Stephen Dirkes of Euphorium Brooklyn on crafting scentscapes and olfactory deconstruction

Founded by Stephen Dirkes in 2015, Euphorium Brooklyn has already garnered a cult following for its deep, multi-faceted and no-holds-barred scents. A creative polymath with a background in music composition and film production, Dirkes has applied his love of fragrance to art installations, multi media projects and teaching the Perfumer’s Library perfumery program at FlowerSchool New York.
The brand’s concept stems from his stop-motion film project, Euphorium Bile Works, which depicts the story of an 1860s Brooklyn fragrance factory focused on transcendental sensualism run by Etienne Chevreuil, Dr. Christian Rosenkreuz and Rudolph Komodo. Dirkes’ meticulous attention to detail sees the narrative for every fragrance release interconnect with all three creators.
The scents themselves retain an ode to classic perfumery while still being wearable enough for a daily, offbeat olfactory experience. Creations include USAR, an Indonesian vetiver-inspired fragrance with lime, ginger, and agarwood accents; CHOCOLATL, a hedonistic cocoa, clove and coffee creation; and WALD, a beautifully realistic forest scent comprised of smoky fir, cedar, juniper and damp earth notes.
Dirkes found his inspiration for the brand’s recent release, BUTTERFLY, at the New Town Creek waterfront in Greenpoint. The result is a fougere scent comprised of the olfactory plants that sustain butterfly life — violet, lilac, lavender, mint, sage and moss to name a few. The corresponding special edition kit, comprised of an 8ml EdP decant and curated seed packet, combines both sustainability and scent in one.
In the following interview, Dirkes discusses the process behind his newest fragrance, creative cross-pollination and constructing an idiosyncratic olfactive aesthetic.
What made you want to structure Euphorium Brooklyn around the work of three fictional perfumers as opposed to the traditional route?
The Euphorium Brooklyn perfume house, its perfumers, and the fragrances in the collection are all aspects of story telling and are all telling the same story. I became a perfumer to specifically tell the Euphorium Brooklyn story and that research evolved into a life of its own. I can’t really say that there was much of a choice on my part, as I had no intention of setting up a perfume house in any other way. I love perfumery and the history of its materials, but beyond that, I’m not so interested in commercial perfumes or the business structures of contemporary fashion/beauty brands.
As someone who also works as an artist, teacher and musician, what in your eyes is the role of today’s perfumer — storyteller, educator, olfactory chemist or something else?
Speaking in regards to the current trend of perfumer-driven niche houses, what is new and important is that the perfumer becomes more creative by controlling the narrative. Perfumery becomes more artful, in that it is the perfumer who is deciding both what to express and how to express it. These creative expressions are brought to market and noses around the world get to vote on what becomes successful.
When the perfumer embraces the creative responsibility from beginning to end as an individual creative voice, it becomes much more possible to create original work. That isn’t the case for a corporate perfumer executing a brief within a traditional structure of a client marketing team, brand managers, fragrance developers, assistants, etc. Traditional fragrance industry structures bring a scent to market in a manner much more similar to creating a breakfast cereal than an artwork and corporate perfumers are often placed in the role of specialty chemist.
Not only is the perfumer’s creative and artistic role of storyteller made possible by niche perfume houses, it serves to motivate and reward more and more idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, and unique stories being told. Consumer expectations of the perfumer’s creative role rises and the art form of perfumery begins to drive all sectors of the market, from hobbyist to independent and corporate perfume houses.
Your latest fragrance, BUTTERFLY, has a much more lightweight and playful palette compared to some of your earlier fragrances. In an interview you once said that you embrace the idea of working with things that take you out of your comfort zone. How did the work on BUTTERFLY fit into this mantra, and also into the pre-existing catalogue of perfumes?
Composing BUTTERFLY EdP, I wanted to explore the same Euphorium Brooklyn conceptual ethos with a lighter olfactive palette. Similar to all of the other Euphorium Brooklyn fragrances by it being a manifestation of the personal history of the perfumer, BUTTERFLY also refers to the botanical or natural history of an environmental landscape.
I often present multiple, widely varied scents simultaneously to obligate the smeller to analyze or deconstruct what’s going on and did not want to shy away from the complexity of the preceding Euphorium Brooklyn fragrances. Complexity can often lead to density and it was a challenge to create several micro-transitions within a note or cluster of similar notes over short spans of time with the added challenge of maintaining the clarity required to make a lighter, brighter summer accord.
While conceptually remaining true to form, I did force myself out of my ‘comfort zone’ to attempt to overcome some technical challenges and personal issues. Although early curation of fragrance notes as per butterfly habitat led to an inspiring and varied fragrant palette of mint, floral, and aquatic notes, these are also some of the most difficult families of scent for me to embrace. It became an interesting challenge to ‘make sense’ of these scents.
It was very important for me to launch the BUTTERFLY SET to take both conceptual and practical aspects of that fragrance to its full circle conclusion by pairing the fragrance with a seed packet. It is a positive fulfillment of the first inspiration for the Eau de Parfum to become an environmental call to action.
You previously stated that materials are often overlooked in favor of the narrative in fragrance. How do you strike the balance between those two factors?
I don’t really see it as a balance, in that the stories and the materials are totally integrated. The stories are often about the materials themselves and reflect the histories and origins of the characters. I involve the personal history of the characters and their regional origins to inform both the choice of perfumery materials used and the stories behind the fragrances. I can’t get into something without a concept, it’s just bad art-making. If I’m not trying to do some art-making, what’s the point?
How do all eight scents work together to express the ideology of Euphorium Brooklyn?
Euphorium Brooklyn has a very clearly defined olfactive aesthetic and each one of the eight fragrances adds to the richness of that aesthetic while further defining it. Each scent makes a bold statement in terms of the richness, complexity, and density of the accord. The fragrances all reference a geo-specific or environment scentscape that further unites them expressing the Euphorium Brooklyn story. I involve the personal history of the characters and their regional origins to inform both the choice of perfumery materials used and the stories behind the fragrances.
I evolve each fragrance by using a combination of natural materials and single molecules in dense clusters to achieve fragrant and durational effects throughout the collection. I employ high quality natural materials to emphasize the raw, pure, and powerful sensation of smelling them straight from the source. As the characters had very influential pursuits and areas of study outside of perfumery, I wanted all of the scents to also express the conceptual, mystic, scientific, sensual and euphoric aspects of the perfumer’s interests.
As a self taught perfumer, what figures and creative movements have had the most profound influence on your work?
I began my interest in perfumery with the specific terms of fragrance functioning within the context of multi media storytelling. I began my music studies with 19th century operatic composers and the conceit of a ‘total art’ in which the vision of a singular voice would take overall creative responsibility and have, in one way or another, continued to explore that notion.
You admire Harry Partch for his “determined pursuit of creative vision at all costs”. What have been the biggest hardships you faced building Euphorium Brooklyn?
I don’t think that I’ve suffered any hardships with Euphorium Brooklyn. Difficulties, set backs, & challenges yes… Harry Partch is admirable in that his creative vision was unstoppable and he rolled up his sleeves and made the instruments he needed, taught musicians to play them and was able to further his work with a certain amount of dogged self-reliance and convection.
Euphorium Brooklyn has been a creative joy for me to evolve. Commercially there is tons of room for improvement, but my focus has really been on the creative aspects of the brand. I’m a pretty self-motivated beaver and am happy to push my choo-choo train up the hill when required. That being said, I’ve been so overwhelmed that people out there are into it and Euphorium Brooklyn has a mini fanbase in the niche corner of niche. I am so happy to have only worked with really supportive retail partners and have gotten generous feedback and advice from fragrance industry mentors.
Having just started teaching the Perfumer’s Library perfumery program at FlowerSchool New York, what are the biggest misconceptions people have about creating scents?
I am obsessed by fragrance and love to interact with people about it. Teaching students and creating the Perfumer’s Library perfumery program with FlowerSchool New York gives me fantastic feedback from a wide variety of people. I’m always impressed by how instinctively people explore making scent when provided with the materials, tools, and techniques to get going. Even within the already interested community of people I interact with in New York City’s fragrance world, I think most people underestimate how fun and rewarding trying it for yourself can be. One common misconception about perfumery I hear is the general idea that ‘naturals’ are safer than molecules, which is untrue.
Since you apply your love of olfactory pursuits to many different projects, how do you see your body of work as opening up the limitations of the often insular world of niche fragrance?
Euphorium Brooklyn came to be as a perfume house and I’m interested to recognize and preserve its function as that. I don’t want to take away from the core story or force the story into other directions as the single repository for all the ways one can explore olfaction.
I have a long career of creating as a composer, film maker, and new media artist. Once developing some technical skill to express myself in olfactive terms, it was very natural to apply those skills outside of a perfume house context. I don’t feel as though I’m trying to “expand on the limitations of niche fragrance”. Olfactive art exhibitions, multi media collaborations, and events can have different objectives, explore different concepts and exist outside of the perfume house. There is a lot of cross-pollination and all work informs you. I am grateful that small successes with Euphorium Brooklyn allow me to take on projects outside of niche perfumery. I try to focus on education and study, fine art/olfactive art exhibitions, and collaborative events. This variety of endeavor maintains a high level of curiosity, excitement, and growth. The creative metabolism of a professional here in Brooklyn can be manic and that can fuel and inspire you to rise to the occasion.
Given your love of raw materials, what is your single favorite smell of all time and why?
Java vetiver! It’s a wonderful complex little forest of scent that ranges from bright green tinselly aspects & warm amber tones to smoky leather & deep dark rooty notes. There’s also a great history and culture around it in Java. I really got to know and love vetiver when I lived there myself, but it has been a material that I’ve always loved at many different times in my life and many different locations.
What can Euphorium Brooklyn fans expect in the future?
So much going on! I’m composing music for a little ballet I’ll film at the end of the summer to tell perfumer Etienne Chevreuil’s story of the inspiration for BUTTERFLY EdP. I was so pleased with the new direction that BUTTERFLY took in terms of exploring lighter, brighter aesthetics and will continue in that direction for two more fragrances. I’m leaving NYC to do a residency at Santa Fe Art Institute to work on some olfactive/multi media installations and will have another gallery show here in New York this winter. This fall, The Perfumer’s Library perfumery program I put together for FlowerSchool New York starts up and I’ve created 8 classes, with each one centered on a different fragrance family.
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