Print Press: The New York Times

October 25, 2016

Print Press: The New York Times

Skin Deep

By RACHEL SYME OCT. 25, 2016


We’re Animals, After All
The clean, minimalist trend in perfumes is giving way to scents that bring out the beast.

In 2012, Victor Wong, a video game designer for a toy company in Toronto, had a tiny midlife crisis in his hotel room while on vacation. He felt burned out on work but was strangely revived by sniffing the hotel toiletries, which came from a niche fragrance line he can no longer recall.

What he does remember is that he swooned over the scents, which were spicy, musky and intense. He knew then and there that he wanted to make perfume.

Returning home, Mr. Wong began haunting the message boards of the cult perfume sites BaseNotes and Fragrantica, feverishly researching the formulas behind his favorite scents. The same notes kept popping up: castoreum, civet, musk, ambergris. He realized that he was drawn, in an instinctual way, to animal-derived scents — or rather (because most perfumery materials that come from animals are now banned or heavily regulated) to their lab-created chemical equivalents.

When Mr. Wong worked up the courage to put out an open call online for a perfumer to help him create his fragrance, he already had a specific, and beastly, concept in his head. He would call his line Zoologist, and he would release a series of scents named for the wild creatures that inspired them.

The British perfumer Chris Bartlett was the first to respond, with a bold idea for the maiden fragrance in the Wong menagerie. He wanted to capture the essence of a beaver. Mr. Bartlett proposed a scent that used no real animal ingredients, but smelled strongly of wet fur, dank musk, felled trees and the sour buttery odor of a beaver’s castor sac secretions.

Mr. Wong said yes immediately. When Beaver hit the market in 2014, it immediately became a polarizing sensation in the niche perfume world. CaFleureBon, which reviews cult perfumes, named it one of the best of the year, and fans flocked to its peppery, sweaty funk. But, as Mr. Wong now admits, “it was ultimately too challenging for a lot of people.”

“A lot of people thought it was interesting but said that they would never wear it,” he said. The smell of damp pelt (and the not-so-subtle bodily connotations of the name) made some customers feel uncomfortable rather than swaddled in the dense odor.

So Mr. Wong asked Mr. Bartlett to revisit his formula, and this fall they released Beaver 2016, a riff on the original idea but with more “fresh air and river top notes to make it more attractive.”

Mr. Wong has released six other perfumes, including Bat, a pungent reverie on banana, cave dirt, musk and overripe figs from the perfumer Dr. Ellen Covey that won the top prize at the 2016 Art and Olfaction Awards. The venerable fragrance critic Luca Turin gave Bat a rave, writing that “the fragrance seems lit from within by the earth note all the way to drydown.”

It turns out that Mr. Wong’s animal instincts were right along: In 2016, the demand for fauna-inspired scents is cresting.

“Animalic” is a buzzword floating around the industry, now that the minimalist, clean trend has given way (at least in high-fashion niche circles) to more feral fragrance clouds. Maybe it’s the desire of millennials to reclaim their beastly odors in an age of technological detachment, but fragrance buyers are newly excited to smell as if they come from an elegant zoo.