Australian niche perfume house Tommi Sooni is catching critical attention and capturing the imagination of perfume lovers around the world—which is just one reason we chose to feature the cult-favorite Eau de Tommi Sooni II as part of "Notes on a Journey," the Olfactif June 2013 collection. Creative director Steven Broadhurst spoke with us about the melding of French tradition with Australian character, the sweet origins of the name "Tommi Sooni," and just why so many people are crazy for "Eau II" and the rest of his extraordinary line.
Olfactif: Where does fragrance fit into the story of your childhood?
Steven Broadhurst: Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, was a lucky draw for any kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s. At that time, the quarter-acre block was the norm for most households, so there was plenty of room to play in the garden. Our garden was established in the ‘40s, and my parents were keen gardeners. We had fruit trees—apricot, plums, lemon, crab apple, and nectarines—and flowering cherry trees and, amongst others, a beautiful golden wattle. I have fond memories of the lilac, scented blood red roses, and especially the wintersweet. There are notes from this garden that pop up in Tommi Sooni fragrances all the time. Some are conscious decisions but I think many are unconscious. Mum was also a big fan of Dior perfumes and I was allowed to try them if I wanted to. I tried all of them.
O: For us in the northern hemisphere, what on earth is a golden wattle? What does it smell like?
SB: Golden wattle is a medium-sized indigenous tree that is a member of the Acacia family. It has silver leaves and bright yellow fragrant flowers. Think of mimosa. Tommi Sooni Passerelle eau de parfum has wattle as one of its ingredients.
O: What's your professional background? How did you get into perfumery?
SB: For many years I worked as a photographer, mainly in fashion. This has been very helpful in establishing Tommi Sooni. Perfume is a fashion accessory, and I think it's important to try and visualize an idealized customer who wears Tommi Sooni. It really helps to focus on the image I believe our customers would like to express when wearing fragrance. After photography, I studied horticulture and while visiting Paris I was bitten hard by the perfume bug. It was then I realized Australia did not have a quality perfume brand that was homegrown, so I made it my goal to change that around—thus the birth of Tommi Sooni.
O: Where does the name come from?
SB: As a child, my sister Kristin referred to herself as “Finni” and she had an imaginary friend called Tommi. I gave Tommi his full name. (Like everyone else he deserves a family name.) It was such a great opportunity to bring Tommi back to life after all these years.
O: Australia isn't known for its perfume. Did you see this as an opportunity or an obstacle?
SB: Had I known what was involved initially, I might never have started Tommi Sooni. So many people tried to discourage me and the industry standards were pretty basic, but I'm a very determined person and my family and others were all very supportive. Brick walls were common, though, and you need to be prepared for the unpredictable when you are establishing what is essentially a pioneer business in unknown waters. Am I glad I established Tommi Sooni? You bet. It's been incredibly fulfilling.
O: How did you manage to create perfumes in the French tradition but full of Australian character? And how would you describe that uniquely Australian character that you feel your brand and scents represent?
SB: Mum's collection of Dior perfumes have a lot to answer for. Australia was dominated by French luxury for a long time, so as a child, I didn't really have the opportunity to try, say, Italian fragrances. I love Paris and I lived overseas in London and New York for a number of years, but it wasn't until I returned to Australia that I began to understand the Australian character. I feel we are a very mixed bunch of lucky people who have come from all over the world to settle here. We bring different past experiences with us, then throw them into the mixing pot that is Australia. From that come tolerance, opportunities, and a healthy lifestyle—something new that is unique to this very fragile land. A mixture of the old and unbridled new—that is Tommi Sooni.
O: What does your Australia smell like?
SB: A place that is exactly where I want to be right now. Ever changing in mindset and season.
O: You mentioned the golden wattle earlier. What are some other smells of Australia that you incorporate in your perfumes or that you just love?
SB: You cannot travel anywhere in Australia without the scent of a gum tree close by. Eucalyptus is, for me, the most common scent in the Australian “bush” (forests and open land). It is an invigorating and refreshing scent. Sweet honey nectar is also a common scent outdoors as many Australian plants are a food source for the beautiful native birds. In the suburbs, you cannot escape the smoke of a BBQ on any weekend, and chlorine always reminds me of my summer childhood.
O: Have you ever started work on a fragrance and ended up with something totally unexpected? Maybe changed course partway through? Or do you always stick to the plan?
SB: Sticking to a rigid plan when creating is fraught with danger and, I'm guessing, failure. As I work with a “nose,” the perfumer must be allowed to contribute creatively and I never really know what to expect when the first trials are presented to me. I might spend months creating a brief for a perfumer but then their experiences and creativity take over and what results is a blending of two (or more) creative minds. I'm often surprised by what is presented to me by the perfumer. Luckily for me, our perfumers have been sensitive souls and they know that no matter what is presented to me, above all it must radiate beauty. Have we had a dismal failure return from the lab? Yes, and I have taken responsibility for not directing the perfumer in the right direction.
O: Some perfumers see trends and say, "I need to do that." Some perfumers see trends and say, "I refuse to do that." What do you say?
SB: In all honesty, I ignore trends. I have no idea what is the popular fragrance trend happening right now. Tommi Sooni is a small brand with the luxury of being able to take risks and release fragrances that we believe in, and we hope others find them to be beautiful enough to purchase a bottle.
O: What gave you the idea for Eau de Tommi Sooni II? What was the idea originally?
SB: Bangkok is one of my favorite cities, and it’s easy for Australians to travel to. When you visit Bangkok, you can see remnants of their amazing past in their beautiful buildings and refined cuisine and manners. They are incredibly cultured and refined people. I imagined what it would have been like for a westerner in the 19th century to visit Bangkok and its watery canals, glittering palaces, and fragrant gardens. I tried to give an air of exotic Siam to a French-based perfume. Add the Australian experience, and EdTS II emerged wrapped in beautiful Thai silks of differing hues.
O: What a description! I haven't heard people speak this obsessively about a scent in a while. Why do you think it's such a hit?
SB: I think EdTS II is both approachable and refined, like a beautiful Australian/Thai couple, the best of both worlds. EdTS II is also very skillfully created. No bumps, troughs, or lapses. Surprising, yes, but also very reassuring. Don't we all want to wear a scent that makes us feel beautiful?
O: How do you strike a balance between creating what you love and creating what you think your customers will love?
SB: I have to please myself first. If I don't have faith in a fragrance, then I can't release it even if I think it might be commercially advantageous. We are in this business for the long haul, and releasing a fragrance just to please the market would, I think, be detrimental to our brand. On the other hand, I think our customers do love what we create. They appreciate not being treated as though they didn't know the difference between a fragrance created with passion and one created for the status quo.
O: How do you and your nose work together?
SB: That's a fun question. Luckily for me my nose is physically large so I have no problems … Oops, I think you are referring to my perfumer here, not my nose. Well, my nose and I live in different cities, so I travel to her. Josephine Barkla is young, quiet, very creative, and sensitive. I respect her talents a great deal. She and I have similar respect for great perfumes, and getting together is always very exciting for me. I get a kind of nervous buzz when we are together. It's not a relaxed time—it's more electric. The rest of the time, we email each other and there are huge spaces when we don't contact each other too. I believe in letting a perfumer do their job until they are ready to present trials and, ultimately, the final perfume. Josephine also knows not to keep me waiting too long. It's all part of the dance.
O: What would you be doing if not running this company?
SB: I would hope I’d be working with the Australian ballet again in the production department or restoring fragile and historical fabrics for an institution like the Australian Museum.
O: What's next for Tommi Sooni, short-term and long-term?
SB: Short term, EdTS III—a beautiful green floral. It's not what you expect and it's not what I expected either, but then I couldn't ignore this beauty. Release date: September 2013. Long term, I hope we managed to encourage other Australians to create perfume companies that are up there with the best the world has to offer. (P.S. Watch this space.)
Share your thoughts in a review of EdTS II or learn more about it here.