You Smell Nice: Leigh Cariaga, Swimwear Designer

"My name is Leigh, I’m 29, and I’m a swimwear designer living in Brooklyn, New York.

Right now I’m working on my first swimwear line launching Summer 2017, called Now Boarding. The line is inspired by travel, and the lens through which I view the world. So often in fashion, inspiration turns into cultural appropriation, but I’m focusing more on the scents, foods, and colors of a place - the red of a sunset, or the burnt orange of the Sahara Desert. Because of my travels, I’m also aware of how important portability, care, and quality is. Each piece will come with its own garment bag, and will be made domestically and ethically. Knowing where your things come from and how they made their way to you is so important.

I’m a first generation Filipino American. My parents moved to LA in 1980, and maintained many of the Filipino traditions they grew up with - especially food. My mom loved throwing big parties for my younger brother and I – she grew up very poor, so it gave her the ability to live vicariously through us. She’d start food prep days in advance, and fill our gigantic dining room table with traditional Filipino food, like lumpia, which are Filipino egg rolls, and pancit noodles. On your birthday, it’s tradition to eat noodles to give you a long life. You aren’t supposed to bite them as you eat, because that’s said to cut your life short!

We would go back to Manilla to visit family, to a small fishing village called Navotas. When I think of Navotas, I smell a pungent mix of gasoline from all the motorcycles, street vendor food, and the smell of fish being extracted to make fish sauce. My family owned a butcher stand in the neighborhood market, and the smells were always super intense – I’d always want to retreat to other corners of the market to avoid them, but the rest of the family was immune to it!  Even though I was really young, all these smells stuck with me.

Traditionally, people who move to the States from the Philippines send back boxes of expensive goods, called balikbayan boxes. Sending designer fragrances was definitely a thing – but there’s also this thing called Angel’s Breath that everyone in my family wore – it’s really powdery, like a baby cologne.

The first fragrance I ever bought for myself was Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana. I still have a bottle! I have such a strong personal attachment to it. Up until that point I had been wearing sweet florals, mostly gifts from my dad, but when I smelled the fresh citrus of Light Blue for the first time, I realized 'I’m not that girl'. I also liked I Love Love by Moschino – it’s similar, but the citrus comes more from orange than lemon. I was a makeup artist from 18 to 22, and I worked in department stores, so I’d hang out in the fragrance department and explore, smelling everything. It was there that I started getting into warmer notes like leather and tobacco. Right now I'm loving Vilhelm's Smoke Show and The Oud Affair.

I started taking natural scents more seriously after I took a solo trip to Morocco last year. I met this amazing street vendor who taught me all about it. He also introduced me to a tea ritual I found so interesting and soothing. He brewed a beautiful tea with chai and rosebuds, dropped eucalyptus crystals into it while it was steaming hot, and had me actively inhale the steam before drinking the tea. I can’t even explain how intense it was – I had to cover the cup to keep my eyes from burning! He also showed me a solid perfume – jasmine, which I loved because it wasn’t overwhelming. With essential oils, I find that you can achieve a really intense scent, but as it mixes with your skin’s oils, it becomes you. As I wore the jasmine throughout the day, it evolved – it smelled like me, it smelled like Morocco, and the clashing of those two worlds.

A friend knew I was getting into essential oils, so she gifted me Chakra Balancing Oils by Aura Cacia. Your chakras are the points in your body that rule different aspects of your life. I wear these oils like regular perfume, but I'll also sometimes buy those big glass 7-day candles at the bodega, and I'll set intentions by putting the oil on my finger, then rubbing the candle. I just burned through a red 7-day candle, using Expressive Throat.

I burn sage regularly. You burn sage when you're trying to clear your space of energy, but I also feel like it has human properties. Like if I'm in a bad mood or am feeling overwhelmed, it has a calming effect on me. I burned it with rosebuds last night because I was feeling emotional. I was crushing on someone, and wondering what to do. Rose is good for self love and clarity - it’s the reason I wear a rose quartz ring. A lot of people think rose quartz is about finding love, but it’s just as much about self love and self care. So, any time I’m low in self esteem, confidence, whatever, I keep my rose quartz close to me. I wear it on my left hand because the left side of your body absorbs energy, and the right side releases energy. If you decide to collect stones and carry them in your pockets, it very much makes a difference which side you wear them on.

Sometimes I'll burn sage with lavender, too. It opens you up to your individual psychic abilities and widens the scope of what you perceive on a day to day basis. I don't know that I have psychic abilities, but I do feel a connection to the spiritual realm. My grandma passed away when I was 12, and my grandpa passed only a month later, I fully believe from a broken heart. They each had very distinct scents, and even now, I’ll smell them and know they’re there. Sometimes it happens when I really need it, and other times it comes out of the blue. Once in San Francisco I got in a cab and 5 minutes into the drive it smelled so intensely of my grandpa's pomade, like he was in my face! I said to myself, 'oh, you're coming with me on this trip?'. I can turn it into a conversation, or I can be like, 'I don't want to do this right now' and it goes away."

All time favorite: Light Blue by Dolce & Gabbana
Right now: Solid jasmine perfume
Favorite notes: Citrus
Least favorite: Anything artificially sweet - especially cherry