CM: You have some strong feelings about what luxury means, can you describe them? And how do you bring luxury into Aftelier Perfumes?
MA: To me, luxury includes the following values that guide my work as a perfumer: handmade, unique, attention to details, sumptuous atmosphere, not made industrially, exquisite craftsmanship, noble materials, sensually memorable, great beauty. Luxury is an internal experience; status is an external one. I hope that my perfume creates a singular memorable transcendent experience of refinement and exquisiteness for the person who wears it. I use the finest essences in the world because I really can't make the perfumes that I want to make without that quality of essence. Luxury is impossible without the finest materials, worked by hand, by a talented artist with a singular vision.
CM: When you set out to create a perfume, do you have the consumer in mind from the start, or do you just go where your creativity takes you and see what happens?
MA: I really never have the consumer in mind, I make my perfumes for me. At the heart of each of my perfumes, there is always an aesthetic problem that I'm trying to solve. I think of the perfumes in my line like chapters of a book that fit together to create a world, like a novel. This is why I may retire a perfume, even though it is quite popular, the story is constantly changing and needs to remain alive and interesting to me.
custom Parfum Prive solid perfume
CM: What are some of the things that inspire you as a perfumer?
MA: My greatest inspiration is the beauty of the essences themselves: the complexity, beauty, range, texture and shape of the natural essences. I happily spend large chunks of time sourcing materials from all over the world. When I get a new essence in my hands, I'm always thinking about how I can bring it to life in a perfume and find my way to understanding each essence from the inside. I am completely in love with my essences- I think about them day and night, pine for them when away, they inspire what I create. I also create from wanting to capture some vague feeling or experience from my life. There are many fleeting feelings that are so rich to me. I am particularly inspired by what Virginia Woolf was doing with her fiction. I think the first way I have of understanding the world is through my feelings-- but that often doesn't match up to words. The world of feelings is so strong in me that the only place that I can capture them and put them down is in a perfume.
CM: Are there any natural materials you just don't like working with, or have trouble working with? Conversely, which are your favorites?
MA: I like the challenge of creating perfumes from essences that I don't particularly like or think are difficult. Several of my perfumes were created to see what I could do with a challenging essence: Parfum de Maroc- cinnamon, Cepes and Tuberose- cepes, Haute Claire- galbanum, and Tango- choya and coffee. My favorites change all the time but right now they are: castoreum, costus, sarsparilla, jasmine (always), poplar buds and ethyl phenyl acetate.
CM: What are your favorite scents in the whole world? They can be anything, not necessarily elements of perfume.
MA: White lilies, sweet peas, oolong tea, dirt, my husband's neck (up close), and skunk (at a good distance).
Mandy Aftel's garden in Berkeley, CA
CM: Some people may not know that you do everything with Aftelier Perfumes yourself, from creating the fragrances to bottling them up- you are very "hands-on" with your company. Can you explain a little bit about why this is?
MA: I love what I do, and I find the process of actually making the perfumes deeply satisfying and I would never want to entrust it to someone else. I like having my hands (and nose) in the materials. I will allow my business to grow only up to the point where I can still do everything myself. When you work exclusively with natural essences, the final perfume often needs some subtle tweaking because the aroma of the essences can vary from crop to crop. I love this aspect of it, that it's alive and not static. For me, to be able to make the perfumes that I want to make and have people love them is thrilling to me.
CM: Why is it important to you that you work within the constraints of natural materials only?
MA: For me, nothing is as incredibly beautiful or diverse as natural essences. I love the range from funky stinky to drop-dead gorgeous and everything in between. They intrigue, inspire, fascinate and thrill me. I love holding in my hand the essences that have been used since the beginning of time in every culture across the planet. Their intense intrinsic beauty has sustained their preciousness through the ages, and I feel their aromas contain all the stories ever told about how they were discovered, why they were valued, where they came from and what they were used for.
CM: We are hot off the heels of your most recent launch, Haute Claire, which has been getting a lot of attention for its uniqueness. Do you have any other fragrances in the pipeline at the moment?
MA: I am working again on the Letters to a Fellow Perfumer series on Nathan Branch's blog- this time with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. We are talking about doing a classic floral. I'm very interested in creating an interpretation of florals in my own quirky way. I always find it hard to describe what I am trying to create with words-- it is just an intuitive feeling of something that is new and fresh to me. I am in love with some natural fruit essences I recently sampled, so will be very interested in including them, if they will play well with the florals I have in mind.
CM: You have worn many hats in your life thus far- therapist, author of several books, teacher and perfumer... many people daydream about shifting gears in their lives like that, but are so hesitant to do it out of fear of the unknown. Do you have any words of advice for someone who might be in that position, ready for a change but scared to take that leap?
MA: I have always thought that people have more regret for the risks they didn't take, than for the things they tried that didn't work out. Failure was never that frightening to me. I was always surprised when something succeeded.
CM: You have carved out a unique position for yourself in the world of perfumery- you've managed to bridge the seemingly ever-widening gap between natural and traditional perfume for many people. Why do you think your work as a natural perfumer is becoming so popular with those who had not previously liked or been exposed much to natural fragrances?
MA: I am deeply grateful to the incredible perfume bloggers (like yourself) who have championed my perfumes and written such beautiful words about my work and have really understood me as an artist and what I was trying to do. This has helped that people who think they don't like natural perfumes be willing to give mine a try. I am thrilled to be thought of more as a perfumer, and not simply a natural perfumer.
Mandy's cat Stan "the Steve McQueen of felines"
[all photos courtesy of Mandy Aftel]