We've met a lot of people in the perfume world, but Sarah McCartney is easily one of our favorites. She began as a copywriter for Lush (yes, that Lush) and went on to found her own line of perfumes, 4160 Tuesdays, which she creates from her colorful lab in London. The brand is everything we love about perfume —quality, innovation, interesting stories, and so much fun —and it turns out that those words just as easily describe McCartney herself. Her newest release, Centrepiece —launched as an exclusive to Olfactif in the U.S. and featured in our British Invasion! collection —and is a beautiful example of McCartney's aesthetic and sense of fun. It sold out in a flash.
We posed 10 questions to McCartney and relished every one of her answers.
Olfactif: Where are you right now? What does it smell like?
Sarah McCartney: I'm at my studio in Acton. Right this moment it smells of lemons and honey because I have a cough and I've just made a cup of my grandmother's cold remedy (but without the whisky as it's still daytime).
O: You started as a copywriter for Lush, churning out some pretty impressive amounts of words every month. How did you learn to put words to smells? Or if it came naturally to you, how did you improve?
SM: The way to be a good professional writer is to try to put yourself in your readers' shoes and aim to write what they need to know in a way that keeps them intrigued. There's nothing very romantic or poetic about getting 50,000 words written every three months. I wasn't a critic, I was a copywriter, and my job was to write about the scents in an accurate and entertaining way so that Lush's customers would be delighted when their products arrived by mail order and smelled just the way I said they did. I had to link them to everyday experiences.
I'm not of the "redolent of the intoxicating charm of a water nymph under the ephemeral gaze of a million ruby blossoms" school of perfume writers. I was always more "smells like a bunch of roses that got stuck to a melty bar of caramel" style. I always want to make people smile and be happy about discovering lovely things. Lush was like that too, so we jogged along pretty well for 14 years.
O: Your foray into perfumery started with a novel. Can you tell us how that happened?
SM:I was already making my own blends. Who doesn't?
I've actually finished two novels, although the first one was a bit rubbish. You need to get at least one done, just to go the distance. My idea for The Scent of Possibilitywas a series of short stories featuring my problem-solving perfumer, and to give readers a list of perfumes that smelled like the ones I'd described. The short stories started to get tangled up as people from one would turn up in others, and that's how it became a novel. I'd no idea what was going to happen to the characters when I began writing.
I set out to find perfumes that matched the ones in the book, but they just weren't out there; that's when light dawned that perfumes follows fashion. I was trying to buy the perfume equivalent of pink Oxford bags when everyone was selling black leggings. I'm from a family of makers and doers. If we wanted something that wasn't out there, we'd get out the sewing machine, the paint box, or the knitting needles and off we'd go. Of course I hadn't realised just what huge obstacles there are for an individual setting up a perfume company, but I needed those perfumes so I made them.
O: How did you land on the name 4160 Tuesdays?
SM:It's 80 years. 52 weeks x 80 years = 4160 Tuesdays. You get all the other days too, but Tuesdays seem to flash by without anything memorable happening so I picked Tuesdays.
If you ask someone how many weeks there are in 80 years, they either have no clue (because it doesn't cross their minds to do the calculation) or they think it's about 30,000. They get a bit of a shock at how few there are—and how many they're already used up.
I was writing a blog about appreciating your life; this was inspired by a yoga teacher I knew. She was still doing the splits, backbends, and headstands until she was 80, when she died unexpectedly. She was more active than most 40-year-olds until her last day. I read recently that someone thought the company name was "cutesie"; it's meant to be deadly serious. Don't waste a moment of it.
Anyway, I already owned the domain name, and besides there was someone else called McCartney who was already licensing her name to a perfume marketing agency. I also thought ahead to my retirement and decided that if I did ever sell the company it would be weird not to own my own name, so I didn't want to start putting Sarah McCartney on the bottles.
O: 4160 Tuesdays has a distinct feeling. It's fun, clever, a little bookish, thoughtful, and cheerful. Not a lot of perfume houses—to my dismay!—try to encapsulate those qualities. Did you set out with a mission to be different? Or does the brand simply reflect the owner?
SM:That's basically me in a nutshell. I'd be hopeless at building a company with an identity that's anything other than who I am.
O: The names of your perfumes are enormously fun. I'd love for someone to ask me, "What are you wearing?" and then respond with, "What Katie Did On Friday Night." Do you start with names/concepts and then create? Or the other way around?
SM:There are no rules. It depends where, when, and how the idea arrives. Sometimes I make a perfume because I've discovered a material that's new to me; at other times I want to recreate a feeling or a place—or both at once. When I'm working with someone else, the name might come from them, or their organisation. I'm trying to be a little less obscure these days, as I've realised that giving perfumes names that no one can remember sometimes stop them being appreciated.
O: What's your lab like?
SM:Full to overflowing. The opposite of minimalist. It's friendly and welcoming. We have books, mid-century furniture from my parent's house, a living room, high school science lab benches, a good Italian coffee machine that grinds the beans, and piles of stuff that need putting away, just as soon as we build more shelves.
It also smells. If we need to clear our noses, we walk downstairs and out the back door. Labs in big companies have to be scent-free these days because it takes half an hour to reach fresh air.
O: How would you describe the UK perfume scene today?
SM:It's very exciting. There was a piece in Management Today all about it in December.
I wish I had the nosetime to smell everything that's coming out.
I'd say that the trends are being driven by two groups: the indie makers and the revival brands. In between those, there are new small brands, and older ones deciding to do something more exciting and take a few risks.
It's helped by the internet bringing people together online, then meeting up and creating experiences in the real world: forums and groups, Perfume Lovers London, Odette Toilette, The Perfume Society. Perfume is being included in London Craft Week; Odette and I are running an event in Fenwick of Bond Street. There's lots to do, not just lots of sniff. There's a very healthy blog scene too.
When it comes to appreciating a good bottle of scent, like the U.S., we're no longer relying on stores and magazines to find out about what's going on in the world of fragrance.
Perfume is being included in arts events—I did fragrances for a multi-sensory performance of the Debussy String Quartet—and smell is the most exciting new area for science to explore. I love hanging out with professors of philosophy and neuroscience; I've got a collaborative project starting later in the year which should be fascinating. That's another story.
Back to the world of indie and niche British brands.
For the real handmade stuff, I love Angela Flanders' work, and the lovely Liz Moores' Papillion perfumes. Chris Barlett's Beaver perfume for Zoologist is getting a lot of well-deserved attention too (can you tell I've not smelled it yet?). I'm not sure Ed Heeley counts as British scene as he lives in France, but he's from Yorkshire and I love his scents! Tom Daxon—beautiful fragrances—Shay & Blue, Friedemodin, Czech & Speake.
On the revival side, Grossmith's reawakening by the Brooke family with Robertet UK has been influential. Floris—where the Guerlain family trained—have been delving through their archives. Penhaligon's has raised its game too. Trumper is one of my favourites; British classics for men who don't wear "scent"—they dab on a dash of aftershave.
London department stores are increasing their ranges too. Les Senteurs was the groundbreaking niche store, joined by Bloom. Liberty is always fantastic. Selfridges has an excellent range although my current favourite is Fortnum & Mason's new beauty hall, followed by Fenwick. (No bias at all...)
O: If fans would like to pay you a visit in London, can they do that?
SM:The studio isn't a shop, it's a workplace, but we love visitors. You'd have to email fist to make sure we're going to be present and not in meetings. We also run monthly workshops on Saturdays which you can book on the website.
Our studio is the only place where you can smell all the perfumes in one place, but if fans can't make it all the way to Acton, then there's Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly (the only other shop with Centrepiece), Les Senteurs, and Roullier White.
O: What's next for you?
SM:I did a crowdfunding project to raise money to buy new materials and make seven sensual scents so I need to get upstairs to the lab and keep working on them.