Neela Vermeire Interview

Neela Vermeire invites you to “Discover Your India” through her delightful trio of fragrances inspired by the culture and history of India. Trayee represents the ancient Vedic era, Mohur is inspired by the Mogul empire, and Bollywood Bling captures the optimistic spirit of modern India. Together with perfumer Bertand Duchaufour, she followed her dream as a long-time perfumista to create the scents that tell her story.

Ron Slomowicz: What is your earliest scent memory as a child?
Neela Vermeire: My earliest scent memory is actually from my grandparents’ garden. They had a country home that had a lot of flowers. They grew stands of flowers, jasmine, and shrubs. My memories go back to the days that I was able to play in the garden. Growing up in a Hindu family, we had many religious ceremonies at home every couple of days and that is why we created Trayee. The smells of the incense and the sandalwood came from those memories. I would say that it’s a combination of the country home smell and also the religious ceremonies.

RS: What are some traditional fragrances that Indian or Hindu people wear?
Neela Vermeire: I have no idea. In India, we have a very mixed community. The main perfume makers are Muslims at the Attar-wallahs that make Ouds. I would say that most people wear natural oils straight on their skin. From a religious connotation they don’t always sell perfume with alcohol, they go back to the traditional use of oils. In general, there is a lot of fascination with western perfumery. When I was growing up in India, the people that used to travel would bring back named perfumes such as Guerlain as gifts, they were much appreciated. In general it is very tough to say, though; a lot of people know the perfumed oils and what they like. They go to the little perfume shops called Attar-wallahs where they sell oils like oud, sandalwood, and jasmine. With India being so big, it’s very difficult to give you an answer. It is like asking what people in America wear.

RS: You talked about Attar-wallahs, what are those?
Neela Vermeire: They are the local perfume shops that exist in towns. Many of them tend to be run by Muslims; they are the ones who make them. Did you smell Mohur and my other perfumes?

RS: Yes
Neela Vermeire: Did you like them?

TrayeeRS: I liked all three of them. I am going to review all of them again and do a whole week about your fragrances. So far, I have just reviewed Trayee.
Neela Vermeire: I loved your review by the way, you did a great job. Again, Wallahs are the people that are in certain towns that sell perfumes in the bazars and market areas. Wallah means someone that sells. It is an Arabic word and it is used in Hindi and Urdu. There is a stress on the t’s, some people even call them Itr. There are usually at least one or twoAttar-wallahs at each one that sell the traditional perfumes.

RS: If a perfume lover were to visit India, where would you recommend they go?
Neela Vermeire: Ron, that’s a very vague question. I would have to say that you would be assaulted with scents in every part of India. India is such a big mix… I am going to give you one scenario. Say you wanted to visit the northern charms; the history and the architecture is very different than in the south. Just like every state has its own beauty, it is all different, we have sixteen languages and it is a big country. If you started in Delhi, I would say to explore some of the Mogul culture and also the British-influenced buildings like bungalows, etc. There are markets that are fantastic and you can experience the Attar concept. When you say perfume lover I am assuming that flowers, spices, and various other aspects would impress someone. If you wanted to go the traditional route, there are many beautiful gardens. Perfumes traditionally in India are not like the sprays you get now, they always had oils. I would encourage people to go to the traditional stores, not the fancy malls. There are fancy malls there that sell all the names that you would find in the US. I would recommend you go to flower markets and shop around for local perfume stores. I would explore oils wherever you go in India. I think that you can experience quite a lot by visiting flower markets. Flower markets show the local traditional of what people like in terms of flowers.

MohurRS: What do you normally wear, fragrance-wise?
Neela Vermeire: I have been a perfumista for a while; I came into this because I loved it. I didn’t start because of any marketing or commercial sense, and not for the idea of just creating a brand for the sake of marketing, but because I really love perfumes. We probably share many common loves of perfumes. I like many classics, love the Guerlains, I call them the heartbreakers. I love L’Heure Bleue, Vol de Nuit, and I wore Jicky, which was one of my first perfumes. I also love Coco extrait, the original one from Chanel- but I can’t wear it now. I have a lot of Bois des Iles and No 22. If you see my loves, they are Chanel, Guerlain, and Frederic Malle. I love quite a few from Frederic Malle, Une Fleur de Cassie, and Une Rose. I love many of Serge Lutens but more intellectually than I can actually wear. There are loads of perfumes that I love and have in my collection but don’t always wear. I love Le Labo and some of their creations. What are your favorites?

RS: I am a big fan of everything from Guerlain, Creed, and Serge Lutens. I am also getting into some of the independent stuff like Slumberhouse, which has some really dark intense scents. As a DJ, I really like things that are aggressive and have projection; some of his stuff really blows me away. He is based in Portland and a self-taught perfumer.
Neela Vermeire: I have a huge amount of respect for self-taught perfumers and niche brands that are truly niche, in terms of independent niche. They don’t have big backing and actually do it without pretext and have genuine artistic value, they are not created just for a concept. There are a number of interesting brands like that; there are so many niche perfumers in America. You have got some many independent perfumers here.

RS: You can tell when you smell something that comes from the heart and what the perfumer is feeling. That is one of the reasons that I fell in love with you. At Elements, I met Charna from Providence Perfume and her perfumes come from her spirits.
Neela Vermeire: Oh, she is lovely!

RS: Let’s get back to you, how did you meet up with Bertrand Duchaufour?
Neela Vermeire: I knew a number of perfumers because I had been working with creative people on and off for a while. I have promoted many artists, jewelers, and people like that in the past. I did roundtables of ‘meet the perfumer’ with young perfumers to show people what actually happens behind the scenes. I met some people there and got to meet more through that. A friend suggested that I contact Bertrand. I had heard of him and was going to be introduced to him at another event. I contacted him because I was talking to about three different perfumers about my concept. None of them had been to India, and I was really disillusioned because I needed somebody who would understand me, the concept, as well as the history of the country. I would be there in terms of research and making sure the perfumes were created the way that I wanted to do. When I contacted Bertrand, he wrote back right away and we met and he loved the project to the point that he wanted to do all three. I went to him with just one, thinking that if he created one I would get someone else to do another. The whole idea was not to have all three created by one perfumer but it turned out that way.

RS: How were you able to speak to him in a language that both of you understood, with you as a perfume lover and him as a chemist, how did you guys brace the language barrier?
Neela Vermeire: It was no problem at all. The main thing was that I had to explain to him what my concept was in terms of what I wanted. I was continuously doing research into developing those eras. I don’t know if you remember, but the three perfumes are from three different historic periods in India. Through discussions, he got the point and we understood what the main ingredients would be. There were natural ingredients because they are important, and the aroma chemicals are technical details that a perfumer needs to make and refine. That is the other part, using Iso E Super or not. Just kidding, I am just throwing in Iso E Super because I really like Geza Schoen from Eccentric Molecules. I am just kidding around. Bertrand knew that they had to be quite natural-based because that would be true to the concept. What we worked on was mainly the natural part of it, and then he came up with whatever supported ‘the natural,’ the aroma chemicals. We would meet every few weeks and I would take them away and test them on me and a couple of friends. I didn’t have any test groups or share the concept before, so that it was kept quite confidential. The nature of the perfume world is very mixed; you either go out and share everything or you keep it to yourselves. There is an element of surprise to people when it is kept secret. Back to the question about language, it was a matter of discussing olfactory memories. I grew up in India and I am Indian, so I have a certain visions of India with the history and the sensory elements. Bertrand, as a visitor, had other olfactory memories. It is a bit like me visiting your country, I’ll have a different set of experiences and you will have your own set. Neither is better than the other is, though. We really put together our experiences in terms of those particular concept eras. Trayee was really an interpretation of the Vedic era, which is actually my childhood where I smelled all the wonderful smells during religious ceremonies and festivals. Bertrand went as a tourist and had similar experiences in temples and we put them together. For me it was more of my personal journey, but his experience helped because he had been to India.

RS: Let me ask you this, of the three fragrances, which was the biggest challenge to get your vision across in.
Neela Vermeire: I think that it was Trayee because it is my spiritual background. Even if you put together notes and ingredients, it is never going to be the same as experiencing it. When I go back in time and smell certain things or go back down memory lane, they all smell quite different. I wanted to have a general feeling, but it is never simple. I also think that it was the most complex because there are many ingredients. It is 40% natural and very rich, not only in terms of raw materials but also being multifaceted. That makes it unique I hope. Bertrand did his research as well, because there were parts of the Vedic period that he needed to understand more. We worked together and it was very intense. It wasn’t like I could go and give him a brief, my dream and ask him to fulfill it.

RS: So you were very hands-on.
Neela Vermeire: Oh yes, I think that you have to be. As a perfumista, I wanted perfume that I could be proud to wear. If you were making perfumes, you would like them to be pretty perfect wouldn’t you?

RS: Yes, you want it to come across and show that you are proud of it and want to wear it. If my name is going to be on something, I want it to be what I believe in.
Neela Vermeire: Exactly. You summed it up really well. This is my first trio, and you know Trayee very well. Mohur goes more into a complex rose. The three periods are pretty different, but I feel that one person could love all three. I actually have many clients that write and tell me about how they love all three. It is very nice to hear but I wonder if they are sure because as a perfumista, I don’t always love all three!

RS: When I smell one of your fragrances, not only do I see the history and feel where it is coming from, but I also sense you in the fragrance because so much of you is in there.
Neela Vermeire: You are so lovely, that is so nice of you to say that.

RS: It’s the same thing with Djing, if I go and hear a DJ spin; his soul comes through the music he is playing while he is up there.
Neela Vermeire: Totally, that is a great comparison and I agree with you. I love music and it is so true that with any artistic vision the people behind it come through in different ways. I am very touched, that was a very nice thing to say.

Bombay BlingRS: I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about the Indian culture but have some Indian friends and grew up with some Indian people. One thing that was always a big thing was Bollywood and Bollywood movies. The first time that I smelled Bombay Bling, I was reminded of those really colorful, bright Bollywood movies. Was that part of your inspiration or a factor at all?
Neela Vermeire: I paid tribute to contemporary India with Bollywood and Bombay. I think that I was being a little tongue-in-cheek by calling it bling for the fact that India has gotten successful, materialistically, with a lot of things happening and the economy moving forward. There is optimism in the air and an element of feeling positive and vibrant because they are going somewhere. It is great that India is doing so well, but Bombay has very ritzy areas and also very poor areas. Modern India has a very proud energy and a lot less brain drain. About twenty years ago, people would leave India and come here to study and then stay on, but now even if people come they often want to go back and work there. That is a good thing because as you know 50% of the population is under 30 years old, it is a young country in terms of population.

RS: Again, my frame of reference for India is kind of out of whack because I think of Manish Arora the fashion designer and artist. I know him because I am into Swatch watches, there is a Serge Lutens fragrance that I like as well. I am not sure if this is authentic Indian but it’s called Rahat Loukoum, which is like an Indian almond cookie.
Neela Vermeire: Oh yes, it is more Middle Eastern, a Turkish delight. You think of sweets and things right, what else do you think of India? It is great to have an exchange because our vision of different countries varies.

RS: I think of the religious women with the red bindi dots on their head. You have to remember I live in Nashville, Tennessee, so it is not the most multicultural area in the world. Most of my references are ones that I know from the things that I follow like Swatch watches, the music, Panjabi MC’s “Mundian Te Bach Ke” record that was big a few years ago, and the Bhangra Indian dance music. I know a little bit about what’s going on, but learning from you and the fragrance is broadening my mind to what is going on in the world.
Neela Vermeire: That’s sweet. By the way, you have to check out Prem Joshua and Band, he is a fusion artist. There are four of them, two are German, one is half-Indian and German and one is Japanese. Prem Joshua himself is a multi-instrumentalist who can play the guitar, flute, and a whole bunch of different things. He inspired me because I love his music. When I started the project, I wrote him and asked if I could use his music for my website. He was so sweet and wrote back within a day saying of course. He is based in Italy and the deal was that I would send him the perfumes when they were ready and finished. Isn’t that sweet?

RS: When you made the move from being a perfume lover to a perfume maker, what was that biggest surprise for you?
Neela Vermeire: Oh, there are so many, Ron. I think that the main surprise was understanding how difficult it is to be a niche, independent perfume creator. Are you asking in terms of the business side or the creative side? On the creative side, I had fun. I have had some surprises when I realized that when I say small quantities people ask if I mean 10,000 pieces and I only mean fewer than 1,000. People get seriously shocked because they tend to sell in thousands.

RS: So everything from sourcing the raw materials and the companies that you work with to get the bottles made are more used to larger quantities?
Neela Vermeire: I have had a lot of fun working with individual companies that do different elements, but I am also looking at introducing a smaller-size bottle that is going to be simpler. The larger bottle would become more of a collector’s bottle and the smaller bottle would be easier to carry around. It will be around 30 ml; I think that is a good size for people to buy.

RS: Yeah, that’s one thing that fragrance people always ask for because 50ml and 100ml bottles are great, but most of us would love to have 15ml or 30ml so that we can have a lot of different choices.
Neela Vermeire: On my website, I sell discovery sets which are 3 10ml bottles and that is a very good price because you can get to know what perfumes you really like the most.

RS: Let me ask you this also, what would you like to say to all of your fans out there, all the people who love your fragrances?
Neela Vermeire: I am very honored and grateful that there are many likeminded perfume lovers that appreciate the fragrances. I know that many people have been on this journey with me from the start and many have inspired me. I just hope that I will be able to continue to create. I am doing a project now, but I am not going to be prolific or like one of the companies that produces every six months. I hope that people will continue to love, appreciate, and value my fragrances. That means the world to me, more than anything else. I am just really grateful to the people have been with me on this journey. I would like everyone to know that the bloggers and the perfume writers have been so positive and it means a lot to me. I alsowant to tell them they must enjoy life and perfumes at the same time! They need to do that because I think that perfumes help us.

RS: I totally understand, when your peers love what you do, it’s the best form of acceptance.
Neela Vermeire: Exactly. I would love the fragrances to do really well and be distributed, but I am not one of the companies that are going over distribute. That is not my strategy, there are many companies that want to sell everywhere and I cannot afford to do that. I am going to take the small, correct steps of being small, but growing consistently.

Interview conducted May 2012.