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Perfumer Barnabe Fillion on scents: ‘It’s color and texture in a visual way’

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Visual artist Davide Quayola created images of landscapes and seascapes for Barnabe Fillion's Othertopias campaign for Aesop. For the Karst perfume, Quayola's "The Shore" "signals a landscape sculpted by nature’s most skilled architect: water." Photo courtesy of AESOP

Early this year, perfumer Barnabe Fillion lost his nose.

Though air travel has been mostly halted throughout the world due to the pandemic, he was able to catch a flight to Ethiopia to fulfill one of his dreams: to find some of the best frankincense in the world. This was in January, during the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, when three men followed a star that led them to the Baby Jesus, and presented him with gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Fillion ended up in one of the oldest excavated shops in the world isolated from the city center, one of 200 people in line to buy from a person he described as “a very interesting old monk.”

“Without that commute I would have never been able to achieve such a dream in such conditions,” Fillion says. He caught a flight to India post-his Ethiopian pilgrimage, and eventually tested positive for COVID-19. Among his symptoms, he almost lost part of his olfactory senses.

“Three days I didn't have it, so I went absolutely cuckoo as you can imagine,” Fillion recalls.

Perfumer Barnabe Fillion is the artisan behind some of cruelty-free skincare brand Aesop’s most celebrated fragrances: the woody Hwyl, the floral Rozu, and the spicy Marrakech. Photo courtesy of AESOP

For anyone else, to lose their sense of smell even briefly, is an inconvenience at best. But for the perfumer, to lose his sense of smell is to lose an intrinsic part of his profession. He is the artisan behind some of cruelty-free skincare brand Aesop’s most celebrated fragrances: the woody Hwyl, the floral Rozu, and the spicy Marrakech. Though trained in photography, Fillion became a sought-after perfumer; he has also lent his nose in creating scents for brands like Le Labo and Paul Smith.

Miraceti, Karst, and Erémia take inspiration from “the boat, the shore, and the wasteland.” Photo courtesy of AESOP

This year, Fillion once again collaborated with Aesop in the release of a compact collection of scents called “Othertopias.” According to Aesop, the three eaux de parfum — Miraceti, Karst, and Erémia — take inspiration from “the boat, the shore, and the wasteland.” The collection hopes to inspire the wearer to challenge our perceptions of the natural world, and perhaps form a dialogue with the images each scent produces. Each bottle is 50mL at ₱9,300, and is packaged in a carton box with an artwork unique to each fragrance, designed by Belfast-based painter Jack Coulter.

In an interview with CNN Philippines Life, Fillion talks about how his sense of smell informs his perception of imagery, the unstoppable passion of humans to win over nature, and why he tends to keep poetry books at the breakfast table.

Interview has been edited for brevity.

Hello, Barnabe. I’ve read previous interviews you’ve had where you talk about being synesthetic. I wonder now how you begin building a scent in your head.

It wasn't a confined fact, when I started perfumery, that I was a synesthete. It's something that I have actually learned through the process. But it's interesting to go back to the roots of what invited me to do perfume — I was actually educated in visual art photography. And I noticed little by little that actually, the “what” I'm developing in the perfumes is a sort of image. I don't want to say the word “vision” because it's too ambiguous, but it still is not a very defined image, and little by little I get to develop with textures.

So basically, what I have that is very synesthetic, it's color and texture in a visual way when I'm thinking about a smell. And when I smell, I also have the same effect of adding flashes of images and texture, and sometimes blurs of different images together. And that became in a certain way a sort of palette for me.

For this particular project, the inspiration is the poetic space or the poetry of space. Developed by several philosophers, but mostly by Gaston Bachelard. And we are here, actually exploring this idea of those interstitial spaces called the “other spaces,” which are conceptual, philosophical, political, abstract, geographical, geological, etimologic, at the same time. And the whole collection is about questioning how perfume can be part of those interstitial spaces. And as a synesthete, it's very important for me because like, when you create a color, what you have in between the blue and the green, and the tension that could be those two colors together.

The base note of Erémia contains galbanum while Karst's contains sandalwood. Photos courtesy of AESOP

And it was very interesting to question, you know, this. But it's also this collection [is a] tool to measure the relationship or to interrogate and measure the relationship between many natures. And when I say nature is with the big N, I'm not only talking about the vegetal world, I'm talking about including us as human beings too.

I wanted to ask about how you decided on these themes specifically.

So it's very interesting to think that for example, Miraceti is about the unstoppable desire for… obscure desires, kind of. [It’s like] Captain [Ahab] of "Moby Dick," you know, not being able to stop his desire to chase something that he knows he will never get. But it's like this energy that you cannot stop trying to [win] over nature.

Erémia is much more about nature itself getting back its right and its space against the city. And Karst is much more [about] the elements of dichotomy. I think that in oriental philosophy it's very present in that culture, maybe less in Europe. But it's this idea of inhaling, exhaling, of departure and return from the cliff, which is one of the interstitial spaces of Karst. So you see, it's very visual. I'm not creating mood boards to do my work. It's just in my mind when I'm talking perfume, when imagining it. It reflects inside as images.

For the Miraceti perfume, the image "The Boat" pays tribute to "to the serenity and savagery of the sea." Photo courtesy of AESOP

It's interesting that you mentioned a lot of literary inspiration in creating scents. I'm actually curious now, what kind of books do you enjoy reading?

I love to read [about] Alain Corbin's world, but I had read it a really long time ago. I also like to dive into classic philosophy, modern philosophy, but again, not really, reading full books. It's more related to my research, but I love biography in general. I love art, artists’ biographies of different times.

Poetry is always there, next to the bed and, and close to the breakfast table or dinner table, you know, this idea of, of getting infused at some point of the day with poetry, which for me, is a part of other topia. For me, poetry plays a lot with the idea of special resonance of [a piece of] text, not only telling a story. The image that comes in for me is another topia.

I love the idea of poetry for breakfast. Part of your past work includes Hwyl and Rōzu. How is this current new collection different from these? And what similarities do they share?

Well, I will say that, first of all, we worked on it as a collection. And again, it was infused by philosophical and literary research. Hwyl is related to my relation to some special places in Japan. And Rōzu is more related to a relation that I had with [modernist designer] Charlotte Perriand and the love of Aesop for design, of their relationship with architecture. But also it was about paying respect, between the relationship of east and west in design. And how this pioneer woman is incarnating this balance, you know. She [was] influenced [by the] Japanese in her work and she brought back so much of the knowledge and tradition and style of the east. You know, not only in Japan, but she was in Vietnam before then traveled all over the world. So, this is more about the admiration for someone. Hwyl is more of a journal.

On Othertopias, Fillion says: "The inspiration is the poetic space or the poetry of space... the whole collection is about questioning how perfume can be part of those interstitial spaces." Photos from AESOP

Though they’re in one collection, Karst, Miraceti, and Erémia each have very distinct fragrance notes. Do you recommend combining or layering them in any way? Is that something that you thought of when you were creating them?

No, it's not the intention, but it's definitely something that I will invite anybody to try. You know with perfume, you have to try. Some of the greatest perfumes happen with some kind of accident like this. So why not?

But to be honest, that's not the intention of the collection, the intention is the juxtaposition, meaning you could wear them together in different places of the body. That could be interesting. But the idea is more like wear these one day, wear the other one, one day see how you go deeper in one of the imaginary spaces, you know. They are here to stimulate our imagery. Maybe you'll [become] more sensitive, for instance, not only because of the smell itself, but like the profound value more connected to Karst's territory, or do you need to be for a moment more in Karst’s territory than the tremendous sea, which is more Miraceti. If you want to have a bit of whiskey, maybe Miraceti could satisfy you. (Laughs) Karst will be too soft. If you want some gin, maybe Karst will make it very well.

Davide Quayola's "The Wasteland" for Erémia is a "locale that resists control and cultivation; humans may exert their influence but the natural order always prevails." Photo courtesy of AESOP

I have one last question before we go. What would you say are your favorite non-perfume smells?

It's used in perfume, transforming perfume, but I'm very sensitive to the end of the winter. [The] mimosa blossom, you know, that arrives in Europe like January, February and allows us to finally see some yellow in the sky. I'm very sensitive to frankincense because they remind me of rituals in general. Rituals of the church, or rituals of the kodo ceremony in Japan… rituals of so many places that I don't know. I'm also very fascinated by the smell of trees, and of wood.

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The fragrances from the Othertopias collection will be available on July 5 at Aesop Greenbelt and on July 7 through the website.