From architect to perfumer, that’s a big leap. Yet Carlos Huber has done precisely that. His Arquiste line of scents are inspired by moments of history, a great parallel to his experience as a preservationist architect. Together with perfumers Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier, they have created a unique batch of scents that have received a lot of buzz in the blog world and national attention as well (having been picked up by Barney’s for major distribution). I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Carlos at the Elements Showcase in New York City.
RS: You are a trained architect; what would you say inspired you to jump from being an architect to making fragrances?
Carlos Huber: I came to New York to get my masters in preservation at Columbia University. A lot of what I learned there was that when dealing with heritage and the past, there is much more than just restoring the building. I thought it was really interesting. I worked on two art exhibits that were in Italy. One was for the Venice biennale, the other one for the Manifest Art Festival. They dealt with culture, the idea of preservation and heritage in an artistic way. It really got me thinking about the different experiences that involve the past, not only the visual and physical sides of it. At that time I was friends with Rodrigo Flores and Yann Vasnier. About eight years ago I talked to Rodrigo about my love for perfume. He told me that if I was really serious about it, he would teach me. He told me that when I was finished with my job I could come once a week to talk about perfume. He told me that I could come and smell perfumes, go to the lab and do proper classes. At that time, I was an architect for Ralph Lauren doing store design. I worked on several renovations of spaces here in the US and abroad, from Paris to Kuwait to New York and anywhere else that they needed me. I gained a lot of experience while redesigning. I would read about history, which is my favorite subject. It is my openly nerdy part that I love and embrace. I would read books about the historic meanings of the French and the Spanish courts. I read about ‘The Isle of Pheasants’ in 1660 with Louis XIV. I would come to class and speak to Rodrigo about all the references to scent. Not only traditionally through a formula or what he wore as perfume, but what they used on the skin. I wondered if a scent that was made with Iris and Rouge was a perfume. I read a comment about the cousin of the King and Mademoiselle saying that the pavilion where they met was so new, that it still smelled of pine and tar. I told Rodrigo that it would be fun to recreate the story from all of the different quotes that I had read. It was kind of a no brainer. He told me to try it, and do as much research as I could, then see if we could come up with a formula. At that moment I thought about my love for perfume, and how I could make it part of my career. That story popped in my head and I began to wonder how I could recreate a story of the past as a restoration architect. Just like any work of restoration, when you look at an old building, you look at what makes it significant. You look at what you want to highlight; whether it is the structure, the ornament, or characters that are involved. You choose a direction and put your 21st century hands on it, change and alter its course, then take it to a state of preservation. I thought that I could do the same with perfume. If you look at a story you can choose the structure that you want to highlight, decide the ornament, choose which characters are involved and treat your notes as characters. It was a very clear connection to me.
RS: So your process is that you imagine a scene from time, research the notes- then after that do you run the fragrance? How does the actual fragrance get created?
Carlos Huber: The actual blending and formulation of the fragrance happens at Givaudan with Rodrigo Flores and Yann Vasnier. They are the actual chemists and the true perfumers. I don’t call myself a perfumer, they are the real noses that blend it and have the expertise of ingredients. I may have an idea where I really want to highlight something. For example the orange blossom, they would tell me that the orange blossom would not be possible with the way things were being made. We usually go back and forth with ideas and I either counter those or agree with it.
RS: It reminds me of a DJ working with a producer to make a track. They come up with ideas and the producer will come up with something and they work back and forth.
Carlos Huber: Yeah, it is all about collaboration. That is why every single work of art is not just one point of view. You have to have something else, objectivity. I wanted authenticity, and for my professors at Columbia to see that a serious project had come from what they had taught. I didn’t want them to see something that was just marketing; I was very disappointed from a lot of the marketing tools being used.
RS: Which fragrance is the first one that you created?
Carlos Huber: The first story that we focused on was Fleur de Louis and Infanta en Flor. It was a Spanish and French story of a meeting. Soon after that we started working on the other ones, they were all in tandem. They all took about a year and a half. Some finished before and after but Fleur de Louis, Infanta en Flor was the first idea to come to my head.
RS: Is your background Spanish and Mexican?
Carlos Huber: I was born and raised in Mexico City.
RS: Which perfumes based in Mexico did you create?
Carlos Huber: There are two perfumes that are based in Mexico. One is called Flora canto, which is a metaphor for flower and song. The Mexicans thought that a poem was a song flower. It is really beautiful because that have a refined culture and appreciation of flowers. They thought flowers had a mythological origin and that they were the way human beings connected to the natural world, hence having a supernatural quality. It is unavoidable that a lot of white florals and many fragrant, strong flowers originated in this part of the world, especially in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. There is a real abundance of the materials. The other one is Anima Dulcis, which is actually my thesis project from Columbia University. It is a restoration of a convent that is now abandoned and has never been restored. It used to be the most aristocratic convent in Mexico. It is very interesting to me because I could locate all of the history, archives, and the activities that the group of nuns were doing in the structure. One of the things that I discovered was all of the cooking recipes. Just as France is very good at keeping control and archiving their perfume and fashion history, Mexico is very good with their culinary history. I actually found all of the recipes that originated in this convent, which is what was is involved in Anima Dulcis. You have spices from two different recipes, one was a spice chocolate and a bread pudding called “megada Jesus Maria” which means crumbs of Jesus Mary. Jesus Maria was the convent. The spices that they used were interesting. They were very new in dealing with chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon. It was the first time in Mexico that they united ingredients from Asia, Europe, and America in one dish. It was the first fusion and they used European techniques. Very early on when I was working on the project I could smell it. I could picture the courtyard, and from my architectural restoration I knew that there were no trees. There were pots of flowers and plants. One of them was Night Blooming Jasmine. It was beautiful to imagine the nuns working in the kitchen, then passing through the courtyard with the Night Blooming Jasmine and making their way to midnight mass. I derived the energy for that. I almost imagined their habits to be saturated with these spices and heavy brogue vibe. We wanted to communicate that in the scents. It is all those ingredients: cumin, oregano, sesame, vanilla, and coca absolute. We used a raw type of vanilla before the pollination of the vanilla orchid. It was raw, natural, and more Mexican in a sense because it is before it reaches Europe and is processed.
RS: When you are creating the scents do you test them on your skin?
Carlos Huber: Always, I test them on my skin, my friend’s skin, as well as many others. The idea is that you don’t want it to smell the same; you want it to be unique and smell good on every type of personality, skin type, and chemistry. In the end you are an ingredient and that is what is interesting with my line. It is like you have been dropped into part of the story or the moment. You don’t want to smell like a nun or Louis XIV, but you want to smell like yourself in that environment.
RS: You have six fragrances out right now, are you working on more?
Carlos Huber: I am working on a new one that will launch sometime during the summer. It has a really beautiful story that dates more from our immediate history. It is a bit of a departure from a very traditional historic perfume. It is more about recreating a moment and what a moment means to someone. In the end these are important, not only because they are a history lesson, but they connect to you in a certain way. You can take it with you and infuse your own life with something a little more poetic. We are part of that world, it is our common past.
RS: Can you tell me a little bit about the new perfume that you are working on?
Carlos Huber: It is a boutonniere. It is a buttonhole flower and because of that, it is for men. It is a masculine floral and is going to be very interesting. I can’t share too much, but it has never been looked at as a masculine floral and I think that we have the possibility to make it something very interesting. It is a happy perfume about celebration and partying.
RS: Which of your fragrances is the favorite of your boyfriend Nate Berkus?
Carlos Huber: He loves Flora Canto and Fleur de Louis. He loves florals and has very good skin for them. He wears Flora Canto and even though it smells like a feminine perfume, it is mintier on him. It is very interesting, the incense is more prevalent. Those are his favorites.
RS: Since he lives in the public eye, has he helped you with adjusting from going from a more private industry to a more public industry?
Carlos Huber: Great Question! I think so. I think that they are very different industries, and we still have very personal approaches. We don’t involve ourselves in each other’s careers, and we keep ours separate. We feel that we are different, and I want the line to be known for the perfume and the work of the perfumers rather than for the association with someone. He has definitely helped me with navigating what I should do and the logistics of it. On a personal level he has really inspired a lot of the entrepreneurial part of it and pushed me to do the research. Seeing that I have nothing to lose, it is important to follow my dream, and that is something that he has really motivated me to do. He maintains a personal level with everybody and that is something he is good at, it is also something that I also connect with and like. It is part of why we work together.
RS: If you were to get married which of these would you wear?
Carlos Huber: I think that I would wear the Boutonniere. We have been together for two years, and it is not a conversation that we have had though.
RS: How did you feel when your fragrance got picked up by such an important retailer as Barney’s?
Carlos Huber: I was so happy; they were incredible and very interested in pursuing me. I was flattered, honored, excited, and happy, it was a dream come true. We try to have everything be right, the right quality, right packing, right retailer, communicating the story the right way, and writing it a thousand times before the proper message is transmitted. It’s really exciting, Barney’s has been incredible.
RS: What role do you think bloggers and internet media has on your success?
Carlos Huber: It is a huge part of it because you can’t always rely on the selling floor for the full communication of the line and product. Right now, I think that we are seeing a lot more storytelling happening. We are so saturated with stuff that it is impossible to make a decision that you feel good on. Right now, I can afford to experiment a little bit and buy some different ones. 60% of the market is controlled by the big fragrance houses; there are 3 fragrance houses that control a lot of it. The big corporations create many perfumes that are all different, some very good, but we get lost in them. I think that something like this speaks to a consumer that is tired of being told what to do from a beauty editor at a big magazine. In the end it is going to be devoted to the advertising and the big companies, because those are the ones that are paying. When people are shopping they don’t have a lot of time to hear the full story, even if there is a short version of it- that’s still not enough for people to get the full experience. That’s where bloggers come in to play. I think what is unique about bloggers is that the internet offers an arena of discussion, exposure, and comments of sharing their experience. People can connect with it more. I am a reader, and I came into this because I love perfume and I indulge in all of the different parts of it. The blog experience is so important because it is another person, not just a person in the magazine or a celebrity. Real people are telling their honest view on things. Some are better than others, and I don’t believe that there are specific criteria of who to follow, but I think that it is super important today. It is not only about the sales people, the magazine editors, but the bloggers more than ever.
RS: When I posted the review, I added your @name. When you tweeted back was that you or do you have someone tweeting for you?
Carlos Huber: No, I tweet everything. Sometimes there are certain tweets that I like to schedule ahead of time to work on other stuff. If I know that there is something significant going on that day I will schedule it in advance. Every response is always me.
RS: This may be a little controversial; regarding the three big companies that make all the chemicals, why would they be interested in working with a smaller customer company like yours as opposed to a big megabrand.
Carlos Huber: Well, I think that they still like the megabrands and support them, but from what I feel and see they have really opened the doors for me. I didn’t come from a huge fragrance background; they could have said that they couldn’t do it. I worked really hard on a presentation, had a business plan and a strategy, and they opened the doors from there. When I talked to them they told me that they looked to smaller brands like me because we are setting the tone for everything else. I don’t mean this to sound bad, but I think that all of us here are telling the Coty, Avon, and even Chanels where the perfume industry is going. I think that Givaudan and IFF really know that this is the creative work and the storytelling that they should be working on. At least this is an industry where there is a bit of sharing of the power. Givaudan has been great for me; even though they are the world’s biggest company, to me they are incredible. They can work with my minimums and they do it because they believe and they love the industry. I think that is it a really beautiful thing that the people that come into this industry really have a passion for what they are doing. People are not here for the money but for the love of it.
RS: What is the first fragrance that you ever bought?
Carlos Huber: The first fragrance that I remember having is one that my father bought me. It was cologne that he bought from the drug store in Mexico City called ‘Otra Colonia de Sanborns.’ The drug store was called Sanborns. It was a two dollar splash cologne that is still sold to this day. As a child my father told me that if I wanted to wear cologne that was what I was going to wear. It is a beautiful formula and I still wear it to this day. Nate wears it every day, he loves it. It is very fresh cologne.
RS: What is the last perfume that you bought?
Carlos Huber: I bought Chanel Sycamore, which I love. It is one of my favorite perfumes. Le Nomade by D’Orsay is one that I buy as well. It is a very masculine, lavender and black current, light perfume. The first one that I ever bought for myself was Gucci Envy.
RS: In addition to fragrance and colognes, what other fragrance products are you working on?
Carlos Huber: We have two projects that are very interesting. One is a travel size purser that is very unique because you can refill it yourself with a mini pump. It is a big atomizer of 5ml, they are going to be really great. We are also working on a candle that is going to be in collaboration with a very traditional, and well respected manufacturer that has hundreds of years in its history. I can’t tell you who it is just yet, but it is going to be an Arquiste scent for their line. It is a huge honor to work with a royal manufacturer of France.
RS: Is it going be a perfume that you already have done?
Carlos Huber: No, it is brand new for them. It is something that has a very Franco-Mexican connection.
RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Carlos Huber: To the perfume fans, I would like to say follow and pursue your dreams as I have done. I think that there is room for everybody; in every way, in every market, there is always something that you can give that is unique. There is nothing wrong with failing, there are always going to be bumps in the road. It is about people, storytelling, history, and communicating a story. It starts with me going to the library, researching, adding information to a booklet, blogging, and posting about it. It is a process, and maybe someone will be interested in restoring the convent. You never know what could happen. It is really all about our common history and about bringing cultural appreciation back to perfume. So definitely, thank you. A brand like this is nothing without the people that wear it. It is really about the people wearing it and passing on the word.
Interview conducted at Elements Showcase (January 2012). Photo Credit: Kevin Tachman.