Mark Buxton is something of a legend in the perfume world. At 50, he has done it all: designed fragrances for major mainstream brands like Givenchy, Burberry, and Versace; created innovative scents for niche lines like Comme des Garçons and biehl parfumkunstwerke; and, finally, set off on his own path to create his eponymous line.
We sat down with Buxton to talk about his earliest perfume memories, the completely crazy story of how he became a perfumer, the extraordinary story of how he designed Black Angel, and his real thoughts on the "big" industry that he happily left behind.
Olfactif: Can you tell us about your childhood and what it smelled like?
Mark Buxton: I was born in England in Darby, but I’m half German. My mother is German and my father is British. Then when I was eight, my parents went back to Germany, so I spent more or less all my childhood in Germany before I came to Paris over 20 years ago.
I think the olfactory story that always comes to mind is that when I was five I remember my father always used to buy Chanel No. 5 for my mother for Christmas. He still does the same today—I don’t think he’s changed his Christmas present in 50 years! I was very curious because my mother used to take so much care of it. She had this bottle and it’d have to last all year before she got a new one. So she used to keep it in the bathroom in a mirrored cupboard over the washbasin.
I went in there one day and I saw this bottle and I thought, “That must be something really special.” So I got a stool and tried to reach up to get the bottle off the shelf. It slipped and it smashed in the sink. So the bathroom smelled of Chanel No. 5 for the next few years because it was perfume, and perfume almost 45 years ago was really the high-concentrated stuff.
O: How did your mother react?
MB: My mother went mad. When my father came home that night I had to tell him that I broke her perfume. So he spanked my bum, so I think the two memories are my red bum and the odor of Chanel No. 5 in my nose, 45 years later.
O: That’s got to color your memory of Chanel No. 5.
MB: Exactly! Then when my parents went to Germany, they opened a restaurant. That’s where I started to sniff around and smell and process how important it is to smell different odors. I still think today that kitchen odors are some of the most beautiful ones with the different herbs and spices. Fresh grilled chicken is one of the best odors in the world, I think. Fresh bread, coffee, the mixture of garlic and butter. If you follow this—and even if you look at Black Angel—you see all these spices. You smell the top note of the ginger and the gingerbread and the cardamom, the nutmeg. Black Angel is very spicy, actually.
O: I do see a lot of the influence of kitchen scents in your perfumes.
MB: Yeah. It’s followed me throughout my career, actually. And that was my contact with odors when I was young, but I never had the idea to become a perfumer. That came totally by coincidence.
O: I’ve heard a lot of interesting stories of how people stumbled into perfumery, but yours takes the prize. Could you tell us that story?
MB: I wanted to study fashion design in Hamburg because Jil Sander just had her breakthrough and she was still giving lectures at the university. There was kind of a boom of German designers coming out. I applied and they didn’t take me the first time, so I started to study geology in Göttingen. I went there because my brother was studying medicine there and I knew quite a few of his friends. So I just enrolled myself in university and started to study geology, which had absolutely nothing to do with what I really wanted to do. Anyway, me being a rather lazy guy, I thought I’d just do something at university to save time.
When I was in Göttingen, we passed by a Douglas perfume shop like six or seven weeks before Christmas. A friend of mine had this idea to write to this German quiz show called “Wetten, dass..?” That means “Want to bet that…?” You make a bet that you can do something, and then you do it on live television. We bet that we could recognize all the perfumes in the world. I thought the bet was a bit obnoxious at the time because I knew exactly three perfumes and he didn’t know any more than me. Seeing this wall of perfume in Douglas, I thought, my God, it must be so difficult! But we decided to try it. So we wrote to the program, and a few days later they called us back and said, “Guys, you’re in the next program.”
So we had five weeks to study all these fragrances. We had to learn them all first, so we traveled all around the big cities and went to all the perfume shops and asked for small samples. Lots were very generous and gave us tons and tons. Some weren’t. Anyway, at the end we had around 600 fragrances—300 masculine and 300 feminine. I took the masculine and he took the feminine, and at the university we would sit together and smell. I noticed that lots of scents had accords or products in common. I started to make my own little families to categorize them. At the time, I didn’t know what a chypre or a fougere was, but they had common points so I made my own little groups and families. I noticed that after just smelling them once or twice, it was very easy for me to memorize them.
We had to go to Mainz to present our bet before the live program. They said, “Okay, perfect. You can recognize them all. See you then in two weeks’ time.” Unfortunately, when the time came, we lost the bet. With it being a live show—live cameras, the heat, the lights, the nerves, and 2,000 people there—my friend had kind of a blackout and just couldn’t recognize anything, not even the first one. I recognized mine, but we lost our bet anyway.
A few weeks later, I get an offer from the biggest German perfume producer in Holzminden called Haarmann & Reimer. They invited me to visit their facilities and the factory, so I did. They had an internal perfume school and they were looking for another student—they had three students and four places—so they asked me if I would be interested.
I did several tests with them and that all went fine. They said, “If you want, you can join us.” That’s when I discovered that a perfumer really exists. I never even thought about all that. So I chose perfumery and did the school for three years. Then just before I became a junior, they sent me to Paris for three months and I never went back. My career has been entirely in Paris. Three years ago, I quit the big industry to do my own stuff.
O: When you first made this bet you were a university kid doing something crazy. At what point did perfumery become a passion?
MB: When I smelled all the fragrances, I thought it was rather interesting. But it didn’t go any deeper until I visited Haarmann & Reimer and spoke to perfumers. That’s when it became some kind of magic for me. I just fell in love with the whole idea. Now it’s become like a drug for me, fragrance and odors. I couldn’t imagine living without them.
O: What did your parents think about your career choice?
MB: My mother thought it was great. My father thought it was totally pathetic. My dad always wanted us to do something decent with our lives, like medicine or law or something. So he always saw me as a bit of a loser somehow. We had gone to England for Christmas and I said, “Listen, guys, I’ve got three offers. I can do fashion design, I could become a perfumer, or I could become a moderator on TV for a music program. What do you think?” The answer of my dad was, “Well, all three jobs are just for gays, so it doesn’t really interest me.” He got up and went into the living room and that was the only comment my father gave me.
I think for the first three years, he thought I was a salesman selling perfumes. I said, “Dad, I don’t sell them. I create them.” Now he understands and he opened up his horizon a bit, and now he’s so proud about his son who became a famous perfumer.
The funny thing is, this quiz program was on about 25 years or 27 years ago now. The quizmaster, his name is Frank Elstner. He has another program now in Germany called “Menschen der Woche,” or “People of the Week”—and I was on his show three weeks ago. The same dude! They showed some flashbacks of the quiz program when we were young. It was a lot of fun and we had a good laugh.
O: Did your dad see it?
MB: Of course, he watches every time I’m on TV and reads all the articles. He’s really proud about his son now, of course. My mother’s also very proud. Mothers always are more proud than fathers, I think. I’m her hero.
O: But she still wears the Chanel No. 5?
MB: She still has Chanel No. 5 as her favorite but she wears some of my stuff. I gave her the Black Angel as well. She wears that occasionally, and she’ll try anything.
O: When you first toured that fragrance facility, your eyes were wide and everything was fascinating. At what point did you start to become disillusioned with the way the big industry works?
MB: When they sent me to Paris and I was junior and I started to work on smaller creative briefs, I always thought that I could pop up with something really eccentric and really different where everyone would say, “Wow, this blows my hat off! This is something really new and different.” At the time, it was still rather possible, but when the years passed I noticed that you came into this mill and you get some kind of a corny brief where you always have the same words about the customer you’re creating for: “She’s a young lady, she’s 30, she’s doing a great career and she drives a Cabriolet, and she earns a lot of money. What’s her next fragrance?” It’s just shit, to be honest.
So, this was always the same. Because if you read between the lines, you could already see what they were asking for. It’s a J’adore twist or an Angel twist. They were cutting the edges off the creativity. They were always saying, “It’s very creative” but actually it has nothing to do with creativity. If you don’t do what they’re asking for, you won’t win the brief. And that’s why things all smell the same nowadays. Then they test them to death, and that’s another point.
O: For our readers who aren’t familiar with the process, not winning the brief means that the client—Dior or whomever—chooses a different perfumer’s version of the perfume they’re commissioning. And that’s just a total waste for everyone not chosen. The perfumer’s time and money are down the drain.
MB: Absolutely. In perfumery it’s not like in sports—there’s no silver or bronze medal if you don’t win. The company doesn’t get paid for it. And perfumers work freelance, so big companies treat you like shit and ask you to make hundreds and hundreds of modifications. You’re going nowhere, and at the end, they don’t know where they’re going—then they change the brief again. They hopelessly lost everybody and then they hide themselves behind market tests to ensure for themselves that they’re close enough to actually show that people should like it.
So after years and years of doing it and designing around 150 fragrances on the market, I’d just had enough. A perfumer has no more standing nowadays in these companies. You just become a figure and you’re judged by your turnover. They don’t care if you are more artistic or creative or whatever. All of this, to be honest, pissed me off after all these years. I said to myself, “If I don’t jump off now and do my own thing, I’ll never do it.” I’m 50 now, and I left three years ago. I thought that was the right point.
O: How has life changed?
MB: I had a series on the market in Russia under my name, but I was still working for the German company at the time in Paris. So then I took my name back. I kept the two bestsellers, which were Wood and Absinthe and Black Angel, and I added four new ones and changed the whole look. I created my own company called Mark Buxton Perfumes, and that’s how it all started. I also am a founder and investor of a boutique called Nose, in Paris. On the website we have this search where you can find your fragrances just by answering five easy questions. You should check it out.
O: Since you made that change, what’s easier and what’s harder?
MB: Nothing is harder, actually. It’s just that I’m my own boss. There is nothing more precious in life than freedom. I don’t have to be here in the office at nine and I can come and go when I want. I have my fixed projects. I have clients whose brands I create for. I’m working on a new line with two other freelance perfumers for next year. We just added the sixth fragrance to my line this year. Lots of projects and freedom and no price. I can use as much precious material as I want, as much rose absolute or jasmine as I want.
O: It’s a big leap, though.
MB: It was a bit tough, perhaps at the beginning. You think, will clients follow me? Will I get enough new clients? Coming out of a job that’s highly paid, with a company car, then all of a sudden you start from zero. But it worked. Anyway, I have a good backup. My wife is a perfumer as well and she earns good money. She saw that I was so unhappy the last few years working at this company, seeing everything go down the drain. I mean, I think it’s pathetic that somebody can write that they had to make 3,500 trials to make La Vie Est Belle, from Lancome.
O: And to say it as though it's a selling point!
MB: It’s bullshit. Then if you smell it, it smells like Flowerbomb! Thank you very much.
O: In the U.S., people are becoming more aware of perfume as an art form. Are you seeing that?
MB: Well, I see that a lot of people are moving away from these big-name brands because they want to identify themselves with their fragrance and they don’t want to smell like everybody else. Why should fragrance become a megatrend that we all should smell the same? I think you should take the time find a fragrance that suits you. I hate when you go into a store and you see the top 20. What the fuck is top 20? We’re not selling records. We’re selling perfume—it’s emotions, it’s feelings in a bottle. It has to talk to you. When you smell it, it has to transport you somewhere. It has to get your imagination working. But you have to take time to follow the fragrance before you buy a fragrance.
So, I always say spray it on, take your time, go shopping, follow it, come back. You don’t have to buy a fragrance in five seconds.
O: You have an affinity for short formulas. Why?
MB: Because I think they’re more direct. I always compare the structural formula to music. A short formula is like a jazz trio or quartet. It’s a bit like Miles Davis said when he went into free jazz: that the gap between every tone is so big that he leaves everybody to their own imagination, to decide what you’d like to hear and fill the little gap between every note. I see the same in fragrance. If it’s a formula with only 15 products, everybody will smell it slightly differently. With your imagination, you will fill the small gaps for yourself. But if you take a long formula with 50 products in there, it’s like a big orchestra where you have 16 violins and 20 trumpets and stuff like that. You take away too much of the imagination, and it’s too confusing. The message is not there.
O: Black Angel. We’ve read a little about the inspiration being a beautiful woman in a nightclub, but what else can you tell us?
MB: When I created the fragrance, I was in New York. I was at the Limelight, which is now closed, but it was a discotheque in an old church. I was there one night, and that’s when this young lady comes in with a group of people around her, and she just looked like an angel. She was blonde and she was wearing this black dress. She was gorgeous, one of the most beautiful girls I’ve seen in my life, I think. I think I stood there staring at her for two hours in some corner like a dick, you know. But she had so much energy and so much was happening around her. She was really shining. So when I went back home I thought to myself, “If you would have to create a fragrance for this angel, what would you create for her?” She had something really hot about her and something really sexy and deep, but she was mystical and it was in a church as well. So all these elements came together. That’s when I scribbled down the formula for Black Angel in my hotel room. There’s a story behind every fragrance—a situation, a person, or a moment—and that’s when I wrote down that formula.
That’s why you have these provocative, spicy notes in there with the ginger and the cardamom. A bit grapefruity, rhubarb-like, but then this very warm, sensual amber with gingerbread, which somehow reminds me a bit of Christmas. I remember it wasn’t far from Christmastime, so there’s a trace of that in there.
O: So somewhere out there is a woman who has no clue that she was the inspiration for one of your bestselling perfumes.
O: Your life sounds like a lot of fun, Mark.
MB: Yes! Yes, it is. I’m an old rock-and-roller. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll—and fragrance, of course.
Learn more about Black Angel.