The New Noses: Josée Gordon of Reassembly
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. Today’s conversation is with Josée Gordon, the self-taught perfumer and founder of Vancouver-based perfume and skincare brand, Reassembly.
ON OLFACTIVE MEMORIES AND ORIGIN STORIES
“I started very young (early teens) mixing essential oils and combining with and studying my grandmothers’ perfume collection. My mother used aromatherapy as a healing modality, so I always viewed scent as powerful and transformative.
Perfume ingredients are markers of love, and atmosphere. I can remember some memories of my grandmother’s garden as a child, one of my favourite places in the world. It seemed to me everything she did had a beautiful and elegant meaning—as though she had thought of everything! The artistic value in the visual, the aural, the scent of it all. My mom had/has a much more wabi-sabi approach and is more earthy—I love that beauty too.
My scent memories reflect this. My grandmother’s peony bushes, rose bushes, her powdered perfume applied with a pouf. My Mom’s coveted vials of pure essential oils distilled by a friend, which she wore as fragrance—it would stay with me after she hugged me, as I walked to school. In my teenage years, cigarette smoke mixed with metal shop patchouli and my grandmothers’ old half finished bottles of ancient perfumes, my own powdered pouf. In my twenties, my first foray into essential oil blends and my evening go to, my Chanel no.19 with the aforementioned old and dark patchouli, my worlds coming together to make that day or evening's perfect combo. I met my husband wearing this and still do sometimes.”
ON BEING A CONSTANT STUDENT OF SCENT
“I imagine every perfumer has a path that speaks to them. For me, I always want to feel like a student, I think it would be detrimental to me to feel like I’ve figured it out. I’ve read and continue to read everything I can get my hands on. I practise continuously, mixing, blending, formulating. At first I did this on myself, wearing and experiencing scent change and transform my person, atmosphere, my clothes, hair, skin. I still do this and learn a lot this way. I practise by lifting/noticing notes, what they evoke for me. Then after a while I practised on others—I wanted to see if I could communicate this way. Through this I developed a small following making fragrances for friends and friends of friends that eventually grew into the business I now have.”
ON ACTING AS A CONDUIT
“The name ‘Reassembly’ came to me because I didn’t really think of myself as a “perfumer”—that was for my idols, the people I look up to. I felt like a conduit, bringing together things that exist beautifully and perfectly already in nature, if it makes sense - I was trying to be one with these things and mix them together or reassemble them while honouring their wholeness. Or, in the case of creating for others, asking these things to speak through me to tell a story of that person.
I think of perfumery as a very unique artistic expression that the wearer collaborates with—through their skin chemistry, how and where they wear the scent, what they mix it with, an aura that contributes to the story of that person. I try to be truthful and humble and a creative vehicle for the ingredients.
I never tire of hearing how people relate to scent - the memories evoked, the marker of events, the ability to bring one to a time and place instantly. Fragrant time travel! When I am creating a custom scent for someone I really try and shed my ego and aim to emotionally hear what they are sharing with me, verbally and otherwise. I’m interested in how they perceive their best selves, what they want to share with the world, what is truly important to them. I want to make them a gift of the beauty I’ve witnessed. It’s a sort of prayer for me, a meditation.”
ON SCENT IDEATION
“The perfume names usually come to me in a flash. Sometimes, with a scent like LUPA, the origin is the name: Lupa Lupercalia was a she-wolf goddess who was said to suckle the gods. The celebration of her ‘Lupercalia’ predates Valentine’s Day and was an orgiastic celebration ensuring fertility for the year. That whole idea was such a fun place to create from.
It changes for each fragrance. It could be anything. Sometimes a feeling, nostalgia or melancholy. Sometimes it is a person, or a sense of a person, a character. Sometimes when there is magic in the air, it is a lightning bolt. Finishing a scent can be complicated. I have gone too far and lost the plot. I try to keep my feet on the ground and listen to my gut.”
ON DEVIATING FROM DEPARTMENT STORE PERFUMES
“I see many people who can't connect with designer or ‘department store’ fragrance. They will say to me, Oh I don’t know what I like - this or that, I guess. Floral maybe? I don’t know! Or even in identifying a simple smell they like: Lemons! Citrus! Woods!? They aren’t on fire, the way most are with food, flavours etc. My guess is because these scents are created with the masses in mind, not the individual. The industry sometimes treats its audience as though they aren’t intelligent. All these ‘pleasing’ smells that don’t make your heart move or your knees go weak or evoke a real response - love, hate, whatever. I don’t believe you can or should paint fragrance personalities with such a broad brush. I think people are ready to learn about interesting notes and not simply be corralled into a category, or opt out altogether.
[There should be a word that] signifies the emotion, that evocative feeling, the weakness in the knees that can occur when you smell something really special on your own skin. Like butterflies of falling in love, but with yourself.”
Photographs courtesy of Josée Gordon & Andrew Querner.