Beauty / Favourites

Perfumer Barnabé Fillion on scent, senses and paradiso

Barnabé Fillion is not your typical nose. He wasn't born in Grasse, and didn't grow up with perfumer parents. He doesn't even have formal training. But he is the genius behind countless much-loved niche scents, including Aesop Rozu, Gloam, Le Labo Geranium 30, and those within his own brand, Arpa Studios.

He was also the talent tapped by Sean Venturi and the team at Venroy to launch its first-ever perfume, Paradiso. A sunny mash-up of Shisho, Neroli, Mimosa and Sandalwood, Paradiso pays tribute to travel, warmth, and the coastal appeal of two significant destinations: Bondi (where Venroy originated) and Capri (the iconic Italian outpost where the brand opened its first international boutique). In essence, Paradiso bottles up the feeling of being somewhere beautiful, whether that's at home, or away.

In light of the launch, Fillion recently visited Sydney, where I had the opportunity to chat with him about the launch, and his work as a perfumer in general. All noses are intriguing but Fillion's way of creating is especially unique; he experiences synesthesia, a condition where the senses overlap. To him, a perfume is not just a series of notes but has a colour story, maybe a soundtrack (somewhat unrelated, but Venroy do great playlists). It's fascinating to hear about, and lends itself extremely well to the art of perfumery. The sunny, gender-fluid Paradiso is proof.

Hear exclusively from Fillion below on Paradiso, creativity and being inspired by places on Earth.

So how did you come into perfumery?

I was educated in photography, and spent years working with different photographers as an assistant. In the middle of this I went back to university to work on my thesis, which was focused on the phenomena of synesthesia. I interviewed a poet, an architect and a nose. The latter was a woman who went on to become my mentor.

At the time I didn’t know I wanted to work with fragrance but I was fascinated with her and the language around perfumery. We spoke a lot about chroma, and the colours she classified as scents. It resonated with me. After some time we started working together. We collaborated with many fashion brands, but eventually I found my way to Aesop, where I worked as the in-house perfumer for 10 years.

Have you undertaken any formal training?

Not at all. I spent four years working alongside my aforementioned mentor. She gave me all the ‘informal’ training I could ever ask for. It was like a personal academy. But I’m glad I didn’t go to school. I think it’s helped me retain some independence and my intuition.

Am I correct in saying that you do experience synesthesia yourself? What's that like?

I think there was always something sparking in me, but it developed more so while I worked on my thesis and pushed into perfume. There’s a visual impact when I’m working with perfume or an essence. It’s related to colour and texture. And it’s not as if a certain note is red or blue or yellow… it’s more of a gradient that moves slowly. It’s very intimate and tricky to explain; sometimes there’s a visual in my head and little by little it’s defined by a scent.

Can you talk me through your entire creative process when you’re concepting a perfume?

It depends on the project, but I like to meet with whoever I’m working with. I find a lot of it is built or designed in those first encounters. I’ll then go on to finesse details on my own. I love being creative and fine-tuning a fragrance… to be honest the hardest part is remaining clear, articulating the vision and not losing track of time.

Of course there’s also the scientific side, I look at ingredients, distillations, extraction methods and how this will all come together.

No process is the same, but I never work with mood boards… Ha!

How did you connect with Sean and the team from Venroy?

Sean actually reached out via email, and he then came all the way to Paris. Venroy feels distinctly Australian but I loved their international presence, the retail stores in Capri and Montauk are beautiful.

The team visited me in my studio, the first thing I noticed was how relaxed they were — in a good way. Again very Australian! It felt natural from the start. Sean was excited, honest and willing to share. We had a location focus — Bondi and the Mediterranean — but otherwise there was a neutral space to create. I presented some ingredients, took in their reactions and we went from there.

Perfumes are often inspired by a place or a person's memory in a place... how literal where you when considering Bondi and Capri in the context of Paradiso?

Because of my work with Aesop I've spent a lot of time in Australia, but I've only been to Bondi a handful of times, and the most recent was in the winter. It was very different... it was white, hazy, misty. But people swim, they walk, they surf no matter the season. Sydney is a beautiful city with a sense of ease. People love to be outdoors, as well. I find Australians are quite connected in their natural environment.

As for Capri, I've been maybe four times? I'm fascinated by the house, Casa Malaparte — it's my favourite thing on the island. The architecture is magic, I love the way it sits against the rocks and the sea. Capri is visually very beautiful; I see why people are infatuated with it.

What went into Paradiso — what are the notes and what did you want them to say?

I didn't want Paradiso to feel heavy or carry weight. I almost wanted to create something that felt like a splash. The idea was to create a perfume that felt right in the morning, but would transform as the day went on. It also had to have balance and feel distinctly unisex. I essentially wanted a fragrance that diffused like skin in the sun.

I explored ingredients that corresponded with that... or maybe it was the other way around in that the ingredients gave us that impression in the end. I knew we needed Neroli; we used a pure extract from Morocco. I call it the protagonist, it's a top note. We added Shiso Leaf, which is not as common in fine fragrance but it's green and very aromatic. Pink Pepper for spice, but it's an elegant, woody kind of spice. I find it connects the top of the fragrance with the Sandalwood base; it feels cohesive. I knew we needed something floral, sunny but not capricious. I landed on Mimosa, it's fluffy, the pollen moves through the air, It's very lightweight and airy. I included Iris to bring something a bit vintage into the mix; it's chic but powdery. There's also Green Tea for texture. And back to the base... Sandalwood is tricky as it's so heavily used in fragrance. It needs to be sourced responsibly. I used a white Australian Sandalwood as it's drier, softer... I find it sweeter. Myrrh because it's a mineral, and gives that feeling of being close to the sea. And of course Frankincense because it adds a certain air of mysticism or magic.

How important is ingredient sourcing to you?

Very. A lot of perfumers work with ingredients without knowing where they've come from. It's a huge focus for me. I like to take almost a medicinal approach. Natural extraction methods and sourcing also make a difference in the final product.

On the topic of travel, where do you go when you've got the time?

I actually don't really live in one spot. There are a few places in the world I like to live and work: Paris, Kyoto, Venice and Mexico. My studio is in Paris, and I love Kyoto. I find in Venice I'll be more inclined to paint, create... and I love the architecture in Mexico. I was also married to a Mexican!

Final question, do you wear perfume? I've come to learn a lot of perfumers don't...

I don't! I actually am very, very sensitive to smells. I can't even travel with it in case it breaks in my suitcase. I wouldn't be able to wear my clothes. I even feel that way with laundry detergent. If I do wear a perfume, it needs to be very light.

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Images: Venroy, @barnebefillion