Launched in 2018 at LA’s Biennial Scent Fair where we first met, Fūm Fragrances was created by the vibrant Miss Layla, a self-taught perfumer harnessing her expanded senses, thanks to synesthesia, in her mission to transport us. She graciously allowed Portives to document her sun-filled studio where she perfects complex formulas often containing anywhere between 30 and 70 ingredients for months on end. We then continued our conversation at the Ballona Wetlands.
What is the story of your earliest memory strongly associated with a particular smell or fragrance?
The earliest memories I have that are strongly associated with smell are the scented recollections of unburned, shredded tobacco, rolling papers, heavily creamed coffee and engine grease. My Mom has what I call, “Gypsy feet” which took us all over the United States in various old cars. My sisters and I would take turns sitting shotgun in the front seat of our car rolling cigarettes for my Mom from an aqua blue tin can of Bugler tobacco. I remember bright orange boxes of Zig Zag wrappers and the smell of my hands from helping my Mom gas up and check the fluid levels of our car.
How did you become interested in the world of perfumery?
I became interested in creating perfumes when I started living in Los Angeles. As a teenager, I would visit Venice Beach as often as I could on Sundays. Sundays were the days me and all the other drummers would drum the sun down as we surrendered the passing week and welcomed the new one. It was a refreshing, renewing experience. Before the drum circle would start, I would wander into the head shops and mix up a perfume (in those days there were fragrance oil bars where you could customize your own scent into a roll-on perfume. Oils like “Black Musk” and “Sex On The Beach” were popular). I usually mixed up some sort of Amber, Nag Champa – Sandalwood and Myrrh thing. It was cheap and I thought I smelled awesome. Moreover, I enjoyed making something unique. I didn’t know it at the time, but that would change my life forever. Those were my beginnings of wearing fragrance and creating perfume.
Can you explain your creative process? Is it a lot of trial and error or methodical and premeditated. And how do you develop the concept for a fragrance?
My creative process is pretty unrestricted and free form, although… my perfectionism usually gets the best of me. There is lots of trial, lots of error. As I have become accustomed to more and more high end professional components, I have realized how much respect they command; which makes me more methodical in my approach to using certain materials. With that said, inspirations for developing perfumes can come from anything. I lay awake at night, often, formulating in my head. I have a journal next to me at all times for me to jot down ideas. I can hear a song, see a piece of art that moves me, have a conversation with a stranger, a great meal- read a passage in a book. I cannot be everywhere at once, so I live vicariously though the stories of others, which often create pictures in my head which turn into perfumed imagery in my imagination. Because scent is so powerful, I can call on it- on demand, and make realities (perfumes) of my own. Sometimes I create a perfume just to remember the experience I am having.
My refining process on the other hand is quite cut throat, which is where my perfectionism kicks in. But that’s another story…
Do you have a favorite fragrance note or essential oil and why?
It is extremely difficult to choose a favorite, but I would have to say Orris (the real deal- Orris Butter, the expensive stuff). I’m an Earth mama, through and through (and I’m a Taurus… Coincidence?). I was one of those kids who would eat dirt. Which is consequently why I think I love root vegetables so much. I love the smell of dirt. I love to garden and I love the smell of Earth- baked soil, fresh soil, sand… mud. What is unique about Orris is that it has a floral, woody, powdery and earthy quality to it- all at the same time. It is my favorite material because it smells like sophisticated luxury with an inherently innate flip side to it- like the smell of a swept dirt floor hut. Orris is the root of Iris flower. The bulbs are dug up from the earth with great amounts of care and gingerly processed so that the integrity of the material is maintained. The fragrance of Orris (to me) has juxtapositional qualities to it- the smell of wealth and the smell of scarcity.
What is your favorite creation so far and why, or if not your favorite, the most difficult to achieve?
Again… tough to choose a favorite, but I have something in mind that I have been trying to achieve for several years now: the “perfect” Amber fragrance. That doesn’t mean “perfect” for everyone, necessarily.. but the one that smells the most Layla. I haven’t nailed it… although I may be close. It is just not cost effective nor sustainable (I use some pretty incredible Oud… which is analogous to displaying a trophy of a stuffed endangered animal)… so I have my quandaries.
When creating a fragrance are there any rules or principles you follow?
For the most part, my answer is yes. I work hard to mimic the standards of the perfume industry, especially its’ regulatory compliance. I do this because I want to make perfumes that are safe for consumers and sustainable for the environment.
Tell us about your signature scent, if you have one, or a favorite perfume and why it speaks to you.
I am an Amber freak- through and through… My signature scent is Ambre Vie by House of Matriarch. It speaks to me because it is the most unique Amber fragrance I have ever encountered. There’s a note in it that smells like human musk- legit… like that cumin smell humans exude (it just occurred to me: cumin and human rhyme). I think it’s the Costus though… When I met Christi Meshell for the first time, I was at the Beverly Hills Perfumery for her High Flavor Launch. Her perfumes are also carried there, and it was the first time I ever experienced her work. We got a chance to converse and she asked me what fragrances I wear. When I told her Amber “is my jam,” she ran me over to Amber Vie and sprayed it on me. I was instantly in love. Not just with her but with the scent. By then I was making perfumes of my own- but she told me about the perfume from start to finish and it blew me away. I had never heard of Costus before or smelled real mimosa. I thought Mimosa was a drink you have with fancy brunches. I was shaken to my core. There has never been a more unique and sexy Amber fragrance and there never will be. It is so uniquely Christi.
What is the story of your most profound or poignant experience associated with a smell or fragrance?
When I was little we spent about three months living in a podunk, swampy place called Bogalusa, Louisiana. Our home was stuffed down a dirt road that ran right next to a river which shot off into standing water formations everywhere. It was as if we were surrounded by a big swap. Truly what people describe as the Bayous of Louisiana. Bogalusa was a putrid hole of sulphur and wet smells. There was a paper mill several miles down the road that made our life a smelly hell of a stagnant egg fart box. Worst of all were the mosquitoes. With all of the standing water I was (quite literally) eaten alive by vampire insects. This was in the day where parents forced kids to play outside. It was awful. I had scars on my arms and legs from picking and itching my skin. It was non-stop and I hated that place. My Mom tried every bug-off solution sold in stores. Nothing would keep these things from eating me. Finally, one day, my Mom doused me in straight patchouli oil; neat, right out of the dropper top. She rubbed it between her palms and then caressed me head to toe with it, wiping it all over my hair, my clothes and my backpack before hurrying me out the door to make a dash for the approaching school bus. Everyone on the bus sniggered and wrinkled their nose at me. Even my sisters treated me like Pepé Le Pew. But something truly amazing happened to me after that… the mosquitoes left me alone! I didn’t care about how people treated me when I wore patchouli oil. It became the smell of safety, comfort, mercy. Patchouli oil is the most profound and poignant smell to this day, as it is still equally as polarizing to people as the day I first wore it.
Did either of your parents wear fragrances and what kinds of feelings do those scents elicit in you now, or what did they elicit during your childhood? If not parents, any close friends?
My Mom wore Givenchy’s Organza in the 90’s. The only perfume I ever knew her wear when I was a child. We never had much money but she had a man in her life that showered her with nice and expensive things (years later he became the father of my youngest sister). My Mom always rocked Levi 501’s, clogs and tank tops (always tank tops… I remember because she never shaved her armpits and that used to embarrass me- now it ain’t no thang). If she wasn’t rolling her own cigarettes she smoked Nat Shermans, American Spirits, Marlboro Reds… Camels if she had a short paycheck. She smoked a pack a day and lived on heavily creamed coffee. She was a preschool and kindergarten teacher then… She would pick us up after school and take us for ice cream at Thrifty’s. She drove a 1964 Ford Ranchero that was patinaed and smelled like her and she of it. My Mom’s smell can be summed up as Organza, creamy coffee, tobacco and classic car. There’s one woman in the world who can pull off that smell, and that’s her.
Tell us about a romantic experience related to fragrance or scent.
The first image that comes to mind is the smell of a man with braided hair, the smell of his shampoo, his natural musk (twinged with whiskey), the smell of black leather, motorcycle exhaust, hot oil, motor metal, my perfume, my body heat and the aroma of the California coastline whipping past us on the back seat of a Harley.
What is your favorite smell and where does it transport you?
It is so hard to choose a favorite smell because my mood is affected by all sorts of aromas- so many fragrances cause me to feel different emotions. I positively adore the smell of Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic and Banana Boat sunscreen. Those classic smells bring me right back to happy times living on the Colorado River in Parker, Arizona with my Dad. The aroma of Banana Boat sun tan lotion was my Dad’s favorite. I can picture him now, his baseball style cap on, his wildly outrageous board shorts, his Vans slip ons and Von Zipper sun glasses. My Dad always looked so cool. We went out on his boat and floated the river on giant rubber inner tubes- every day. He would tie a rope around a six pack of beer- one end of the rope around the tube and the other tied to the plastic beer net that held the cans together. He would let it sink down in the water and he would say, “now my beer will stay cold!” He smelled just like banana candy and Corona with lime. We would float for hours, get out, hike back and do it all over again. We even docked at Rabbit Rock and jumped off the ears together. My Mom usually wore Hawaiian Tropic SPF 8 (so she could “bronze” up- this was in the late 80’s early 90’s- so radiation burns were still à la mode) and sat beach side getting her tan. I didn’t get any of the tan coloring from my Mom, I was pale and freckly like my Dad. I was usually lathering myself in the highest SPF we could find at the market. Coppertone was great for that. I love the smell of Coppertone and Banana Boat, those two smells are the happiest smells on Earth.
Can you tell us about any other scent rituals you have? Maybe relating to incense, oils, tea, candles, cooking etc.
For me, the experience of fragrance and aroma is part of my self care routine. I find it ritualistic, for sure. When I choose shampoos, conditioners and soap I choose them mostly for aroma. I see showering/bathing as part of daily self care. If even for 10 minutes it is a break, a time to be present and aroma/fragrance makes me conscious of that fact. The same goes for my meals. When I eat I do not like to have distractions from screens (tv, computers, phone). Eating is a time for me to be present to fully enjoy my food by focusing closely on the smell, which consequently enhances my flavor and experience of my meals. I am also a cook, so my awareness of fragrance and flavor is even more acute. This applies to my beverages as well. Tea, wine, craft beers and spirits. I am even incorporating essential oils into my kitchen by adding them to cocktails, food recipes and more. Also, I have been burning sage, incense and resins since I was a child. I love the smell of burning palo santo, piñon pine sap and Agarwood chips. I also have an oil diffuser that I scent my home with. I create energy sprays before meditating and I use essential oil drops in my car under my floor mats. Fragrance is such an integral part of my daily life. Its as much a part of me as breathing. I find perfume/fragrance to be transportive and luxurious- even if I am merely doing the dinner dishes with a gorgeous soap. Fragrance heightens my existence in life.