The Artisan Series: Liz Zorn (Part 1)
I arrived a little late (fashionably late, maybe?) to the Liz Zorn party, nudged in her direction by a trusted reader in August of 2008, though the Ohio-based indie perfumer has been making waves as a full-fledged member of the DIY crowd since 2007. Perfume, however, wasn’t Zorn’s original stake in the creative-arts territory. She’s also a painter, photographer and musician, with music as her first love — something she says she’ll never stop doing, no matter how many weeks go by where she’s too busy running her fragrance business to touch her guitar.
“I’m still actively writing music,” she said, in response to my question as to whether she still had time for other artistic ventures now that her Soivohle brand has developed increasingly positive buzz across the scent-related blogs, “though my digital recording studio has been taken over by perfume. Boxes. Bags. I recorded an album of electronic music (they love it in Japan, go figure!) and got a lot of indie radio play for my acoustic album, but I’ve gone back to the blues for my most recent work, and I have every intention of recording new material. Music is the creative expression I’ve been doing the longest, so I’ll always write music, even if just for myself.”
And this idea of artistic creation for the sake of personal pleasure isn’t only at the heart of Zorn’s music, but it lies at the core of her fragrance aesthetic, as well. When you encounter a Soivohle perfume (Soivohle is an acronym of: Sending Out Inspired Vibrations Of Healthy Loving Energy), it’s immediately apparent that the brand isn’t driven by marketing and polls, but rather by the desire to introduce a singular perspective into the marketplace, a welcome approach to contemporary perfumery (a welcome approach to product creation in general, really) in what’s become our focus-group driven world.
“I don’t think about the needs of my customers for wearability,” Liz stated. “I think about pleasing myself and the realization of my artistic vision. If, through my pleasure in creating perfumes, other’s needs are met, then it’s a win-win.”
*NOTE 1: 80% of new products or services fail within six months when they’ve been vetted through focus groups, writes Daniel Gross for Slate Magazine.
But she does admit that it’s not all high-concept all the time at the house of Zorn, that the reason for sub-genres within the Soivohle brand is to satisfy different tastes. “The Natural (“Signature”) and Moderne Collections are me being me,” she explained, “but the Studio Collection is a combination of ideas and influences from customers and past work . . . I’m very open to incorporating new ideas into the mix, which is especially true when I’m working on a bespoke fragrance project where the client has the last word.”
*NOTE 2: Liz stated that she’s become more selective about taking on custom projects and that she’s still working out a number of details, though one of the reasons she recently opened up a physical retail location in Cincinnati is to facilitate a live exchange with prospective clients. “Nothing compares to the live exchange,” she said.
I asked her when it was that she felt she created her first “real” perfume — when she crossed the line from perfume making as a personal hobby to “Hey, I think I could do something with this!”
“It was probably sometime in the mid-90′s,” she replied, “when I created a perfume for myself called ‘Chanteuse’, a rich Oriental Chypre with a lot of oakmoss in the base. I received a lot of compliments on this scent, which led to my creating several custom fragrances for others. I found that the more time I devoted to perfume making, the better I became, until eventually I was spending more time making perfumes than painting — so I officially made the switch.”
Which is often the case with artisan producers. They start off exploring a subject that interests them — like weaving, soap making or perfumery — until it eventually becomes what they love and what they do, setting up their own independent businesses to meet a more specialized need that mainstream brands may have helped to create, but cannot, by their very “all things to everyone” nature, fulfill.
“Perfume is no longer created for the long term,” write Kapferer and Bastien in their book, The Luxury Strategy, “but is ‘launched’ like a new (fashion) collection or a new shampoo . . . In order to make this enormous investment profitable, there is no longer any question of a creative, sophisticated and refined perfume … but a simple, immediately identifiable scent.”
Yet “simple” and “immediately identifiable” are not terms that readily describe a Soivohle fragrance; in fact, nearly across the board, Zorn’s creations have been described as anything *but* simple and immediately identifiable, with reviews often containing words and phrases like hardcore, remarkable, brilliant, thunderous and complex, fascinating, surprising, debaucherously luxurious, what a niche perfume should be, and so on.
*NOTE 3: I think this might have something to do with that “vision” thing we mentioned earlier.
Jacques Polge, official perfumer for the house of Chanel, once revealed to journalist Dana Thomas that brands today are trying to create instant perfume classics by hewing to already existing best-sellers (like Chanel No. 5) instead of affording professional perfumers enough creative license to come up with something unique. “This is a false notion,” he told her. “We should try to create a perfume of its time, and perhaps it can *become* a classic.”
Which is exactly where indie perfumers like Mandy Aftel, Andy Tauer and Liz Zorn become a part of the conversation. Away from the grinding machinery of the mainstream market, they’re free to create works that respond to the world around them, and to the times in which they live, without the undo pressures of marketing departments and company accountants. While the mainstream brands can still produce the occassional quality fragrance (the Chanel Les Exclusifs line springs to mind — many thanks to Jacques!), there hasn’t been a “classic” perfume to emerge from a global brand name since Thierry Mugler introduced Angel in 1992. So is it up to the independent artisan producers to craft our future classics?
I emailed blogger Suzanne Keller and asked for her thoughts on the issue of independent vs. mainstream perfumery. She had previously mentioned to me that she doesn’t consider herself a perfume snob and is just as happy to browse a department store selection as a niche online boutique, so I wanted her opinion as to how she thinks self-taught, DIY perfumers like Liz Zorn fit into the bigger retail picture.
“I would agree that the mainstream perfume market is flooded with the launch of too many fragrances that are, by and large, derivative if not cheaply made, but I don’t think these companies are evil — in some ways, I think they’ve actually helped spawn the flourishing market for niche and artisanal lines,” she wrote. “Bigger companies open up market sectors, develop technologies and cultivate a consumer awareness that artisanal producers can then take advantage of. I know we’re talking about luxury perfumes, but take Starbucks for example,” she added. “They introduced the art of coffee making into the general public’s awareness, even to people living in the smallest of hometowns. This inspired a craving for fine coffee that’s given rise to independent coffee houses and home roasters across the country.”
And she has a point. Without the omnipresence of simple and immediately identifiable celebrity and designer brand perfumes driving a minority (yet still significantly proportional) percentage of the world’s noses to distraction (and sometimes to lawsuits), how many of us would have sought out alternatives? Because it’s precisely this consumer craving for something different from the usual waft of fast-perfumery that carves out a space for today’s artisan perfumers to thrive.
On a related note, Basenotes posted an unpublished excerpt from Chandler Burr’s book, The Perfect Scent, in which Burr interviews Yves de Chiris, whom he dubs one of the perfume industry’s most experienced executives and consultants. Yves de Chiris unhesitatingly declared that the problem with perfumes today is that the big brands are all shooting for high volume sales over quality and originality. “I’d rather market my fragrances to the passionate elite,” he said. “I’d make more money in the end, and I’d get to make better perfumes because that’s what those clients who are serious about perfume really want. Go narrow and deep rather than shallow and wide.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s the perfect cue for independent perfumers like Liz Zorn to enter the room.
*NEXT UP: Part 2 of the series with perfumer Liz Zorn.