The perfume industry is big business. Huge, in fact, with UK perfume sales rumoured to top £1.5 billion a year. Yet this powerful money-making industry at the heart of the beauty trade is somewhat at odds with our experience of and interaction with scent itself: something personal, evocative and emotional, completely linked to memory and sensuality. There’s something crass about perfumes from the likes of Beyoncé and Britney Spears selling out in seconds that doesn’t seem to sit with the nuances of scent and how it informs every area of our lives.
Rather than looking to the big-name houses, those more interested in the subtleties and stories surrounding fragrance need look no further than London-based perfumer, Miller Harris. Founded in 2000 by Lyn Harris — one of the UK’s only classically trained noses (the affectionate name given to expert perfumers at the top of their game and famed for their fine sense of smell and skill in producing olfactory compositions) — using her own kitchen as laboratory and testing ground, the brand has slowly and subtly grown into a major player in the world of independent perfumery. While Harris moved on to new projects in 2015, under new CEO, Sarah Rotheram, who joined last year, the company continues to thrive and expand, staying true to Harris’ core principles of fragrance doing something exciting and avant-garde. It has over 60 international stockists, four London stores and a new space set to open in King’s Cross’ Coal Drops Yard this autumn.
“As a brand we’re in a very unique spot,” says Rotheram when we met near the company’s East London headquarters earlier this year. “There’s only a handful of British fragrance houses anyway — most who play on the historical — but we’re telling urban, contemporary stories through perfume and our target audience is the modern bohemian.”
It’s a description that fits Rotheram herself perfectly, with her confident yet relaxed air, candyfloss pink hair and obvious passion for all things fragrance. “Many people talk about perfume as a new art form and all of the emotional responses that go with it,” she says, “but I’m a huge believer that you shouldn’t have to say it, you should demonstrate it, believe it, live it.” As a result, Miller Harris is throwing out the rulebook when it comes to envisioning new fragrances. Instead of simply dwelling on their use of the finest natural ingredients, (which, as Rotheram points out, should be a given at a brand of Miller Harris’ level) the focus is on innovative and intrinsically creative ways to fuel the development process. Take the company’s latest offerings: ‘Tender’ and ‘Scherzo’ — two perfumes that stem from Rotheram’s own love of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pioneering novel, Tender is the Night.
“Once you open your mind to it, you realise there’s such beauty in the ordinary things all around us.”
“Re-reading it for the first time in years last summer,” says Rotheram, “I came across this beautiful word ‘scherzo’ [meaning a vigorous and light composition] in the midst of an evocative passage talking of ‘kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve-stemmed roses transparent like sugar flowers in a confectioner’s window’ so I decided to take that small section of the novel as a brief to two perfumers and asked them in their own way to interpret it as a fragrance — and I ended up with two very different scents.” ‘Sherzo’ is a vibrant, zingy hit of tangerine citrus matched with sugary sweetness and masses of pink roses. While ‘Tender’ is a darker, more seductive mix of pink pepper, peonies and black ink, to link it back to the sense of this scent be inspired by Fitzgerald’s novel.
“Our job is to be innovative and reactive, not a follower.”
In spite of originally planning to launch only one of these perfumes, Rotheram instead brought both to market. “From the first moment I experienced them, I was like ‘how can I choose just one?’ The more I reflected on it, the novel is all about tensions and contrast; sadness coupled with a sense of hope, fragility and loss of innocence, so it felt appropriate to have two fragrances to tell this story.” To take this creative synergy further, Miller Harris also offer customers the inspired touch of printed extracts of Tender is the Night, with the pages spritzed with their preferred choice of scent. Rotheram talks of how this somewhat unorthodox approach to scent creation adds to the sense of integrity surrounding the brand. “When we say we brief perfumers to inspire them creatively — this is actually what we do,” she explains. “We don’t give them a price to hit and I definitely don’t tell them what’s on trend. We’re a niche brand; it’s not our job. Our job is to be innovative and reactive, not a follower. How can you be innovative if you’re not trying to find something else inspiring?”
The Miller Harris approach to retail is equally refreshing, eschewing cookie-cutter store roll-outs in favour of unique, sensorial shopping environments. “Some say retail is dead,” says Rotheram, “but that’s not true. It’s just the shopping experience is so different these days. You can’t sell a perfume, you have to make people fall in love with a perfume — they come in [to the store], smell, touch and feel and they either love it or they don’t. All we can do is tell the story, create the dream and take people on a journey, but ultimately the fragrance sells itself.”
This narrative approach is at the heart of the company’s recent store launches. Rather than cold, intimidating outlets, each space is instead themed around a different inspiration and creative concept. For instance, the Canary Wharf store has ‘the artist’ as its muse and features a continually revolving exhibition of different artists’ work (currently vibrant colour-pop oval panels by Heather Chontos). Elsewhere, the recently opened Westfield boutique takes ‘the poet’ as its focus and hosts poetry readings from young London poets. Excitingly, this autumn’s store opening in King’s Cross will revolve around the idea of ‘the botanist’ because, as Rotheram says, it “has a sense of greenery growing in an urban space… the idea of foraging and botany will play a part, which fits so well with the environment of Coal Drops Yard and its skip garden and helps us become part of the location and its narrative.”
Space and how it is scented is also a driving factor for Rotheram and the company; after all, it not only creates perfume to be worn on the skin, but home fragrance too, with ten scented candles produced so far and many more home products on the horizon. “Home fragrance is so important,” says Rotheram, “because we cocoon ourselves in our homes. It all comes back to memories — often when you talk to people about home fragrance, it’s not whether they like a scent — it’s ‘oh that reminds me of my grandma’s house when she was baking’ or ‘that reminds me of the time I was floating down a river in India’ — or whatever it might be — you want to be able to walk into a room and feel like it’s your place and your place only.”
Enter a Miller Harris store and you’ll understand Rotheram’s obsession with the multi-sensorial and how different senses can work together to heighten our appreciation of stimuli. Each store features soundscaping: music that captures the essence of each scent. Approach ‘Poirier d’un Soir’, a fragrance inspired by the heady notes of a pear orchard at dusk, and you’ll hear the sound of wind blowing through leaves, but here recorded in an enclosed town garden so it has that subtle urban edge that’s intrinsic to Miller Harris. “They [the soundscapes] bring that perfume to life,” says Rotheram, “so you experience the fragrance with all the senses together.” As she points out, “I’m never going to make any noise if I do what everybody else has done, so we have to find different things. Once you open your mind to it, you realise there’s such beauty in the ordinary things all around us.”
This article first appeared in the spring 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.