Scents inspire emotions and memories for all of us. Whenever I see a Smell Bent bottle, they make me smile with the cartoony illustrations and fun names. After working in the fashion industry, Brent Leonesio followed his love of fragrance and started experimenting with creating them. Completely self-taught, he has built a wonderful brand of fragrances with the mission of bringing niche to the people. With his ability of balancing creativity and experimentation with accessible price points and joy, it would seem that the big corporations could learn a few things from this talented perfumer.
Ron Slomowicz: What inspired you to start making perfume?
Brent Leonesio: I was a collector for several years. I fell down the rabbit hole and was obsessed. I read all the blogs, looked at base notes, and had an enormous perfume collection. I lost my job and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I had worked in the fashion business for a while and was tired of that. I knew that if I could do anything, it would be working with perfume because I was so passionate about it. I took my unemployment checks and bought some supplies. I tinkered around a little bit and figured that I would put up a website and see what would happen. It just went from there.
RS: What was the first fragrance that you ever made?
Brent Leonesio: Sunshine was the first scent that I ever worked on. I mixed it up and sent it to a couple people and they thought it was good. Someone actually bought a bottle and that shocked me since I was just playing around with it. That gave me hope that I could put other scents together. The first line came together pretty quickly. It was the end of summer and I was working and playing around, at that point there was no pressure and it was just fun and play. The scents were born out of that time.
RS: What training do you have as a perfumer?
Brent Leonesio: Absolutely none, I am completely self-taught. I think that I had a leg up having been so excited about it for so long though. I have read and smelled a lot, I have come a long way over the last three years. I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning which is kind of funny now. I have been immersed in the back end and the inside of the perfume world for a while now. I have learned a lot and I learn something new every day.
Brent Leonesio: I know that I wouldn’t be a perfumer without the internet and base notes. I think the internet is exciting because it has connected us in a huge way. Perhaps people who were passionate may have been in isolation in the past and may not have found the resources to continue their obsession. I always knew that I was interested in perfume, but the resources and the connections with people on the internet allowed me to expand my interest to such a degree that it became my career. If it weren’t for finding like-minded fiends, I know my journey would not have gone as far as it has.
RS: What inspires a new scent that you are going to make?
Brent Leonesio: It depends. It is usually that I get an idea for a name, a collection, or a combination and it grows from there. I usually sketch out the rough structure of the scent in my head first. For example, if I want to pair two notes together or I want to make a scent about orange blossoms, etc., I tend to flush it out working with the actual components. That is usually how it starts, it starts in my head and it works its way out.
RS: How long does it usually take to go from an inspiration to testing to an actual release?
Brent Leonesio: It depends. Today I am in the middle of making 500 bottles of a perfume for a charitable event next month. I designed the scent back in October and usually, because I self-publish, the turnaround is a lot shorter. I can scrape a formula the night before a release and play with things up until the very last minute, but usually it takes a couple of months.
RS: Do you do testing where people sample for you and give you feedback on what should be tweaked, etc.?
Brent Leonesio: No, I am kind of the alpha and the omega. If I am really insecure about something I will get a guinea pig and ask them to smell it and give me their advice. I have thought about doing focus groups, but there is something so joyous about having complete artistic control over my product and I am not quite ready to surrender that.
RS: Speaking about joyous, I love the artwork. Do you make your own artwork?
Brent Leonesio: I do about half of the drawings, all the design work, the website, and all of my printed materials. My friend Matthew has been doing some of my drawings for the past year, he is just incredibly talented. We will get together for an afternoon and I will put out an idea and he will start drawing and come up with something. A lot of the art is collaborative which is fun. It started because I didn’t have anything to take pictures of. I decided that we should just do a drawing instead and it has just stuck.
RS: It totally fits the brand. I love your titles as well, is Smell Bent a play on Hell Bent?
Brent Leonesio: It is, most certainly.
RS: That makes sense. I also really love your price point, it is so reasonable. How do you keep the price there? I am imagining that if Violet Tendencies was bottled by any other manufacturer it would be two to three times what you are charging for it.
Brent Leonesio: Price has always been part of my business concept. I think that the perfume world suffers under the crushing status obsession that fashion is also plagued with. The idea of Smell Bent was to make perfume for real people and make it accessible. There are a lot of things that I avoid by not doing any marketing. When you break down the cost of the fragrance, the majority of the money is spent on the bottle and the packaging, the smallest amount usually goes to the formulation and ingredients. I decided that I was going to put all the money inside the bottle instead of outside. That is what I have been doing ever since. That is basically my philosophy on that.
RS: I see your line as a great introduction to the world of college students and young adults. I know that you don’t do any marketing but have you thought of doing anything with college students or going after that market?
Brent Leonesio: Do college students wear perfume?
RS: I think that they would have to; do they just wear deodorant or AXE?
Brent Leonesio: I don’t know. It’s funny; my brothers are in college and occasionally I give them perfume to give to the girls. I know that when I was in college I wasn’t spending money on perfume.
RS: I think that Violet Tendencies would be a create graduation gift for a student getting their first job. Which one of your fragrances do you think gets gifted the most?
Brent Leonesio: Perfume is such a challenging gift. It’s funny- when I do these shows I get to meet people, and they have a very strong idea of the things that they like or they don’t. When giving perfumes, I have a program that lets someone choose a bunch of samples to give to a friend with a voucher for a full bottle. I don’t like to assume that I know what you are going to like. That is how I skirt that problem, I don’t know about others.
RS: What has been your most popular scent?
Brent Leonesio: St. Tropez Dispenser is probably my most popular, and I do very well with Bollywood as well. Sunshine was the most popular in the beginning and has proven to still be very popular. It depends on the month; sometimes I have an unexpected hit. The scents that I did in the fall, North by Northwest have all be very strong.
RS: In addition to your website, your fragrances are on Indie Scents and at Lucky Scent, where else are they available?
Brent Leonesio: Most of my business is through my website, I have a handful of retailers, but those are the big web ones. The Soap Box Company sells online as well and they have some of my perfume oil.
RS: I am curious; when your line was picked up by Lucky Scent did you feel that you had arrived? How did it feel?
Brent Leonesio: It was incredible. Franco eMailed me six weeks after my launch. I live in Los Angeles, with the scent bar, and Lucky Scent had been my introduction to the whole shebang. Getting the call from the institution was like I had arrived, that was the feeling. Franco and Adam have been very generous to me, and I ended up doing a scent for them called No. 8 in their Entitled series. It proved to be the most controversial in the entire line.
RS: Why so?
Brent Leonesio: Just because of the composition. A couple years ago they found some Oud and wanted me to do a scent around it. So No. 8 was a scent around Oud. I decided to take it to the dirtiest extreme; you know how perfume people are kind of obsessed with the body and the skanky scents. I took it in and it turned out fairly dirty.
RS: Did you put musk and civet in it or how did you treat the Oud?
Brent Leonesio: Yes, it is pretty much all the smells of the body. There is a blend of musk, fur, leather, cistus, and all these dark kind of elements. It has proven to be very polarizing. I have gotten more fan mail about No. 8 than any other scent that I have done. It is one of those things where it either has one star or five stars. The reviews are very funny and it always gives me a chuckle to read them.
RS: I will have to check it out; it’s kind of like your Secretions Magnifique.
Brent Leonesio: Yes, it is kind of like that!
RS: If you were to make Mocktail into a cocktail, what liquor would you add?
Brent Leonesio: Rum of course! That’s a tropical drink; you can’t put vodka in it!
RS: If you could join any perfumer in a lab to watch or learn from, who would it be?
Brent Leonesio: I would get in my time machine and I would go hang out with Edmond Roudnitska; he is my favorite. I got to meet Christopher Brosius about two weeks ago. It was lovely; I think that he changed perfume. It was very exciting to meet one of my idols there. I have never gotten to collaborate with anyone so anyone would really be fun to work with.
RS: I have some criticisms that have been made about your line, I wanted to ask you about them ,but if they make you feel uncomfortable just tell me to stop. One criticism that I have read about Smell Bent is that there are so many fragrances it is almost overwhelming. How would you respond to that?
Brent Leonesio: I love making perfume.
RS: That works. There was some feedback when you did the Vocabulary line about it seeming odd that it had simple names and notes, as opposed to other fragrances that are more playful and fantasy like. What was the goal of Vocabulary line?
Brent Leonesio: Vocabulary is meant to help people talk about perfume. It is not aimed at people who are incredibly familiar with the facets of the perfume world. What I was hoping to do with those fragrances was to broaden the scope of perfume knowledge, as well as the audience. Whenever you do something different, there is always a risk. They have simple names but I think the scents are lovely. They might not have the surface charm that some of my other work does, but if you had a chance to smell them you would agree that they are quite nice.
RS: Has there been a note combination that you have tried but not been able to achieve or be successful with?
Brent Leonesio: There are all sorts of things that don’t work together, at least at my hand. I still consider myself learning, there are always new things to learn from all the talented people out there. For a long time I had an aversion to vetiver and lavender. It took a long time to start working with those because they were so strong to my nose. Over the years when you do a large amount of work, you have to go back to those classical ingredients. Other than that I can’t think of something off the top of my head.
RS: Right now Oud is everywhere; it’s the trendy note of the moment; what do you see the next big note being?
Brent Leonesio: I think a powdery musk; it seems to be everywhere now. When I got into perfume, Iris was everywhere and now Oud, but there seems to be a return to the traditional powdery notes. For a long time there were kind of red old lady. That is something that I have noticed, but who knows if it will conquer the way that Oud conquered.
Brent Leonesio: I love Moschino and I collect vintage Moschino, that is the significance.
RS: So that is from your fashion world.
Brent Leonesio: Yes, it is one of my idiosyncrasies.
RS: What did you do in fashion before you did fragrance?
Brent Leonesio: I was a designer and a buyer. I designed for Cynthia Vincent who has a pretty successful company based here in Los Angeles.
RS: Tell us about Liberty For All.
Brent Leonesio: I recently made that scent for an organization called Liberty Wildlife. It is to help raise funds to support their cause- helping to rehabilitate animals from the desert. They are located in Arizona and I am working on this project with them. The scent is based around the smell of orange blossoms in the desert. Half of the money from every bottle goes directly to Liberty Wildlife.
RS: What is your ultimate goal with Smell Bent?
Brent Leonesio: The goal is to bring Niche perfume to the people, to take some of the pomp out of the system.
RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Brent Leonesio: Thank you, and keep sniffing!
All images from Smellbent.com website