To say that we love Brent Leonesio, the creative mind behind niche house Smell Bent, is not a remarkable thing to say. What's not to love? He has a quirky, irreverent brand. He's not afraid to surprise. He injects humor into his (totally affordable!) scents while remaining completely serious about the art. And while some niche brands strive for an over-the-top luxurious aesthetic, Brent's work focuses on the pure joy and fun that can come from the experience of smelling a perfume.
Here, Brent shares his background, why he loves to collaborate with artists in other media, why he doesn't chase after luxury, and exactly what he had in mind when creating Walk of Shame, a featured Olfactif scent.
Olfactif: Where did you grow up?
Brent Leonesio: I grew up in Akron, Ohio, which is the rubber capital of the world. It has a pretty wholesome, Midwestern kind of vibe. I lived there until I was 15. We moved to Arizona when I was a teenager, and I got a taste of a bigger and more bustling city. I went to school in New York and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for nine years now. I grew up in a really lovely place with a lot of love and exemplary people in my life.
O: Akron doesn’t have a reputation has an artistic hotbed. Were you always an artistic kid?
BL: Oh yes, absolutely. I was definitely an artistic child. I joke that I was an "indoor child." But yes, always. I didn’t have any siblings for a while—my brother came along when I was eight. So I spent a lot of time in fantasy and playing on my own, and art was definitely a fantastic escape for me.
O: Were you surrounded by those typical Midwestern scents? Mowed grass in the summer, leaves in the fall?
BL: Oh, yeah. That’s one thing I do miss about the seasons. So many of my scents make reference to weather and nature in a subtle way. But I think a lot of those smells are about texture, too. Heat, humidity, the cold—these are things that are hard to capture in a perfume, and as a perfumer I find that frustrating. I want to capture the steaminess of something, and it’s amazing when you find a perfume where it’s like, ooh, this smells like a hothouse or this smells like a cold snap or something. You know that you’ve got a really talented perfumer when you smell that.
O: Did people around you wear perfume when you were a kid?
BL: My mother always wore Paris. It’s still one of my favorites because it just reminds me of her, so lush and beautiful. My stepmother has worn Calyx and she’s worn Angel probably for 20 years now. These are smells I associate with my mothers.
My first scent was when my mother bought me a bottle of Hermes Eau d’Orange Verte at TJ Maxx for like $19. I was fascinated with smell, and I also thought it was very glamorous, too. It makes you beautiful. It changes your body and suddenly, you are more alluring. You have an aura. You take up a little more space. Later it became much more about the experience—what does this smell like, how is this element working—but at that age, it was all about the glamor and the ritual.
O: I read somewhere that you discovered the Basenotes forum and that was the beginning of the beginning for you.
BL: I discovered Basenotes in 2006 late one night when I was trying to find a sensibly priced duplicate of Armani’s Bois D’Encens, which I had bought a year earlier. I realized that there was a whole world lurking out there, and they were obsessed with perfume. I loved that. There was depth to this world. It wasn’t just, “oh, I like this perfume.” I found that intoxicating. I also realized that people were doing interesting things with perfume, things that I had never considered. I had thought perfume was straightforward: It was the perfume counter at the department store, and that’s what you got. I didn’t realize that people were taking art and ideas and putting them into this medium, and I think that’s what really hooked me.
O: At what point did you know that you wanted to pursue this as a career?
BL: I had started dabbling and I started Smell Bent, but I never assumed it would be my job. I thought it was a project. But when I put it out there to the world and people started to respond to it the way that they did, I thought, oh, is this possible? Is this an option? It was a very lovely surprise that way. I came about it not through formal training, but in this sort of homeschooled way. It took a long time for me to embrace that I’m a working perfumer and that my dream came true.
O: How did you start putting it out into the world?
BL: I have a problem with over-thinking, so I try not to do that too much. One of the benefits of being a small company and of calling the shots is you get to publish whatever you want to publish. So I’ve always made perfume that I liked or that I found interesting, and very little of it had to do with focus groups or finding what other people thought. So I made a perfume and people liked it, and then I designed a website. I’d never done a website before. Then I made nine more perfumes. I sent out an email. I made some business cards and a postcard. I think I got 30-something orders the first day, and I was shocked. I didn’t think anyone would buy anything, so it was a surprise.
O: How did you find the voice of your company? It’s very different from what you see in most niche perfume. Is that intentional? Or is it just who you are?
BL: I guess it’s who I am. I feel like a part of it was a reaction to having lived in this perfume world for a while and seeing this burden of luxury that a lot of perfumes struggle under. Perfume had brought me so much joy, and it seemed only natural that that was the voice that I wanted to use. So much perfume is just obsessed with sexiness or being the most expensive, and I didn’t find those things necessarily very interesting.
O: Do you do all the drawings yourself?
BL: I do about half of them. I always like to recruit friends to do my drawings, also. The drawings started because I didn’t have anything to take pictures of when I started the company. There were no bottles to photograph. There was no product yet. So we started doing these drawings and they became the image for the perfumes.
O: You’ve done a lot of collaborative work. What do you enjoy about collaborating with artists who work in other media?
BL: My favorite part is a fresh perspective. I can run around in my own head with my own ideas, but when you work with someone who brings something else to the table and it’s about the give and take of your ideas, that’s exciting because you get to go somewhere completely new. Creatively, it’s all about finding a new avenue that keeps you engaged with the work. I did a comic book earlier in the year, and that was about challenging myself creatively. When you work with someone, you’re immediately challenged because they usually have a very different view of the world and you have to find this middle place where you both are happy with the work. It’s fun.
O: How did you got hooked up with the Institute for Art and Olfaction?
BL: I met Saskia Wilson-Brown, the founder, at the beginning of 2012. I’ve taught two classes at the Institute in the last few months, and I love teaching. It’s so exciting to work with people who want to learn, and I feel like even seven or eight years ago when I was starting, there wasn’t that kind of resource. It’s exciting to be able to give something back because I couldn’t stay as engaged if I’m not helping people.
I also did a perfume collaboration with the Institute called Accident. It’s based on the contrast of automotive industrial notes—gasoline, tires, car leather—and then bright, tropical florals.
O: Niche perfume is experiencing tremendous growth right now, and some people say it’s too challenging of an environment for perfumers because there’s so much competition. What’s your perspective on that idea?
BL: Oh, you can’t look at is as competition. Keep your eyes on your own paper, is what I say. I think that whenever you bring some sort of democracy or egalitarianism to a medium, that’s a good thing. Perfume was a closed world for a long time, and the growth of the interest in this world is directly a result of it opening up. I mean, how could you talk to people about perfume before the Internet?
O: Tell us about Walk of Shame.
BL: Walk of Shame was part of a collection I did in 2012 called Sunset People, and it was a story about nightlife. It’s a reflection on my crazy youth. Walk of Shame was the last perfume in the series. It’s about a gloomy morning in the city. It’s about walking home in this concrete jungle and the smells of the city waking up. Maybe you’re a little elated. Maybe you're sneaking, wearing an outfit that really isn’t appropriate for seven in the morning.
O: The list of notes is very abstract and conceptual. Is there any insight you can give into the notes? How do you create the impression of overcast skies?
BL: The main notes of Walk of Shame are iris and concrete. So you’ve got a play between a powdery, gloomy, floral note and a synthetic, cold, kind of plasticky stone. That makes up the main conversation of the scent. I started working a lot with iris last year. I had put it off, but I kind of fell in love with it. I don’t know if it’s dreary or bleak, but it’s definitely melancholy. And there’s something about a powdery note that I’ve been drawn to. When I first started, it felt very old-fashioned but now it feels kind of modern again.
O: One thing we love about Walk of Shame is the name. The word “shame” has negative connotations, but the phrase ‘walk of shame’ can have some positive connotations, too.
BL: Right. You got lucky.
O: Yes. And the scent encapsulates both. It’s a little bit clean, but also there’s a bit of dirtiness and heaviness.
BL: I think you’re right. That moment of coming home is usually confused. Maybe you’re a little elated. Everybody knows what’s going on, like it’s written on you, but maybe you’re a little high from what happened. I like that.
O: And tell us about the “waft of bodega blossoms.”
BL: This is definitely a Manhattan thing. A bodega is a little market, and in New York the outsides of the markets are often lined with flowers. So as you walk by, you catch the smell of the flowers but it’s contrasted with the gritty city. So you’ve got this contrast between scuzzy streets and sweet flowers in buckets of water and plastic. It’s just a light, abstract floral. Then I added some slightly dirty musk.
O: What else are you up to?
BL: I just released a perfume called The Fall, based on a biking accident I had. It’s based on the smell of fire. Wood smoke, tar, woods, vetiver. It’s about transformation and change.