Go behind the scenes in our exclusive interview with Les Senteurs' Creative Director
The Hawksley family vision radically transformed the entire British approach to niche fragrance. Now after more than 35 years at the pinnacle of perfume expertise, Les Senteurs presents a new sensation.
The Les Senteurs Candle Collection is composed of six superbly evocative fragrances. Each candle is inspired by a personality and a vignette from the extraordinarily diverse Hawksley family tree.
We catch up with Claire Hawksley, Creative Director for Les Senteurs to discuss the inspiration and journey behind this captivating collection.
Claire, as we know, Les Senteurs was founded by your parents. Why was it important to you to pay homage to the family when creating the collection?
The whole family is incredibly proud of what my parents have achieved. Les Senteurs and their contribution is a lasting legacy that we thought should be celebrated with its own fragrance story. So, we started with the questions ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘was it fate that they were destined to establish Les Senteurs?’
We wanted to create a brand that felt true to the heart of Les Senteurs. We had to choose a starting point from which to springboard our ideas for the fragrances - and as I had personally been documenting and investigating the lives of my family on both sides, it seemed a natural place to start. It allowed us to draw out and imagine moments based on or influenced by some of the places and situations in which our family and distant relations had found themselves.
The Hawksley and Nicholson family tree
Tell us a little more about the inspiration for each of the fragrances.
We initially started with just one brief to create a winter or festive season candle. But as we learned more about the logistics of manufacture, minimum order amounts for not only fragrance but for candle numbers too, we realised we should create a wider selection of scents rather than a single holiday season candle.
Forêt Foray was that winter candle – it very quickly became a favourite amongst us. It is the perfect embodiment of the inner calm and warmth garnered from sitting amongst loved ones protected from the winter cold outside. When my parents were sent to New York, my father was working for Mary Quant Cosmetics. We had spent the most idyllic Christmas up in the hills of Vermont. We stayed in a huge log cabin, had embroidered stockings hanging over the fireplace, and the freshly fallen snow was at least 3ft deep. All six children had gathered from various parts of the world after being apart for so long. It was truly as if it had been transcribed from a Hollywood film script.
L’Ile aux Trésors was born from a fascination with the experiences of my maternal grandmother whilst she was growing up. Known as Min-min (which was a mispronunciation of Mémé, meaning granny in French), she had lived in both Indochina and Madagascar as a young child. As we researched, we found the secret to the fragrance lay in the amazing resources cultivated within this fascinating island nation. Madagascar not only possesses an abundance of natural treasures within its shores but legends tell of Pirate havens and buried treasure.
Fire Pit Fortune took inspiration from stories my father had told us about having to return to his family home in Loose, Kent whilst at The Royal Veterinary College in London, to help with the cherry harvest. Many local families all over Kent and the southeast had small garden orchards. Sadly, most have disappeared to development now. We loved the idea of finding a fragrance reminiscent of this cherry harvest, but we wanted to prevent the fragrance becoming too sweet, so as to avoid some of the less sophisticated associations with Cherry scents. So, we concentrated on the almost almond aspect found in the cherry pits. We imagined the harvesters gathered round a bonfire at the end of the long hard day, some perhaps eating the freshly picked fruit and whilst counting the discarded pips, reciting the old fortune telling rhyme ‘Tinker Tailor'.
My mother had brought the inspiration for Matin au Train Bleu to us when she recalled the occasion of taking my father to meet her French grandparents in the south of France for the first time. Le train bleu was a beautiful wooden panelled train with sleeping ‘couchettes’ travelling the length of France as an overnight service. A very romantic and sophisticated reputation was built around the idea of leaving a dark and sooty London then waking to take in the bright sights and fragrant scents of the Cote d’Azure. He was so utterly excited to visit Toulon with Betty and to make a lasting impression on his new wife’s extended family.
The idea for Night Tropics came from my personal memories of travel and heartache. On reflection, I realise that it was a situation that I had created to put distance between myself and my partner at that time. After delaying my return to the UK from Australia several times, I learned that in my absence he had found someone else. It was a balmy summer evening. I was contemplating making a quick return to the UK… and in that moment, the intoxicating scent of these tropical night flowers completely overtook my senses. I realised how wonderful my time had been visiting the southern hemisphere and the opportunity and insight it had afforded me in demonstrating how to begin to live out the rest of my life.
Arbour was an idea that came to me whilst looking through old family photographs - I stumbled across a black and white shot of a kindly faced woman lying on a blanketed outdoor bed in her garden. Her name was Maimie – she was my paternal grandmother Violet’s best friend. They had originally met at midwifery school. Together, whilst playing golf, somewhere near a Royal Flying Corps training camp, they had been introduced to my grandfather, Gerald. I learned that Maimie would often throw open her home to take care of my father and his 3 brothers whenever Violet needed to recover after childbirth or from illness. All the boys had a tremendous fondness for Maimie, and she was often referred to as their second mother. I think she had suffered from TB at one time and had become accustomed to sleeping outdoors, as this was the prescribed practice for the care of TB sufferers. I imagined Maimie waking each morning to see the spring-buds opening above her as the sun rose and listening to the birds’ early morning chorus. We wanted to find a youthful and optimistic fragrance, which we think is perfectly rendered in the central peach coloured rose accord of Arbour. I like to think she found great comfort and derived tremendous energy from witnessing life’s daily cycle unfold.
Do you feel that some of the fragrances work better in different seasons and rooms?
I think all these fragrances can be enjoyed all year round but of course as the nights close and darkness falls earlier in the autumn/winter season, I think one is naturally drawn towards the warmer boskier candles such as Fire Pit Fortune, Forêt Foray and L’Ile aux Trésors. But as we move closer towards the spring equinox and summer months you might find yourself drawn towards the brighter fragrances such as Arbour, and Matin au Train Bleu. Night Tropics offers an exotic recall to those fading memories of long summer nights past. Or to enthral and hypnotise you with its pure and narcotic spell, whenever needed.
As for rooms, Matin au Train Bleu with its herbaceous salty qualities and Arbour for its rosy almost jammy quality work beautifully in kitchens and open plan dining rooms.
For the drawing room or library I recommend L’Ile aux Trésors for its warm woody and delicate vanillic tones. Our objective was to ensure this fragrance avoided drifting towards any hint of gourmand territory. This is also what we strived to achieve with Fire Pit Fortune where I think the almond fruit note is balanced beautifully to allow it to harmoniously blend with the hay and smoking wood notes. And, of course, Forêt Foray for its warm and welcoming call to gather by the hearth – these all work well in living rooms.
Night Tropics is marvellous in the bedroom and walk in dressing room or wardrobe. Narcotic but clean white flowers that set you in the mood for going out or staying in.
For years you were curating the brands that found their way on to Les Senteurs’ shelves, but this is the first time creating a range for Les Senteurs. This must have meant a change in approach for you - what was that like?
Yes, it did mean a change to how I would usually have worked, which was active brand selection. But the experience gained from having spent so many years applying myself to curating brands helped me to focus on what I might have liked to see in a candle brand, and what I thought had clicked previously with the tastes and imaginations of a Les Senteurs’ customer. We knew that Les Senteurs’ focus has always been the fragrance, it doesn’t matter what the cost or what the packaging implies. It’s about ‘how does it make you feel, does it say what you want it to say’. We had to apply that thinking when creating our own range.
You have worked with a number of fragrance houses to develop the candles. What was your experience like with them?
Yes, we worked with three fragrance ingredient houses. All of these three houses we have had personal connection with in one way or another. Robertet, CPL Aromas and Olfiction.
Robertet was one of the first fragrance ingredient houses I ever learned about through the perfumer Francois Robert, who was working there at the time. Francois had made a gift to my mother of a fragrance he had composed called Apogee – before LMVH adopted this name for a scent amongst their first fragrance collection. Originally a French family business, Robertet is an internationally renowned flavour and fragrance company, especially known for their work with naturals.
CPL Aromas; a British family run company concentrate entirely on one market: fragrance. We were introduced to CPL via their enthusiastic collaboration with Lizzie Ostrom on a project exploring how Poetry might inspire fragrance creation.
And finally, Olfiction, another British company, started by two friends, Pia Long and Nick Gilbert. Nick had worked with Les Senteurs for a number of years so we had a communication short-hand and he, an understanding of my idiosyncratic use of linguistic expression. This was invaluable when translating our desires for our candles to Pia, Olfiction’s talented perfumer. And the privilege of direct working access to the perfumer is very, very, rare when working with larger fragrance creation houses.
I found a greater appreciation for the way the industry works, larger organisations can offer great advantages over selection and size of ingredient palette from which their perfumers can draw from. And because of how they are structured internally, it really underlines the importance of the role of the Evaluator. This person’s communication and interpretation skills are paramount in relaying your hopes and expectations for your fragrance briefs to the perfumer whilst also managing their clients’ expectations. The Evaluator must have an understanding of differing cultural trends, they will often have to read between the lines of a clients’ brief, re-interpret a modern cultural contemporary reference into a series of possible natural or man-made molecule accord references in order to enable the perfumer to better understand the emotions the client wishes to communicate through an olfactory medium. It’s quite an all-encompassing role within the perfume industry.
On the boxes we find some short descriptions that express the feeling of the scents - why did you take this direction?
We have included within our packaging a list of notes and our assessment of their perfumed families/categories, but the notes alone don’t necessarily tell you what you might expect to smell from the fragrance. If you are not familiar with a particular wood or a particular flower, or if true extractions can sometimes smell utterly different than that of your olfactory ‘mind’s eye’ so to speak, it’s not necessarily helpful.
Les Senteurs has always enjoyed telling the stories that surround many fragrances. We love sharing the interweaving tales that scent can conjure and cast. So we have added little written passages, expressed on each of the boxes, that we hope will help to spin an imaginary fragrance into a living reality. We liked the idea of placing the white space around each excerpt as if it had been taken from a page from a novel, or hand-written letter, or song sheet.
The packaging has a timeless art-deco feel to it, why did you decide on that style for Les Senteurs?
We worked with a company called IWantDesign on the packaging. We felt the clean lines of this Art Deco-inspired all caps font expressed an enduring stylishness and a bold modernity, in equal measure. And yet the power of fragrance is its ability to transform with spell binding effect and mystery. So, we also wanted to make reference to the twisting columns of smoke that is: Per-Fumum. We hope this is evident with the use of the embossed patterns on the vessel labels and boxes and with the spiral colour coded detail on the dust cover.
Finally, what do you hope the customers of Les Senteurs will get from these candles?
We really hope that these ambient scents and stories will resonate with people, that they will love and appreciate the candles as much as we do and that the fragrances will bring joy in to all our customers’ homes.