One of our favorite aspects of American perfumery is that there's no one path to becoming a perfumer. You can attend school in Grasse. You can follow a deep curiosity and start experimenting in your basement. Or you can study the psychology of scent, then become an expert on consumer tastes for one of the big houses, then launch your own custom studio in Scranton, Pennsylvania—like Danielle Fleming.
Fleming is the nose behind Note Fragrances and our beloved Midnight Leather, inspired by the lovely memory of a night in Florence. We spoke with Danielle about her craft and how she got here.
Olfactif: What are you smelling right now?
Danielle Fleming: Because I have my hand up to the phone, I am smelling a new formula that I’m working on. I’m testing out the tenacity today. I started off at 9 a.m. and evaluate it throughout the day. It’s having some really good tenacity, which is exciting. I’ve been working on it for probably about eight months or so.
O: What’s your favorite scented memory from your childhood?
DF: My first one that I can remember is the smell of a skunk, which I love to this day. I think it’s grassy, fresh, and clean, in a weird sort of way. I don’t recall where I smelled it, but whenever I smell a skunk, I feel my endorphins just go on overload. Not that I would ever wear that as a fragrance—well maybe I would—but it brings such a pleasant memory to me. Probably my family and I were out camping or something and I smelled the skunk during a really pleasant experience.
Also, my grandmother used to wear Chanel No. 5 body powder. I remember being young, around eight years old, and putting the powder on. She would put it on after she would bathe and then I would secretly put it on. Nobody knew I did it. I thought it was this very adult thing that I was doing, and I can remember to this day the feel of the powder and the special pouf and the smell of it. It’s funny because I don’t wear Chanel No. 5 now. I don’t care for it as much. But then, it was luxury and sophistication to me.
O: Tell us the story of how you got into the perfume business.
DF: Growing up, I wanted to be a psychologist. I always had a knack for talking to people and I was very much interested in human behavior. I went to college, got a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and then I went on to get my master’s degree. While I was putting together my master’s thesis I was also interning at the University of Scranton in their counseling center. I was working with college students and I really started to notice that some of the students didn’t need medication but they needed something. I couldn’t figure out what that something was. A lot of them were homesick. The freshmen in particular weren’t used to living with other people, and I was searching for an alternative that could help them.
While I was doing my research online I came across an article about the powerful effects of scent, and it really piqued my interest. The more I read, the more I got fascinated with the power and psychology of scent and how different aromas can either enhance our moods or change our moods or connect us to a memory and emotions that makes us feel good. So I felt like this was it: I’m going to prescribe scent instead of medication!
O: How did you know how to do that?
DF: I didn’t. I started reading journal articles and looking at what type of scents they were talking about and then I bought raw materials and started practicing on my own. From that point, I started buying and reading a lot of books. We weren’t as connected to the Internet at that time so I was doing a lot of book buying and reading about what different notes go well together and how do you make a finished product, just constantly educating myself. So in the beginning I was self-taught.
My first company was called Danielle & Company. I created scented products: candles, soaps, lotions, bath salts, body washes. That went on for about 11 years. Then during that time, I was offered a position at Firmenich, one of the major fragrance companies, as a senior consumer insights analyst. I worked with consumers to determine what fragrances should go to market. So a client would say, “We are coming out with a scented facial wash and it’s a fruity concept and here’s what the packaging looks like. Tell us what it should smell like.” We would decide what it should smell like, and then I would test it with consumers, running both qualitative and quantitative analysis to see how much they liked it, how they connected to it, and how it made them feel.
I loved it. But what I realized for myself personally is that I’m much more entrepreneurial. I started my first company when I was 24. I was used to doing all different things from sales to marketing to branding to packaging to formulations. I really didn’t know how much I enjoyed it until I stopped doing it all.
So during this realization, I decided I needed to go back to being an entrepreneur and create a brand and a concept that really speaks to how we connect to scent personally, and thus Note Fragrances was born. With Note, I wanted to really do two things. First, focus on fine fragrance. I had learned so much when I was at Firmenich and I felt that I could start crafting on my own. I have always been fascinated with the use of fine fragrance because of all of the products that I’ve ever crafted before had a secondary purpose. Soap, for example, would clean your body. Lotion would moisturize your skin. But we apply fragrance purely for the scent of it. It doesn’t clean you, it doesn’t moisturize you, it doesn’t provide ambiance like a candle. So crafting a fine fragrance line was really getting at the heart of aromas. It was something I needed to do. Note opened in November 2013.
O: You have a unique perspective because you come from the big-fragrance-house world. What conclusions have you drawn when you compare the way fragrance is done in that world and in the niche world?
DF: Great question. I think the greatest difference between the big guys and niche brands would be creative freedom versus top-line revenue. When you are crafting for very large brands, as a perfumer you are very limited. You have specific price points that you need to be at. The brand’s perspective might be “We did really well with this perfume, so let’s change it slightly and do a different version because we want to do really well again.” Lots and lots of money is being spent, so they want a good return on their investment. But in doing so, we end up creating almost the same thing over and over again with just a slight twist. I feel that big brands have lost a lot of their ability to allow perfumers to be artists. Pushing the boundaries, being innovative, taking a risk—it has been lost to top-line results and revenues.
What I love about crafting for my brand—and what you see in these other niche brands—is that there aren’t those restraints. We’re not that large, so we can craft based on our inspirations and our creativity.
O: The big houses have no choice but to be risk averse. But the small, niche brands have no choice but to take risks or they won’t stand out and find an audience.
DF: Right. “Risk averse” is a great way to say it. Even on the consumer insight side of the business, we would hear, “On a scale of 1 to 5, we need consumers to rate this 3.5 or better.” Even 3.5 was a little low. Some of our clients would require a 3.8 or 4.0 or more out of 5 for a product to even get to the next level.
O: Tell us the story of Midnight Leather.
DF: Midnight Leather is where I took the most risk of all the eight fragrances that I launched with. I was in Florence a couple of years ago. It was nighttime. It was about 7 p.m., and it started to rain so I went back into my hotel and then the rain had stopped and I just went out for a walk. In Florence, there’s this smell of leather that just permeates the air all the time and it’s lovely and it’s not really heavy leather. It’s a light leather. It’s very pleasant. It comforts you. It doesn’t feel like you’re walking into a tannery. The shops were closed and there weren’t too many people out, but the aromas in the air were just captivating. There was this light leather lingering, but since it had rained and I was walking down these cobblestone streets, there was a green wetness in the air. Also, as I was walking, some older men started coming out and they were smoking cigars. So I got these smells of fresh tobacco.
There were also these little ladies drinking coffee. They were inside and I was outside, so I didn’t get too much of the scent of coffee but it was part of my visual memory of the experience. It was a really interesting night, and I remember it like it was yesterday. So I just started crafting and trying to put that experience into a bottle. When I finished up that walk, it was around midnight, so that’s where “Midnight” comes from.
O: It has just enough complexity but not so much that it turns off people who aren’t accustomed to experiencing perfume that way. What has been the response?
DF: It’s one of our bestsellers. People love it I think because it does push the boundaries. But it’s a really easy fragrance to wear, for men and women.
O: Tell us about the custom scent creation that you do in your store.
DF: Part of developing Note Fragrances was developing a custom perfume studio. We’re based in a retail store in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s a place where we have our signature collection but you can also walk in and craft your own fragrance from scratch. We have miniature perfume organs set up and 50 different raw materials in each organ. We walk you through the process of how to create a fragrance from scent families. We talk about the perfumery structure, how it should be built, your base notes, your top notes, bridge notes, and how it should be composed. We give them an informative and fun explanation of perfumery, the art, science, and psychology of it. We put the creative process into the customer’s hands so they can personally connect to their fragrance and really discover their scent story. We then take on the final blending, proportion, and bottling—the chemistry side of things—and finish it for them. It’s unique because they’re building from scratch. They’re not starting off with accords or with a finished fragrance and then adding a few ingredients. Because of its innovation and uniqueness, we have a patent-pending process. Since we’ve launched, we’ve done about 1,300 custom fragrances. For me, it goes back to psychology. It’s my own research experiment to see how and what people connect to. We get people who say, “My husband gave me a bouquet and I want to recreate that in a scent.” Or that so-and-so has passed away and they want to remember them in a scent. It’s very fun, creative place.
O: We love what you’re doing. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you!
DF: My pleasure! Thank you so much for featuring us.