Portives recently had the opportunity to chat with Joshua Smith, the founder of Libertine Fragrance, a Canada-based house with no intentions of mass market appeal. After studying product design and becoming disillusioned with the marketing ethos of larger corporations, he turned his attention to his creative endeavors with fragrance. Libertine Fragrance was born, its name a playful nod to sensual freedom and hedonism expressed through perfume.
Interviewed by RJ Kaufman, founder of Portives
So why have you chosen perfume vs another artistic pursuit? Maybe you could expand on your early attention to smells as your mother lost her sense of smell?
I have explored a number of other artistic mediums in the past. I went to school for design because I was spending all my spare time drawing, painting and working on little projects and frankly between art and design, design seemed like more of a “real job” or I probably would have gone to art school. I found I liked the technical detail of the design process, and when I started exploring scent making it was a nice blend of technical and artistic. In school we were really focused on how products a person interacts with feel and look, and the emotions they evoke. When I was a child my mom had lost her sense of smell mysteriously. Her frustration and yearning for that sense of the world definitely imprinted the importance of scent in people’s daily lives and I began to think about the sense of smell related to design and the world around us.
Creating scents is a very technical endeavor and you could spend a lifetime learning all the common materials and how they act and interact with each other. Scent as a medium though is really very fleeting. We really aren’t very good at smelling as a species, at least not as good as we are with sight and touch. This gap or lack of ability leaves a lot more space for subjectivity than most visual art or design. The person smelling really has to dig through their memories when they are trying to smell really deeply. It leaves a lot of room to tell narratives or to let the wearer build their own associations and narratives.
You mentioned you’re self-taught. Do you have any hard-won advice for other aspiring perfumers?
I am still not the best with it, but patience and mindful practice are really the most important things. As you are building up a library of ingredients it can be easy to just start adding more and more into a composition, but if something goes wrong it is nearly impossible to figure out which material or interaction caused it. By going very slowly and finding harmonies between a handful of materials first you learn much more about each material and you can find combinations that work beautifully that you can use again and again.
What is your favorite Libertine fragrance, or the most difficult for you to achieve and why?
My favorite thing is whatever I have most recently completed because the pain of bashing my head against a wall and the joy of overcoming the challenges is still fresh in my mind. That would make Gilded my favorite of what I have released at the moment.
And what film goes along with this fragrance?
Oh damn! I associate my scents as I am making them with so many things but I haven’t really tried with films yet. It is a gently woody, spicy scent and the desert was definitly an inspiration. Perhaps something like The Fall by Tarsem Singh. It is maybe a little more light-hearted than Gilded but I do love how surreal it is.
Tell us about a romantic experience that involves fragrance or scent. (or another poignant scent memory you care to share?)
I may be a little out of line with many perfume folks, but a big part of my ethos in design & life is finding the beauty in ugliness. I think there is a lot of room for grand visions of beauty, but more importantly, if people find something they can appreciate in the ugly or banal, then it can fill a life with a lot more joy than trying to seek perfection. That said, I find a lot of really amazing times in my life have also had some foul smells associated — mostly from travelling to the coast, either British Columbia to go Salmon fishing, or a number of coastlines in the Caribbean. The coast can smell pretty foul. Ocean vegetation, waste, aquatic life etc.. yet they are some of the most beautiful spots where we convene with the ocean. I really love how those two contrasts come together and, being landlocked, it can strangely be a real treat to occasionally come across those scents. As challenging as they are, they also immediately transport me to some of the most beautiful spots I have been too.
Can you recommend a book or two to our readers?
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins is the first thing I read that exposed me to the idea that perfumes are composed and thought through. I had never paid it much mind before that one. Tom Robbins’ writing is also such a joy to read. He has such a fun style of storytelling that is light-hearted and captivating.
For a lot of the inspiration for Libertine and the idea of engaging with the world sensually I would recommend Diane Ackerman’s ” A Natural History of the Senses“. She has a beautifully poetic writing style, and if I could walk through the world, tuned in to my senses as she writes about them, I would live a very happy life.
Tell us about your influences, maybe a favorite nose or house?
So when I started making perfume I really hadn’t explored the world of perfume much. Canada doesn’t have a very good retail scene so my exposure was to just the main releases from the big houses, which I find are often pretty blah.
Now that I have had some time exploring the world I just really love smelling things from indie lines. Rather than smelling like a company trying to create something that people will like enough to buy, they smell like someone trying to say something.
In addition to the growing number of independent lines out there, the smaller fashion brands that have the room to be a little weirder are always great. Comme des Garcons or releases from lines like Naomi Goodsir are usually interesting enough to stand out.
What makes a good fragrance/perfume in your opinion?
Regarding scent I am very individualistic. I think a good perfume fits the need of the person wearing it. Some people wear scent to peacock and want beastmode perfomance to get compliments or whatever. If there are lines with nuclear strength scents that they like then perfect, that is a good perfume for them.
I make scents because I like exploring narratives and providing a point of introspection. I tend to want to wear something for myself and not for a specific reaction I am hoping to garner from others, so it’s ok if something is a little more tame or weird. It is just something I am exploring.
What are you working on right now? Can you tell us the concept, imagery or story behind it?
I have been working on a pair of fragrances based around iris / orris. I usually start with an image or story for inspiration but these two were really taking a material and moving with it.
I knew I wanted them to contain a few base notes but to be heavily contrasted. The orris one ended up a sharp green, earthy orris, vetiver, galbanum scent while the iris is a puffy sticky cloud of anise, iris, tobacco and narcissus. They were more of a personal exploration that something I had a plan to release so I will spend some time crafting and tying together their meanings in the coming months.