If the ability to tell a story is a sign of a good perfume, it’s no wonder that the debut lineup from India-born, Paris-based Neela Vermeire includes some of the best perfume releases in recent memory. Not only did Neela decide to use scent as a vehicle for history, culture, and autobiography, but she also ensured that the perfumes she created became complex stories themselves, unfolding layer by layer—and minute after minute—to take the wearer on a journey through ancient and modern-day India. This journey was no accident of chemistry; complexity, surprise, and experience were Neela’s requirements when she partnered with Bertrand Duchaufour, one of the world’s most sought-after noses.
Neela spoke with Olfactif about her own journey from lawyer to critically acclaimed perfume creator, her passion for experiencing art in all forms, and the inspiration behind her autobiographical perfumes. Along the way, we learned some fascinating facts about her work promoting artists in Paris—and even where her life intersected with that of Mother Teresa.
Olfactif: Your Twitter bio is “lawyer turned art promoter and perfume creator.” Can you tell us the longer version of that story?
Neela Vermeire: I studied social sciences and did a master’s in the U.S. at Temple University in Philadelphia. Later in the UK, I qualified as a solicitor in London. My husband’s job at that point took us to Paris at the end of 2003. But I decided rather than go and work for a law firm, I wanted to explore possibilities in art.
I’ve always loved all forms of art—visual art, music, and perfumes. I decided to go into consulting. Over the next few years, I met a few emerging artists and did exhibitions to promote their work. Very few emerging artists make it because there is a lot of competition.
I also explored all of the perfumes I could find in Paris. I turned this passion into a guided, customized tour focused on niche perfume, called Perfume Paths, showing people some of the niche perfume boutiques of Paris. I also liked the idea of promoting independent perfumers who are not working with the large fragrance companies, so I did an event like “Inside the Actors Studio” where I interviewed perfumers and we had an audience but it wasn’t for TV. I think we helped people to understand that the creative process in perfume is not as easy as it seems. I wanted the audience to get closer to the reality of the creative process, because the perfume world can seem like a very hidden, secretive world.
O: Where do you think you got this desire to surround yourself with art?
NV: My family paid a lot of attention to artistic and cultural activities like theater and music. That’s probably why I got into opera and baroque music, and today, my money is spent mainly on music, going to concerts and opera. For me, it’s all about the experience.
O: It’s not easy to go from love of art to career of art. Looking back, do you feel like that was a very bold move?
NV: Yes—in a way, yes. But I was subconsciously influenced by a childhood where women were intelligent and strong. I was brought up to be equal to any male members in my family. We were always treated equally, and I think that’s why I am who I am. As a teenager, I pursued the opportunity to assist in an orphanage run by Mother Teresa. So I was influenced by amazing women everywhere.
O: How did you finally start your own line?
NV: I had an epiphany. I realized that although I feel at home anywhere—I have lived in many countries, and Paris is now my home, but I’m as comfortable in the U.S. as I am in France or India or the UK—I have a connection to my past. We all have a connection with our past. So I wanted to create perfumes that mean something to me and which will be for me, too, but I wanted to introduce them to other people, too. Not as a brand; I didn’t go in with the intention of creating a brand. I don’t come from a commercial background, so my foray into the perfume world is very unconventional. I have not been educated in perfumery, so it is all self-taught and absorbing what’s around me. But I wanted to reconnect with India and I thought the best way to do it was homage to the three periods. That is how I developed the first three perfumes. They’re a little autobiographical. Trayee represents the Vedic period and my spiritual upbringing in India. Mohur represents my education in art and culture. Bombay Bling, for me, is the India I grew up in.
O: Your beautiful logo captures some of that autobiography, too. Can you tell us about the significance of the design?
NV: It is from Ashoka’s Chakra with a twist: our logo has Eiffel towers incorporated.
Here is more information:
The ‘Ashoka Chakra’ literarily means the “wheel of the law.” It is derived from the Sanskrit word “Dharma Chakra,” which means wheel and has 24 spokes. The most prominent Indian Mauryan emperor, Ashoka the Great, built the Ashoka Chakra during the 3rd century B.C. The Ashoka Chakra is inscribed widely among the Lion Capital of Sarnath and the Ashoka Pillar. The Chakra signifies that there is life in movement and death in stagnation. The wheel represents the cycle or the self-repeating process with the changing of time in life.
O: How did you connect with Bertrand Duchaufour, the perfumer with whom you collaborated to create your scents? Was it important that he have some understanding of India before you began the project?
NV:I met Bertrand through a friend. It was crucial that he had been to India and knew and understood my country.
O: Many perfumers and creative directors we’ve spoken to say, “If I had known how hard this career choice would be, I never would have done it—but I’m so glad I did it.” Do you feel that way?
NV: I spoke to a few perfumers and brand owners, too— a few European independent brands. I wanted to know before I started: What would it entail? And almost everybody told me not to do it. I thought, who am I? I’m just a perfume enthusiast who loves fragrances and art, and I wanted to marry the two and create something that would be in some way special and a little out of the ordinary.
O: And has it been what you expected? You never know what you’re getting into until you do it.
NV: True—you never know till you do it. One of the things I guess you may know is that there are several brands—including niche brands—that use turnkey solutions. A company produces everything for them, from start to finish. That’s not the way we went. We did everything—every little detail. In many ways, we do not make compromises for the perfumes, the design, or the packaging. But it was the only way I wanted to do it. Yes, we have experts involved where necessary. It has been a great learning process.
O: How do you balance that pure love of the medium with the business side? Those two forces tend to oppose each other.
NV: They are indeed the opposite. The creative aspect comes from a type of sensitivity that’s very different from what you find in the commercial world. Anything to do with the creative part of the business, I’m so enthused about. It’s an emotional process, the testing and creating. The commercial side does not come easy but one has to do it. I take a step back and work with some great retailers and clients who have helped NVC along the way. We have to balance things out, I guess.
O: Let’s talk about Bombay Bling. I have heard so many people describe it with words like “cinematic” and “lush” and lots of analogies to Bollywood. Always outsized adjectives. Can you tell us more about the inspiration?
NV: Bombay Bling, for me, is the modern India in which I grew up. I definitely wanted green mango and lychee because these are favorite fruits of mine. And I adore white flowers. But Bertrand balanced it all so well. I have never met a fruity scent that I like. In fact, I am underwhelmed or annoyed by fruity scents in general. I react to synthetic fruit smells. Though many companies have created fruity perfumes that are nice, they’ve done nothing for me personally.
Bombay Bling is different because of my personal journey. It had to be explosive like fireworks. When you were a child and you saw fireworks—that feeling, remember? It had to be like that: an instant surge or rush of happiness. That is what Bombay Bling has become. It makes people happy. I’ve heard people mention “serotonin in a bottle” or “Technicolor.” There are even some people who call it an antidepressant.
O: When I first put it on and smelled my wrist, I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It was exactly that explosion of happiness you were aiming for.
NV: Right. For NVC, it’s always about the experience and emotions. These perfumes, each of them, there’s a feeling they give you. And I think that’s a key for the fragrances I hope to create in the future: they must give you feeling. That’s what old-school fragrances did for me. When I smell Chanel Bois des Iles, it gives me a feeling of peace, comfort and protection—like a talisman of some sort. I also love Chanel 22 extrait. It is pure retro elegance in a bottle. Perfume is that for me: something that protects you, makes you feel special, comforts you, or acts as your personal talisman.
O: Bombay Bling changes so much throughout its development. How did you guide that outcome to accurately capture such complexity?
NV: Don’t forget, India is very complex as a country, so each of these three perfumes is very multi-faceted. If you look at modern India, we have the best of many things and the worst of many things—extreme wealth and extreme poverty, for one example. So I gave Bertrand carte blanche to use excellent raw materials. But he’s such a master blender that you never quite smell only one thing. And that is how India is: in layers and centuries of history. So that’s what these perfumes had to be.
In Bombay Bling, the joyfulness has been achieved through the excellent raw materials but also making sure the architecture is such that it never, ever goes linear. It has a lot of texture and colors.
O: What’s next for you?
NV: NVC Ashoka will be available this autumn. It’s a fragrance inspired by the life and evolution of Emperor Ashoka. NVC Mohur extrait will be sold later this year. We are also working on a new series.
Perfume creation can take a very long time but I believe one cannot compromise and rush into creating beautiful perfumes because it takes the time, passion, and patience for me to really reach that “Eureka!” or “this is it” moment. Some may disagree, because it is not commercially viable for companies to take their time. But my philosophy is: Why rush when there are so many perfumes out there? I know this is not a typical commercial way of thinking.
O: Maybe not. But I’d bet that the new creations will be worth the wait.
NV: Thank you for appreciating all the N V Créations perfumes and understanding all our endeavours for this journey right from the beginning.
Learn more about Bombay Bling here.
I must say that the complexity of Bombay Bling makes for an exciting ride.
Looking forward to the Vedic release! Thank you for the gift of these creations.
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July 11, 2013
Neela’s perfumes are some of the most exciting and luxurious perfumes to come along in the last few years. They are as beautiful and charming as the lady herself. Thanks so very much for this wonderful interview.