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Next List: Perfume Maker Christopher Brosius

Aired November 20, 2011 - 14:00   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: You're about to meet Christopher Brosius, a revolutionary, sometimes controversial, perfumer who is taking the ancient art of perfume making and really turned it on its head.

He is self-taught in an industry steeped in tradition. He deconstructs everything that we know about scent, perfume, and reconstructs it from memory while adding a lot of personality.

Over the next half hour, Christopher will make you think about perfumes, scent and smell in a completely different way.

CHRISTOPHER BROSIUS, CB I HATE PERFUME: I'm Christopher Brosius. My company is CB I Hate Perfume. I am the perfumer and founder. I Hate Perfume. I am the perfumer, obviously. Creative director, founder, et cetera, whatever you want to do, I am the company.

I can remember scent very, very accurately, which I'm told from even like really excellent researchers at the center in Philadelphia that people can't do this. I can't imagine how they can't, but I'm told they can't.

The point is, I catalogue smells in my head, I remember them, I can pull them and start arranging them in my head without even doing anything physically. And I've gotten to the point where that becomes very useful for me when I'm composing perfumes.

If I know all of the smells that I want to use and I have all of the smells that I want to use, it's a very short trip from there to getting something in a bottle. I mean, when I first started, the first perfume I made was like 135 variations.

Now, I can frequently knock one out in three to five. I can be walking around and just sort of staring off into space and, you know, appearing distracted or focused or what have you, when in fact, I am working.

I never in the early years referred to myself as a perfumer. It seemed really disrespectful not only to the people, but the process. I mean, there were people who had been to the old schools in France, who had a kind of knowledge that I didn't, and couldn't begin to without that training.

It was in 2000, actually in June of 2000, after I had won the first two of my four foundation awards, I was being interviewed by Michael Edwards, who is, perhaps, the world's foremost authority on perfume new and old, and he was asking me about the scent that I had won the awards for, which was snow.

It was a scent that I had wanted for years. That I worked on with countless labs, finally I made it myself. And then on one of the most bizarre nights I've ever had in my entire life, I suddenly found myself on stage at Avery Fisher Hall shaking hands with Alan Kuming and kissing Joan Rivers saying thank you for this thing that -- how did this happen?

Thank you all very, very, very much.

Bu Michael interviewed me a few weeks later and he was asking me, all right, well for this perfume, you know, who made it? I said, well, you know, I got this material from them and that material came from over there and this one came from them, and that and that, et cetera. He said, yes but who put it together?

I said I did. You're the perfumer. I said no, I never call myself a perfumer. He said why? I told him exactly what I told you, that it seemed disrespectful. And he said no, Christopher, you need to understand that you are a natural born nose.

You are someone who once in a generation, someone comes along that can do this. You have no training and yet you can make perfume. I sat there somewhat embarrassed to say with my jaw hanging open, going, OK, but it did make me think.

And little by little, I was like no, this is -- this is a major aspect of who I am. I am a perfumer. So, eventually I started putting it on my business cards and when people ask, you know, what is it you do, instead of I run this business or do stuff for this company, it's like I am a perfumer.

GUPTA (voice-over): More with Christopher Brosius when THE NEXT LIST continues.


BROSIUS: All of the fragrances that I do here, you know, in the library, burning leaves, the tomato leaves, they mean very specific things to me. They are very, you know -- they're my memories. I mean, to a degree they are me.

But, when another person smells them, they're having a very, very different experience. I mean, I have one accord that's called my birthday cake and it's specifically called my birthday cake.

Well, people have a whiff and they read birthday cake and my God, this is exact like chocolate. Cake with butter cream icing and the little pink flower candy roses and I can even smell the candle wax.

That's very interesting because my birthday cake was always an angel food cake, un-iced, very simple. That's what that smell is. But are they wrong when they have that experience? Absolutely not. Whatever people smell and whatever experience they have after that, it's perfectly valid and it is them. Perfume is really, it's about being absolutely yourself. I grew up in a very small town in Central Pennsylvania about an hour north of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River. In some respects my childhood was idyllic. The river was great, you know, I could bicycle anywhere.

You know, there was really nothing to worry about except maybe falling over a cliff. But at the same time, it was also a little boring. I was a big TV watcher, so stuff like "Johnny Quest" and "The Thunder Birds," you know, when I was really small. There's a whole big world out there, it's very exciting. You know, I think at some point, I'll leave.

When I got to New York, I had this kind of very naive sophistication and it was all based on movies I had seen, writers that I really loved, you know, like James Thurbur, Dorothy Parker, people who lived in New York, OK, watching movies, even things as strange as "Bringing Up Baby" this is how civilized people in New York behave.

So, without really kind of thinking about it, I did the same sort of thing. But, of course, looking back on it, I was incredibly inexperienced and much of, you know, my wandering around the city the first several years, was really about just like looking around observing.

You know, I'm a very observant person and fortunately, I have the skill to look around and see how things work and then figure out how do I want to work with that or what about that do I want to change. And I think the first couple of years in New York were really ability figuring out to a degree who I wanted to be.

One of the stranger jobs that I had during those kinds of muddled years was driving a cab in New York. I was a taxi driver, which horrified my family. I mean, I remember going home for Thanksgiving that year and, you know, meeting my aunt and she came like -- she flung herself on me going, your mother told me what you're doing.

You must stop. I just saw "taxi driver," it's horrible. I was like that's a movie. It's not really that way. Little did I know that it would be providing me with some fairly useful experience for later on.

Driving the cab was useful because that was during the period where Georgia Yo, Obsession, Poison, actually Obsession was a little bit later, but the big, huge perfumes started coming out. And I drove the late shift, meaning that I started at 5:00 in the middle of rush hour and continued up until 5:00 in the morning.

But, a lot of women were leaving their offices or the office before they left, they would douse themselves in some perfume, get into an unsuspecting cab, and it was hell from that moment on. There were a lot of perfumes that made me sick. You know, it was the middle of January.

I would be hacking and wheezing my eyes would be watering, I would be nauseous. I would have a blazing headache within minutes, even if I rolled the windows down, that scent was often still there 12 hours later when I was done. And at the time, it just struck me as extremely annoying, but not something that I personally would do anything about.


BROSIUS: When I first began making perfume in independently in 1992, I decided I needed something of a manifesto. Like a simple guideline as to creatively what am I doing here? And mine was a very simple list. It was like on one side of the board we have -- these are all of the things I hate about what perfume frequently is.

On this side, we have all of the things that I think it can be and should be. And it started out, I Hate Perfume, and then that was an exploration of why, transforming into where do we go from here or what am I going to do about this?

So when I reopened here in -- the second time that I started from scratch in 2004, I was thinking, all right, what do I name this company? Is getting to be my name? Is it going to be what?

And then I thought no, I'm going to go just as I'm going back to start, I'm going back to my original plan, I'm going back to the original idea, therefore this should be called "I Hate Perfume."

Being self-taught is actually -- it's very much a blessing and a curse. The curse part means that I do not have or did not have a lot of the technical experience that people who were classically trained in the very few perfume schools that exist do.

They knew how to make certain accords because they were taught how. They knew how to work with certain materials because this is the knowledge that was passed down through these schools. I had to figure out everything myself, which is I'm here to tell you, not easy.

An interesting one to come back to. The blessing, however, is I was never really stuck in the perfume box. For example, one of the problems that I always had with many of the houses that I worked with, was I would request a scent that was very, very specific and the samples that I would get back from the labs would be very pretty.

And I went no, no, no. This isn't right. It needs to be more. I realized, these people are all working from the fundamental platform that is perfume that it must be pretty. I don't want pretty. I want real. Because there's a big difference between pretty and real and real to me is beautiful. Pretty is pretty, but real is beautiful.

GUPTA: Like many you meet on THE NEXT LIST, for Christopher Brosius, breaking of rules simply going his own way, wasn't always easy especially among the establishment.

BROSIUS: When I became like a good deal more prominent and started being invited to industry things, you know, conferences for perfumers, what have you, I began to run into not only a good deal of praise, but I was also running into people who were unbelievably rude and hostile, which puzzled me. I'm like, what's the problem here? I've never met you before in my life. Why are you being such a jackass? It had to be explained to me that they felt threatened and I'm like, I beg your pardon?

You're sitting there in your fabulous office on 57th Street with an enormous salary and tons of benefits and you fly all over the world and you have labs and labs and labs at your disposal and you're feeling threatened? Please have therapy.

But they were. They felt threatened because OK, here they had this secret knowledge that I've somehow managed to figure out. I can, without training, do what they took years and years and years of study to be able to do. I could do anything I wanted.

They had to do what they were told. I was having my face in the press. In many cases, nobody had any idea outside the immediate industry who those people were. So a lot of them were really ticked.

A lot of that's changed so, you know -- and I have a little more fortitude these days than I used to.


BROSIUS: A lot of people do come here to try to buy perfume for other people, which I completely understand. I mean, perfume is a classic gift. However, here it's a little bit different because people buy perfume for themselves.

It's a very personal, very individual choice, and the experience that people have with my perfumes is very particular. So we discourage actually gift buying here.

My advice is always that if you're looking for a perfume for someone you really care about, make sure that it's a perfume that they already use or, perhaps, come in and choose it together. I think that's much, much better.

It's funny because like the paradox of perfume is always, it tells everything about me and it tells nothing about me. You can smell through here forever and it's like these are -- these things are all me.

They're extensions of me. These are, you know, like me in a bottle and yet, there's no way for other people to truly access that. It reveals everything, it reveals nothing. Perfume is the most intangible art.

There is, you know, it's not like -- even music, you can sit in a concert hall and people can play it and everybody can appreciate it on a very similar level. Perfume isn't like that. Perfume starts.

It tells the story it's designed to tell and then it is gone. You know, it really is like life. It begins and it ends and when it ends, it's over. Sometimes perfumes have to be discontinued because the materials that go in them no longer exist. That story then is over. It will never be told again. I think that is one of the things that makes perfume beautiful, because it will be gone. And that's life.

There are always going to be things to remind us of how we feel. That's art. Art changes, you know, any art, literature, painting, film, music, it's all about addressing and it's all about addressing our emotions, how do we feel, how does it make us feel?

What are we thinking when, you know, when we're interacting with that art. I think art that is inaccessible to a degree is something that's failed.

Without in any way having meant to be so, I am an innovator. I have brought to light markets that the industry may have been unaware of. I have, much to my dismay, given birth to this huge, enormous, wave of independent perfumers.

Before me there were very few. Now there are like a billion. There are certain scent trends that I may have set in motion without really meaning to have done so. I am the first perfumer in the history of the western world to be recognized specifically as a designer of scent.

When my work was included in the 2003 Trienial at the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, one of the curators said specifically, I've done a bit of research and this is the first time a perfumer has been included in a design show anywhere.

And I thought, wow, OK, honored, but also feeling kind of bad for a lot of the really brilliant perfumers who should have been recognized and unfortunately aren't or can't now because they're long be dead. But one of the reasons that happened for me was, I was doing something that the industry had never seen before.

I was creating a vocabulary that had never been used and I don't think that's really a terribly small achievement. I think that's innovation.

GUPTA: Christopher Brosius is an unlikely innovator who forced his own industry to evolve. He's part of a unique group of people who do more with what they love doing. Sometimes that passion comes around quite by accident, other times it's as if they were born to do nothing else.

In the end, though, they're all agents of change. That's what earns them a spot on THE NEXT LIST.