Named after the year of the Salem witch trials and with fragrance monikers such as Wicked and I Saw Goody Proctor with the Devil, Sixteen92 clearly has a penchant for the supernatural spectacle. Founded by former opera singer, advertising creative director and fine art photographer Claire Baxter in 2014, the indie company won this year’s Art & Olfaction Award for Bruise Violet, a Babes in Toyland inspired scent with notes of red lipstick, iris and dusting powder.
The two newest collections are based on classic horror films (such as The Exorcist, Halloween and Poltergeist) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula respectively. Curious noses can expect to find intriguing compositions including sweet ozone, chrysanthemum and cracked porcelain (The House is Clean); jasmine tea, plum and black violets (Mina Harker); and black amber, opium and blood musk (Vlad Dracul).
But it’s not just the spooky side of things that this versatile, Fort-Worth based brand draws inspiration from, with other fragrance ranges influenced by the likes of 90s girl rock and Greek mythology figures. Other fascinating olfactory creations juxtapose the sweetness of kettle corn and spun sugar with the metallic undertones of machine oil and rusty metal (Shadow Show), or the moody notes of ocean air and damp moss with the juvenile saccharinity of saltwater taffy (The Awakening). In the following interview, Baxter discusses her obsession with the Wiccan world, striking the balance between artistic vision and wearability, and the yearlong struggle of capturing the smell of winter in the desert.
First off, what is your most poignant olfactive memory?
It’s not a single memory, but more of a collection of memories of fall throughout my childhood. Here in Texas we’re lucky to get about four weeks of real autumnal weather, so I have a little anthology of fond memories of raked leaves, pumpkin patches, new flannel sheets, marigold flowers, late harvests and the first wood fire of the season. That one morning each year when I walk outside and get the first flash of all of these scents together is something I look forward to every year, and it instantly takes me back to childhood.
Where does your fascination with history, lore and magic stem from?
About as soon as I could open books by myself I picked out compilations of ghost stories, urban legends and all of those stories that have been passed down for generations to get kids to behave. My grandmother had a collection of illustrated encyclopaedias, and the pages about vampires, ghosts and witches were read so much that I probably had them memorized for a time. I still have those books actually. When I was in the fourth grade I discovered the Salem witch trials. I did a big report on the history of witchcraft persecution, which caused a bit of an uproar with a couple of my teachers, I guess because it was considered ‘inappropriate’ for a ten year-old to be discussing ancient witch-hunting and torture practices. But, you know, I just thought it was all super interesting and didn’t think anyone would misinterpret my enthusiasm. The whole situation was a formative experience for me, and a lesson that sometimes people in power can be wrong — a bit of an allegory to the trials themselves, now that I think about it …
How would you describe the voice of Sixteen92?
Enchanting, curious, polished, and of course, a little bit weird.
How did your background in branding and photography help you develop your vision?
It was actually a pretty seamless evolution for me. To be frank, after years in the advertising industry I found myself exhausted by working on other people’s brands and decided to shift my focus towards something tangible of my own, under my own control and vision. I’ve always been an artist. I was always happiest working for myself on my own projects with only myself to answer to, and all of the challenges and thrills that brings. I have a love of business and brand management, and been fortunate to have seen firsthand — and learned from — the stories behind the successes and failures of brands I’ve worked with.
How did it feel to win the Art & Olfaction award for Bruise Violet?
Insane. I had no idea what to expect, and I had a panic attack when I got word that Bruise Violet was a finalist. I mean, I’m just a weird indie perfumer. I don’t have retail distribution. And my perfume is up there listed with all of these amazing works? I couldn’t wrap my head around it for a while, and still sort of can’t.
What has been the most difficult concept to materialize through scent?
There’s one that I’ve been working on for a handful of years — the scent of winter in the desert. Creosote bushes and frost-covered rock, the dry chill of the Davis mountains at altitude, and miles of nothing but cold sand. I’ve spent a lot of winters in west Texas and eastern New Mexico and have very distinct scent memories tied to that area. It’s an ever-changing formula that I come back to periodically as time allows, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it quite right. I’m also not sure how wearable a fragrance like that would even be, but one day I might actually get it finished. I enjoy working on those hyper-real atmospheric types of scent because they always present interesting challenges, but I don’t release many of them because they often end up more as conversation pieces than traditionally wearable fragrances.
What challenges do you see in the growing popularity of niche fragrance?
I’m not sure whether I’m the most qualified to answer this sort of question since my brand is relatively young. I will say that one of my own increasing challenges over the past couple of years is finding a balance between wearability and artistic vision. On one hand, I like to make what I like, and I’m certainly aware that not everyone can or will like or appreciate every concept. On the other, niche and indie perfumery in general has seen such a growth in customer base that I sometimes need to tell myself to rein in the weirdness a little bit, and remind myself that people will actually want to be able to wear what I’m making.
Given that the inspirations for your scents range from 90s punk rock bands like Bikini Kill and Hole to Greek mythology figures like sea nymphs to the (predominantly) women involved in the Salem witch trials, how much do strong female characters inspire and inform the work that you do? Or would you say that your creative process is independent from a gender factor?
That’s really funny, I had not actually considered how many of my fragrances draw from female inspiration. It’s not something I’m conscious of while working on new fragrances, but I suppose it’s true that I tend to personally gravitate my interests towards, and thus draw inspiration from, strong female characters and themes. I believe fragrance itself is genderless. I dislike categorizing my fragrances themselves as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ or even ‘unisex’, since people should be able to decide these sorts of things on their own by simply wearing what they like. I like to approach composition in a similar way — I nearly always compose the fragrances themselves independent of gender, and that might be largely because I have personally always been quite fond of wearing fragrances that are marketed as ‘masculine’ or ‘unisex’.
What has been the most profound customer reaction to one of your scents?
I can’t really choose a single standout story, but I love the occasional notes I receive from customers letting me know that a fragrance conjured a cherished memory, or helped them to create a new one, or reminded them of a distant place or loved one. Fragrances are little personal stories, so I am always thrilled and humbled to be given a glimpse into a customer’s world.
What fragrances and projects do you have planned for the future?
Aside from our usual calendar of scheduled seasonal releases, I am working on a tarot-themed collection that will eventually feature all 22 cards of the major arcana. Tarot has been in the planning stages for nearly a year, so I’m excited to be in the home stretch for the first group of them — the first set of three should be ready for release later this fall or winter. I’m also working on a licensed collaboration with a musician I’m quite fond of, and there will hopefully be more of that type of project in the queue for later on.
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