How do you make a fragrance out of gorse bush? And a sculpture out of fragrance? Meet the man who knows
If you were tasked with creating a wearable scent that evokes the British country and coast, could you do it? This olfactory challenge is one Aaron Firth willingly set himself four years ago, while refusing to let the fact that he had limited fragrance knowledge hold him back. Eighteen months and 27 attempts later, he unveiled Amber, an eau de toilette that delivers a fresh burst of greenery before segueing into spice and finally revealing a warm base of wood and ambergris. A sophisticated, multi-layered scent, it was to be the first fragrance produced by his London-based label Laboratory Perfumes.
Since then, the brand has grown to include five equally modern and androgynous eaux de toilette and coordinating scented candles, all of which are made in the UK using natural oils extracted from flowers, herbs and botanicals. The fragrances are presented in clear glass vaporisateurs and the candles poured into reusable science beakers, each packaged in simple cardboard tubes. It’s a pared-back aesthetic that calls to mind an old-fashioned perfumer’s laboratory – even the typeface riffs on that of the Periodic Table.
It’s quite an achievement for someone who previously worked in the fast world of fashion wholesale and retail. ‘I’ve always been interested in scent and the idea of creating something that’s invisible and that can touch people in a personal, almost intimate way,’ Aaron says. ‘In fashion, lots of great ideas don’t last as the nature of the industry is to gorge and regurgitate. With fragrance, if you manage to create a scent that’s good, it has the potential to endure.’
Aaron’s quest to create fragrances that are timeless is what drives Laboratory Perfumes, but it’s often something quite commonplace that sets each scent in motion. Gorse, the second perfume, was inspired by the eponymous and intensely fragrant yellow-flowered bushes that line the driveway of Aaron’s parents home in the Luberon, Provence. The third came about after a springtime visit to his brother’s London home where he was offered herbal tea with verbena leaf fresh from the garden. Aaron took some home, began mixing it with juniper berries and that was the beginning of Samphire. The fourth, Tonka, was inspired by the floral fruitiness of some pink peppercorns found in a spice cupboard and marked a more exotic departure for the brand. The fifth addition to the line, Atlas, was developed following a trip to Morocco’s Ourika Valley where the smell of dried apricots mingles with tobacco.
‘The way I approach fragrance is completely random,’ says Aaron. ‘There isn’t a process; it’s almost entirely organic. I work with some very clever chemists who help me transform an idea or a bunch of disparate smells into something tangible. It’s a lot of trial and error, but things get sifted out until you’re hopefully left with something you like. I’m enormously privileged that I don’t have to run things past a board or anyone else, but it means I sink or swim by whatever I decide.’
There’s something wonderfully anarchic about this absence of a masterplan. It’s brilliantly anti-establishment, but in a very unpremeditated way – he’s certainly not out to take on the big perfume houses. ‘They never enter my mind,’ he says. ‘I don’t think we compete on any level. The product is generically the same but in terms of audience and putting it on the market, everything is different.’ Aaron, for example, prefers to sell through clothing boutiques and design shops rather than go for the obvious footfall of the large beauty halls or airport departure lounges. ‘I find those environments very scary,’ he says.
Indeed, the recent launch of Atlas has easily been Laboratory Perfumes biggest and most visible undertaking to date. Rather than attempt to convey the scent solely with words (an almost impossible task as everyone responds differently), Aaron commissioned artist Zuza Mengham to communicate the sensory experience of all five Laboratory Perfumes in physical form. The result, a series of multi-faceted and colourful crystal-like resin sculptures, formed ‘Sculpting Scent’, an exhibition first shown at The Conran Shop as part of the London Design Festival and which has since made its way to Paris.
‘There’s a refined subtlety to the sculptures,’ Aaron says. ‘They’re exactly how I see the fragrances – Zuza did an extraordinary job.’ And while he intimates that he would like to do more of this sort of thing, he’s yet to commit to a sixth scent let alone more collaborations. ‘Each time we launch a new fragrance, I claim that’s the last,’ he says. ‘Five seems like a nice number, but then so does eight.’ Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.