Saskia Wilson-Brown of IAO
- Can you tell us of your background?
I got an MA in art from Central Saint Martins in London, moved to LA in 2003 and started working in film production. I eventually went on to co-direct a film festival, worked at a TV network for a spell, and then started consulting for film festivals, film distribution, marketing, etc.
I became seriously interested in perfume in 2008 when my colleague at Current TV - David Casey - gave me a book (‘The Emperor of Scent’ by Chandler Burr). Like a lot of my friends working in media at the time, I was exhausted with the churn and burn mentality of the new media landscape, and desperate to do something that felt more thoughtful. Perfumery seemed to hold some sort of promise for me, though at the time I really didn’t understand how I could ever engage with it deeply. It seemed pretty inaccessible, but then my boyfriend (now husband) booked a class with Yosh for me, and I got hooked.
- Did you have a interest in fragrance growing up?
Well… Sort of. I was raised partly in Paris in the supermodel era, and my buddies growing up all idolized Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and the like. So naturally we kept every ad we could find that featured them, and they were often perfume ads. Then, I think I started wanting to make my own perfume ads – my own little fantasy world. I recently found scrapbooks I kept that were filled with childish drawings I had made of perfume bottles, inventing perfumes with sappy, silly names like ‘Cerulean’ and ‘Celestial’ and ‘Azure’. I moved away from this quite firmly when I became a teenager, going deep into the anti-aesthetic: Punk clubs, pseudo-anarchism… My friends thought that grunge, dirt, lawlessness and drugs were WAY cooler than things like perfume and fashion. So that’s what I was into.
At the same time, I spent a large part of my teenaged years secretly obsessing over a totally uncool preppie guy who wore CK One. He turned out to be terrible to me (he was a teenage boy after all), but I bought the bottle of CK One as a sort of secret totem of my infatuation.
I guess the interest in the power of scent was there, but perfume always symbolized something else, for me. A person, a dream or a capacity to be better than I was. But it also always felt a little shameful, a little out of touch. I guess that colors my interest in it today.
- Well, how did your current journey begin?
In my late twenties, I rekindled whatever childish interest I had in scent, but the interest was directed towards its potential as an art medium.
This was compounded by the sense of injustice that the luxury industry triggers in me. I was (still am) puzzled by how we idealize something that is inherently geared towards exclusion. We define success, as a culture, by the ability to be part of the in-group, the capacity to be the one that ostracizes other lesser souls through garish markers of superiority: The fancy car, the cheesy jewelry, and the ‘exclusive’ perfume – all feeding into the Me! Me! Me! culture of social media and Disney Princesses run amok. The marketing machine has just gone completely bonkers. It’s topsy-turvy, it all comes down to money, and ultimately it hinders our relationship with scent.
Scent is inherently democratic. We can all smell things (barring the anosmics). We also all have memories associated to smell, and we all have some sort of olfactory preference. Although the art of perfumery is historical, complex and beautiful, there is no reason why people shouldn’t be able to understand it (maybe even have a go at it!), to have some information about it beyond the fact that it will make you sexy or that it is ‘very exclusive’. It’s totally possible to enjoy and/or create a beautiful thing without being party to such implicit snobbery.
- How did the Idea of your non-profit start?
The thought process I described above led me to want to take a step towards addressing the culture of exclusion around perfumery. I took the topic and applied it in a way that made sense to me - to create a space for artists to learn about a new medium, and – hopefully – use it in a way that was at the service of something more humanistic than the bottom line.
- Do you have any advice for those that may want to begin to step out for their dreams or goals?
Yes, actually, I do! I try to follow these rules. I don’t always succeed.
1. Don’t do it for money: Keep your day job and fit your ‘real’ work in where you can for as long as you can. Money actually makes these things a lot less fun.
2. It’s not a dog eat dog world: The narrative of success tells us that you have to be competitive, have an edge, be better and faster than everyone else. Nonsense. Do what feels right, and help others that are doing good work.
3. You’re not the best, and you never will be: There is always someone doing it better than you. It doesn’t bloody matter. Be open about your ignorance, and learn from people more informed than you.
4. Break the ‘law’, once in a while: Trust your own moral and ethical compass, and enjoy openly flouting the rules once in a while. But don’t be a sociopath.
5. Never micromanage an expert: When you engage the services of a brilliant person, communicate clearly, defer to their expertise, and keep your opinion out of it.
6. Don’t be a snob: Engage in the culture of glamour intelligently: Draw from it (it can be fun!) but never make it your core mission, or aspire to it. The most cultured and sophisticated people I know are really down to earth.
7. Don’t take yourself too seriously: Question yourself, and try to check your ego daily.
- What do you hope that the institute does for the perfume world?
I hope that the IAO will help outsiders (to the perfume industry) engage with a beautiful field, but always with an eye to a bigger, more holistic creative picture. I also hope that the IAO will empower independent, artisan and experimental perfumers through intelligent growth of The Art and Olfaction Awards.
- Finally do you have any other words that you would like to share?
Don’t be intimidated by a couple molecules and some alcohol in a bottle. Appreciate stellar work for the sake of the work itself. And don’t believe the hype.
- Where do you seeing the fragrance industry headed?
I have no idea! So sorry. I’m really only half informed about the industry.