Pissara Umavijani started Dusita living in Paris, a city where legacy perfume houses have about them a sacred, unassailable quality (likely because they still hold the reins on high quality materials, supply lines and fulfillment channels). Though not yet even a decade old, Dusita has gracefully revealed itself a worthy peer. Umavijani’s fragrances, composed in tribute to her father’s poetry, have received tremendous attention and multiple awards for their opulent, timeless and soulful nature. Umavijani spoke to me very late into the night from Paris, a testament to her generosity given the gaping time difference. She told me she loves the quiet of darkest night, a time that is “good for the spirit,” though admittedly not great for the constitution.
Interviewed by Natalie Toren, an LA-based journalist
These are unprecedented times. Rather than start at the beginning, could you give me a snapshot of where Dusita is right now, during the mandatory stay at home orders?
I was actually finished with a formula for a new fragrance, but I was waiting to macerate my formulation for assessment. Right when COVID-19 started I called my factory because I wanted to quickly do hand sanitizer, in the hopes of providing it for donation. My factory said there was no alcohol available, at all. France is experiencing a huge shortage of alcohol: we supplied Italy, we supplied England, and now we are in this very bad crisis so we also have to supply the French health industry. I was at an impasse. I can not do sanitizer or new productions of perfume. For the moment as a brand and as a person, it seems time to focus on meaningful communication that is just as much at our core as the products themselves. Dusita, and all the fragrances in the collection, are inspired by, and in homage to, my father’s poetry, [the late contemporary poet Montri Umavijani]. I decided to do a poetry contest (with Fragrantica) centered around the themes of love and freedom. Since quarantine began, I meditated on what Dusita could do to give back to its community around the world. What could stimulate creativity and encourage positivity, while our bodies are enclosed in small spaces? The subject of love is the inspiration for the perfume Mélodie de l’Amour , while freedom is the inspiration for Issara. [Submissions must be in by June 15 and will be judged by a panel.]
How do you see the role of poetry in society?
The role of the poets is the role of reflection. Apart from reflecting beauty, it is also reflecting the other darker side of life. Shining a light on the suffering and inequality. My father used to love to talk to farmers and day laborers in Thailand. He would always write about corrupt politics. And it had an impact, to the point where the last piece to be published was a poem entitled Bankers and Beggars and after that no one would publish his work. The poet has a profound role to make people who appreciate art reflect upon much more difficult topics.
A lot of people I know have expressed that poetry can be hard to understand, including the works of my father. When he passed away, I reread his work slowly and I realized that it wasn’t difficult—he wasn’t using advanced vocabulary—but I think the depth of the poetry offers a range of interpretations, and reinterpretations, based on life experiences. It’s like a perfume. I’d never tell someone how something should make them feel. I don’t need to articulate every detail of my vision into my fragrances. It’s totally experiential. People should link their response to their memories, or allow their bodies and emotions to connect to it.
The impact your father Montri Umavijani had on you is immeasurable. You’ve said that he, and his poetry was the reason Dusita came into being. Can you tell me about him?
Actually I started Dusita because of two remarkable people.
My father spent a lot of time abroad in Europe and America. He started writing in 1946. He translated a lot of contemporary poets, like William Blake and Emily Dickinson. He was a disciple of Kenneth Rexrot, one of the greatest American contemporary poets. He taught at Amherst, where John Solt was a peer of his and introduced him to the Haiku form of poetry. Explaining the entire world, and huge sentiments, in such few words. My father always wrote his own poetry in English, and then would translate it into Thai. He used to say that English was the language that could express more.
From the time I was born, my father used to tell me: you must read, you must understand poetry and literature, and you must understand it from different parts of the world to understand humankind. He instilled in me that I should always carry a blank paper in case I have an idea to write down.
I would see him work so hard. And then he got sick. He was only 64. I was with him for many months at the hospital, taking care of him. One day in intensive care, he said to me that all his hard work was worthwhile if it touched one soul and he could die happy. The next day, he did pass. At that time I was young and a student. I made up my mind that I wanted to do something in tribute to my father, honoring his words and his work. My initial objective was to bring the words of his poetry to a new audience. And that led to Dusita many years later.
My other driving force is my mother, a philosophy professor. She wrote a book about knowing oneself and has always instilled in me the importance of following my dreams, no matter what their makeup.
What are some early memories you have from your childhood associated with smells or fragrance?
The memory of my first house in Bangkok plays a very important role for me. We lived in a compound with my grandmother, aunt, and parents. A very traditional place that was an arrangement of small wooden houses surrounded by gardens. We had a banana grove and different kinds of tropical fruits growing like mangoes, coconuts. Right in the heart of the city, this was an unusual paradise. My memory is of playing in the gardens at sunsets: I was alone and I would play with the flowers and smell the leaves and grasses. Connecting to nature was a profound part of my life, it was like a communion.
I also learned at a very young age, without knowing, to identify my family members by their favorite perfume. My father had lived in Paris and always adopted a very European approach. He would buy Shalimar and Mitsouko for my mother. For himself he liked Fidji by Guy la Roche. He also was really fond of Bergamot-forward perfumes so that is a smell so close to my heart. My grandmother on my mother’s side wore Lavande from Guerlain, and also 4711 Eau de Cologne. My grandmother on my father’s side wore Tiger Balm, which is the smell of camphor. It was actually different from what you smell now: back then the old formulation was much heavier and contained a different mixture of aromatic herbs like lemongrass, galangal, and ginger. I remember it smelled fresher. At that time, it was common for people to make their own balm or compress with these aromatic herbs of Thailand.
Did you know that fragrance was going to be your medium?
(Laughs) No, not at all. I loved smelling and using my nose, but I had no idea that composing fragrance would become my career.
How did you learn to formulate and structure fragrances?
It took many years but I started when I was a teenager. I had a good friend who, like me, was deeply passionate about vintage fragrances. Together we started analyzing perfumes, and researching perfume history. I bought books about old perfume and some basic 101 perfumer guides. It’s not just about learning the structures, but also about understanding the impact of certain fragrances that proved to be era-defining. We would always ask ourselves, what is the structure? What is the technique? It’s a bit like cooking. When you smell something new, you can immediately figure out what is missing in the formulation and whether it’s balanced. When it came to smelling the raw materials, we would try and challenge ourselves to identify roughly, and then later more precisely (also with the understanding that raw materials were historically different). We built a raw materials organ. We weren’t just trying to educate ourselves for a goal; it was a genuine sweeping passion. The first time I smelled Fracas, I was so blown away. I tried to deconstruct it and I simply couldn’t. Now, I can deconstruct it and reconstruct it in my own way. I even use some elements in Le Sillage Blanc.
What was it like sourcing raw materials in Bangkok?
It’s not easy. Even now, if you are sourcing raw materials it is extremely difficult, pretty much anywhere. There are quality issues, quantity issues, and moreover if you are not a company, suppliers may not sell to you directly. At that time, I sourced through global websites, like Eden Botanicals (which is very good, but expensive and has limitations). Thailand is actually a producer of several materials. We have our own tuberose and a different kind of oud, which is unique. While it varies by extraction method and time of year, It can smell like burnt mango. We also have a special Bergamot that we call a camphor lime (you can find it at play in edible form in the hot-and-sour soup Tom Yum). It’s a very citrusy pungent terpenic light bergamot; very unique and beautiful. I’ve tried to do some formulations using it, but it’s an extremely overpowering material. I would love to use Thai materials in future scents. I always source broadly to smell and understand the profile of raw materials, even if I don’t ultimately use them in my formulations.
Do you mostly use natural materials?
Yes, I use a very high percentage of natural ingredients and isolates. As a student I did many exercises to formulate around synthetic materials and be inspired by them, and I would encourage every perfume student to experiment with them. But for products, especially those for the body, I still think that natural materials have more impact on our emotions. For me it has more power. We are all subconsciously connected with nature, and that’s why perfume evolved and it changes our emotional heart when we smell something. Even synthetic materials that seem natural I can find problematic. Ambroxan [a popular synthetic amber material] gives me extremely bad headaches, even though it seems so natural. My body, and doubtless others, reacts negatively to certain ingredients. So I personally don’t use this (very popular) material in Dusita. There are some woody ambery materials that certain niche perfume brands use that are so tenacious. My boutique in Paris is about 200 meters away from one of these brands, and the scent travels into my store everytime the door opens. It’s pretty funny.
So you were self-taught prior to moving to Paris. What happened then?
I didn’t set out to move to Paris. Following the death of my father, I traveled, exactly like he did. He told me we need to explore the world, and find out what life is. For me that was traveling by train in Europe. One day I was passing through Paris. I never expected to live there, but I saw a man in the metro that was wearing the same shoes as my father. I was so surprised, it felt fateful. I followed that person, and couldn’t help thinking that I was following my father and a path lay before me. When he was alive he used to tell me I had to learn French (I didn’t, I learned German instead).
So when I moved to Paris in 2011, I first studied French, and then attended ESMOD to study design. It wasn’t that I had plans to be a fashion designer, it was just that ESMOD welcomed foreign students.
I had actually brought five formulas for perfume creations that I had developed in Bangkok with me when I moved to Paris, including Issara, so I did come with a goal. One fortuitous thing that happened when I was seeking constructive criticism for these creations: I was able to meet with Michel Chevalier who was an executive at major luxury companies (like Paco Rabanne and Caron). I didn’t expect the meeting to become anything more, but it quickly became serious. I was told what I showed him could turn into a brand. It couldn’t have been more unexpected. I passed Place Vendôme on the way out, and I remember thinking: how many times in one’s life could someone have an opportunity like this, to follow a dream? I committed to showing him a full brand lineup in three months. That is such a short time to start something in reality. I deeply underestimated the time—to be honest it took me more like four years. It was very challenging. I rushed back to Bangkok to talk to my collaborator friend. First I wanted to produce in Thailand, then I wanted to move production to France which presented lots of roadblocks (and so many people who wouldn’t even accept an inquiry or take a meeting). And then the aspect of brand building was also challenging. The images, the brochures, the website: it took me so many iterations. Chevalier continued to encourage and champion me through all this. He also gave me valuable advice about branding (he is a published expert on luxury brand management). I launched with three scents, in order of release: Issara, Mélodie de l’Amour and Oudh Infini.
Do you have a favorite of your fragrances?
Each fragrance represents personal challenges or accomplishments. The perfume I was most proud of is Oudh Infini. It was a very difficult formulation and I didn’t seek any advice. It was like a passage of life, where we move by intuition completely. I don’t know if I can even reproduce it in a second wave of production because of the scarcity of raw materials that I used. Through this perfume I learned so much about the world, and the world of fragrance. I would hear people tell me that they hated it completely and absolutely. Some people after smelling it would even warn me, out of love, to stop the brand. I would be crushed sometimes. Then I would hear other people tell me it was a masterpiece. I realized the criticism has a meaning only if you think it has a meaning. It’s something my father taught me: when you create something, if people love it or not doesn’t matter. We have to believe in what we do.
Mélodie de l’Amour is one of the most three dimensional fragrances I’ve ever experienced. A super charged, visceral experience: as if a flower born of fantasy is right in front of me. What are you reaching for in a fragrance like this?
This fragrance is so connected to my father, more than any of my other fragrances. My father was very reserved. Even though we loved each other very much, he would not really say the word love to me, nor to my mother. But he would show me through his actions, in countless ways. He wrote “My feeling for you is like a flower blooming in an empty room.” Love can be said, or not, but it’s always there. I wanted to create the most beautiful muguet flower to represent this kind of love.
What is your process like for composing fragrances, and starting new ones?
Each fragrance has a creative prompt for me. Let’s take La Douceur de Siam. I wanted to recall the beauty of Thailand 200 years ago. I constructed an image in my mind according to the poetry of my father. “When twilight hours come, even my grief is swept away by the anonymity of life.” I imagined someone like my father sitting next to the Chao Phraya river in the twilight hour, across him is the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun). When you see the sunset there, you see the pink of the sky against the Thai temple architecture. With the wind blowing softly, you can feel the spirit of the princess, elegant and beautiful, she was passing by so lonely. Her beauty was fused with the scent of the air: frangipani, rose damascena, champaca and oudh. It was a movement of this elegance and meaning. I blended around this inspiration. When I smell it I feel discretely happy. When I feel this emotional turn, a moment of eureka, an exhale, I just know it’s done. I don’t know how many materials are in it. I don’t have any rules that it needs to have this or that. As soon as I feel the beauty of the blend immediately—then I stop.
You are a woman, a foreigner, and self taught in an industry that has long and insular traditions. Do you experience bristling by people who learn you are self-taught?
I’m curious about the system of education at the moment. At the time I moved here, I tried to apply to internship programs and schools, but being non-French worked against me systematically during that period. Luckily I knew certain methods: the family of raw materials, and the established composition structures. I also started formulating without an objective. I didn’t want to sell my fragrances, or build a brand. If I were to do that I would never be a good perfumer because it’s not an appealing tension. I want to create the perfume for the purpose of creating the perfume itself. When I first came to France, no one knew me and I didn’t want to be known. I just wanted to give my very best to something. One perfume at a time. As I started to get to know people. Some people ignored me or belittled me. Who is this girl and how did she blend this, it’s impossible? I learned later that this is the mindset here in France, very vocational – if you want to be an engineer, you have to go to engineering school. It’s not right or wrong. For me the challenge is not exterior. It’s beyond being a woman, or being Asian or Thai. The challenge is inside, how we approach perfumery. How to create something good today, and something better tomorrow.
In the beginning of Dusita, when I launched it I was very vague and didn’t highlight myself as the perfumer, I wanted to be behind the scenes and for the fragrance to speak for me. But in niche perfumery, people are really interested in the perfumer, so I had to learn how to communicate in this space.
I certainly am one of those curious people. I think being a perfumer takes great concentration and a tremendous threshold for failure. These are uncommon traits! You also have to work extremely slow and have a lot of faith behind one project that can take years and years. You need to have a balanced approach of very technical and truly artistic. These are such uncommon traits! Who are your favorite perfumers?
More than one! My heroes are the legends Edmond Roudnitska and Germaine Cellier. Of the modern perfumers, I deeply admire Calice Becker. She created J’Adore by Dior. My admiration goes beyond her creations, but how she speaks to how important it is to be allies in perfumery. There are no competitors. We are all working in our paths and in our objectives. In our own worlds.