SA's budding fragrance industry is nothing to sniff at
Niche perfumers are creating boundary-pushing scents with a uniquely African tone — and facing big challenges while doing so
It's taken a long time for us as South Africans to back ourselves, especially when it comes to investing in our creative industries. But lately the local beauty industry has seen an uptick in new home-grown brands competing with the best in the global space.
An exciting development in the fragrance industry is the emergence of a niche perfumer community dedicated to pushing scent-profile boundaries and showcasing a uniquely African tone.
“SA doesn't possess an intrinsic perfume heritage but we experience this as a positive notion — because with heritage comes convention and convention can be stifling,” say Megan Bisschoff and Coen Meintjes, perfumer duo at niche-perfumery brand Fettle & Frisson.
“Wearing a fragrance is like applying a second skin, it needs to respond to the identity and culture of the wearer. The South African fragrance industry has a unique stance — we're blessed with an abundance of cultural heritage offering opportunity for contextual inspiration and scent design.”
The reason that the idea of a perfume heritage eludes us could be because until now, despite campaigns like Proudly South African and Local is Lekker, we haven't been instinctively drawn to supporting local industries and businesses. There have been doubts cast on the quality of local produce and an aspirational superiority placed on anything international — especially fragrance.
“The South African niche-fragrance industry is in an exciting space now with some world-class perfume houses here. But South Africans tend to covet international brands as tokens of aspiration, so we encourage everyone to stop and smell the local talent right under our noses,” say Megan and Coen.
With unique vegetation and other natural resources setting our fragrances apart from the global offering, perfumers pay homage to our culture in the use of local botanicals and in the conservation and preservation of them with sustainable sourcing practices.
“It's a conscious point of difference. We both hold dear a history in environmental stewardship, so we feel a strong connection to nature and believe that many South Africans share this instinctive awe of the natural,” say the pair.
“In response to this affinity, we created our fragrances with ingredients which unearthed the beauty of natural materials, allowing the wearer to connect to the milieu of the untainted. Fettle & Frisson perfumes are made exclusively with a palette of natural, organic and wild-harvested plant-based distillations.
“We're conscious of the manner in which our essences, oils and extracts are produced and always favour renewable production practices with the least environmental impact. For example, we use a West-Indian sandalwood oil as opposed to the true East-Indian sandalwood which, although a superior perfume ingredient, is an endangered forest species threatened by overexploitation and degradation to habitat.”
For Marie Aoun, perfumer at Joburg-based perfumery Saint D'Ici, the choice to use natural ingredients isn't solely a matter of patriotism; it's a natural progression of the local beauty industry and a way to widen the circle of opportunity in the supply chain — from farming to local production.
“This is partly due to government efforts two decades ago to support essential-oil farming and some courageous farmers who ventured into this space. Following on from the availability of the incredible carrier oils found on our continent, the local natural-skincare industry started to flourish and, in turn, created further demand locally for essential oils.
“The local natural-skincare brands paved the way for us to further elevate botanical ingredients into perfume. The perfumers are now creating demand for more unique and expensive ingredients to be farmed locally, albeit on a small scale. There isn't one reason but rather multiple shifts that have created an environment that makes botanical perfumes a natural choice,” says Aoun.
“As much as possible, I limit my sourcing to African ingredients, ethically farmed. This isn't always feasible as some key ingredients are only available in other parts of the world.
“But local sourcing remains the objective so I'm happy when I can substitute with an African product, like the jasmine grandiflorum I've recently sourced from an Egyptian supplier who has been farming and extracting this ingredient for over 60 years. It's important to me that I tell the story of African ingredients, so they're always the heroes of Saint D'Ici's perfumes,” says Aoun.
While the birth of niche, natural-fragrance houses shows that local fragrance production can rival global standards, it's also brought with it a new crop of perfumers expanding the natural-ingredients-only memo.
At last year's Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, news circulated of “nose” and fragrance maverick Leigh-Anne Drakes, whose fragrance brand *Apartment makes use of both natural and synthetic ingredients to create abstract scent profiles.
“Little can hold a candle to the depth that naturals offer because each material contains hundreds of molecules. The natural gloriousness of Please Wait Here wouldn't be possible without the notes that hinoki, a Japanese cypress, offers. I built that scent supporting her with almost only other naturals, it's what she needed. But at other times I find naturals stuffy and limiting — they can only smell like naturally occurring things.
“Many of my ideas are too abstract and obscure to be realised through what naturals offer. I want to be able to create the scent of neon yellow or perhaps toy with dancing whiffs of burnt rubber and ink,” says Drakes.
“I think the choice to work with naturals, synthetics or both is a choice of a creative nature — just as any artist would choose what material they work in. These materials in themselves call for different approaches creatively, philosophically and by method. Sometimes it's based on the notion that naturals are safer or more sustainable. This extraordinarily oversimplified notion is unfortunately just not how chemistry works.”
No creative industry comes without challenges and local perfumers are forced to create world-class scents on a small scale, with limited funding and accessibility to ingredients and production setbacks.
“When talking to people I realise that from the outside it all looks romantic,” says Aoun. “The reality is that it's hard work. First, the size of the local market for niche perfumes is a challenge, particularly now. Thankfully, we also sell our perfumes internationally, which cushions us. Second, to be committed to being 100% natural and to sourcing locally and ethically is more work and more expensive than treading the known path of using synthetic ingredients readily available from large fragrance houses. But I couldn't bring myself to do it any other way.”
Thanks to the rise of more local brands taking up space on our shelves, the need to appreciate and support what's authentically ours before these brands become colonised by global admirers is growing. Our vanities are making space among international brands such as Dior, Paco Rabanne or Chanel for local gems like Fettle & Frisson, *Apartment, Saint D'Ici and the like.
So, in the words of Drakes: “It's as good as anywhere else, go out and use your nose.”