All perfumers take different routes to their craft, and those routes all have one thing in common: dogged persistence. But we haven't heard many stories as chock-full of determination and hard work as that of Sarah Horowitz, owner and founder of Sarah Horowitz Parfums. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Sarah—creator of the addictive, beachy Perfect Coconut Milk—is also talented, creative, and intensely passionate about scent. Here, she shares how she built a successful business, why she loves the one-on-one connection of customized scent creation, and the serendipitous story of how she stumbled into perfumery at all.
Olfactif: Where did you grow up? Did you have much to do with perfume when you were a kid?
Sarah Horowitz: I'm from New York. I grew up in Long Island and I went to school in Boston. I was always a very sensual person. Even as a child, I wanted to smell everything, but I also wanted to taste everything, touch everything, experience everything. Scent was part of that. But I never thought about where perfume came from. I didn't seek out perfume. I didn't think about perfume. It was not a main part of my day-to-day life at all. But I did smell everything before I touched. My mom joked that when we would go shopping, I would stake a step into the store and if I didn't like the way it smelled I would say no, I'm not going to find anything here. It drove her crazy, but I would leave and that was it.
O: What did your childhood smell like?
SH: It depended on the season. My favorite moments in my childhood smelled like falling leaves in the back yard, making forts, my dad's pipe-that cherry vanilla tobacco he smoked—and the fireplace in the wintertime. My mother's cooking, and Shalimar because that's what she wore, and Youth Dew by Estee Lauder because that's what my grandmother wore. My favorite season for smell is definitely fall.
O: So where do you get your fall fix now that you're living in Southern California?
SH: Through perfume. I love oak moss and vanilla and amber. I've been doing this for a very long time and no one has ever asked me what my childhood smelled like. I ask people about their childhoods all the time when I do custom fragrances, but no one ever asks me. So thank you for the opportunity.
O: Let's fast-forward a bit. You're a freshman in college in Boston, you're walking down Newbury Street, and you come across this boutique. What happened?
SH: I was killing time between classes. There was this store called Essence-we're talking 1989. There was new age music playing and all these apothecary bottles lining this wall, and crystals in the window. I walked in and I thought, "What is this?" Mark Enos, the man who owned it said, "May I anoint you?" I said, "Whatever that is, you can do it." Then he said, "You're so unique-shouldn't your fragrance be?" And that was it. Literally that moment marked my life before that day and my life after that day. So I came in and created my first fragrance with him that day. I personally found it a very powerful, spiritual connection. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
O: What did he make for you?
SH: The fragrance that we created together was patchouli, jasmine, musk, and vanilla, and to this day, I still wear it in key moments. If I have a big meeting or a presentation, I actually go back to some form of that fragrance because I feel it very much roots me into who I am. Vanilla is in probably 90 percent of the formulas I make for my own line. There is almost always a hint of vanilla in there. I love it. Jasmine is still my favorite flower, but I don't think I had ever actually smelled jasmine in nature before I moved to LA. I think I only had smelled it in perfumes. When I moved to California, I smelled the night blooming jasmine, and it blows me away.
O: So how did you go from enthusiastic customer to employee to owner?
SH: I started spending a lot of time there between classes. I was taking a class called "performing for television" or something like that, and I asked him if I could interview him for my grade. He came to the school and we were waiting outside the studio for my turn to do the test. Someone asked him what he did at the store, and I thought they had asked me. So I just started talking. The person said, "How long have you worked there?" I said, "Oh—I don't."
But he said, "She just started." And that was how he offered me a job.
I worked for him part-time throughout college. Then the year that I was graduating college, he had decided to close and move to Colorado and start something different. I and another girl who worked there-Dawn Spencer-Hurwitz, who is also an amazing perfumer to this day-knew there wasn't another new-age, high-end, blending bar. It was a very unique place. So we saved our own money and borrowed some money from our families and we bought the business together in 1992. We ran it on Newbury Street together for two years. I had never taken a business class—I knew nothing except that I just wanted to keep doing what I had been doing.
After two years, our lease was up in the place we had moved it to. I knew very clearly that I didn't want to work in a retail setting. I wanted to see people by appointment and just focus specifically on individual customers. So I moved to California in 1994 and founded my own business, Creative Scentualiztion, here. I've been doing it ever since.
O: When you moved out to California, how did you establish a client base?
SH: Every way I could. I started building a list of people who were from Los Angeles while still in Boston, collecting phone numbers and addressees so that when I got here I would have some people to reach out to. Then when I moved here, I got a job at Fred Segal. It's funny how that came about because, when I moved here, I was 24 years old, cocky in a way that only a young 20-something can be, and I had already run my own business on Newbury Street. I felt like I had so much to offer anyone and I could teach them a thing or two. What can I tell you? Ignorance is bliss.
So I made an appointment to have an interview with Ron Robinson, the visionary who owned the beauty store APOTHIA at Fred Segal. When I went in, I proceeded to tell him how much he needed me at the store. We laugh about it now. But at the time, he laughed and I didn't laugh so much! But he offered me a job as a fragrance expert (after allowing me to convince him to allow me to create a fragrance for him that day out of the trunk of my VW!). I worked for him three or four days a week, and since then he has become a great colleague and inspiration to me.
On the other days, I had this toolbox from Sears that I filled with about 150 oils—little half-ounce bottles. It was a tackle box, and I still have it—it's hysterical. I had a piece of silk that I laid down and my crystals that I'd pull out. I had a little wheelie thing for luggage, so when I wasn't working at Fred Segal, I would just go anywhere. I would literally pick a shopping street and walk into stores and offer to make them custom fragrances. I did farmer's markets, flea markets, any kind sale that I could find where someone would let me put up a little table. I handed out cards everywhere. I told anyone that I would make house calls, and I did. I always wore my own fragrances when I was working at Fred Segal, and if someone said, "Oh, I like the way you smell," I would give them my card.
Then I ended up leaving Fred Segal and working at Planet Blue in Malibu. They let me bring my oils on the weekends and do custom fragrances. I got my first piece of press because someone was wearing one of my fragrances at The Coffee Bean in Malibu and the woman in front of her said, "What are you wearing?" She said, "It's my own custom fragrance. I even got to name it. A perfumer made it for me." She had my card on her because I gave them out liberally—and the woman who had asked her just happened to work for Vogue. This woman called me and asked me what I did, and then little blurb came out in Vogue in 1997. Suddenly people knew I was doing it.
Then I was offered a consulting job helping to develop fragrances for candles. I knew it was another moment in my life where I decided, "Either I work for someone else or I work for myself." So I took the leap. I left Planet Blue. I started solely doing my business. That was it.
O: That is some serious determination.
SH: It's truly a labor of love. I still love what I do, more today than I did the day I started. I'm doing more interesting things. I still am in awe of the reaction people have when they find a fragrance they love.
O: What do you love about custom perfumery?
SH: What I love about custom is that it's different every time. It sounds cliché, but it's literally just what Mark said to me, which was, "Every person is unique-shouldn't their fragrance be?"
When I get to do a custom fragrance, the customer, at first, is just a voice on the phone, or a stranger in front of me. But then you start cracking the ice and you find the heart of the person. That's what I love about it. You start off with a stranger and you end up with someone that you feel like you've bonded with.
To see their face when you start creating something out of ingredients that they've chosen-it's profound for me. They get to name it. They feel a connection to that fragrance, whether it becomes the only fragrance they ever wear again or if it becomes part of their fragrance wardrobe that they use for special occasions.
O: How did you end up with a ready-to-wear line?
SH: When I was working at Planet Blue in Malibu, I had been working on gardenia. Gardenia does not yield an essential oil, so any gardenia smell is a compound of synthetics and naturals to recreate the scent of a gardenia. Not a lot of them smell like a real gardenia. So it had become my obsession—to create a realistic gardenia. I had gotten a gardenia plant and had been smelling it, and I had a compound that I thought was really good.
A client at Planet Blue who loved gardenia had asked me for a custom fragrance, so I used my gardenia accord in her scent. The owner of Planet Blue happened to be there and she said, "What was that? Can you just make that for the store?" I couldn't do that exact fragrance because that was the client's custom formula, but I did have another gardenia. So I made it. It didn't have a name, and the owner said, "It smells like the perfect gardenia scent." So I said, "Okay, Perfect Gardenia." And that was the first of the "Perfect" line. Eventually, someone asked for a fruity one so I did Perfect Nectar and then I did Perfect Veil for my friend Robin who wanted a non-perfume perfume. I didn't plan on doing ready-to-wear, but it sort of just happened that way.
O: Tell us about Perfect Coconut Milk. What was the inspiration?
SH: Each month, I do something called Banque de Parfum, a new blend that's not for retail. Two years ago in August, for my husband's birthday, I did a tropical coconut fragrance. I wanted to make him something that was the perfect beach experience. We called it Coconut Milk, and it got a big response from our e-mail blast. At that time, I didn't sell it in stores, and it was only for my clients. But eventually we added it to the collection because we had so many requests. It was really inspired by my customers who asked for it.
What I love about it is that it has a floral accord in the middle note—the jasmine and the orange blossom—but the top notes have a hint of almond with the coconut. They way that plays off the vanilla, the almond juxtaposed with those creamy notes, is what makes it interesting. I use such a tiny bit that you don't smell almond, you just smell the feeling that almond can give you, if that makes sense.
O: What do you wear most of the time?
SH: I have body oil that I made that's scented with a rose-jasmine accord and vanilla. If I have a big appointment, a big presentation, I do find myself wearing some variation of my original fragrance with the patchouli and the musk and the jasmine because that's what grounds me. This summer, I've been wearing the fragrance of the month for June called Serendipity. I basically made a mistake in a formula, fell in love with the result, and ended up making that the fragrance of the month. It's a very citrusy floral, which is different for me.
O: Tell us about Original Scent, your new venture.
SH: Original Scent is my first retail venture since those first Boston days so long ago. We create original, custom fragrances by appointment. We have six scent stylists whom I have trained to use a very abbreviated form of my Fragrance Journey—it's emotional, educational, spiritual, and most of all personal. The location is absolutely beautiful—it's owned by my partner, Nicole Winnaman, who is a branding executive extraordinaire, and also a woman of persistence. She had been talking to me for almost three years, and finally this past January, I was ready to jump. We also do it online and offer custom candles and a huge assortment of body care products. Honestly, it is the manifestation of my dreams in many ways, and I feel like it is the beginning of a new and amazing chapter for me as a perfumer and business woman.
Last, and most important, my family—my husband Greg and my two daughters, Jessica and Gianna, are my raison de etre and my constant inspiration to try harder, to push farther, and to be creative. I am incredibly grateful for them.