In our last interview before the Covid shut down, we were fortunate to meet with David Stewart, the founder and creative director of AGEIST, a site and newsletter dedicated to stories about pioneers and creatives who are over 50 and living their best lives! One of his active passions happens to be scent, and here is his scent story:
What is the story of your earliest memory strongly associated with a particular smell or fragrance?
I only have a few scent memories that stay with me constantly from when I was little. There was a lilac festival every year near where I grew up in Western NY state. It bowled me over and I still remember it clearly. But that is an exception. It is more likely that I will encounter a scent randomly in my day which will trigger a flood of memories around it. This is one of the most interesting things about smell to me, which makes it so powerfully different from seeing, touching, tasting or hearing. It seems to be linked to parts of my memory in a way that nothing else is. I would hazard to say, that if someone wanted to cause a memory of mine to surface, they would only have to expose me to the smell of when the memory was created.
In this way, smell is democratic, all smells of all kinds good and bad are memory triggers. The scent of burned sugar pulls back memories with the same effect as the smell of diesel fuel or paint lacquer. If I were to smell the original Pierre Cardin perfume, I could quite accurately describe the plaid bell bottoms I was wearing in the store, the way the store looked, and who I was with at the time.
What is the story of your most profound or poignant experience associated with a smell or fragrance?
Fragrance is different than smell in that it is designed. It’s a bit like music vs sound, however, fragrance is made up scents that, because of the memory linkage, can be entirely differently responded to by different people. My mom’s Channel #5, my early drug store experiments with Brut and English Leather all come to mind as my initiation into fragrance as stand-alone experiences. These were similar to my early wine experiments with Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill- not something to be repeated at an age past 15.
Did either of your parents wear fragrances?
Mom wore Channel #5. We were not particularly posh, #5 was one my mom’s treasures. It was applied on special occasions only.
What is your favorite smell and where does it transport you?
Fragrance for me is site-specific. For instance, in the warm months, I like the smell of Diptyque Figuier candles because they remind me of the overripe smell of the fig trees on the path to the beach in Majorca. In the winter I like Diptyque Feu de Bois, as even in California I can feel the cozy hearth vibe that I first smelled it in when I was living in Paris.
Here in California, there is a specific kind of sage plant that drives me wild. It may be called Salvia California, although I am not great with my plant names. It has a purple flower on it. Every time I see one I rub some on my fingers so that I can sniff it every so often for the afternoon.
How did you become interested in fragrances?
It is an interest that I seem to have always had, but one that has become more grippingly powerful with age. Department store fragrance sections are like an amusement park for me. I go absolutely wild in them. I may have smelled Le Labo #19 a hundred times, but I love testing how I will respond each new time. It is hard to explain to someone why I would do this, after all, I know what most of the fifty or sixty main perfumes I test smell like already. Why go back and keep smelling them? Partially it is a test to see how I feel about them at that moment, and partially it just the pleasure of smelling all these different scents. Invariably I will select two of three to apply to my skin so that I can test how the scents decay with time.
Tell us about your signature scent, if you have one, or a favorite perfume and why it speaks to you.
The original Helmut Lang is my absolute fav. Nothing else compares. I believe it is the heliotropin which produces a bit of talcum powder smell that I love. The new version is not bad, and my understanding is that the heliotropin may have some adverse health effects, because of which they have reduced its intensity.
Can you tell us about any other scent experiences you cherish?
I like it when hotels use a specific scent in their products. The Ace in NY has Le Labo in the entryway and in the bath products. We are just back from Kyoto, and the Grand Hyatt there does something similar. Having the scent in the hotel entrance signals I am home. I first noticed this at the Hotel Costes in Paris years ago, and when done well it is amazingly transporting. However, it requires sophistication, and I was recently in a W Hotel- massive fail.
Are olfactory experiences important for your work with AGEIST or photography, and if so, how?
When I was doing photography, if we had a studio shoot, I would pay as much attention to the scent in the room as I did to the music. There was a Comme des Garcons candle that smelled of frankincense that gave everything a very solemn important vibe that I liked. Scent establishes a tone in a way that is more memory-based than sound is. If I want sexy, its the smell of a candle from Hotel Costes in Paris. Or 1996 from Byredo if the shoot is more go go.
What makes a good fragrance/perfume?
This is such a tough question. A really good perfume is complex. There is a shop in London called Perfumer H that I think does a great job, but it is so hard. It is like asking what makes a great piece of music, or a great novel. They are rare achievements. With scent, it is even more difficult, because of the way it will interact with one’s skin, and the way it decays with time. Did you know Brian Eno is a huge scent fan? He is deep into that world.
Why is fragrance important you?
Why would it not be important? It is one of our 5 senses, and to ignore it is to impoverish one’s life.
What new projects/endeavors are you working on or looking forward to starting?
AGEIST, all day every day! So much happening so quickly, it is all I can manage today.