Neil Chapman: Scent is a portal for me

After meandering through the hanging garlands of Rebecca Louise Law: Awakening, many visitors remark on the lovely fragrance permeating the gallery. To build on that olfactory dimension, Associate Director of Learning & Engagement Christine Boutros invited fragrance expert Neil Chapman to give a talk at the museum (and also a workshop—but it is sold out). On Saturday, March 25, hear him discuss Scent: The Language of Flowers at the Doris Duke Theatre. Book your seats here.

Based in Kamakura, Japan, Chapman is a British writer and educator who has been fascinated by perfume since he was a child. The author of Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent (available in the Museum Shop!), a regular contributor to Vogue Japan, and creator of the long-running The Black Narcissus blog, he is an authority on fragrance and makes learning about it fun. He took some time to answer questions about his life, perfume, and what to expect at his talk.

What led you to your scented path?

I have loved perfume since I was a kid, when I used to get a thrill going into my parents’ room when they weren’t at home—or when they were just downstairs—and secretly try the selections of scents that I always found so fascinating and intoxicating. I started wearing them out of the house, to school, then began saving up pocket money, when I was a teenager, to get my own. When I got my first perfume that I had bought with my own money—Xeryus Pour Homme by Givenchy—it was like having a talisman or elixir; a bottle of magic. I was thus hooked pretty early on, but it wasn’t for another two decades that I started writing about it. One day I just sat down when I had a free moment and decided to do an evocation in words of Mitsouko, an enigmatic perfume released in 1919 that is quite difficult to pinpoint in terms of the emotions it provokes. When I read what I had written, I found that I had almost succeeded in capturing its atmosphere. It went from there to magazine articles and then my book. For me, the connection between language and scent is quite mesmerizing. Most people find the olfactory the most difficult to describe; for some reason I am completely the opposite. Scent is a portal for me.

What led you to living in Japan?

I was living in London in my early twenties and felt dissatisfied and in need of adventure. I wanted to just throw myself into another environment and culture where I had to relearn everything and question all my previous assumptions. My Japanese students at the international school I was working at the time told me I would love Japan and so should come and live here, which was something I had never considered before—but they intuitively sensed something in me, as though it was my destiny. Then one day I saw an ad in a newspaper for a job. I came on an impulse, and never left. Kamakura, the centre of Zen Buddhism in Japan and a former ancient capital, is a really beautiful and peaceful place to live, but it’s also only 45 minutes from Tokyo. It’s an incredible location.

What does your blog title Black Narcissus refer to?

I always loved the sound of the flower names “narcissus” and “hyacinth” as a child, as well as their scent. Just so lush and yet fragile. One day, I came across a precious bottle of vintage Caron Narcisse Noir (1911) at a flea market in Tokyo that completely blew my mind: my blog deals with perfume and the olfactory as a window to other things—culture, identity, politics—I’m not afraid to go into darker, personal territory, either, and I thought this would therefore be the ideal name for the website. I also love the 1947 film Black Narcissus by Powell & Pressburger about a group of nuns who go nuts at the top of a Himalayan monastery, their chaste and rigid belief system unravelling partly because they are exposed to a perfume that a dandy comes to visit them with a perfumed handkerchief is wearing—in all probability Narcisse Noir. Perfume is mind-altering. Eroticizing.

A lot of people see perfume like art—they like what they like. What prompted you to create a guide for finding one’s signature scent?

I totally agree that scent is subjective, in fact a reaction to smell is probably the most personal and visceral feeling there is. You like what you like and vice versa. At the same time, there has been a real homogenization and cheapening of perfume in terms of what gets presented at department stores and duty-free shops in recent years and, in my view, too many people smell the same (or very similar)—it can get very boring. It’s nice to branch out sometimes and find something that is more distinctive and personal and that really suits you, rather than a fragrance that is quite generic or that you have just been gifted randomly.

The mass of fragrances on display in any retailers can be daunting and overwhelming so I wanted to write a book that broke perfume down into more manageable categories. I think that if you are more familiar with the different “families” of perfume,  you can gravitate towards one that really brings out your inner character for the world to see—something memorable and unique. I really do think that the prime power of perfume lies in memory—people leave a beautiful imprint on others when the scent is right. It can transcend time, bring you back to life even after death.

What can people expect at your talk at the Doris Duke Theatre?

I want to take the audience through some perfume history and discuss the role of the olfactory in different cultures; the importance of flowers; how perfume affects us, psychologically and physiologically; how the industry has changed, for good and for bad, in recent decades, and just delve into the sheer pleasure that perfume and the olfactory can give to human beings in general.

Though your workshop is sold out, tell us what you will cover in that.

The workshop will be a more hands-on straight up sniffathon. If possible, students should bring a “blank canvas” (ideally not perfumed skin) so they can try a variety of scents! I am not a perfumer, so won’t be teaching about the chemistry of perfume construction itself. Rather, the event will hopefully give a good overview of the world of fragrance in general, using a lot of the terminology and more precise descriptions in order to be able have a clearer picture of perfume’s evolution and how to talk about it.

The workshop will take participants through different perfume ingredients; all of the main scent categories; look at perfumes from different decades, starting from the 1890s—I will be bringing a lot of very old and precious samples with me!—in order to put fragrance in context with specific eras, so that you will be able to smell, say, what James Dean or Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Eartha Kitt, and Michael Jackson wore—in their original editions—learning how to describe and categorize them. At the end we will come bang up to date with an exciting selection of more avant garde niche perfumes, some of which push olfactive edginess to the very limits of wearability; participants will then be able to take home sample vials of the perfumes they are most drawn to.

What do you think about tropical scents like gardenia and tuberose, which are staples in Hawai‘i?

I love gardenia and tuberose and all tropical flowers like plumeria beyond words, which is why I was so thrilled to be invited to Honolulu. I will basically be walking around inhaling in ecstacy the entire time, I am sure. It will be incredible to be able to smell all these flowers in such great abundance in the flesh. Heaven!

What is your signature scent?

I wear a variety of perfumes that suit the mood and season. Sometimes I just want something that smells easy to like and in the moment. Other times I like something more complex and “difficult,” scents that unfold gradually in space and time and have a deeper emotional connection such as vintage Chanel No 19 parfum and Guerlain Vol De Nuit. Like most perfume critics and fragheads, I don’t believe in gender in fragrance—you just wear what smells right.

Photo: Duncan Hume