© parfums quartana / photography: daniel lieb
the world of fragrance is an ambiguous place, it reminds us a bit of wine making. complicated terminology, bubbling vats of plant particles, micro-distillation and complexed potions far removed from anyone's basic understanding of a recipe. for some, it takes years to find the perfect scent, something that resonates on multiple levels, an aromatic representation of who we are. for others, fragrance is more perfunctory, used to mask the undesirable traces of our basic humanity. personally, it's always been a tough one for me. a game of numbers and a frequent survey of kitsch bottles lined up at department stores, spritzing away on paper strips – only to discover that one's sense of smell is probably the easiest to overwhelm, and fast.
in the end, it was often back to a trusty deodorant stick and a sobering note to self: try to avoid suffocating on gallons of designer toxins next time. when we heard our friend joseph quartana had launched a new line of fragrances called parfums quartana, we pounced on the opportunity to flip the lid on the realm of redolence. quartana has an intriguing history in the fashion business. we met years ago when he was running seven new york, one of the only boutiques stateside at the time, that carried the more niche designer obscurity – think the likes of raf simons, bernhard willhelm, gareth pugh, and many others. he has also actively developed scents in collaboration with quite a few of our favourite designers over the years.
so, we felt certain we'd found the right person to interrogate, and requested a boat load of quartana potions. packaged in modernist psychedelia and masterful blurbs full of exotic base notes, delirious over tones and poisonous sounding sources, to be honest, there wasn't one concoction we didn't respond to. some we loved on us, others we loved just for their bold personalities. what we found most curious was the seamless fusion of modernity and esoterism behind each elixir – all pleasantly, and at times, alarmingly intoxicating. we caught up with joseph quartana recently for drinks, a brief history of scent, his background in the fashion industry, and how it lead to a career as an olfactory maestro.
tell us a bit about your background, of course we already know you as the guy who ran former avant-garde fashion shrine seven new york. i accepted a scholarship to nyu in the early 1990s, more to live in downtown new york as i wanted to be there to eventually work in the music industry. but when i graduated, napster came along so suddenly, the music business became unattractive as there was no money to be made! at the time, i was dating a fashion designer, who i later married, so i was exposed to that world and fell in love with it, and decided i wanted to apply my study of economics to that field instead, and to handle the business side of things, i.e. buying. with seed money i earned from investing my parents' savings during the first internet boom, i started seven back in 1999, and directed it for thirteen years, focusing on the more cutting-edge side of the fashion world, as no one was really doing that in new york city at the time.
what was it that drew you to fragrances, specifically given your leaning toward the obscure as a brand curator? by about 2007, i was getting bored with fashion as my boutique was 'humming' along, and the opportunity came up to develop a capsule fragrance collection. at the time i really knew nothing about the world of fragrance, other than that i liked it and considered a scent to be the finishing touch of my personal style. i thought it might be interesting to develop a series of fragrances with the edgy designers i had been working with at seven, namely guys like bernhard willhelm, jeremy scott, preen, gareth pugh, i.e. those designers influential enough in the industry that they should have a fragrance but not necessarily big enough that they could have a fragrance. by doing six at a time, we could reach factory minimums, hence six scents parfums was born. it was niche, and pretty obscure from the get go because these designers were still pretty unknown at the time, although now some are quite famous.
can you break down the science of creating a fragrance in layman's terms? the easiest way to look at it is by drawing an analogy to recording a song. you start with a vision. then you work out the notes, and those notes must harmonize like the hook in a good track. you have a progression, which is how it changes and evolves once it's unleashed, which should take the wearer somewhere. and then you have a mix down where you work out the concentrations of the fragrance, specifically each note as they become 'louder' or 'softer', depending on the overall concentration of oil to alcohol, and which can be likened to mixing down an album in the studio where you are adjusting sound levels.
© parfums quartana / photography: david uzzardi
what makes a scent good in your mind? achieving a harmony is a lot more difficult than it might seem! with some of the new fragrances, we went through literally 150 variations and it was two years before they began to 'sing'. but what really makes a scent good, is how it reacts to your particular skin. you see, every fragrance has top notes, what you smell in the first 30 minutes, heart notes, which is what it settles into for most of the duration, and then base notes, which is what it ultimately dries down to. but you, the wearer, are the magical fourth note and depending upon your diet, genetics, health, ph level, and even ethnicity, your skin is going to warp the fragrance a bit. i guarantee you, if you and i put on the same scent, it will smell a bit different on each of us. so, you have to find what works specifically for you.
key us in on the main components of parfums quartana. the fragrances are certainly distinguished by a blend of hypnotic vs subtly narcotic. are you curating a mood with each or is it more cerebral? more of a mood, though there is a general feel that permeates the whole collection which acts as a common thread and then specific moods that apply to each, with each vastly different depending upon the folklore of each of the poison flowers which is where we took the bulk of our inspiration from. it's somewhat cerebral in as far as a fragrance can be; but i'd say they mainly appeal to the emotions, though how you interpret the scent and the emotions it conjures is what makes it cerebral.
with les potions fatales we did wish to conjure specific imagery in one's mind for each, and the short films that i'm making for each help to illustrate each direction, specifically the imaginary femme-fatale that symbolizes each, as we wished them to be deceptively beautiful but ultimately dark and sinister like a poison flower. and each [with the exception of digitalis which is fresh and sparkly and ozonic as that flower was used to conjure faeries] is quite dirty or boozy or narcotic; i kept telling the perfumers to think about gasoline, how it is sweet and alluring, but you know it is toxic.
there is an obvious relationship between fragrance and fashion, how do you go about pairing the two? through the packaging. remember that fragrance is essentially invisible! and it's extremely challenging to communicate what it smells like through a computer monitor, even if you list out all the accords. so, the packaging is quite vital, much like the album cover art of a record; it gives you the first hint of where it's going.
can you elaborate on the artistry and visuals you used for the project? for les potions fatales, my art director aerosyn-lex mestrovic and I decided the scope was already dark so we didn't want to do a black colour scheme, and instead did something quite the opposite: bright colours. and to get them to pop and to make the point they are more 'evening-y' fragrances, we set those bright colours against a midnight blue backdrop. we opted for silver chrome to suggest the magic mirror from snow white which figured into the belladonna lore, and anyway i think gold as a metal is tacky and overused in perfumery. the swirly patterns started from the concept of aposematism which is when organisms signal they are toxic through bright colours and bold patterns on their skin.
think frogs, snakes, fish, insects, even skunks are an example of this, and aerosyn-lex abstracted them out through his paintings to suggest the hallucinations one gets from getting poisoned. the colours of each are not arbitrary by the way, i had people smell the fragrances without telling them anything about it, and asked what were the first three colours that come to mind, and where there was overlap those become the essential colours of each poison flower perfume, so they look like they smell. finally, there's a blue-amethyst inspired bottle safely contained in a 'metal' box, as the ancient greeks stored their poisons in that medium.
from a market perspective, the fashion calendar is crammed with seasons, how does this apply to scent? it's one of the reasons i left the business, it's really too much these days! of course fragrances follow trend cycles too, but they are much longer, i'd say five to ten year cycles, whereas fashion is much, much faster, with yearly turnover. that said, chanel no. 5 is almost a 100 years old, and people still wear it. and viktor & rolf's flowerbomb, which is one of my favourite mainstream fragrances, is over ten years old and still going strong. also, some fragrances are more appropriate to the season, there are winter, spring, summer, and fall fragrances, so some people rotate through them. and then others, once they find their signature scent, never change it.
do you plan on expanding into other areas with fragrance in the future? i'd like to introduce candles next, and then plan to reissue the best-sellers of six scents in 2017 at some point, but in updated packaging. eventually six scents series 5, as it's totally overdue. as for parfums quartana, i'm not sure yet which direction i'll take it in next.
lastly, what's your favourite of the current parfums quartana collection? that's like asking someone which of their children is a favorite! honestly, i love them all and put an equal amount of time into rendering and perfecting each. i wouldn't have dared put my name on any one of them if I didn't think they couldn't be further improved. each one points in a vastly different direction, but is related to the others, so there's something for everyone: green, gourmand, super florals, white florals, fruity florals, dirty animalics, narcotic orientals, etc. personally, i have been wearing the lily of the valley in the warmer weather, and wolfsbane in the cooler months, but i really adore the smell of venetian belladonna and midnight datura on women; they make me a little crazy in fact.
© parfums quartana / photography: david uzzardi