Neela Vermeire on Ashoka

November 22, 2013

Olfactif subscribers met Neela Vermeire when we featured her vibrant Bombay Bling in the On Holiday collection. So they, and the rest of the perfume world, were waiting anxiously for the release of Vermeire's fourth scent, Ashoka. Ashoka marked a change in approach for Vermeire: Where her first three scents reflected long periods in the history of her native India, Ashoka represents a single individual. But the course is the same: Ashoka, like the three before it, is a brilliant example of storytelling through an olfactory medium.

The Ashoka story is a redemption story. After a long and brutal reign as emperor, Ashoka (304 - 232 BCE) turned from violence and toward Buddhism and the peace, nonviolence, and generosity that are hallmarks of the religion. The perfume develops in parallel with the emperor's life: a sharp, fierce opening that changes course, over hours, toward a comforting softness. We asked Vermeire about the inspiration behind Ashoka and why she chose to focus its story on the legendary ruler. 

Olfactif: Why did you select Ashoka as the subject of your fourth scent?

Neela Vermeire: I focused particularly on Ashoka because I wanted to create a perfume which was an extension of the first trio but not focused on another era in Indian history—rather a person, and a concept.  The concept was to develop a fragrance that evolves with a person. Ashoka was a natural choice for me as he is both one of the greatest rulers of India, evolved into Buddhism, which is a religion I have much affinity for, and is represented in our logo, which includes Ashoka’s wheel.

O: The leather represents the sheath of a sword and the leather gear of a warrior. But there’s also a strong fig note. What does that represent?

NV: Fig has a direct relevance because the Buddha achieved enlightenment underneath a sacred fig tree.  

O: How did the development process for Ashoka compare to the development process for your first three scents? While the first three covered long periods of history, this one captured a single individual and his philosophies.

NV: The development process for any of the Neela Vermeire fragrances is long. Ashoka was no different in that aspect.  I was again accompanied in my journey by Bertrand Duchaufour who “gets” my vision, while at the same time we challenge each other in continuous project sessions where we try to get closer to a finished product. Ashoka was much more challenging than the first three, because we tried to really explain how the personal journey of Ashoka went from dark to light.  This meant we needed to work on reversing the typical pyramid, which took quite a few iterations and deep soul-searching for both of us.  The complexity of Ashoka is different from my first trio, but it remains unmistakably one of NVC creations.

O: Tell us about the inspiration for the beautiful new flacons designed by Pierre Dinand.

NV: For this particular part of our packaging, we tried to take a holistic approach. The flacon needed to be one with the brand, and it needed to reflect our values and complement the contents. We worked with Pierre Dinand, who was introduced to me by a dear friend, because Pierre really does understand the art of the flacon. He has designed many iconic flacons during his career. Pierre and I worked for several months on the flacon, and we also had quite a few iterations. In the end, the flacon is loosely inspired by the pre-war Art Deco flacons for some of the great French perfume houses, but remains our flacon. The flacon reflects the logo and has 24 ridges, just as our logo has 24 spokes. It is oval in form, which contrasts with the cap. The cap repeats our logo with the 24 spokes as a natural continuation of this concept.  The flacon has a nice feel to it and fits very ergonomically in the hand—a Pierre Dinand specialty. It is neither too masculine nor  too feminine, and we both are very happy with the end result.

O: As you create more perfumes, does it become harder to create something that complements the others in your line? 

NV: As you may know, I do not let that constrain my creativity. But it is true that I constantly guard against making a fragrance that is not true to me—hence the multiple iterations and the very long process in creating a fragrance from scratch. I believe that if a fragrance reflects my values, it should reflect the values of the brand and have a clear signature, without ever being the same.

O: Although people in the West generally know much more about India today than they did, say, 40 years ago, they still have limited exposure to Indian culture and history. Your perfumes, while obvious artistic expressions, also educate a great deal for someone who is paying attention to the details. Do you consider education to be part of what you do?

NV: I understand what you are saying. People in the West look upon India much less as a former colony now and look much more at its complex history. My fragrances are inspired by that very rich history, but I always try to make it clear that they are French perfumes inspired by India, not Indian perfumes. Nonetheless, if you really go into the detail of the fragrances, you do recognize much of what makes India great, and therefore I am very happy if people who take the time feel a little closer to my country of birth. I have had quite a few people who visited India tell me that during the development of the fragrance from top note to base note, their memories of places and events come back. To me, that is very high praise indeed.

See more on Ashoka or read a previous interview with Neela Vermeire.

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