Rising Star Perfumer: Isaac Sinclair
2023 . 07 . 06 |
Anyone who has spent time in the artistic fragrance community can attest to the fact that it is a small world. About twelve years ago I was invited to dinner by Michael Edwards who wanted me to meet a young, promising perfumer, and that’s how I originally met Isaac Sinclair. He had left his native New Zealand to study perfumery in France, but he was on the cusp of moving to Brazil for a six month assignment. Flash forward to 2023 and Isaac is back in Paris with substantial experience under his belt. He looks like a rockstar and has the laid back persona often associated with musicians. We talked about his career and the evolution of niche fragrance for this latest installment of La Gente di Nicchia, the People of Niche.
Your story is the personification of perseverance. How did you become a perfumer?
I was fascinated by scent. I just loved perfumes and started collecting them spontaneously. Then one day I said to myself, there must be a job to create perfume, and this was really a eureka moment. I really wanted to become a perfumer and you really can’t do that in New Zealand. As a first step I got a job selling fragrance, but I knew I really wanted to be on the creative side. I read online that you needed to have a chemistry degree but I thought, is it really necessary, and how can I find out? As it turned out Michael Edwards was in Auckland doing a talk and training about perfumes. My boss was attending so I wrote my question on a note and asked her to pass it to him. The next day he came into the store where I was working and he found me. He told me there was a conference in the south of France in a few months and I would get my answer there. Well, I went. He couldn’t believe it when he saw me. He introduced me to several people including Martin Gras at Dragoco who then introduced me to Roger Schmidt who was the head of perfume at the time. He suggested I go study the five senses at a boutique type school in Milan (L’universita dell’immagine) where Dragoco was sponsoring students. Well, they gave me a scholarship and they made me a marketing trainee in their Paris offices until the school started. When it finished I became a full time trainee perfumer back in Paris. Françoise Marin, who was based in Grasse, was my teacher and in charge of the training program. She would come up to Paris every couple of weeks while Bernard Ellena (brother to Jean Claude) was my "day to day" mentor, and I learned so much from him. That’s how the whole thing happened. Can you imagine, I was only 19 at the time!
Dragoco eventually merged with Symrise and at that time I bounced around as jobs were eliminated, working in evaluation and then in the laboratory where I worked with Maurice Roussel. I think I made more perfumes working with Maurice than I would have in a formal training. Symrise is headquartered in Germany, and I spent a year there before being sent to Brazil to learn the market.
Tell me about your experience in Brazil.
I was only supposed to be going for six months to get a grasp of the market but, as it turned out, I stayed more than ten years. Brazil is the biggest market in the world for volume so there are always massive projects going on which are super interesting and challenging. Brazilians truly love perfume and they seem to celebrate it. Culturally they bathe a lot; they may take as many as five showers a day, and after every time they put on a different fragrance. Brazilians could have a collection of different types of fragrances for different moments.
O Boticario and Natura were very important clients. O Boticario is the biggest franchise in the world: they have close to 4000 stores in Brazil alone, and then about 600 globally. Natura is more focused locally though they do have some shops in Latin America and in France. The fragrances were always developed with the local market in mind, and performance was always important, getting the bang for your buck. With Brazilians, there is an expectation of longevity even with citrus or light scents which needed to have a long lasting quality. In fact, this is actually a trend that is expanding all over the world.
What’s next for you professionally?
Coming back to France is a whole new challenge for me. I’ll still continue with some of the work I did before, but now being in Paris, I have more access to a variety of projects. I’m trying to be more creative and work on some of the European projects, which have a different style of perfumery compared to what I did for South America.
Do you have experience working with Artificial Intelligence and green ingredients?
Symrise partnered with IBM to create a program called Philyra which is our AI tool that helps perfumers to create environmentally friendly fragrances. It can be used in creative ways and I’ve been involved in quite a few projects where we used AI to develop a piece of the fragrance. AI is also great for technical things. For example, let’s say we can’t use an ingredient anymore or we need to replace a raw material. Philyra can identify the formulas that need to be reviewed out of the thousands we have. It lets us work faster for sure.
Symrise is also one of the leaders in non-petrol chemical or renewable ingredients that we produce. You can also say we have upcycled ingredients. We were very early on that front.
Have you worked with niche fragrance brands?
Perfumers seem to end up doing one or the other – you could be working on the next blockbuster fragrance or you end up on niche. I’m somewhat in the middle because, yes, I’ve done a few niche projects.
There’s a London-based brand called Neandertal who came up with a very cool idea. They decided to do a fragrance where they gave the same criteria to a group of perfumers and to Philyra. I was one of three perfumers working on this project along with Nikolaj Koralewicz and Fanny Grau. We started with the same base formula and we did several rounds between Philyra and the perfumers, and then we could see how differently the perfumes turned out. The brand is going to launch both fragrances but not say which is which. It’s kind of the perfumers against the robots! I think it will be the only real AI piece on the market. It really takes an out-there brand like Neanderthal to actually even contemplate something like this. It’s like an art project.
I’ve also worked with a brand called Abel Odor and all their fragrances are natural. For the fragrance Cyan Noir I put in a massive amount of algae which is an ingredient that’s so hard to use because, when you add the tiniest amount, it can totally change a fragrance. But that’s because you add it after you sort of have a fragrance. When you start with it, it’s a whole different experience. I worked with Frances, the owner of the brand, as a sounding board. I’d send her various versions, and she kept liking the ones with the most algae. I probably wouldn’t have gotten to that overdose if I’d been working on that fragrance just by myself. She gave me the confidence that the fragrance smelled good since perfumers are often second guessing it. In Cyan Nori, there is a massive amount of seaweed, and that’s just never been seen before in the history of perfumery. Not every brand can launch a crazy, awesome fragrance though. You need that kind of person at the brand who is willing to take risks.
I’ve also created a fragrance for the Dutch fashion designer Ronald Van Der Kemp in collaboration with SALLE PRIVEE. He’s one of the first guys who did upcycling in fashion. We created a totally crazy fragrance called The Mind Vaccine with upcycled clove which is absolutely on brand. When you distill the clove, you get the essential oil but then you have water that’s left over from the distillation. Rather than throw it out, Symrise has a new technology called Symtrap where you can extract the odor from the water, which is basically a new technology that is upcycling. It was another one of those crazy overdose stories, because we decided to put this upcycled clove into the fragrance, and Ronald loved the smell, but we ended up putting in a never seen amount, which I felt was outrageous. The fragrance is about celebrating responsible hedonism and eccentricity.
What’s the most enjoyable part of your profession?
That awesome feeling you have when you create something you like. And you’re creating something from nothing. When you win a project and create a super original fragrance that no one has thought of - I think you have more pride in original work. For me it’s not just winning the project, but it’s how you win. Then, when the fragrance comes on the market, it’s such a sense of accomplishment.
As a perfumer when you do something out of the ordinary, it’s super satisfying because you can’t get to that place by copying anybody else, you’re sort of blazing a new trail. When it’s something that really makes a statement because it’s really new, and then someone walks past you wearing that fragrance, the sillage is just wonderful.
In addition, I like working with other people; I’m not lonesome and brooding! It’s the exchange that makes it fun for me, and you can throw ideas around with other people. Sometimes the more perfumers that work on a perfume, the better.
I also just love smelling new things every day. Smelling new jasmine or citrus – it’s like a toy. Sometimes I ask myself, Is this a job? But a great perfumer has to smell lots of fragrances and lots of ingredients!
How have the creative demands of your job changed over the years?
For sure, the sheer volume of perfumes being launched now is so much greater than it was twenty or thirty years ago. Our job has a different dynamic which is why we need everyone working together to polish the projects. For many brands, their growth comes from new launches, so they’re trying to launch new stuff all the time. Intrinsically with that strategy, you’re moving the needle towards volume and quantity as opposed to quality. For example, I haven’t counted but I have at least twenty projects I’m working on now, but sometimes one project is several perfumes – a whole collection or a men’s and women’s for instance.
The niche scene undoubtably is more like how the market was in the past, where the brand is thinking about the fragrance for months before a perfumer starts to work on it. And it’s not like they set a deadline the way brands on the stock market do.
What do you see as the future of fragrance?
Niche has exploded and the industry growth is coming from niche. Big brands are growing mostly from acquisition. I like working on both big and niche brands because I need a balance. Some niche brands are getting very polished these days and I almost look at them as fake niche. They’re saying they're going in a real creative direction and then you smell the fragrances and it’s super commercial. Real niche brands put more money into the artistry. The brands that do the cool stuff are the ones that really stand out.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
My perfume teacher, Françoise Marin, used to go on about passion and perseverance, and when you’re nineteen that’s so hard to understand. But it’s really not a joke, and even for most professions, I think about 90% is blood, sweat and tears, and then you need the talent. But you have to be curious to learn and be super perseverant, always going the extra mile and not taking no for an answer. I think this is kind of a life rule though. You have to really want it.
And you know what? I’m so glad I found out I didn’t need a chemistry degree!
Isaac Sinclair clearly took his teacher’s message to heart. Here is a man who pursued his dream despite potential disappointment. From leaving his home country as a teenager on a whim, to meeting the movers and shakers who could support him, then staying resilient through mergers and downsizing, he continued to learn as he took on new opportunities and challenges. Still a young man but with a solid 20+ years of experience in his field, there’s no telling how far his star will rise.
Photos of Isaac Sinclair courtesy of Eléonore de Bonneval / Atelier Marge
Photos of fragrances courtesy of the brands