"Christopher's perfumes are not for everyone", writes Jessica Gallucci about the man behind CB I Hate Perfume. But you might consider a dab of "Wet Pavement" or "In the Library" behind each ear ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
"I have a strong sensitivity to certain aromachemicals, like musk," says Christopher Brosius. "The aldehydes in Chanel No. 5 make me puke." And that is unfortunate, he continues, because the Polish ladies here in Williamsburg wear so much of it.
Christopher is the perfumer behind CB I Hate Perfume Gallery, a small shop on a street that runs parallel to New York's East River. I've visited often in the years since I first wandered in and overheard the owner describing his philosophy: that great fragrances are unimposing and genderless, and they should harmonise with a person's natural odour. Christopher ("Never call him 'Chris'", his assistant once whispered) is a theatrical presence, possessing a wry wit and a spring-loaded arch to his brow. He speaks to me between sips from a container labelled Muscle Milk, as Zephyr, his mastiff, rests his enormous head on my knee.
The shop's exposed wooden beams and minimalist decor give it the air of an austere cabin. Three hundred miniature laboratory vials populate white shelves. Inside the bottles are accords, the aromatic building-blocks with which one can--for $125 to upwards of $1,200--collaborate with Christopher to construct one's own custom scent. The vials of single notes, which can be had individually for around $25, carry hand-scrawled names like "Rhubarb Leaf", "Papaya Seed", "Celo Tape" and "Crayon".
The inventory is huge, partly because Christopher is compulsive about bottling pleasant aromas, and partly because his clients have such varied and specific tastes. But people often have trouble articulating what smells they like. "It's an extraordinarily revealing thing to admit," he explains. "They tend to say, 'Oh... flowers.'"
Gorgeous fragrances often contain notes of something nasty, it turns out. Even the daintiest jasmine perfumes contain indole, which Christopher likens to the smell of dead mice. (Indole is "probably the most unfairly maligned molecule on earth", writes Luca Turin in "The Secret of Scent".)
A client once told Christopher how she loved the scent that wafted from her summer home's air conditioner after it had been out of use all winter. After some experimenting, Christopher hit upon what the woman found so appealing: mildew. Now that scent lends a fusty bite to his otherwise bright-smelling Locker-room accord.
Pure amber, which is distilled from tree resin, can smell "almost slightly pissy", in Christopher's words--but he insists that when it's used correctly it is quite alluring. "Americans have this idea that everything needs to smell clean, clean, clean", he laments, with a shake of his head. He counters the trend for sanitised fragrances with creations like Wild Hunt, which is full of delightful earthy notes, including (according to his literature) "torn leaves, crushed twigs, flowing sap, fallen branches, old leaves, green moss, fir, pine and tiny mushrooms".
Christopher started crafting perfumes as an assistant at Kiehl's in the late 1980s. He soon launched his own fragrance range, Demeter, which became popular at big-name American retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Sephora. Through Demeter, he specialised in scents that were unusual for their emotional resonance: in small, square bottles he captured the essence of waffles, pipe tobacco, a laundromat and tar. In 2000, his Snow perfume won two Fragrance Foundation ("FiFi") awards. But a rift grew between Christopher and his backers, and the company was acquired by Freedom Marketing Group in 2002. The following year, 70 of Christopher's compositions for Demeter became the first perfumes ever to be featured in the Cooper Hewitt museum's triennial design exhibition.
But starting over has its advantages. For Christopher, it meant he was no longer compelled to develop only single-note scents. He began designing pricier, more complex fragrances, which he now sells alongside his individual accords. Like many specialty brands, CB is fuelled largely by Christopher's personal charisma; the company is as much about the man as it is about his creations. He wraps each purchase in a scroll inscribed with his personal manifesto, written in free verse, which begins: "Perfume is too often an ethereal corset trapping everyone in the same unnatural shape/A lazy and inelegant concession to fashionable ego".
Or, as he puts it to me, loud perfumes are disgusting, yet they are fashionable in America because we like to flaunt the brands we wear. Christopher explains that major cosmetic companies are aware of this, and it has long been standard practice to vary a perfume's formula to appeal to taste in the markets it's destined for: the American version will be quite bold, but the Japanese version may be even softer than the French one. "Nobody will confirm that for you," Christopher says, "but it's true".
When my parents visited New York, I gave them a tour of my favourite scents in the shop. This took some time: the accords include clever riffs on the smell of rubber, from the intoxicating Inner Tube to a just-short-of-noxious Rubber Cement. Equally impressive is Wet Pavement, which strikes me as wearable, even pretty. Burning Leaves is startlingly alluring, and Ink smells so authentic that I held up the bottle to show my mother that the fluid was clear and not an indelible blue. Roast Beef is predictably revolting, but still a must-smell. My mother lingered over In the Library, a blend that Christopher describes as "First Edition, Russian and Moroccan Leather, Binding Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish".
My father, meanwhile, had settled into a chair next to Zephyr and had assumed the expression of a person straining to overhear some distant conversation. It is a look of intense disinterest, and I know it well. I fetched a vial labelled At the Beach 1966 and thrust it under his nose. With an upward roll of the eyes, he inhaled. Then he took the sample from my hand, sniffed again and nearly leapt to his feet: the scent had triggered a memory of summers he spent lifeguarding on Long Island as a teenager. On the CB website, Christopher describes the fragrance as "Coppertone 1967 blended with a new accord I created especially for this perfume--North Atlantic. The base of the scent contains a bit of Wet Sand, Seashell, Driftwood and just a hint of Boardwalk." If that sounds too fanciful to be true, you should smell it.
Though it may seem obvious, it bears mentioning that Christopher's perfumes are not for everyone. He doesn't use synthetic musk as a base-note because the smell repulses him, and that may disappoint some clients. And those accustomed to the intensity of commercial fragrances should also look elsewhere: all of the CB scents are suspended in a water-based formula, and with the exception of a handful that manage to be heady and persistent, they seem light-wearing.
In February the New York Times ran a story about "fragrance fatigue", reporting a recent decline in the use of perfume. It seems that people have quit perfuming themselves out of consideration for others who share their space. Personally though, I'd be thrilled if my next elevator ride offered the olfactory epiphany that is CB's Soaked Earth.
CB I Hate Perfume Gallery/Christopher Brosius Limited, 93 Wythe Avenue Williamsburg Brooklyn (Between North 10th and North 11th). Tel: +1 718-384-6890. Hours: Tues-Sat, noon-6pm.
Picture credit: Jessica Gallucci and © CB I Hate Perfume.
(Jessica Gallucci is assistant editor of More Intelligent Life and a writer based in New York.)