You might recall my previous posts about my new favorite perfume house: the all-natural and stunningly exquisite Strange Invisible Perfumes. Perfumery is a rarefied and delicate art and the nose behind Strange Invisible, Alexandra Balahoutis, is a true artist, passionate about her craft and committed to preserving the traditions of fine perfumery, while bringing them into the 21st Century. I had the privilege of interviewing Alexandra for ANFGB and I am thrilled to give you a peek into her mind and world.
HH: The first question is a rather obvious one, but I am always fascinated by how one becomes a perfumer and a “nose”. What was your particular path? Did you always have a particularly keen sense of smell? Did you have any formal perfumery training or are you self-taught?
AB: I am self-taught, but my mentor was John Steele, a master botanical perfumer, anthropologist, and archaeologist. He helped guide my path. He encouraged me, sourced essences for me, and assessed my formulas. He really believed in me, which I will always appreciate.
HH: You founded Strange Invisible 15 years ago when green beauty didn’t really exist, except maybe as a fringe, hippie-crunchy thing. What inspired you to make your perfumes all natural? In your piece In Defense of Natural Perfumery as Olfactory Art you mention that you simply didn’t like synthetic scents. Was it as simple as that or did you have other reasons for making the choice?
AB: I didn’t want to work with essences that were man-made, chemical, corporate designs. I wanted to collaborate strictly with nature. It always seemed odd to me that people thought of an exclusively natural palette as limited. What could possibly have more mystery, complexity, nuances, and variety than nature? The possibilities are endless. Botanical perfumery was not invented by hippies, not that I have anything against my lively friends the hippies. Botanical perfumery is the original perfumery. It is the art of perfumery, not the business of it. Synthetics are simply about keeping costs down. The use of synthetic aromas removes limits from the perspective of commerce, not in the creation of an exceptional fragrance.
HH: It seems obvious to me that a natural distillation process is much better able to capture the olfactory essence of a plant ingredient. Things get trickier when you get to non-plant accords like leather, amber, honey, etc. I find it fascinating how scent notes can be combined to create a recognizable accord like leather, for example. I’d love to know how this works in natural perfumery.
AB: There are many essences that can conjure non-botanical notes like leather, amber, or smoke for example (honeycomb is actually available as an extract), either alone or in combination with one another. It is simply a question of determination on the part of the perfumer to crack the code by recognizing and combining them. I’ll pinpoint a quality in one essential oil that can be woven in with another to create a note that is otherwise impossible to obtain as a literal ingredient. It’s all about a finely tuned nose and a nearly unhealthy obsession. ; )
HH: I got the impression that most of the scents in the main collection are gender neutral. With just a couple of exceptions, like the hyper-feminine Fair Verona and Prima Ballerina, I think most scents could work for a man or a woman (to my surprise, my husband even liked Aquarian Rose). Even the bottles are unisex in their simplicity. What made you choose to create unisex fragrances, rather than having two separate lines for men and women or focusing on fragrances solely for women?
AB: I have sometimes created fragrances with a gender in mind, and sometimes not. I have fragrances that are intended for men, intended for women, and some that were designed to work for both. I find that whatever I make usually smells good on both sexes. Prima Ballerina would even smell great on a man, but the marketing is clearly very feminine. Botanicals don’t seem to communicate that heavy-handed gender branding that synthetics do. Naturals loan themselves much less to the pink-is-for-girls- and-blue-is-for-boys mindset.
HH: Perfumery is an art and I am always curious about what inspires an artist. What are your inspirations as a perfumer? Are you driven by recreating experiences and memories or are your inspirations more visual and olfactory?
AB: I am inspired by people, music, art, and oddly enough, light exhibitions. I used to be very inspired by travel, but less so now.
HH: I am absolutely in love with my Virgo perfume from the Zodiac collection. What inspired it? Do you have a particular fascination with astrology?
AB: I see enormous insight in Astrology that simply cannot be denied. Sign mates vary enormously but they have some kind of vibrational similarity, some essence that runs through them. This is what inspired me. I viewed each constellation as an essence and the entire zodiac as a palette. This is why I encourage people to layer them, and to switch it up. I wear Aries and my moon is in Aries. I am actually a Virgo (Ed.: I knew there was a reason I liked her!), but I like to channel some of that fire-sign dynamism.
HH: It seems remarkable to me that Virgo is quite such a good fit for me and that it seems to capture exactly what I look for in a fragrance. I have heard similar things about the scents for the other signs. Did you rely on your intuition when creating these perfumes or did you consult an astrologer?
AB: Mostly intuition and I also consulted Mindy Green, an aromatherapist who is very knowledgeable about astrology.
HH: I’m sure it must seem impossible to choose, but do you have a favorite in your collection of scents?
AB: Emerald Moss at the moment. It is the one that makes me feel most impressed with myself as a formulator.
HH: The Zodiac Collection has been a brilliant addition to your lineup. So what’s next for Strange Invisible? Are you planning on releasing any new scents?
AB: We are! I am designing a fragrance for the jewelry house Ten Thousand Things in Tribeca. We are also releasing an anniversary edition fragrance called Love Letter in honor of our fifteen year anniversary. This perfume is my ode to the art of perfumery. It focuses on fifteen favorite essences, one for each year. I’m really excited about both! Finally, we’re launching our first home fragrance – a room and linen mist called Ojai. It was inspired by my family orchard in Ojai, California, where we harvest and distill some of our loveliest essences.
Well, there you have it. I am so excited for what’s to come next from the brilliant mind of Alexandra. I also have my eye on the new Ojai home fragrance – just the right thing to add some relaxed California chic to my Brooklyn apartment. What’s your dream fragrance from SI?