"Your brain tells you what to use because that’s what you’ve been trained for in the last 20 years, and that’s what is so beautiful…it's like making music." Lyn Harris, the only classically trained nose in the UK, reclines in contemplation on one of the beautifully constructed chairs that sits front of house in her new venture, Perfumer H. It is not the first time in our conversation that she has tried to articulate what exactly goes into the art of perfume-making. Or should that be the science of perfume-making?
Of course her answers touch on both worlds, and over the course of Harris’ journey - her intensive education in France, the unique success she enjoyed with Miller Harris, and now this new ‘labour of love’ - she has continually refined a deeply personal approach to both. The art and the science.
Not that Lyn is averse to indulging in the more inexplicable delights of perfumery. There are frequent references to the ‘magical bit,’ the ‘magical thing.’ Its not too much of a stretch to suggest that the magic is a placeholder for those seemingly intangible qualities that allowed Harris herself to successfully navigate the intensive, unforgiving world of traditional French perfume, when the odds were seemingly against her. For a start she was British, and a girl. "It was all very male-oriented, very French," she says. "It was all about that world, you know? Oh, there goes another third generation Grassoir!” Despite this, Harris speaks with genuine affection about her time spent training in Grasse at Robertet, the renowned jewel in the crown of the French perfume industry. "Because I was British, I was just seen as the quirky, odd one but because of this people there actually took an interest, let me into their offices. Some of the old masters were very, very kind to me."
The perception of being ‘quirky and odd’ also translated to Harris’ work which stood out due to the resolutely British perspective that informed her olfactory tastes. In place of the prettified French fields that inspired her tutors’ own journeys, stood the altogether wilder beauty of the Yorkshire countryside in which she grew up. Frequent visits to her grandparents’ home in Scotland also played a huge part in Harris’ early development. She speaks of this time and place with huge affection, evoking Romantic - with a capital ‘R’ - images of something akin to the opening chapters of an old-timey children’s adventure story. "My grandparents had the most amazing garden with flowers and vegetables, and I remember they made beautiful bread, cakes, jam with their berries… Oh it was idyllic! You would wake up in the morning and the fire would be on and you could smell it - a whole world of constant smells. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t smell something from those memories…."
"…That’s when my dream began I think."
For Harris, this dream has increasingly focused on repositioning the role of The Perfumer, something she has been fine-tuning throughout her career, and quite possibly perfected with Perfumer H. She first returned from her studies to the UK at a time when licensed scents for big brands reigned supreme: "people weren’t really bothered about the fragrance, it was about the name on the bottle. The promotional campaign. I thought: this is a great sadness." After growing disillusioned as part of that particular machine - "you’re in this little back room, you make everything, and then the brand gets all the recognition" - she and partner Christophe Michel ventured out on their own, founding Miller Harris in 2000. It became a true success story in the world of independent perfume, with three stores in London, a Selfridges concession and over 60 stockists worldwide.
Perfumer H, the logical next step for Harris, is exclusively about personal journeys, something that extends to the service provided. Harris offers an incredibly high-end ‘bespoke’ service, in which she will create one-off scents for an intriguingly private client list ("I’ve worked with some quite amazing icons but I can’t necessarily talk about them…"), but beyond that it is about finding the absolute right match for the customer. Smell is, when you think about it, an incredibly intimate part of who you are, so why, as Harris says, "would I go to a well known department store where everyone is getting commission and just trying to sell the next best thing… is that really going to suit me? No, you’re just going to end up buying something that will reek and you’ll hate. Here we try to give expert, thoughtful advice, and hopefully you’re going to walk out with a fragrance to cherish and love."
‘Cherish’ feels like the right word once you begin to understand the thought processes that go into creating each distinctive Harris perfume. "Nature is probably at the forefront of my mind when I begin, but then it can also be people, my surroundings, a piece of art… So I can be inspired by an artist, the way they put things together. I like to read about artists, go into their mindset." It’s about channeling their approach then, into the way you in turn approach perfume-making? "Yeah, exactly. I have an approach, just like an artist does. It relates to my materials and how I use them in my ideas - whether that’s focused on the materials themselves or just loving the style of something else entirely, and thinking: gosh! That style. You just have to wear it."
Harris ponders this amongst other considerations ("I don’t like to shock, unless its still wearable") whilst expressing the way she creates her perfumes, but it always returns to one thing: nature, and the unique way she manages to capture its wonderful sniffs and smells within a bottle of scent. The most telling reveal comes in her answer to a generic question for a latter segment of this profile, an answer that could only come from a nose such as Lyn Harris. Her favourite smell? "I love the smell of the rain at the end of a hot day as it settles on the pavement near to a bit of greenery. If, say, there’s a park nearby and you smell the distant oak tree through it." It is specific, escapist, comforting and intriguing all at the same time, which - when you think about it - are probably the dream qualities to look for in the perfect bottle of perfume. Suddenly, you start to get a sense of what to expect from her new range for Spring Summer 2016, simply titled ‘Rain Cloud.’
Harris reclines one last time in her chair, before jumping up again to fetch another scent to smell, to experience. The store itself opened its doors in Marylebone towards the tail-end of summer 2015, and the moment you step in to the duskily lit space, you’re seduced by an overwhelming sense of craft. Immediately ahead of you sits the open-fronted laboratory, in which Harris first concocts her fragrances, in full view of the shop floor. In between are rows and rows of elegantly minimal perfume bottles, conjured from individually handblown glass and adorned with intriguingly matter of fact labels: ‘moss’ says one; ‘ink’ says another. There is ample room - and a fittingly cool array of bespoke furniture - in which to truly experience the meticulously artisanal measures that go into the incredible scents you’re about to immerse yourselves in. Everything that Harris talks about (the art, the science), it all makes perfect sense in this environment.
By James Darton for Semaine