An Inspired Collaboration: Neela Vermeire and Bertrand Duchaufour
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By Mark David Boberick
What happens when a serious and passionate fragrance lover decides to launch her own line of fine fragrances? She turns to Master Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour and launches an exceptional trilogy of perfumes celebrating her homeland: India. The result is Neela Vermeire Creations, 2012’s most exciting niche fragrance collection.
Neela Vermeire was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. As a young child coming of age in the Indian tropics, Vermeire was met with a wide variety of smells from a very young age. “In India, you are always assaulted with various smells – good, bad, and ugly. I spent my summers at my grandparents’ country home which was surrounded by many tropical flowers and fruits. I have great memories involving scent – time spent with my family during various ceremonies, celebrations and feasts, holidays by the sea all over India and the Himalayan Mountains. Sandalwood paste used as a face mask while growing up. Tea gardens in Darjeeing and Munnar, visits to other cities, life in Calcutta - pocketfuls of beautiful smells,” says Vermeire.
The power of our sense of smell can never be underestimated. Scent plays a key role in the bridge to memory. As anyone who has ever traveled to India can attest, the country practically overflows with an abundance of smells from sun-warmed spice markets by day to the nocturnal smell of night-blooming jasmine, perfuming the air with its pungent, sensual aroma. Playwright Moss Hart once said, “Once you have drunk of the heady wine of the theatre, you are lost forever.” Similarly, once India lures you in with her heady fragrance, there is no escaping her. Stray, though you may.
Vermeire did stray – first to London where she trained and qualified as a Solicitor of England and Wales in London. Paris was next and Vermeire stayed there for two years.
Six years after leaving Paris, Vermeire once again returned to the City of Lights in 2003, this time relocating due to her husband’s work and she has resided there ever since. Where India seduces through nature, Paris often lures a person in directly through fine perfumery. Among many favorites, Vermeire counts the fabled scents from Chanel, Serge Lutens, and Guerlain among some of her most beloved fragrances prior to launching her own line. “I came into the world of perfumery because I have been passionate about it for a long time,” says Vermeire.
When the idea to launch her very own line of fine perfumes first came about, “It was truly organic,” Vermeire says. From the very beginning, it became clear that the concept would be a love-letter to India. “I had a tribute to pay. It is, after all, a dedication to my culture, my country, my family, friends – all my loved ones, past and present. I guess it has to be a love-letter to express such deeply felt emotions. For me, it is a tribute to India, but with the best French know-how. But I seriously did not just wake up one morning thinking, ‘Gosh, there are so many fragrance lines out there and I must impose yet another one.”
Vermeire had a concept for a trio of fragrances simmering away in her mind. An Infusion of Indian History – 3 distinct periods: 3 distinct fragrances. The first centering around the Vedic Era (ca. 1700-320 B.C.E) a period in which the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, The Vedas, were composed. The second, centering around The Moghul Era (1526-1858), in which the Indian subcontinent was under Moghul rule. During this period, far-reaching trade routes were established and art and architecture flourished. And the British Raj, the period starting in 1858 when the rule of the British East India Company was transferred to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria and lasted until 1947. Finally, a third period embracing the vibrancy and excitement of Modern India.
With the concepts in place and well-researched, the perfume creation process began, soon followed by the business aspect. To start the process of creation, with her concepts at the ready, Vermeire approached Master Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, especially known for his work for Comme des Garcons and L’Artisan Parfumeur, among others. “I met Bertrand with the idea in mind. Initially, I was not sure whether I would give all three perfumes the same amount of focus and attention. Bertrand is possibly one of the nicest and most genuine perfumers that I have encountered, with such an amazing talent and deep appreciation and respect for other cultures. He truly encouraged and welcomed the project and wanted to work on all three and, naturally, I wanted him to do the same. Bertrand is a truly professional perfumer without losing his soul,” Vermeire says.
“The idea to pay homage to India, a country I particularly appreciate, even love,” Duchaufour says of the attraction to the project that made him sign-on. “I certainly lived in India in a precedent life and it was the best way to honor this memory… I can say that. And I was able to do it through three different stories corresponding to three different historical periods of India. How could I do better?” Neela Vermeire also served as a major part of the inspiration for the perfumer. “Her words were totally supporting the ideas that I already had of this country and its history,” says Duchaufour. And with founder and creator both in place, the stage was set for the collaborative process.
For Duchaufour, the experience of working independently with a client like Vermeire instead of creating a fragrance for a fashion house such as Givenchy or a niche perfumery like Penhaligons was quite different. “Because Neela wanted to do these fragrances as an homage to the country where she was born – it became a sort of personal research project before becoming a business. I had to awaken deep emotions inside her of her own pass over there, her childhood and all the impressions she accumulated through all of her years living in her beautiful country. It was as well a kind of psychological transfer from my imagination to her memory, unconscious and conscious memory,” says the perfumer.
The discussions prompted Duchaufour, already very familiar with Indian culture, to conduct even more olfactive research to complete the project. “For two of the three fragrances I did for Neela, I just allowed my imagination to continue processing her detailed descriptions of the atmospheres she wanted to reproduce through the accords I could imagine. Mohur (Moghul/British Raj Era) was so well described by Neela, the history, the terms with which she explained the historical part she wanted to represent, that it was really easy for me to imagine the perfect mood for it. Similarly, Bombay Bling (Modern Era) was built upon the inspiration from Bollywood movies that just inspire me... the color of the clothes on the actors, the very specific decorum in such movies...
But for Trayee (Vedic Era), I did much deeper research concerning Ayurvedic philosophy – I was interested to know what Ayurvedic medicine men used as ingredients in some medical recipes. The research was key in reinforcing the impressions kept in my mind from my own personal experiences of visits of temples I accumulated during several travels through India, from north to south,” Duchaufour says.
Duchaufour and Vermeire met quite often to discuss progress, share additional inspiration and ideas. “We usually lunched or had a drink in an outdoor café. I usually got trial samples that were great – sometimes I was slightly confused,” says Vermeire. To gather feedback, Vermeire would turn to the people closest to her. “I did not do tests except on close friends and family when I visited them in India. Two dear friends, one in the US and the other in Paris, helped me through many stages. With one friend being local, we could try many trials together. We all have very different skin types. My visits to see my family also reinforced that all the perfumes were on the right track - especially whenever I returned from India and gave Bertrand feedback on how my mother appreciated or commented on a trial. It made me very happy to see how those comments became part of the perfume and I am sure it pleased Bertrand to hear all the feedback from India.”
This incredible feedback from Neela’s family is what Duchaufour credits as being the best part of this entire project, for him. Through the feedback and continued meetings, the trilogy continued to grow closer to becoming finished.
“It was only a question of getting them to a stage where Bertrand and I both thought it would really match the concept at its best without compromise. Bertrand happily reworked, whenever, to reach a desired place if it was necessary. We both like working with transparency so we always tried to be on the same page,” says Vermeire. From this collaboration, Neela Vermeire has many fond memories. “I thoroughly enjoy our exchanges on the creative process - I am sure Bertrand has had laughing fits after my suggestions like…
NV: Bertrand, for Vedic - why don't we try to add some "grass" notes?
BD: Oh, yes, that will be excellent.
NV: I have memories of the spring festival Holi and Thandai (a milk drink with cannabis)
BD: Yes, I remember a funeral on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi where everyone was smoking - that sweet smell!”
Quality has always been at the forefront of both Duchaufour and Vermeire and this trilogy holds a standard of quality that is often difficult to maintain, due in no small part to the specific materials chosen. “I wanted the best raw materials and trusted Bertrand to use the best. Fortunately, Bertrand believes in the same. We had many discussions during each meeting about many of these ingredients, especially the spices, sandalwood, rose, and oud. Trayee has a high concentration of pure Mysore sandalwood oil, nearly 1% pure oud, and two different types of jasmine. Mohur includes an astounding 11 % rose and a decent amount of pure oud. I did not want any of these fragrances to have Oud in their name – hence, there is no “Trayee Oud” or “Mohur Oud.” The idea was to include many ingredients that were authentic to the individual period, not because they happen to be fashionable or sadly a bit overexposed, today,” says Vermeire. Eventually, there were no more alterations needed to the now perfect trilogy of fragrances and Neela Vermeire Creations was officially launched.
The first in the trilogy is Trayee, centering on the Vedic Era. It is a contemplative, woody scent of an unparalleled quality. Restorative sandalwood and oud are centered with a burst of cool, spicy ginger. Trayee manages to simultaneously honor the most ancient of Indian roots while planting itself firmly in the realm of contemporary fragrances.
Mohur, the second creation, focuses on the Moghul and British Raj eras. Appropriately, this fragrance is a celebration of rose, a flower native to Asia but now more-often associated with British culture – a direct result of the Raj. Mohur is a rare, but attainable milky rose, coupled with other precious florals, spices, and 2 different types of oud. Long lasting and tenacious, Mohur sparkles quite like the largest ruby set into the Imperial Crown of India, created for George V.
The urban glamour of Bollywood immediately punches through Bombay Bling with a burst of juicy mango (India is the world’s largest producer.) Focusing on Modern India, Bombay Bling is a study in balance, equal parts fruity, floral, and creamy oriental. The heady blossoms of white flowers waft through inviting base notes of sandalwood and vanilla.
Neela Vermeire Creations enter the market at a decidedly luxurious price point. With the passing of every year, we see an increase in the number of new niche fragrances released. These factors might scare some, but Vermeire is confident that her collection will succeed. “I think if people love the perfumes and most importantly the quality, beauty, and soul of these three perfumes - we will continue to sell to the right market. Not being a marketing person - I will say that people do know great quality raw materials when they smell a fragrance. As a passionate perfume lover, I did not want to launch perfumes to join the rat race or compete with others, but instead, to share my love for perfumes with the best raw materials possible. I did not cap, nor did I give Bertrand a budget to work with. What can make a perfume beautiful is the composition and the construction of the raw materials. Bertrand is a genius with many of the raw materials he has used and therefore composed three great pieces. The collection has been very warmly received by people who appreciate fine perfumery and that is what matters most to me,” says Vermeire. “It is very reassuring to know that we must have done something right.”
$250 | 55ml
Neela Vermeire Creations are available in the US exclusively through Luckyscent.
Sample and discovery sets are available.
MARK DAVID BOBERICK | Managing Editor