole idea, which I think is very much like food, is being able to express a feeling or a sensation through perfume. They’re almost using food like you would wear a scent. There is a very strong link between the two. 

Obviously there is a big perfumery tradition in Paris, but was there anything else about the city that inspired you to pursue perfume here?

I always wanted to do something creative and had a very traditional, educational background where anything arty wasn’t a real job. So I came to Paris just to take some time out. I had to get away to make my own mistakes and my own way. I never went back because I thought I can’t return to the UK until I’ve achieved something. At the end of the day, you can never really reach what you start out wanting to achieve, it’s just an ongoing process. You’re always on your way, waiting, trying to make something better. I never intended to set up a company and make perfume, it’s a bit of an accident really. It’s a will to do something creative and it ticked all the boxes for me. I tried a lot of different things when I came here. I worked as a graphic designer which was easy because there wasn’t the language barrier, then in product design, through which I discovered the world of perfume. I thought this is really interesting, I’d like to go further. Ten years on, I’m still doing it.

What was the idea behind doing your brand’s product designs? Was there a certain thing you wanted to express through the elegant simplicity of it? 

I always like things which are very simple, well-made, and discreet. In the beginning, my packaging was made of black blocks of foam which I’ve left behind, but the idea was that it should be recyclable and reusable. It was quite technical, just one block of foam with a band around it which was interchangeable, so I always had one basic unit because I didn’t have huge amounts of capital to produce packaging. It should also protect the bottle, the foam acts as a thermo insulator, plus once you finish it, it serves as a pen pot, vase or something like that. I’ve always had that design element and it is one of the reasons, apart from scent, that inspired me to do a perfume. Initially I saw it as just a little project. I designed for the florist Christian Tortu, who had a scent by Annick Goutal. I saw how perfumes were made and what went into them. I thought the packaging and graphic design I can do, the only thing I couldn’t do in fact was design the scent, but that was the big challenge. Perfume becomes like an apprenticeship. In order to create perfume you have to learn more and more about ingredients and how you put them together, it’s like learning a language. You can only start putting phrases together when you know a bit of vocabulary.

You recently had an exhibition at Joyce for which you created a lavender rug. Is going more of an art route anything you’d hope to do in the future?

I’ve always very much been interested in design and aesthetics. I never felt that I had the courage to create art, but with scent, it’s an inspiration. A marriage of putting scent together outside a perfume bottle opens up a huge amount of possibilities. Scent is so evocative and so related to how we perceive things that it’s an awakening when you can actually work with it to create art. It’s certainly a way of using scent out of its usual context which tends to be very confined. For example, that piece in Palais Royal was about perception. The idea was from a distance you have a square of lavender on the ground, from far away that could be one of many things. It looks like a grey rug, gravel paper or concrete, you’re not quite sure and in fact it’s before you get close enough to recognise what it’s made of that you can identify it because of the smell. It’s seeing with your nose, you are perceiving something through scent whereas you usually perceive everything through your eyes, or you think you do. It’s quite conceptual. The different codes that I like in design — simplicity and things being very direct — I found again in this installation. I thought it’s a fantastic way of experimenting with scent, imagine doing compositions, controlling the air flow around a piece and mixing the size of the square and the air mass going over a certain piece. Creating a perfume through objects is what happens in the countryside, you get a whiff of this and a whiff of something else and that creates an experience. It would be very interesting to work with that in any space.

In New York, a scent exhibition recently opened at the Museum of Arts & Design. I think it’s intriguing to see how that aspect of fragrances will develop.

It’s definitely interesting, but I’ve thought about it and I don’t really get it, is it an attempt to  categorise perfume through complying with art movements? It’s not because you can say this is a very minimalist perfume that it’s a piece of art. It just happens to go well with a certain piece of art, or works coherently with the period in which it was made, it’s a child of its time. Of course perfumes are always going to reflect tastes and eras like typeface, wallpaper or furniture does. But to go so far as to say perfume is art? If you create a classical rose scent tomorrow with a bit of a twist what does it make that, is that postmodern or impressionist or minimalist? It’s all a bit theoretical and might be interesting as an art historian, but it’s a bit bold to say perfume is art. To me, it’s almost like a recipe so it’s less piece of art than a piece of music. It’s not art with a big A for sure, it’s an applied art or creative. You can’t look back over the past ten years and say there was a definitive movement in perfume that means we can isolate all these types of perfumes and categorise them without referring to other art. Perfume is far too loose for that, there is nothing political or sociological about making it. It’s far more introverted and personal. 

What fragrances are you creating at the moment?

I’m working on something quite tropical and woody. It’s a difficult theme to work with, it’s kind of a coconut scent, which I’ve always loved but again should it be a perfume? You smell it in sun cream, but I’ve done perfume based on mint so… The coconut is achieved through bensoins, cedar wood, sandalwood, notes of amber and lactones which are kind of milky. I want it to have a slight green note, not too peachy or splitting. It should be really calm, with almost no top notes because that’s how I see coconut, maybe quite sandy as well, with some vetiver for a dry grass feel. I thought it would be good to give a beachy feel to it through coumarin and oak moss. The second scent I’m working on is another oud. Agarwoud ended up being quite a clean scent, not too strong. But in the trials I did, there was one more dark and  smoky version. I ended up liking it more and more. It’s not particularly commercial but I’d really like to push that side. 

Which one of the scents you have created is most like you and why?

You can’t really have one perfume that reflects or expresses a personality. We’re much more complicated and moody. But at the end of the day in most of the perfumes, I do aim to find a balance in terms of strength and concentration. Detail is also very important, I try to find something which is quite natural, balanced and elegant. I don’t like scents that are very overpowering. I prefer for them to be quite transparent, where you can smell the different ingredients and break them down, overall something not too complicated. I think I’ve still got to do it, an ideal scent, but it would be quite woody and green. I think more and more that I should try to do a definitive subject yet it’s so difficult with anything creative to stop. It’s frustrating not to have something that you could wear all the time, but maybe I never will, maybe it’s just a question of mood. That’s one of the things I like about scent, having an ideal and trying to reach it, having a sense of perfection. That’s why it’s nice being independent because you can have that real sense of pleasure with creating. If you’re forced to do it for somebody else, you don’t have that same sense of perfection because you can’t and it’s going to be compromised anyway. It’s about that struggle to get there but you never really do. It’s a way of getting rid of that creative energy. You could almost say it’s something semi religious, trying to reach Nirvana or some kind of mental state. Although it’s nice to smell things that give you pleasure, that’s only momentary. It’s the journey towards perfection that’s interesting, not getting there. 



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