The New Noses: Courtney Rafuse of Universal Flowering
The New Noses is a series on independent perfumers who came upon the craft the unconventional way: who aren't French men, heirs to perfume empires, or trained in prestigious fragrance schools. This is the first in the series—an interview with Courtney Rafuse, the nose behind Toronto niche brand Universal Flowering.
ON BECOMING A PERFUMER
"I’ve always really liked scent, but I’ve never had a relationship with a perfume, a signature scent. I would bounce around to a bunch of different types of scents and never stick with any of them. So I just started messing around and making them for myself, and that turned into making them for my friends, which turned into other people asking about it. And I was like, “Oh. That can be something… to do.” So. I’ve been doing it seriously for the last two years. Not very long, all things considered.
I’m self-taught, which I think is the best way to do it. If you’re following any sort of protocol or somebody else’s idea of how a scent is made, you get polluted with those thoughts. Everyone has a different way of making scent. I think finding your own way of making it is more important than learning the basics from somebody else. I mean, you learn a lot from reading and looking at stuff online, but trial and error is the only way you figure it out.
A scent starts from what I’m excited about at that time. I just build off of that. For Out of Focus, I was focussing on sandalwood and cardamom. I built it around those two scents and added other elements to it. You go to town, then you leave it for a while, then you come back to it—get to know it a little bit better. Most of the time I’ll think something might be done, but come back to it and realize that it’s unfinished. Like, “Oh, it just needs that splash of blue.” And then it’ll be done. If you put too much time or thought into it, it just falls apart and ends up in the bottle of lost oils.
I get to make all these weird, complicated scents that really challenge people. That’s one of my favourite things that anyone’s ever said about my perfumes: that they’re really challenging. It’s like when you see this piece of clothing that you really like, and you’re like, “I could never pull that off,” but then you go and you buy it, and it slowly but surely becomes your favourite thing in your wardrobe. That’s the idea that I like behind my scents. They’re intense and hard to wrap your brain around at first, but then they slowly become something that you wear every day.
ON COMPLEX AND CHALLENGING SCENTS
That’s the trick with making something that isn’t simple or easy to wear. I want the process to be selective and special to people. I want the scent to be something that everyone wears a little bit differently. So, it’s tricky in that way. I know that I could make a perfume that people would really like, and I would sell a lot of. But, I wouldn’t be happy with it. Like that brand that just bottles synthetic ambergris. It’s so popular and people go crazy for it. But it’s like, “How dare you, sir.” That’s not perfume! There’s no thought or love that goes into it.
I’m not trying to shit on the way that people wear perfume. Some people like something that’s easy and simple and one-dimensional, and I can’t fault them for that. Yes, synthetic ambergris smells amazing, it’s beautiful. But where’s the fun in that? Scent is so personal, and everyone wears it differently. They pick up a note or a memory out of a perfume, and that’s what makes scents beautiful and sensuous. Everyone has a different relationship to it. And blending them all together creates this whole new world. But to have just one note, who cares? Jasmine by itself on a scent strip is mind blowing. But think about how much more mind-blowing it could be if other notes could change it and expand on it and turn it into this whole new idea.
Some people want something a little weird, with more textures and pages through it, and I like that. I feel like the people who like my perfume really respect scent a lot. Most of the time people buy my perfume and message me afterwards—they always have so much to say about it. They take on this little love affair with it. That’s what I want: for people to have their own idea of it and make their own story about it. I want it to be an open-ended thing for them.
You don’t buy a painting because you like the way it looks; you buy it because you want to be challenged by it every day. You want to look at it and have it constantly develop a new meaning and personality. With perfume, I feel like you can do the same thing. I don’t want a perfume to be a winter scent, or a spring scent - I want it to be a mood, a feeling that can shift from one thing to another. So it’s not just a thing they like; it’s a thing they experience. The people who have bought my perfume or come for custom appointments really want to have a connection to their perfume. They don’t want it to be another thing that they spray on themselves and walk out. They want to have it feel really personal.
The customs have been going pretty steadily, and I love doing them. You learn so much about people’s associations with smells. The last one I did—she really liked calamus. It’s an herb, but you can also use it as chewing tobacco, and in high doses it can have psychoactive effects. It smells so intense. I’ve shown it to people as a wild card when I do appointments, and everyone’s like, “No. This stinks.” But she was going insane about it. I was so excited because I finally got to work with it. She was like, “That smells like dirty lake. I want to smell like a dirty lake.”
ON CHANGING WHAT IT MEANS TO SMELL NATURAL
I don’t really have the nose for synthetic perfumes, but I kind of wish I did, because I feel like they do play a really big role in perfumes. It overwhelms me too quickly, and it flattens everything so much, especially if a perfume’s more synthetic than anything else. I find it hard to pick out the individual notes in synthetics. I’m curious about synthetics and I know that they do have a place—I would like to look into it more and research it, because I feel like I could use them in sparing ways.
I make my scents really strong, really concentrated and intense. I feel like with most natural perfumes, they either smell too aromatherapeutic or they don’t last on your skin at all. I wanted to subvert that entirely and be like, "No! They can be really loud and in your face! You don’t have to wear it so close to your skin!" Let it speak. Let it talk a bit more. That’s why I do them in alcohol—I find that roller perfumes don’t pronounce themselves. And that's the thing: natural perfume can TOTALLY pronounce itself. I feel like naturals get a bad rap, because they’re often so weak. But they can be so intense, if you play your cards right.
My favourite right now is Still Life With Fur. I’ve been wearing it for months. I’m really happy with the way that turned out. I really like resins, and it’s really resin-heavy, and there’s castoreum, which gives it that gross, leathery, almost burnt rubber smell. I love the way it plays off the resinous notes. It’s so warm to me.
ON SMELLING GROSs and horny
The word that I use to describe scent, more than anything else, is horny. Because that’s what I like! I love all the human body smells that go into perfumes. Things that smell gross and horny. My friend was telling me that a girl came into her shop, sprayed Madmen’s Honey and was like, “Ugh, this smells like piss.” But ten seconds later, she said, “I love it!”
That is one thing that I try to focus on when I am making scents: I like to make them smell grossly human. For example, a lot of people will get piss from jasmine. And then there’s phenyllactic acid, which is so polarizing. Some people say it smells like piss, or sweat, and other people will be like, “It smells like honey.” I get both of them, which I like. That’s one of my favourite bodily-smelling things. It smells like skin, horny sweat—like burying your face into a lover’s armpit. It’s gross, but you love it."