Sainte Cellier: Purveyor of Fragrances to Dreamers & Deep Thinkers
2023 . 06 . 22 |
As we all know, the artistic fragrance world is a tightly-knit community of like-minded people. When I discovered that several brands, as well as a perfumer or two, were working with UK-based retailer Brooke Belldon, I knew I had another story for our series, La Gente di Nicchia, the People of Niche. Originally from Ohio in the USA, Brooke moved to London for love, and then discovered her love for fragrance, and particularly her appreciation of perfumer Germaine Cellier. The love affair blossomed into the website Sainte Cellier which pays homage to this pioneering perfumer whose fragrances are still to this day recognized for their strength of character. The site offers a narrowly curated assortment of daring scents which are described as being “for dreamers and deep thinkers, deviants and disagreeable characters”. Scents are classified by ten different “vibes”, so if you’re looking for something animalic and carnal or green and sylvan, or anything in between, you’ve come to the right place. Best quote on the site? “None of Sainte Cellier’s perfumes smell beige. The only acceptable neutral here is leopard print.” Let’s find out more!
How did you get pulled into the wonderful world of fragrance?
My relationship with fragrance began in high school; however, once I left home I was fortunate in finding myself living next door to a drag performer who also worked as an account manager for Lancôme who used to give me bottles of perfume from department store visits. Of course I didn’t know much about perfume at the time. I didn’t even know about notes! I was just wearing perfumes that I liked without thinking much about them.
After moving to London and beginning to read perfume blogs, I discovered Serge Lutens Tubereuse Criminelle. Up until that time all of the perfumes I’d worn, on some level, gave the impression of wanting to be liked or to be pleasing. But Tubereuse Criminelle turned the whole dynamic between perfume and wearer completely upside down. For the first time I saw that a perfume could be deliberately objectionable and it helped me to see this characteristic in other perfumes, some of which I’d been wearing for years.
Around this time I was also going to fragrance appreciation events to hear specific speakers and to smell fragrances with other people who shared this passion. I started working in the industry quite by accident. A brand that was based nearby asked if I could come in to bottle perfume for a couple days, and I ended up working there for over seven years. While working there, I met a lot of other people with brands who needed help, some creatively and others more commercially.
Let’s talk about Sainte Cellier, the name and the concept.
Sainte Cellier is named after my favourite perfumer, Germaine Cellier. I first discovered her work at one of Lizzie Ostrom’s Vintage Scent Sessions. We were passing the fragrances around and when Balmain’s Jolie Madame came to me, I didn’t want to give it to the next person. It was so provocative, I felt it was quietly sinister but elegant, a real paradox of profiles. The event sparked my interest to know about the person who made these fragrances. Much has already been said about Cellier’s technical prowess and how her daring approach to making perfumes broke boundaries and redefined the creative landscape; however, what I see in her work is someone following their own path and not trying to be like anyone or anything else. I feel that spirit is so important today, and that’s been a guiding light not just to the path I’m going down with Sainte Cellier, but also the brands I’m working with.
I see Sainte Cellier as a return to specialist retail. Historically, shops were repositories of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Their success was built around a deep understanding of their products and their reputation for providing the best possible products for their clientele based on that knowledge. I launched with just one brand, ERIS Parfums. I think a lot of people would find that strange for a retailer, but actually it’s given me a chance to grow Sainte Cellier in a really meaningful way that brought everyone who’s been interested in the project along with me.
As I grow the brand assortment, I have a preference for small collections which I feel provide a more considered approach. I don’t want to overwhelm a customer, I want them to feel comfortable. Now that I have a good selection of creative, artistic fragrances, I want to add something that could be an “everyday” type fragrance, something that’s easy to wear to the office or even to the grocery store while still having a compelling creative twist.
Aside from Jolie Madame, is there another fragrance by Germaine Cellier that moves you?
There is such a narrative quality through all of her fragrances. When you think about them within the context of the period when they came out, there’s a real reflection on the lives of women at the time. Think of Robert Piguet’s Fracas which came out in 1948 off the back of Dior’s New Look, which was hyper feminine to the point of distortion. Fracas seems like such a response to that, in that post-war period when men were returning from the front. Fracas is like a matador holding up a red flag to the male gaze. It’s such a statement. You think of Bandit as the more aggressive of the two but there is a whole world of danger in Fracas.
How have your past experiences prepared you for what you’re doing today?
One thing I love about my experience working in the perfume industry is how I’ve been able to view it from so many different angles. I’ve worked with brands, both creatively and commercially, and I’ve worked with other retailers, too. However, the one constant has always been brilliant customer service, and that’s something I learned at one of my very first jobs at Saks Fifth Avenue in the States.
I worked there nearly thirty years ago, but their approach to customer service still stands out to me because it went so far beyond transactional exchanges. We were taught about having relationships with customers and trying to understand their tastes. Today it’s so important to create this human connection, and especially when you are based in a digital environment. So, despite selling primarily online, I try to make the experience of buying a perfume from Sainte Cellier as human as I possibly can. And I’m always looking for ways to spoil my customers a little bit, from offering them extra samples to upgrading their order.
What do you want to offer in the future that you don’t do today?
I would really love to start doing regular pop-ups around London. Pop-ups are attractive to me because I love the idea of being mobile, and I think that can be more advantageous than just being in one place. Especially in London where getting around can be such a pain!
As a UK based company, tell me how Brexit has affected your ability to do business in the fragrance sector.
Brexit has essentially doubled everyone’s workload. For European brands that want a presence in the UK, they now have to register on another product notification portal and be sure that their product information is being kept up to date there. UK brands that want to be sold in Europe have to do the same. Because the UK is such a small market, many European brands left all together, and, for many UK brands, having a foothold in Europe has become impossible.
The most harmful way it’s affected me, as a retailer importing brands into the UK, is with all of the customs bills I have to pay to receive shipments, and I don’t think it’s fair to my customers to add those costs onto the prices they’re paying. So when I get close to being sold out of something, not only do I have to account for the cost to restock those products, but I also have to think about the customs bill I am going to receive with the order. And that affects what products I feel comfortable promoting at any given time.
How has fragrance affected your life?
In 2010 a pretty serious health issue saw me having to undergo a series of major surgeries over a three year period. Life became hospital visits, time spent recovering, more consultations and preparing to do it all over again. Looking back on that time now, what I remember most is feeling like a ghost inhabiting my own existence and feeling so far away from myself.
I rediscovered perfume over those few years, though. After not wearing it for quite some time, one day I dabbed a bit of Vol de Nuit on my wrist and it felt like seeing a portal into colour in a painfully black and white existence. Engaging with fragrance throughout this time gave me something to look forward to. I was experiencing beauty again. And even travel when I barely had the strength to move to the other end of the flat. And it required nothing from me in return. I only had to exist with it and listen. Perfume gave me things I needed in a very big way, and I am so grateful to the artistry of fragrance for that.
What would you like to see the fragrance industry do differently?
While I deeply love perfume, I feel that the constant stream of new releases is becoming an act of self-harm. This is an issue exacerbated by retailers that demand brands have full collections and journalists who are constantly asking brands if they have anything new in the works. Perfume is a product with a slow turn around. I think I would like to see the fragrance industry just love itself more. Give perfumes a chance to find their audience before side-lining them with another release.
Any closing thoughts?
Even though I never planned to work within the fragrance industry, I’m really glad where my experience has brought me. Contrary to fashion, where trends emerge at the top and trickle down, the majority of the true creativity in fragrance is happening on the fringes. That’s where I want to be! Being in a position to introduce people to unique, beautifully crafted perfumes made by people who also love the artistry of perfumery is the best extra-added bonus. Hopefully some of the perfumes I’m introducing people to will affect them as deeply as they’ve affected me.
Within the course of three weeks, I came into contact with five individuals who are doing business with Brooke Belldon, proving that the artistic perfumery sector is indeed a small world. Following in the path of the woman who inspired her, she is boldly running her company on her own terms, daring to be different by keeping a slim portfolio of brands while providing superior customer service. She is uncompromising in respecting the standards she has set for herself, taking the higher road because it’s the right thing to do. Essencional salutes this trailblazing entrepreneur.