Aaron Way, head perfumer at Seattle based Blackbird, creates intricate and expressive unisex fragrances for a modern audience. We talked about breaking into perfume making, the process of building fragrances, and why in 2015 gender doesn’t need to be a part of the fragrance industry.
How did you get into creating perfumes? What is it about it that makes it such a good fit for you?
I started working at Blackbird’s perfume store Blackbird Apothecary in 2010. Working there opened up a new sensory world that I hadn’t considered until that point. I would memorize the notes of every perfume we carried and after working there for a while I decided I wanted to be a perfumer. Making perfume feels very natural to me because all of my hobbies and interests involve mixing things. I make techno music and DJ where I spend endless hours sorting through music, listening to and categorizing my collection to find the most rare textures and pairings, and on the production side I literally mix and layer sounds and noises together. I cook the same way, never following recipes but combining whatever ingredients we have at the time into something new. When I make perfume I do exactly the same things.
What does your creative process look like? Where do you draw your ideas for your perfumes?
Ideas can come from anywhere. For Triton, I named the perfume before I even made the fragrance because the bottle order was due; having an ice moon to focus on influenced everything about that fragrance. For other projects, my partner Nicole and I will agree on a brief and I build from those ideas, and then sometimes a single ingredient will get me excited enough to start building a perfume around it.
Once you have an idea for a scent how do you actually build them?
I start by thinking of which perfume ingredients can represent aspects of the idea, and which ingredients will complement the ingredients I’ve decided to start with. From there, in my process, I am identifying characteristics I would like to notice more of and characteristics I would like to notice less of, and trying to alter the proportions of everything in a way that will achieve that. A scent will start to adopt a more clear shape throughout the course of additions and subtractions, and through discussions with my partner Nicole about how the scent is and how it should be. Sometimes it can be a short process and sometimes it can be very long.
What do you think makes for a great scent?
Originality, uniqueness, quality of materials, and balance. But this is very subjective and there can be a million ways to make a great scent by breaking any of those rules.
What is it like to try to break into the perfume industry? Are there any parts of it that you hope to influence and change?
It is hard to figure out how to get into making perfume. There are very few resources available that might tell you how to do this, and it seems like the most reputable sources will tell you that you need a degree in chemistry and then to go to school in Grasse. In terms of being recognized as a perfumer, I was fortunate enough to work with Nicole and release my work under the Blackbird umbrella, so there was already a captive audience.
We’ve been reading about how you really work to create outside of gender stereotypes, why is that important to you?
Journalists ask us all the time, “which scents are for men and which are for women?” or why we don’t make scents for women. We have to answer honestly and address that gender stereotyping is not something we do or find necessary in 2015.
We focus on making original, expressive perfumes that challenge our creativity and we love that in real life, everyone wears them.
We are so interested in the way that you name your perfumes; it seems like a name can carry a lot of weight in the perception of a scent. What do you think makes for a great perfume name?
Throughout Blackbird’s history Nicole has a made a game out of naming products, searching for just the right name that embodies the product itself and that feels new and informational, while still being pronounceable and memorable. She’s really good at this.
How do people respond to your work?
Blackbird has always been a little ahead of the curve and that’s why I fit in so well here. My goal is not to please everyone, but to possibly spark curiosity or encourage exploration. My most recent perfume Broken Glass is getting great reviews from some of the best perfume reviewers, which makes me happy.