“Beauty and brains” seems about the right description for Anne McClain, freckled Ivy League graduate. McClain spent her childhood between her native Rhode Island and her mother’s homeland, Japan. She graduated from Brown University in 2005, and was one of 12 people accepted to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in 2009. Within a month of graduating, McClain founded MCMC Fragrances, which is now carried by Birchbox and Anthropologie. (MCMC’s best known product is their Dude No. 1 Beard Oil, which fragrances almost every beard in Brooklyn.)
Our last International Women’s Month post was dedicated to Yosh Han, a pioneer of the current generation of independent perfumers. Anne McClain strikes me as a direct spiritual successor. Both women built their perfumery careers without nepotism or insider connections. Both chose to work independently rather than within fragrance firms. And both have achieved a thrilling level of success, as evidenced by the fragrance collections that both have been asked to create for the gigantic Anthropologie. Both inspire me deeply!
Yosh Han is the independent perfumer success story. Her journey couldn’t be further from the typical path to the perfume industry. Han was born in Taiwan, not Grasse; her mother was an ikebana practitioner, not a third-generation perfumer. No privileges. No shortcuts. She is utterly, awe-inspiringly self-made.
Han’s perfume career began in 1994, when she walked into a fragrance boutique in Colorado. In what she calls a “truth stranger than fiction moment”, Han told the shop’s manager that she felt destined to work there. “After the manager turned me away a few times, the owner came out of the shop and had a good feeling about me and hired me on the spot. I ended up becoming the Assistant Manager right away and worked there for 3 years, creating custom fragrances for people.”
20 years later, Yosh has achieved almost unparalleled success as an independent perfumer. Her fragrance line is carried by Barney’s New York; she created a fragrance collection for Anthropologie in 2013. As far as I’m concerned, no list of pioneering female perfumers would be complete without her on it.
In my research for this post, what I was most impressed by was Yosh’s openness and honesty about the evolution of her process as a perfumer. From an excellent interview with Perfume Polytechnic:
I originally blended everything by hand when I first started my business. I still do the concepting and aromatic sketches by hand. In the last few years, I started working with Robertet and their in-house perfumer, Olivia Jan. For the last three launches, we worked collaboratively and won a Golden Pear award from the Institute of Arts and Olfaction for my men’s fragrance, König, a scent inspired by the Bavarian forest. We worked on three subsequent fragrances that will launch in 2016. I feel like the film director and she, the cinematographer. It is a very close relationship that is really rewarding.
Acknowledging that one of the most acclaimed fragrances of one’s career resulted from a collaboration is highly unusual in an industry that tends towards secrecy and hyperbole. I can think of more than a few “master perfumers” who keep any outside contribution quiet for fear of damaging that Master Perfumer image. Crediting her collaborators rather than taking full credit for herself only deepened my respect for Ms. Han.
Years ago, perfumer Yosh Han worked across the street from the Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles. The Time Travel Mart sells quirky chotchkes (“baubles and plunder”, as per their website) that are intended to help time travelers fit in to whatever time period they end up in. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, this is pretty much the best thing ever, but even if you never want to hear the word “Tardis” again in your life, you’ll undoubtedly be won over by the fact that 100% of proceeds goes to 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring center.
Studio 54 is one of the ten fragrances that Yosh created for the Time Travel Mart in 2008. I had the pleasure of trying and buying a sample pack of the TimeTravel line at FRAGments L.A. last month. My early favorite was Aztec (notes: chocolate, rose, nutmeg, pink pepper, cardamom), but I think that Studio 54 is probably the most polished scent in the collection. With its vivid lime and effervescent juniper notes, Studio 54 reminds me of a particularly sparkling gimlet. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a time traveler or even a Los Angeles traveler to try Studio 54; it’s just $24.99 on the Time Travel Mart website.