By Felicia C. Sullivan
Can a perfume’s scent simply be reduced to a spritz on a paper strip? Can we savor a luxe perfume and still be eco-conscious and philanthropic? Can a fragrance be perceived as a work of art? Recently, I sat down with self-taught botanical perfumer, and founder of Strange Invisible Perfumes, Alexandra Balahoutis, a vanguard of sorts, who zealously answered all of my queries.
Balahoutis’s quest began in 2000 with a desire to translate the invisible montages of her mind into relevant romance language of the senses. Strange Invisible Perfumes was named for a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “From the barge, a strange invisible perfume hits the sense of the adjacent wharfs.” Courting the senses and illuminating the imagination, the house is evangelical in its vision to offer consumers uncompromising luxury and excellent craftsmanship through its twenty-five perfumes, ten eaux de parfum, and a collection of body washes and lotions available in four scents – all made with sustainability and environmental accountability in mind. From aggressively pursuing ingredients that are fair trade, wild crafted, biodynamically cultivated, and organic, to using a base of 100% organic grape alcohol, to eco-friendly packaging, the company’s commitment to respecting the earth from which their business is derived is evident. Also, eight percent of the proceeds from sales of their best-selling Magazine Street are donated to Common Ground Collective, a non-profit organization working for the environmental restoration and sustainable rebuilding of New Orleans. Presently, the company also brings awareness to saving honeybees through their support of the documentary, “The Vanishing of the Bees,” which examines the dangers of Colony Collapse Disorder, and how an eradicating bee population will potentially have significant environmental implications.
Balahoutis believes that “Like art or fashion, perfume involves aesthetic visions of the near future.” On the heels of fashion week, come March 2009, SIP introduces three new florals for spring: Aquarian Roses, Epic Gardenia, and Urban Lily.
Epic Gardenia was decidedly my favorite of the trio. The scent is distinctive, startling, wholly original in Balahoutis’s interpretation of this elusive flower. Your skin is warmed by hints of sandalwood, and the fragrance is soft, velvety, and complex in nature. You won’t be greeted with a heady floral scent reminiscent of many drugstore options. Urban Lily is equally bold; the scent is lush, ethereal and potent, but not overwhelming, rather it’s ideal for the strong, strident woman.
Balahoutis saw this scent as an evocation of the metaphor of a beautiful woman trapped in a metropolis enduring demoralizing conditions. Aquarian Rose was the most surprising of the trio, for rose typically connotates doting grandmothers with cashmere skin, mothballs and old attics. However, the new floral is markedly forward, crisp, filled with African marjoram and sandalwood, rendering a Provencal scent. Unlike their rose debut, Prima Ballerina, Aquarian is definitely unisexual.
However, before we rhapsodize on lily fields, a word of caution: although startlingly exceptional, the line isn’t wallet-friendly. While my 1.7 oz eau de toilette of Marc Jacob’s Daisy costs $54, a comparably sized eau de parfum (note the difference) of Urban Lily will set you back $175. However, I then learned the difference between pithy, highly-marketed spritzes, and deep, long-lasting perfume derived from a plant’s true essence. Like a great handbag, a worthy perfume deserves to be an investment.
I asked Alexandra Balahoutis the difference between natural and synthetic scents, because we’ve all entered a room and felt suffocated by the pungent swell of patchouli mixed with alcohol. Balahoutis revealed that synthetic fragrances are overwhelming on impact, and tend to carry a generic, single-note scent. And as time passes, the top notes deconstruct, and like a low-grade wine that turns, your skin is left with a strong scent of chemicals and petroleum. “Synthetic essences may smell nice to some but they are not essences at all. They are powered by nothing other than a process of mimicry. Think of the essence of a person. Now imagine the essence of a mannequin."
Conversely, natural perfumes offer a richer, harmonious more complicated scent that lingers, all notes and essences, intact. And instead of chemicals fashioned to evoke a scent, natural perfumes are raw, earthy, heavily concentrated aroma to render something palatable.
When Balahoutis founded SIP, she was determined to not only deriving the highest quality ingredients in order to craft extraordinary fragrances she built a house that would distinguish luxury perfume from aromatherapy. Balahoutis remarks that the key to creating a radiant scent is comprised simply of:
- Pure aromatic plants: where plants are grown in natural light rather than the macabre laboratory fluorescents;
- Reverent distillation: a discerning nose, Balahoutis distills many of her own essences, using organic materials whenever possible, and favors the use of hydro-distillation rather than steam distillation or chemical extraction methods. She also acquires essential oils from the world's top distilliers; and
- Evocative composition.
Akin to the fifth-generation farmers who tend to hectares of Centifolia roses and five variations of jasmine in La Petite Campadieu, one of the last major flower farms in Grasse, many of the SIP’s blooms are cultivated in an Ojai vineyard, whose climate mimics Southern France. Yet what gives the line its distinction is Balahoutis’s passion for excellence and old-world quality and charm.
A great fragrance comes down to the finest ingredients and skillful alchemy, rather than a pouting celebrity sniffing chemicals in a test tube. Alexandra Balahoutis, like a Rembrandt oil or a Woolf manuscript written in longhand, is a tactile artisan determined to tell you a story through elements of nature.
To learn more about Strange Invisible Perfumes, visit their website: www.strangeinvisibleperfumes.com.