Interview
Second Nature

Abel

Winemaker-turned-perfume-activist Frances Shoemack talks going natural

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No longer synonymous with the patchouli-soaked scene of the late Sixties, natural perfume has gone luxe. Thanks in no small part to Abel, the quiet Amsterdam-based fragrance house with a message worth shouting. With olfactory ethics on the up, founder Frances Shoemack has put authenticity and sustainability first - and toxicity last. No chemicals. No synthetics. Just long-lasting scents that bloom on contact. Here, we talk to the New Zealander about breaking with tradition in search of the future of fragrance.

How did Abel come about? Eight years ago, my husband and I had recently moved to Amsterdam from New Zealand. During this time of travel and discovery, I fell in love with the emerging world of artisan perfume. But coming from rural New Zealand with a yoga teacher mother and a background in winemaking, I wanted to find a natural fragrance within this beautiful new world. Disappointed that I could buy luxury natural skin care and makeup from a beautiful boutique but had to go to an organic supermarket for a natural perfume (that was really just a simple essential oil blend), the idea for Abel was born.

What most concerns you about chemicals in conventional perfume? The lack of transparency. If we compare the beauty industry to the food industry, the contrast is stark. A fragrance can be called natural with as little as 1% natural ingredients, and because all fragrance ingredients are listed under a catch-all parfum on the label, there is no way of knowing what the ingredients in your perfume are. How frustrated would we be if there was no way of knowing if it was genuine truffle or an artificial flavouring in our expensive truffle oil!

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I hate scare tactics but believe that, as consumers, we have the right to know what we are putting on our skin, so we can make an informed decision that fits our ethical values. Not least because if you are paying hundreds of pounds for a fragrance, I think you have the right to know whether it's genuine or artificial iris you are paying for!

How did you bring your first fragrance to life? I worked very closely with fellow New Zealander and Australasia's only Master Perfumer, Isaac Sinclair. Together we found the very best natural ingredients and many hundreds (if not thousands) of trials over nearly two years, brought our first fragrance into being.

How did you learn your craft? Training to become a perfumer myself was never something I considered. I knew that if I was going to prove to the world you could make a natural perfume that delivered on modern requirements and stood alongside the world's best - then I had to work with the world's best! My role is getting the most out of Isaac - our Nose - challenging him in the direction we want to go, while at the same time, along with our team, making sure every other aspect of Abel does justice to the beauty of our scents!

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"Truffle flavouring cannot match the real deal. It's the same with natural perfume ingredients - they are complex, alive and dynamic on your skin."

What makes natural fragrance unique? I am quoting Isaac our Nose when I say that most perfumers want to use as many naturals as possible in their formulations as they are the most expensive, luxurious, complex and noble ingredients in a perfumer's palette. Going back to our truffle example, truffle flavouring cannot match the real deal for complexity and the beauty of its profile (show me a chef who'd rather use the fake stuff!). It's the same with natural perfume ingredients - they are complex, alive and dynamic on your skin.

How do you control the sustainability of your ingredients? We are lucky to have a fragrance supplier who is very committed to sustainability and works closely with individual growers to ensure fair trade practices throughout the food chain. We use organic and fair trade certified products where possible and also try to give back. For example, the vetiver in our fragrance White Vetiver comes from Haiti, and we give 1% of the total White Vetiver sales to a grassroots non-profit called SOIL Haiti. Their important work installing sanitation transforms human waste into compost which is then used to increase productivity in the plantations.

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We don’t work with any synthetic ingredients – which are by nature non-renewable (they are synthesised from crude oil), and of which many are known not to biodegrade, but instead accumulate in our waterways and the food chain.

Packaging is a very important consideration when looking at sustainability and we are on a continual journey when it comes to this. We work with only FSC paper, vegetable dyes and soy inks, plus our newest release is the first to be packaged in biodegradable cellophane.

Where do you find inspiration? So many places! Amsterdam is an especially inspiring city to live, riding around the canals on my bike, I can’t help but be inspired at every turn. At the same time, I get a lot of inspiration from travel – in particular, interacting with different cultures. One of the things I enjoy the most about my role in Abel is being out, talking with partners and customers around the world and learning of the unique and interesting ways in which scent is a part of their life.

What challenges come with keeping your products natural? We can’t rely on modern perfume tricks like fixatives (to make the fragrance stick on your skin), clarifying agents or UV protectants, so technically, creating natural perfume can be very challenging!

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What comes first, an ingredient or the concept? Taking inspiration from my winemaking days (they say you can’t make good wine with bad grapes!) we like to choose a specific ingredient, something that both Isaac and I are drawn to. Find the most beautiful supply of that ingredient (like growing grapes, every climate has a unique terroir), then bring it to life in the most beautiful way possible. I’m a very visual person (Isaac laughs at my moodboards), but for me, matching a colour with an ingredient is a beautiful way to frame the creative direction. It’s focused, but not too narrow.

“Our whole philosophy is one of minimalism – we showcase the beauty our fragrances, in the most high-quality materials, but without distractions.”

How would you describe your brand aesthetic? Our whole philosophy is one of minimalism – a philosophy I try to live by – and it makes sense for our brand to also voice the value of less is more. We showcase the beauty our fragrances, in the most high-quality materials, but without distractions.

Why do you think it’s important to de-gender fragrance? Personally, I think gender has no role in how you should smell. Saying men shouldn’t wear florals is like saying they shouldn’t drink Champagne! In 2019, this seems particularly fitting – we’re beyond (or at least should be!) pigeon-holing based on gender, least of all with something as personal, subjective and emotional as scent!

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Tell us about your partnership with Mary’s Meals. There are so many valuable causes that need our support. For Abel, we direct most of our resource to environmental causes (1% of our total revenue to environmental causes), but Mary’s Meals is a cause that just feels right. If we can give a meal to a child in need for every bottle we sell online, we should.

What fragrance notes are you drawn to personally? Many of those that we work with! My personal favourite from our collection is Green Cedar – it reflects my desire for very natural, aromatic, “real” smells while at the same time, it’s deeply sensual and just a tiny bit dirty!

What’s your earliest scent memory? I don’t know if it’s my earliest, but it’s my most pungent…! There is a sub-tropical fruit grown throughout New Zealand - the Feijoa (also known as "pineapple guava"). It has the most amazing, distinctive taste and scent profile - sweet and sour, tropical yet grassy. It doesn't travel well and is rarely seen outside the countries it's grown (mainly NZ and South America). Thinking about them now my mouth is watering and nose taking me back to long late summer evenings!

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