"I’m originally from LA—born at the beach, and grew up in the foothills of Pasadena. I’d always been fascinated with Japan, so after high school, I took an opportunity to go to Tokyo for a year and started studying Japanese. Then I went to college at Berkeley and got my master's at Cornell in East Asian Literature. Later, I was travelling all over Asia, working non-stop, and then unexpectedly got super sick. I mean, I was in Hong Kong and one day just literally couldn’t breathe and ended up in the hospital for a month with collapsed lungs. In a sense, it was a sort of a blessing, facing death in my twenties—it gave me a moment’s pause to look at my life, and consider what was important. I really vowed to take better care of myself after that. I started really getting into tai chi, yoga, and every bodywork or energy-work modality ever invented. Pretty much anything woo woo I tried once. Of course, I also obsessively studied and got certified in all of those things. [Laughs] Eventually, it led me to some plant healers, which led me to discovering plant essences and essential oils.
At this point, I was back in LA, and really exploring the oils. I started to take on clients in these different areas of health and healing, and got so busy I ended up opening a small studio near the beach, and designed it to be like a private spa. I was using the oils in every way possible—diffusing in the air, infusing our hand towels and tea, making specific blends for treatments—and made sure the girls working with me really lavished them on the clients from the moment they came through the door. I was also really into studying the oils—their chemistry, biology, their uses in healing and perfumery, and how to apply all of that to what I was making for my clients. After a while, the oils just took over completely and became the main focus. I started travelling a lot, too—to India, the Middle East, South America, Europe, pretty much everywhere, searching for the purest and rarest oils I could find, and also to learn as much as I could about these plants in their own environments, and go meet the farmers and distillers. Around that time, I got into learning about distillation, which is when I really came into a whole new understanding of what these essences were and what I could offer.
Now, with L'Oeil du Vert, we distill in our studio, and it really ties me into the whole alchemical history of it. We have something called an alembic, which we use to distill the plants using water. For example, that wood over there is for a small-scale project we’re doing for a special group of clients. To get its essence, you’d put it in the alembic with water, and heat it, it becomes steam, and then, as it moves through the neck of the alembic, it cools and separates into oil and wood-infused water. But a lot of the oils and extracts I work with we source locally, meaning where they grow—like flowers, for example, are too fragile to travel and they're extracted in different ways. I’m constantly exploring new ways to extract the essences and I use different distillation techniques for those experiments. I also work with an amazing chemist and plant biologist, who is very connected to the plants and brings a lot of formal knowledge and dimension to the process and the palette I get to work with.
I approach custom fragrance creation like a ritual. I don't mean that in an ooga booga way, but more the a sense of how ritual is used to create reverence for something—like, for example, in a Japanese tea ceremony. There’s this extreme attention to every detail—both the person performing the ceremony and the people attending are in a very specialized setting, with very specific accessories, doing everything with a very specific intention. So, the perception of the object, the tea, starts to shift and is heightened, and you shift and are elevated, as well, and so by the time you taste that tea, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is teeeeeeea!!!’ Because you really feel it, you're connecting to it in a much more meaningful way than you would be otherwise. That’s exactly the level of ritual, the same level of connection and heightened experience, that I want to inspire with my fragrances.
First, when you're developing a custom fragrance, it’s about really listening to the client. I ask about their past, where they are, where they want to be—so that I can really try to distill their story down to its essence. Then I select, and we explore oils with histories and stories that might resonate with this essence of the client, really bring out its beauty, its complexity. I mean, you can't have reverence if there's no history, no intention. You may like vanilla, for example—but why, how? Ultimately, I look for a real context and concept for the fragrance composition in the layers of these relationships between the plants’ essences and the client’s essence. so that the fragrance becomes the way they all connect. This connection is so layered and meaningful that when the client smells or wears it, they really feel something special, something no longer ordinary, something like ‘teeeeeeea!!!’ [Laughs] Of course, then there's the presentation side of ritual, too, which also heightens the experience. Just as much as I obsess over the oils and the composition itself, I equally obsess on how to physically represent the concepts behind the fragrance. We really get into design, and work with a lot of artisan woodworkers, glass blowers, metal workers. Sometimes, we get a little crazy with this. Like, when we did custom fragrances for this couple from Japan who have an amazing store in Tokyo that offers a lot of indigo-dyed pieces. The oils were mostly obscure distillations from Japan, and we were indigo-dyeing lotus pods and sewing pouches from these antique kimonos for these custom engraved wood bottles and I was writing haiku about the fragrances. It was really layered. I wish I had more time to do individual customs, but really, we approach everything we do in this same way.
The fragrances being offered through our studio right now aren’t really created to meet traditional expectations. For example, with the Carmot Collection, which I made because I really wanted to offer a custom experience for people without having to work with me for three months or a year, the oils are really limited, and the presentation's sooo layered, and each one's made to order by hand, so a lot of work goes into it. In the end, I mean, it starts to straddle the line between something like art versus a traditional retail perfume product. And yes, the pricing ends up reflecting that.
Fragrances are like rare olfactory jewels. Aside from just the craftsmanship part, like jewels, the oils can be very limited—even more so, as in, no longer available. Which is an idea we're not really culturally attuned to in terms of perfume. I mean, diamonds last forever, right? But fragrance raw ingredients disappear. Like, for instance, high-quality Agarwood—a short strand of fine beads from Vietnam can be $400,000, and forget about getting it as an essential oil now; you can’t anymore. So the blends I created with a rare Agarwood oil I was lucky to source a few grams of and sold for a few hundred dollars years ago would be priceless now. If someone still has any, they aren’t going to be selling it. It’s like the souks in Oman, only after you talk and have tea and are about to leave do they pull out their chunks of ambergris to show you. And they aren’t showing you to sell it, no way, they wouldn’t part with it. It’s just a different way of exploring and appreciating aromatics that’s not as prevalent here, and doesn't fit into our culture’s more commerce-based model of fragrance, which is something that has to be readily available and easily reproduced. It’s that different way of exploring fragrance—to try and break past those limitations—that's driven a lot of the work we do.
The first ‘commercial’ project L’Oeil du Vert did was creating a fragrance for Nina Garduno’s FreeCity SuperShop in Malibu. When I met Nina she said, ‘Do whatever you want. I don’t care if you want to light tires on fire, I just want a piece of whatever you create.’ I instantly fell in love with her. [Laughs] So I made this fragrance called Sparrow for her based on her own personal story with ridiculously rare oils, like white ginger lily and pomegranate, and built this huge pterodactyl–sized nest with twigs and feathers for the fragrance boxes to go in, and designed the testers out of bird feeders. Which, trust me, made absolute sense with everything she had going on in the store. She also asked me to do a super high-end, limited-edition salt scrub for the Sparrow fragrance, and then she built a huge sandbox type of thing and poured 800 pounds of rock salt into it and put a refrigerator in the middle of it—for 12 scrubs! I mean who else does that? No one! For her store in Hollywood, we intentionally tried to go in the opposite direction, so I composed three very sort of classic California fragrances called FreeCity SuperBlends. I had the idea that the final formulas should be picked by people shopping there, and voted on by putting pennies in jars underneath the testers. [Laughs]
We’ve also been working with the Four Seasons Hualalai resort in Hawaii. A few years ago, when they first asked us to come up with something unique for the resort, our proposal was so big in scope we felt we had to give it a name to reflect how many stages it had: The Kawili Project. At first, we just got the go-ahead for developing a spa apothecary, which was all about gathering raw materials from the local organic farmers and consulting with Hawaiian plant healers. Can you imagine, having all these executives sitting down with Hawaiian elders! [Laughs] But, we ended up creating a whole line of products with proceeds going back to the elder community, and now's it’s turned into a resort-wide green amenity line, which will be rolling out this winter.
It’s great to see how everything in this world is blossoming the way it is. It gives me hope somehow that it’s been possible to stay true to something that isn’t necessarily commercial, and if you can connect people to the beauty and value in it, they’ll want to be part of it. I’ve seen it happen over and over. And ultimately I know it’s because connecting to nature, to yourself, in such a refined and authentic and meaningful way is just plain addicting. It’s transforming, and freeing, and it’s something I think we’re all really longing for."
—as told to ITG
Haley Alexander van Oosten photographed by Rachel Chandler Guinness in Los Angeles on October 2nd, 2012.