In the world of niche perfume, it's not uncommon to find artists who aim to shock or surprise. What is much, much rarer is to find an artist who aims to raise the bar on beauty and elegance to an almost impossibly high standard. One of those artists is DelRae Roth.
When she launched Parfums DelRae in 2000, the niche world as we know it today didn't exist. But DelRae had the vision to imagine it, the talent to help create it, and the guts to ask for what she wanted. In our conversation with DelRae, she discusses the creative process of bringing a perfume to fruition, the inspiration behind the luminous Début, and the surprising story of how she began working with one of the world's most renowned perfumers.
Olfactif: You grew up in a lot of different places. How did that shape you?
DelRae Roth: My father’s work took him a lot of different places. I was on the West coast and my family was in the Midwest for a while, and then I moved to San Francisco. For me, I realized that a person can be happy anywhere. It’s not about the place; it’s about the person. There are many great places to live in the world, and it’s like that saying: “It’s not what you’re looking at—it’s what you see.” I try to keep that in mind.
O: What were some of your strongest childhood scent memories?
DR: I remember very specifically the smell of tea—lifting the lid on a teapot and the smell of the brewing tea, which I sometimes still think about when I make tea. I remember the soap that was used at the school I went to when I was a child. The smell of my grandmother’s roses in her garden. The smell of the air in the mountains. The smell of a big field in the country.
O: You began as a graphic designer. How did you move from graphic design to perfume?
DR: I worked for Esprit, when they were the hot name around, as art director. That was a great experience. I learned how to organize a project and the importance of surrounding yourself with really good people. So I was experienced at helping other people build a brand and design products, but at the end of the day, it’s not your own thing. I always had loved perfume, and I knew quite a bit about it just from buying so much perfume and paying so much attention to it. So I thought, “I know how to organize a project and design packaging,” and quite naively, I thought, “how hard can this be?” A lot of people said I was brave and I scoffed at that, but I look back now and think I really was brave. Because it was much more complicated and difficult than I ever could have imagined—which is what most people discover when they start a business. But I wanted to change my life, and perfume was a combination of so many things that I enjoy doing. I thought, “why not give it a try?”
O: Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t know how hard it would be.
DR: I think that’s true. Now, 10 years down the line, when you go through a lot of old files, you just gasp at how much work it has been. If I would have known! But you don’t do it all in one year, you do it gradually and you learn. If you realized, it would be so daunting that a lot of people would never undertake what they do.
O: I’ve read that you contacted one of the world’s most renowned perfumers out of the blue and just asked to collaborate. I thought, “It can’t be that simple.” Is that really what happened?
DR: That is how it happened! It goes back to my belief in surrounding yourself with really good people no matter what you do, because you learn from them. So I got the phone number through the Grasse perfume museum. I just called Michel Roudnitska on the phone. Michel was trained by his father, Edmond Roudnitska, who was a great innovator in the perfume world. I explained to him who I was and that I had some ideas for perfumes. We decided the best way to begin would be for me to go to Grasse. We needed to meet each other. So that’s what I did.
O: Were you surprised that he was interested?
DR: I’ve found that creative people who are not threatened are often very generous. They at least pick up the phone and speak with you. They might not be able to work with you, but they at least speak with you. So someone who’s not willing to do that perhaps is not a good choice. Michel must be complimented on the fact that he was really open.
O: It’s an impressive story.
DR: Thank you. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I had the wherewithal to do it. But what’s the worst they can say? All they can say is no. I remember years ago somebody said, “They’re not going to hit you. Just ask them. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.” And that is quite true.
O: I read that you were feeling dissatisfied with the world of perfume when you launched your line. Is that the case? Why?
DR: The perfumes that were coming out were all the same, and I found myself to be bored. Unknowingly, I sensed that this whole niche was going to be the next big thing. It seemed to me that there was a customer like myself out there who wanted something totally authentic, high quality, beautifully made, and that there would be enough people that I could build a company around that desire. Thérèse, Michel’s mother, said, “Years ago, we used to see people like you in the business who really loved the art of making perfume and respected it and wanted the juice to be quality, and we don’t see that anymore.”
O: How does the process work between you (the creative director) and the perfumer?
DR: I have an idea for a perfume, and it might come from a place, like Paris or San Francisco, or a material I love, a painting, a play—it can come from anywhere. Then I come up with the name and the core materials. I decide who I think would be a good person to work with and I call them up and discuss my idea. Then we begin. The perfumer makes some samples—they’re called modifications—and that’s how we determine the direction. There might be five in the first set of samples, and there might be 75 or 100 different mods before we’re done.
O: What was your intention when you first brainstormed Début?
DR: Début came from my love of lily of the valley. It’s a beautiful, feminine, luminous, fragile flower. I was aware of the perfumes that featured lily of the valley, but I personally never enjoyed wearing any of those because they didn’t feel faceted enough. They felt too girly, too young, and so I was interested to make something more modern. In France in the 1500s, Charles IX started the tradition of giving bouquets of lily of the valley to the women in his court. So in France, giving lily of the valley became something you do on the first of May. I proposed this idea to Michel that we take lily of the valley and contrast it with vetiver, which is a classic masculine note that I also like very much. I was a little hesitant to propose that to him because his father was famous for creating Diorissimo for Dior, another lily of the valley, but Michel really liked the idea. I think Début does capture youthfulness, but it’s sophisticated at the same time. It is wonderfully vivacious, but it’s not girly or babyish.
O: What does the name mean to you?
DR: At the time that Début came out, my business had completely changed my life. So for me, the name signifies that if you live your life with passion and focus, you have the opportunity to make a lot of new beginnings in your life—a lot of debuts. Not just when you’re 16 and 25. It can happen again and again.
O: What does it mean to you when you hear feedback on your perfumes? Is that how you stay in touch with the magic of what you create?
DR: It is, actually, because sometimes you feel like you’re working in a little vacuum. And sometimes I forget how much these perfumes mean to people until they tell me. And then I’m reminded—which is very nice—how important perfume is for people. It’s artwork that becomes part of your personal story. It has a powerful draw and meaning for people, and it’s really rewarding to create something like that.
O: When will see the next Parfums DelRae release?
DR: Early summer. It is a very beautiful, extremely wearable perfume. I collaborated with Yann Vasnier. It is composed of two favorite materials and has a wonderful name. I am looking forward to it!
Learn more about Début, an Olfactif featured perfume for May 2013, and use your $18 full bottle credit here.