The Vanguard Perfumers of L.A.

Meet perfumers making unexpected scents that capture the creative spirit of Los Angeles.

Text by Maggie Lange
Images by Sam Muller & courtesy of Sanae Intoxicants

“These perfumes are my tribute and love affair with the city I live in and work in,” perfumer Linda Sivrican tells me. “These aren’t meant to be typical scents.” The first collection for her perfume house, Capsule Parfumerie, translates the social scenes of Los Angeles into fragrances that are bright, genderless, and addictive. Sivrican developed Covey, the lightest and freshest of the bunch, after a lunch in Santa Monica.

“The tech-y types were there,” she says, “there was fig on the table, and it smelled like lime and bright spearmint.” She was inspired by twins she met in Los Feliz, “who just had a cool style about them,” to create the fragrance Brood, bottling up their leather-jacket energy with cardamom, tobacco, and a leathery depth. In each of Sivrican’s six perfumes, she’s alchemized the feeling of being out and about in the city, with the confident freedom of a social chameleon.

The daring quality of the perfume scene in L.A. is its greatest asset, Sivrican says. “Los Angeles hasn’t historically had deep roots in fragrance. It’s so far from traditional Europe. New York has more brands and a longer history. Los Angeles is interesting. It’s the hub of ‘anything goes,’ so there are a lot of smaller brands doing interesting things.”

There are infinite perspectives on L.A., a place of many places and fragrances, to be manifested. Saskia Wilson-Brown, an expert denizen of L.A. perfume culture, runs the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Koreatown. Like Sivrican, Wilson-Brown describes the perfume scene as containing a creative liberty because it’s outside of the center of perfuming. There is an irony to this, she says, “because with Hollywood culture, you can’t get more mainstream than that. But in perfumery, Los Angeles is not mainstream. The perfume scene is weird. There’s an irreverence to perfumers here.” Since scent-makers aren’t typically trying to appeal to the big houses, their work veers toward the unique. “They’re just trying to hit whatever moves them,” she says. “There’s something fearless to the people who just do what they want to do.”

This individualistic artistry manifests most strongly in L.A.’s natural perfumers, who use rigorous strategies to avoid synthetic formulas. Alexandra Balahoutis founded the vegan perfumery Strange Invisible, which is based in Venice on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, in 2000. She started making her own scents in her early 20s “because no perfume satisfied my desire for the perfect fragrance,” she says. “I got a little obsessed.”

Natural perfumes fulfilled her yearning to capture rare smells. Strange Invisible is distinctive for its rich, wild botanical fragrances. Its scents are elusive, with nods to old Hollywood glamour, like Prima Ballerina—a crisp, classic mix of rose, lime, and sage. In honor of California’s favorite spiritual hobby, astrology, Balahoutis has a line of perfumes that translates principles of the zodiac houses into scents. For example, Libra takes on a balancing act in its combination of rose, grapefruit, iris, myrtle, and basil.

[W]ith Hollywood culture, you can’t get more mainstream than that. But in perfumery, Los Angeles is not mainstream. The perfume scene is weird. There’s an irreverence to perfumers here. … There’s something fearless to the people who just do what they want to do.”

Saskia Wilson-Brown

Balahoutis also has a passion for the technical genius of natural perfuming. A distiller on the border of Sonoma and Napa Valley creates the distilled esprit de Cognac for Strange Invisible’s line. This spirit is different from a typical Cognac; it’s more like a hyper-distilled wine. “We have these gorgeous essential oils, and we can’t just throw them into anything,” Balahoutis says. “If you have a gorgeous Burmese ruby, you can’t put it in aluminum or 10-karat gold. You have to find a metal worthy of it. The oils love this distillation. The way they evolve and age is so much more beautiful.”

Perfumer Patrick Kelly, who founded Sigil in 2015, is the epitome of L.A.’s self-taught independent spirit. His line specializes in arboreal, lively, gender-neutral scents. “I taught myself by reading books,” he tells me. “I don’t have a traditional past. I had an intuitive call to experiment and play with these materials.”

Kelly studied philosophy and film, and his perfumes play with cinema aesthetics. Sigil’s typeface and logo reference Ingmar Bergman title cards and mid-century modern design. He thinks of his perfumes as “a bridge between old-world tradition with queer experimental voice.” This instinct manifests in scents like Amor Fati, a cerebral combination of palo santo, green pine, and bergamot.

The perfumes of L.A. also reveal pockets of the city that don’t come across at first glance. Sanae Barber, who started Sanae Intoxicants in 2010, made her perfume L.A. Babe while hiking in the hills. “I was thinking about the cowboy cologne scene, but then I had this different idea,” she says, wanting something other than the typical dusty, leathery smell. “I was walking around Los Angeles, smelling amazing orange flowers, plumeria, seeing the figs.”

Her scent Burning Ocean gets its inspiration from the other side of the city, at the coastline. “The scent is a description of silvery water, fiery orange ambrette. It’s what you see when you’re swimming and surfing just past sunset. I used to live at the beach, and I was completely enraptured with the tone at that time of day.”

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