The commercial fragrance industry is one dominated by a few major players, who design and produce scents for top fashion houses, often through licenses. But there are also people operating outside of the perfume mainstream. One of those people is Frederick Bouchardy, the owner of the Brooklyn-based "fragrance design studio" Joya and founder of the perfume showcase Elements.
Bouchardy's track record is pretty good: After landing a commission to create a range of candles for Saks Fifth Avenue in 2004, he officially started Joya in 2006 and has gone on to collaborate with folks like Opening Ceremony and Neiman Marcus, and to sell through retailers like Net-a-Porter and Nasty Gal.
Because we love perfume (who doesn't?), we sat down with Bouchardy to get his take on everything from hunting down all-natural ingredients to what he knows about the relationship between scent and memory.
You've mentioned that you consider yourself more of a producer than a perfumer. Tell me about that mentality in relationship to running a fragrance company.
I do not aspire to be a perfumer. There are so many great perfumers. I don’t like that expression, "I’m not that smart, so my skill is to surround myself with smart friends." I think that’s lame, and it’s always said by people who are smart, and it’s not true. It’s faux-humble. But I do believe in surrounding myself with experts, because my thing is so diverse in a way; it’s beauty and fragrance, but it touches so many other things.
My point in saying this is that there are perfumers who are like walking Wikipedias. Botanical geniuses and chemists — they’re all these things. It’s not an easy thing, but my [business] is meant to be a design brand. Not a niche fragrance brand, not a soap brand, not a candle brand. I want to be more of an overarching designer. We’re making things in New York. I think of it as an American heritage brand. I don’t want to wait until I’m old or dead for it to become what I want it to be and what it could be, so I’m working with experts who are talented and... have been in the field for 30 years. I’m very lucky to know these people.
So tell me about your career trajectory. You studied English at Yale, then what?
One [summer in college] I worked on a political campaign, another year I worked for the City Parks Foundation producing free concerts in Brooklyn and another I worked at an American law firm in Hong Kong. They were all ways to experiment with things that I might be interested in for my life, and they all ended up showing me that these were not the specific avenues I wanted to go down, which is just as useful as finding the ones you do.
Coordination and production ended up being something I thought I was good at, so when this thing came up to work with [a European TV channel in New York doing a series on 9/11] — it was after September 11th, it was the thing that native New Yorkers were still interested in, so it was a total dream job. The reporters didn’t speak any English, so I had to be involved in everything from interviewing to editing to translation. But it became a sad job. By the end, it was a lot. So I was looking for other stuff. I have a close friend who also went to Yale, and she’s a filmmaker. She’s also a graphic designer, so I teamed up with her on a graphic design project. It was for a large retailer, and we won this job. It involved fragrance, it also involved production, so I started to research materials, and then I became really interested in the raw material aspect.
To me, it was more about the sourcing and coordinating of graphic design and how the thing would actually come to be. I found this great source for tropical palm oil waxes, which is also natural and sustainable, harvested in Malaysia, through the Internet... There just were not any fragrance brands doing things that were sustainable, and it seemed to me pretty obvious.
Sustainability and natural materials is becoming such a selling point now. How did people react to it then?
Aveda at the time was doing natural scented candles, but not many people were, and I realized through market research that this was a multi-billion dollar industry. And in fact, the American home fragrance industry is bigger than the personal care and fine fragrance industries combined.
Through researching, I realized that candles have a large amount of materials in them. An average candle is something like three times the size, by volume, of a large sized perfume, so that means it has more of everything in it. If it has more of everything in it, you should pay attention to what those [ingredients] are. To me, it wasn’t about organic certifications. That does matter, but I read all the ingredients. I’m obsessive. I’m not fun to be around for that stuff. I don’t like to be lied to. So it’s hard to lie to me, but it still makes me mad because I know that a lot of other people are being lied to, because of how ingredient lists can be deceptive.
I really want to know for my own business — it’s still a small business — where we are investing our money [when it comes to ingredients]. It’s the thing I have real control over, and I want to use the best providers.
All this is to say: I’m obsessive about sourcing. I’m trying to figure out a way to go direct to the source. After this project, I became really interested in the bones of the [fragrance] industry and started to develop just a makeshift — like, a mini scented candle collection using this natural tropical palm oil wax. My friend Julia and I printed out logos and designs on an inkjet printer. My mom had a close friend who was a buyer at Saks, so she set up a meeting, and he quite liked these mockups. I went to see him for advice, and he brought me to someone who was buying for the actual category, who basically said, "Oh, we need this other color. If you add it, we’ll buy these." And I was accidentally in business.
How do you learn about materials? How did you know what good quality was?
I didn’t. A lot of it was research. There's something lucky about having the outsider mentality, because I'm not as influenced by whatever the traditional teachings are in the cosmetics and fragrance industry. It’s also why I like to work with designers outside of the industry, because a lot of the times it’s the same people [within the industry] designing the bottles or the graphic design, which is why products have this similar signature to them.
I am very lucky to have a lot of people around me who have a lot more experience than I do. I’m also lucky that both of my parents have experience in manufacturing and design. So they are consistent advisors and consultants — my mom more for color and style, and my dad for logistics and manufacturing. Otherwise there are no resources.
I would go to the different trade shows everywhere: New York, Europe, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, High Point, San Fran, LA. I would go with one other person, just go to these places with suitcases. There is no resource, so this is how you do it: Show [your] things and learn. I learned very quickly that I didn’t want to exhibit at those trade shows. I wanted more control over the context that my stuff was in. Not because I thought my thing was so special, but because I didn’t like [the environment], and I didn’t personally want to live that way.
And now the beauty of my company and business and life is that I have direct access to a lot of these great people, whether it’s perfume, solvents, waxes, all kinds of oils and raw materials, all the packaging from secondary packaging to bottles and caps. My thing is really fun because we’re makers. We subcontract out our work. Like, we really know a lot of other makers. I’ll know the best person for a particular thing, like a great local foundry or someone to cast bronze or brass, or great illustrators or great people who are printers or laser cutters or who work with lucite.
That’s one thing that’s really fun for me, and it’s one thing that really sets my thing apart: Since we make the stuff and we ship it, we’re forced to really know the thing.
So walk me through your business's evolution. You started selling your candles at Saks and then what?
Then we got a call from the MoMA design store. And then Bliss Spas also bought it, which is powerful because [we were] was the bestselling third-party brand they were carrying for a long time. Bliss is a good spot, plus they were burning [our candles] in the treatment rooms, so people who were going there for these luxurious treatments were associating my product with an experience that I can imagine can only be good, and that was a very good start.
What was the order in which you rolled out your various products?
I started in 2004 with experiments and "capsule collections" and a range of scented candles in sustainably harvested tropical palm oil wax. I met a ceramic artist that same year, and we launched products in collaboration two to three years later. Moved into light personal care and then launched perfumes and soaps in porcelain containers in 2010. We have been executing art projects and artist series collaborations throughout, including candle, perfume, diffuser, laundry detergent, room and garment spray.
You've said that you're not a perfumer and that your strong point is in production, generally speaking. So why get into fragrance, rather than another field?
I think it’s because I love it as a challenge. With fragrance, there are so many components involved in it that as an artistic challenge, as a design challenge and also as a logistics challenge, it’s quite incredible that it happens. There are so many different materials coming from so many different parts of the world, and then they go through all the stability and UV testing, all the regulatory [testing]. There are so many things that go into [fragrance] as a finished product, and it’s so small. It’s not like you have a giant canvas to paint on. They’re tiny, they’re always tiny.
I think [fragrance] is very intimate, which is another big challenge that I like to take on. It becomes part of peoples' identities in a real way. They become possessive and protective about these things, and not just about the skin products. I thought that anyone would like a candle or room scent and that they’d be picky about their skin scents. Not true. They’re picky about all of them.
I think of all of these [scented products] as different design disciplines. I think of skin scent — whether it’s soap, lotion or perfume — as being a different application, different purpose, different concentrations of scent. They’re all for different things, but they’re... ancient art forms. I saw this genius perfumer give a talk the other day, and he did a whole historical scent tour starting with bacteria and the scent of the ocean, and the next was dinosaur, and then it went to the Roman orgies and came all the way to Native Americans. It was very interesting. I liked the historical origin scents. I liked the bacteria and the jungle scents, and I think it’s because I’m exposed to so many of these [smells] that I like them when they’re simpler.
I don’t like hearing about how people are translating memories or moments in time. We already know this. It’s an inherent thing. It’s going to trigger or activate a feeling or emotion. I’m so tired of hearing about that. I like it more for the design. Someone designed something: Why did they design it? What was it for? What was the inspiration?
Let's hear about some of your other projects.
Part of my business is that we do custom work. After I started to have this thing, I was friendly with the founders of Opening Ceremony, and, as they famously do, they said, “Oh, we should do something together.” So I made three candles for them that were based on different Olympic cities, and they used them seasonally to scent the stores. Munich, Nagano and Los Angeles. They all smelled sort of like synthetic, unisex, alien, musk, unplaceable scents.
So not like the actual smell of the cities, based on their native plants or flavors.
L.A. was like a synthetic alien musk with a little bit of ocean citrus. Nagano was like a synthetic robot alien musk with a little kind of green tea. And they were all just variations of these. We did an event there — candles burning everywhere. It was so funny because they were burning hundreds of candles, and I walked in and said, “Oh my god, this is a major liability. There are so many kids here, just, like, running around." And they were like, ‘Eh, whatever.’”
Then we did a project with Neiman Marcus. It all seemed very easy. From the back of my business, I went from subleasing to getting my own space and building up a staff. And this seemed very easy, and at the same time I realized that I didn’t want to participate in trade shows all the time, which is why I started my own trade show.
I was the first fragrance company on Net-a-Porter, Nasty Gal, Gilt [Groupe]. I like to experiment and see how these other companies work. We work with Alexis Bittar, Steven Alan, Kiki de Montparnasse. It’s taught me a lot about my business. You asked me how I got started. Trade shows suck, but I got some very important international clients from them that are still clients. Otherwise, working with other people. You learn from watching them, and I learn just as much from people I thought were really good as the ones I thought were really bad, especially operations-wise.
Now we are bidding on some big jobs. I like competing. We have great distribution now. We do get a lot of requests for collaborative, private label projects. And we get daily requests from people who want to apprentice and intern. They want to learn how to break into fragrance, and it is brutal because I understand when people who run companies are not receptive to that, because it’s such a hard thing to break into, and the people getting these requests had to figure it out, so I understand the idea of saying, “Figure it out.”
That would be your advice to people looking to break into the industry?
I just think it’s hard. I think the real answer is not as crude as “Figure it out," but [rather] it’s “Get creative.” And figure out who might be unorthodox entry into this. I was very lucky because I had some people who almost set me up: My folks and friends of my folks, but then after that, that was it. Then the rest is, make something, if they don’t buy it and it doesn’t sell, you’re done. You’re not done. Start again.
So what are you up to now?
I love competing. Now we’re not just like, "We have great distribution, so we’re going to wait for inbound business." We go after emerging markets and things we think are interesting. So the next things will maybe be Asia and [an upcoming] fragrance for Net-a-Porter. We have some cool other collaborations.
I won this competition recently [for New York makers]. I did this thing at the urging of someone who works for the Economic Development Corp. She told me, "There’s this thing coming, it’s an industrial initiative." I went to the first workshop, and you had to submit a giant [business] plan. The workshop was completely interesting. Before I was done with it, I was already initiating cultural change in my business... and at the end, I had a growth plan for the business.
What should small perfume companies just starting out even put in their business plan?
If you haven’t started, what does the market look like? What is the description of the productions you offer? How are you going to grow them? What is your financial history? How does it relate to your objectives? What are your business goals? What do you need to do to get there? And very specifically, what are the milestones and timelines? Just developing this [for the competition] was eye-opening because, again, it’s a growth plan and a business plan. And I won that shit. That’s all. That’s the end of the story.
How often did you update your business plan before doing this workshop?
Never, and I would guess that most entrepreneurs that are not tech entrepreneurs don’t do that. In this case, a growth plan is absolutely critical. You start to realize a couple things. Where do I make money? Do I even know where I make money? Like I’m pretty sure, but do I actually know? Maybe not.
I love one of your roll-on fragrances, Âmes Soeurs. Walk me through how it got made.
Someone I’m friendly with who’s an exceptional publicist and a nice person said, "There's someone I would like you to meet. She's a novelist." She was writing a kind of suspense-y thing... called "The Book of Lost Fragrances." Like a James Patterson book about fragrance, from a woman’s perspective.
She really wanted to do something for the launch of her book, and I like to experiment and I like to be first. I like first mover advantage. So she had a robust launch party, and we had been developing a new fragrance and she asked if we could coordinate [the two]. I said sure, and in fact, I pulled the name of the perfume from something from her book, because I thought it was quite cool. It means “Soul mates.” It meant something to me because I’m part French, and all the things I make are meant to be shared — they’re for men and women. They’re soul mates.
And also I like the idea that we’re doing perfume oil that smells different on other people. It’s built in such a way that it’s meant to work for men and women. It’s very citrusy at first, and not all guys are willing to be that daring. It really is designed to be unisex. It’s ludicrous to not do that.
You mentioned that with Elements, you were aiming to start a trade show that was both smaller and gave better context to the participants' work. What were the biggest challenges in getting it off the ground? And since Joya is still relatively young, what have you gotten out of running Elements that you've been able to apply to your own business?
Exactly. A more beautiful and unique context for the exhibitors' work — to truly show the quality of their product and the points of difference — and also to provide an experience for buyers that would enable them to do business and create lasting relationships.
The concept was novel, so the entire process of getting it off the ground was challenging! Peers who were dying for this sort of opportunity and change got cold feet. Fortunately, I found two like-minded partners — we put our heads down, stuck to what we believed in and premiered the kind of show we wanted and knew the industry needed. Luckily, the buyer, brand and media response was immediate and enthusiastic.
Photo: Gogy Esparza