In Part 1, Joseph Quartana explained the story behind each of the nine scents in his Les Potions Fatales collection. In the following interview, the Six Scents and Parfums Quartana founder discusses the deeply personal process behind his latest range of fragrances and redefining gender in perfume.
First off, how is Les Potions Fatales different from your previous projects like Six Scents?
This is the first time I’ve explored a singular concept in perfumery. All of the Six Scents were of collaborative nature and about trying to get the designer’s unique vision across. I spent a lot of time selecting those specific designers because I felt like they have interesting visions. They were all influential enough in the industry that they should have a fragrance but are not necessarily big enough to do so. That was the whole sort of spiel.
Six Scents also built on your background in fashion.
Absolutely. I was a buyer for 14 years so that was a logical extension of the work I was doing already, just more curatorial.
So how did that shift from a collection like that to Les Potions Fatales happen?
I was actually going to relaunch the best sellers of Six Scents, this was in late 2013, but at the time my business partner and I decided to go in separate directions. I had just closed my shop, Seven New York due to a landlord dispute/nightmare, and Six Scents was suddenly penniless after our “divorce” so I was at a crossroads. In short, I lost 15 years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars, so I was really angry. This whole collection was a catharsis of all the venom that had built up. So it comes from a real place. After I finished the collection I felt so much better. I got it out.
Each fragrance has a dedicated perfumer with their own signature style. How were you able to keep the common thread flowing throughout the collection?
I told them two things: first the guiding principle behind the development of this is the notion of the femme fatale. Beautiful but deadly, just like a poison flower. It’s deceptive. That’s really what we were going for from the packaging to the films to the formulas. Secondly, I told them to think about gasoline — which is sweet smelling but you know it’s toxic — so that they didn’t waver too far from the original concept. That’s how I held it together.
From a merchandising perspective they’re all going in different directions. We did this on purpose, we didn’t want there to be any overlap. It became obvious what they were going to be once we looked over all the folklore and had this holistic picture of it. For example, Bloodflower should be a gourmand, Venetian Belladonna is a fruity floral, Digitalis is a green, spicy aromatic. They fell into line in that way, it was a happy accident. We did a lot of field testing with both random people and creative professionals. I didn’t want to hear that it smelled like something else out there. If we got that feedback, we had to go back to the drawing board and pivot it.
Fragrance itself is about deception in a way, because what you smell in the beginning is not what you smell at the end.
Absolutely. It’s not necessarily what we think it is. Another thing: perfumers traditionally were also the poison makers in the royal courts. So historically there’s always been a huge connection between the two crafts. David Apel, who did Digitalis, was fascinated by that concept. It’s so fundamentally rooted in the history of perfumery and yet no one has done it. It’s been staring at us in the face, so much so that we didn’t see it.
In terms of gender assignment, some of the scents have a femme fatale and others a more unisex character.
Well, there’s the flip side of the femme fatale concept and that’s the metrosexual movement, men being held to the same beauty standards as women. It’s a pretty recent phenomenon, this didn’t happen in the 1950s. So our men’s scents are pretty “boys”. The folklore ultimately dictated what the gender would be though. All of them are unisex except Venetian Belladonna and Midnight Datura, which are definitely more on the feminine side.
It’s interesting that a lot of them are unisex because floral scents were traditionally seen as more feminine. Obviously there has been a shift with that.
Well, in this case just because they are based on flowers, doesn’t make them necessarily floral; it’s the folklore we interpreted. But yeah, commercially it’s been a huge hang-up for men to wear a floral but it’s been changing. With this whole collection I wanted to make it dark and romantic. Perfumery lends itself to that concept so naturally, right?
Usually with flowers, there’s this idea of them being a delicate object which has a vulnerability to it.
At the same time they have a wicked power to seduce and, in the case of these, to literally kill. That’s a serious power. I look at them as strong. As a male I will be the first to admit that these are feminist and female empowering.
From the films to the packaging, it’s all one unified concept.
Nothing is arbitrary. This is the result of me really meditating for hundreds of hours on the folklore and visual symbolism. Me sitting in my local bar every night until four in the morning staring into the bottom of my wine glass and jotting stuff down. It just came alive, I don’t know how else to put it. The packaging is an extension of all the research. The sleeve is symbolic of the hallucinations you get from being poisoned with the flowers. The colors were selected through a blindfold test. I had people smell the fragrance without knowing anything about it, and asked them what the first three colors were that came to mind. I wanted them (the boxes) to look like they smelled, sort of a synesthesia effect. The box front badge design is supposed to be a combination lock. We were inspired by Hellraiser. In the film there’s this mystery box which is where the demons come from, it’s a Pandora’s box of sorts. and we chose a blue amethyst inspired vessel because that was what the ancient Greeks used to hold their poisons. You’ve got multiple layers to the unveiling of the experience, like an onion.
Throughout the three years of creating the line, what’s been the most fascinating thing that you’ve learned?
For me personally, that I can actually see a project through with this degree of scope, from start to finish. I’ve surprised myself. I’ve never worked on something this long in my life, this was a fucking journey [laughs]. I would liken the whole process to writing an album with nine different songs. I was reading up biographies on Depeche Mode and followed a lot of how they went from one album to the next. What I was setting out to create with this collection was cult items. I didn’t expect them to be successful in the beginning, but instead and hopefully 10 years down the road. And that’s just like the Depeche Mode albums, when they first came out they were hated, except by the most avant-garde people. You should see the early reviews, they’re so scathing. They stuck to their guns, didn’t listen to critical reactions and their fan base just snowballed from there on out.
In a way, it’s good if a fragrance is polarizing. I would rather have something that gets love or hate reactions than just the average, middle ground.
Absolutely. That middle ground is the worst insult. I really prefer a scent which elicits a reaction. It’s like effective art in that way. You might not like it, but does it strike you? Do you learn something about yourself, does it have a jarring effect, does it stop you in your tracks? That’s the power of a good fragrance, and I’m all for it.
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