Skip to main content

Perfume sessions at the Institute for Art & Olfaction, a Los Angeles non-profit centre for arts and technology projects with a focus on scent.Courtesy of IAO

Early in the pandemic, Montreal-based perfumer Dana El Masri and a group of like-minded peers circulated a Change.org petition calling for the fragrance industry to stop using the terms “oriental” and “floriental” to denote scents of the powdery, vanilla and resinous variety.

Dating back more than a century (think Guerlain’s Shalimar, which debuted as a spicy “oriental” in 1921), such vocabulary was formed through the lens of colonialism when Anglo-Europeans viewed themselves as the centre of the world, while everyone else was othered, exoticized and fetishized. It also treats the so-called Orient as a monolith, which is geographically and culturally incorrect.

“We brought the idea to the public sphere very, very slowly and still got a lot of push back,” says El Masri, who was classically trained in France but raised in Dubai by an Egyptian mother and Lebanese father. The idea was to reclassify the historic fragrance family (which often includes sandalwood, orris, vanilla and resins) using terminology that is not only not offensive, but more about the ingredients’ inherent characteristics rather than a sensuous, imagined past.

“We’re just saying: Find a new word” to express olfactory attributes, El Masri says, as opposed to colonial clichés that are harmful. “I also look at it from a technical perspective – descriptive words are more helpful.”

Since the launch of the petition, which remains active, some progress has been made. In 2021, the Council of British Society of Perfumers and international fragrance house CPL Aromas revamped their terminology, aligning with an acknowledgment from fragrance historian and taxonomist Michael Edwards that the term, “oriental,” is “outdated and derogatory.” Edwards’s influential fragrance wheel is the industry-standard reference for classification, and he replaced that word with “amber.”

Words matter, but what it means to look at fragrance through an equity lens goes beyond vocabulary. The cultural shift toward dismantling systemic racism, white supremacy and colonialism has been a long time to coming to the fragrance industry. With the growing culturalization of all things olfactory, racialized people are excavating precolonial fragrance culture, repatriating stolen narratives, and challenging the gatekeeping status of the traditional and conservative French industry.

To illustrate how the push to decolonize scent needs to extend beyond language, El Masri highlights the now infamous Melanin perfume marketing campaign from a niche European brand (its tagline: “We all have it”) that was “inspired by Africa” and used the Black Lives Matter hashtag to promote itself, yet that had no racialized people involved in the venture. The deeper goal of this movement is to replace the billion-dollar global fragrance industry’s dominant Eurocentric vision with authentic multicultural narratives.

Social justice is part of that conversation. Writer and activist Nuri McBride recently gave an online seminar on the colonial history of the fragrance trade that focused on the impact that European expansionism and colonization had on the history and development of the modern industry.

“I don’t want it to stop at the symbolic, at the PR level of things,” she says of the breakthrough in terminology. “To have prominent people of colour is a huge and important thing, and to get rid of this language that is really holding our industry back is important. But it’s only tokens if it doesn’t translate down to how we behave around the environment, to how products are being made.”

McBride makes the distinction between olfactive culture and the olfactory trade, or the commercialization and commodification of perfume: That “started in Europe in the 19th century and off the back of colonization,” she says. Her research focuses on the origins of this historical legacy: “Where does it start, where we start seeing the aromatic wealth of the economic global South getting pushed up to the North and linking that to the modern industry.”

Transparency is a problem in large part because of the fantasy perfume sells, McBride adds, pointing out that 95 per cent of fragrances are made by just five companies.

“There’s a reason why all of these French houses have these exclusive connections to Haiti, to Madagascar,” she says. “It’s not that far to when these were former colonies working in economic relations of exclusivity.” When the average vanilla farm worker in Madagascar makes something like 13 cents an hour, compared to what consumers are paying for its perfume, “that lack of trickle-down really has its origin in a predatory system.”

As a former lawyer in refugee services, McBride is interested in labour rights and power equity. That’s why, as she prepared to launch a ready-to-wear fragrance line, ATROPOS, she worked directly with growers and distillers whenever possible, “building a small network of smaller businesses benefitting from the system.”

With the growing culturalization of all things olfactory, racialized people are excavating precolonial fragrance culture, repatriating stolen narratives, and challenging the gatekeeping status of the traditional and conservative French industry.Courtesy of IAO

McBride’s popular talks are part of the continuing Scent & Society series at the Institute for Art & Olfaction, a Los Angeles non-profit centre for arts and technology projects with a focus on scent. The IAO was launched a decade ago by Saskia Wilson-Brown to combat a lack of accessibility and democratize olfactory culture.

“When it comes to actual decolonization or placing BIPOC people first, there have been a lot of statements in the industry and putting forward perfumers who are BIPOC – but if that extends beyond marketing? We’ll see,” Wilson-Brown says. “We should all have a voice and a chance, but we should also examine what we’re fighting for. Maybe mass-production of fragrance isn’t the answer.”

Within the predominantly white male establishment that creates the blockbusters marketed by Estée Lauder, L’Oreal, Coty, Shiseido, and Puig, star perfumer Loc Dong has been an exception. He’s been with the American company, International Flavors & Fragrances, for 20 years, working on Michael Kors, Issey Miyake, Calvin Klein Euphoria and, more recently, Paco Rabanne’s futuristic Phantom cologne.

Likewise, Chris Collins, the former model and longtime face of Ralph Lauren, has his own line of eponymous fragrances stocked by major retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Sephora. Other racialized creatives working outside the establishment are gaining visibility thanks to new websites such as BlackPerfumers.com and public databases including Renee Loiz’s 550+ Comprehensive Black Owned Wellness Brands, which are designed to amplify creatives of colour, BIPOC-owned businesses and other industry professionals.

Yosh Han, another voice in the movement and creative director of direct-to-consumer subscription service Scent Trunk, curates the platform’s selections with diversity in mind and commissions original fragrances from indie perfumers every month. Victor Wong, founder and creative director of award-winning niche Canadian perfume house Zoologist, similarly collaborates with different noses on each scent.

Meaningful change also requires being able to meet increased demand. In early October, a popular North Carolina #PerfumeTok creator championed Jaz, the latest scent in El Masri’s Jazmin Saraï range. Thanks to the unexpected coverage, each new batch has sold out in minutes ever since.

“It’s actually better to be independent,” El Masri contends. “But the problem is access to materials on a larger scale. There are large conglomerates with massive teams taking care of sourcing. You can’t scale up because you literally have no access. And no financial support.”

That’s why Moodeaux, another luxury fragrance brand that’s the brainchild of former Refinery29 editor Brianna Arps, recently launched a non-profit Black in Fragrance grant program for emerging BIPOC creators. Detroit fragrance and flavour educator Terees Western, founder of FragranTed, runs workshops in local schools to cultivate interest among students and attract a diverse next generation to the field. The young noses will hopefully develop a deeper understanding that perfume is more than a bouquet of flowers in a bottle. It’s a sensorial construction of culture through olfactory storytelling.

Shopping list

Fayoum by Jazmin Saraï

El Masri trained in Grasse, the traditional cradle of French perfumery. This evocative fragrance of pungent African violet, sticky date and fig on an earthy clay accord is especially popular because it eschews generalization and distills a specific sense of the place it’s named for, in the desert south of Cairo.

$181/50 ml eau de parfum through jazminsarai.com.

Sacred Scarab by Zoologist

Wong’s love of Kiehl’s Original Musk inspired Zoologist, which interprets animals using synthetic ingredients. For the insect that’s a symbol of regeneration popular on amulets in ancient Egypt, British perfumer Sultan Pasha has crafted a rich modern attar built around the cultural traditions of kyphi incense.

$270/60 ml 20-per-cent extrait de parfum at Etiket (etiket.ca).

Elena Samsonova/Handout

Scorpio Rising by ERIS Parfums

Bottled at a sultry 25-per-cent concentration, Scorpio Rising’s spicy leather and clove smoulders like Delphine Seyrig in a 1970s psychodrama. It’s composed by perfumer Antoine Lie (of Armani Code, Z Zegna) for ERIS Parfums, the glamorous throwback collection by American vintage perfume historian Barbara Herman. Her luxury range is aptly named for the Greek goddess of disruption.

$180/extrait de parfum through erisparfums.com.