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Tune Glue 016: Marissa Zappas
An interview with perfumer Marissa Zappas
Marissa Zappas is a perfumer, scent designer, and poet based in New York City. Her approach to perfumery merges her background in anthropology with her admiration for avant-garde perfumes of the early twentieth century. Her fragrances are often personal and she is known for her collaborations with New York City artists. Her ethereal and deeply nostalgic perfumes blend the fantasy and the real with the gothic and the modern.
Zappas believes creating and wearing perfume is a way of invoking future (as well as present and past) selves. Her academic work explores the history of perfumery as it relates to attitudes towards death and the history of cemetery construction. While completing her MA and ethnographic training, Marissa worked at Givaudan. There, she decided to dive fully into the art of perfumery and became an apprentice to Master Perfumer, Olivier Gillotin. She learned perfumery under his mentorship until 2017, when she left to start freelancing.
Zappas’ perfumes include Flaming Creature, a beguiling woody fragrance inspired by avant-garde filmmaker Jack Smith; Annabel’s Birthday Cake, a striking gourmand made in collaboration with astrologer Annabel Gat; and others across her Redamance and Garden collections. Perfumes in the Redamance Collection are olfactive portraits of overlooked women from history. Notably, Ching Shih was one of Tone Glow editor Joshua Minsoo Kim’s 10 Favorite Perfumes of 2022. Perfumes in the Garden Collection are meant to “evoke an aspect of a secret garden.” Zappas also scented sculptor Portia Munson’s The Pink Bedroom exhibition, which can be viewed at New York’s Museum of Sex from January 27 to July 26.
Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Marissa Zappas on December 29th, 2022 via Zoom to discuss her childhood fragrances, her anthropological background, her various perfumes, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I wanted to start off by asking about your earliest memory related to scents. What fragrances do you associate with your childhood?
Marissa Zappas: It would have to be a tie between two perfumes. The first was called Juice Bar Cotton Candy—it was a cotton candy scent from the drug store. And then the second couldn’t have been more different: it was an old-fashioned, indolic jasmine that my great aunt gave me. I didn’t particularly love the smell of it but I would spray it on my pillow. Even though I was so young, I still recognized that there was something therapeutic, the way jasmine and other flowers like lavender worked.
Is the jasmine fragrance something your great aunt wore as well, or did she just think you’d like it? What’s the story behind that?
I don’t think it’s what she wore, and I don’t know why she gave me that perfume to this day (laughs). It was a very mature scent—not a perfume I would ever give a 10 year old. But in a way, it helped me have a deeper understanding and appreciation of scent at a younger age.
What things do you feel like you were able to take away from experiencing it so young? And maybe these weren’t things you realized at 10 but realized in hindsight.
It was a formative experience. The smell of old-fashioned jasmine is one of my most nostalgic smells, so it comes up a lot in my work today. When I smell a jasmine perfume that’s really modernized and commercialized—like it’s fresh or trendy—it feels wrong to me. Like, this is not how jasmine should be (laughter). Jasmine should be dirty! My sense of what jasmine is was informed by this fragrance from my great aunt, so someone else who grew up with a ’90s or lighter version of jasmine might feel differently.
That’s an interesting thing you bring up: people have different understandings of different florals, for example, because of changes in perfume trends across decades. What are your thoughts on the commercialization of perfumery in general and how it affects people’s understanding of different scents? It’s sort of like eating artificially flavored candy and thinking that’s how a specific fruit tastes.
It’s similar to candy in that perfumery today uses so many sweet notes. Everything is much sweeter and that sweetness tends to mask what’s going on underneath the fragrance, so much so that what’s going on isn’t really anything. Perfumes from the ’80s and ’90s were more floral forward—you knew a rose fragrance was a rose fragrance because it smelled like rose. Now it’s hard to differentiate between florals because they’re masked in so much sweetness. Which, you know, is not how I like to make my fragrances. I definitely think there’s a place for gourmands and very sweet fragrances—they’re super fun and a really great gateway into more mature and interesting scents. I mean, my first scent was a cotton candy perfume. It’s kind of like… you start off with a cupcake when you’re younger and prefer a more sophisticated dessert when you’re older (laughter).
What are the markers of maturity in fragrance?
I don’t really think of perfumes in terms of maturity; I think of them more in terms of whether they are done well or if they’re balanced. With that being said, I do think there are certain markers of modernity in a fragrance. An older fragrance will often have more powdery notes and fewer synthetics since more synthetics came onto the market over time. Take Shalimar, for example, from 1925. It’s a really powdery fragrance. Vanillin had just come on the market so it has a ton of vanillin. I would even say that Shalimar was like the first gourmand (laughs). But the category of gourmand didn’t technically exist until Angel came out.
Perfumes up until the ’90s were significantly more powdery than those from the ’90s onwards. And then I would say perfumes from the ’90s and early 2000s often smell ozonic and very fresh. It’s hard for an average person who doesn’t have any vocabulary in perfume to know what I’m talking about, but when you think of perfumes from this time, think of CK One or Cool Water. These kinds of fragrances were meant to smell watery—calone, a synthetic raw material, became popularized around this time. And now when we smell these perfumes, we’ve all had these experiences with them, like with a high school partner who wore Polo Blue or Cool Water or whatever. They also might smell outdated, but not in the same way, and people within our age range still wear them, especially now with the ’90s trending. Today, I would say what smells “modern” are just fragrances that are super, super sweet.
This is super interesting because now I’m thinking about how our sense of smell bypasses the thalamus and how there’s a deeper association with it and our memories. And because of that, it’s necessary for perfumes to constantly evolve because a whole generation of people will associate them with other people, be they an older generation or even exes, like you said. I’ve never thought about that before.
They say that in order to take to a fragrance, there has to be one component that’s familiar and one that’s unfamiliar. During the beginning of the pandemic, when cottagecore was really trending, I came out with perfumes that were pretty old-fashioned—they were powdery roses—and I described them as cottagecore. And people loved them! It’s almost as if we’ve come full circle and we’re going back to the way our grandmothers smelled and dressed, maybe because we’re not trying to be like our moms anymore (laughter).
I wanted to ask about your time studying under master perfumer Olivier Gillotin. What are some things you took away from being with him? And obviously there are practical things related to identifying different notes and knowing how things would blend, but were there any guiding principles that inspired the way you approach perfumery?
When I was thinking about leaving the company that I worked for, which was a huge commercial fragrance house, I had worked with [Olivier] for two years and had essentially acted as an extension of him, putting together his formulas—sort of like a painter with an assistant. I knew the way he worked very intimately, and I knew him, too. One thing he said to me was that somebody with my passion could make more of an impact on the industry from the outside versus the inside. He also really encouraged my sensitivity—which I am, I’m a very sensitive person, and in a way it wasn’t sustainable for me to work in a corporate environment for the rest of my life. He really supported and helped me let go of continuing to try to be happy in the corporate world when I wasn’t. He basically said, there’s another way.
Also, if Olivier wasn’t in the office and another perfumer was having a really busy day, I would jump in and help with their formulas too. Over time I was able to see how different perfumers work and how each perfumer structures their formulas differently. I was lucky because I genuinely love Olivier’s perfumes. I think he’s completely brilliant. I like how he structures his formulas and there are certain raw materials that he used a lot that I now also use.
Earlier you mentioned how our thoughts on perfumes are an extension of who we are as people, and I was wondering if you could paint a portrait of who he is based on the perfumes he made.
I think that Olivier is, in a lot of ways, really classical. He was a classically trained perfumer— he’s French after all. At the same time, he’s incredibly playful, generous, a little bit quirky, and has a great sense of humor. He loves to find creative ways to utilize rare raw materials. I was always running out of certain raw materials because he’d find one in the lab that was just not really used that much, and then use it obsessively. But it was fun, I’d go down these raw material rabbit holes with him.
He’s also really unique in the sense that most commercial perfumers today aren’t interested in having assistants who are interested in becoming perfumers themselves. They just want someone who can do their formulas every day and then go home. Olivier’s rare in that he really has the time to work with someone who wants to become a perfumer. He really enjoys it too—he was so generous with his knowledge. I would say, though, that most perfumers are generous because it’s not a profession a ton of people want to get into; when you express a passion for it, they’re receptive. But to take the time—day in and day out—to work with someone is a whole different story. Olivier was dedicated, and for that I am eternally grateful.
That’s beautiful. And now I have to turn this around to you: How do you want to express yourself and how does that come out in your perfumes?
I like a lot of quiet, almost unspoken drama. I want my perfumes to be complex but wearable. I’m not trying to make perfume just for a few people—I want a lot of people to enjoy my perfumes. I don't want them to smell super niche, but at the same time I want to offer something different. I tend to do modernized versions of classic perfumes, that’s kind of my schtick right now. I was really close to my grandma and I had a lot of older women in my life I was really close to so I have a fondness for all these old-fashioned powdery perfumes, and I can’t help but recreate them in my work. And what I’m trying to do in my work is to have people not be so turned off by them.
Do you remember what these older women wore?
My great grandmother wore Shalimar, the queen of all perfumes. I really recommend just getting a little sample that has real civet in it and rubbing it into your skin. Not to be curmudgeonly, but they simply don’t make perfumes like that anymore!
They don’t! And it’s funny because I’ve been on sketchy websites trying to get vintage perfumes and have wondered… should I be trusting this random person? But it always works out.
It does always work out! I think people who are obsessed with fragrance are generally not the sort of people who are gonna screw you over—they’re honest nerds. I’ve never had a bad experience buying fragrance secondhand.
Yeah, you have to be a really specific person to want these vintage perfumes, so it’s not like it’s a lucrative market for scamming people (laughter). I wanted to shift gears: You studied anthropology, and that comes through in your perfumes. You have your Redamance Collection where you’re showcasing these different people and trying to capture them in some way. What drew you to anthropology and how did that lead you to perfumery?
I think a lot of people who are drawn to anthropology are people who are used to being on the sidelines. We’re kind of just creepy observers (laughter). I think over the years I’ve become less interested in animal behavior and more interested in the anthropology of historical events, and just actual history.
When I was in school my research was on the history of cemetery construction and the way cemeteries shifted from being in our backyards and in church courtyards to being on the periphery of cities. Our relationship with death then shifted because it went from something that was part of everyday life to something we don’t think about on a daily basis anymore.
At first, perfume was this super luxurious thing, available only to the rich to cover up the foul odors, like the perfumes and scents in the Court of Versailles. Over time, it became available to the masses. The people who lived in Versailles had their own personal perfumers. Madame de Pompadour spent something like $64,000 on perfume a year, I think maybe even more—like, that was her budget (laughter). I basically learned about the history of perfumery and thought it was interesting and couldn’t stop researching it. And I had always been obsessed with perfume and started learning about the modern industry as well. I took a temp job at this fragrance house—I was a temp receptionist—and right when I graduated there was an opening to work in the lab.
That’s an amazing sequence of events.
It’s funny when I tell it because, like, okay I was studying cemeteries and then I was a receptionist and then I became a perfumer. It totally makes so much sense (laughter).
Is there anything from your studies of cemeteries—unrelated to fragrances—that has stuck with you? And these ideas don’t have to come out in your art in any way, but maybe there are things related to how you think about life and death that stand out.
I love this question, thank you. It’s definitely personal but I’m happy to answer it. This is cliché but I studied abroad in Paris. This was my first time out of the country and I was 27 years old—I went to college late. When I got to Paris, I was really overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. I couldn’t believe I was there. One day, I stumbled into Père Lachaise, the cemetery. It’s a functioning cemetery and people and pets are still buried there, but it’s also like a museum and a park. I found myself going there every single day. It was almost like meditating—if I had a spare hour I would hop on the train and head to Père Lachaise and walk around. I even wrote a mini ethnography on Père Lachaise while I was there.
Being in Père Lachaise really allowed me to process. I had a series of people very close to me pass away in my twenties, it was like one after the other. Cemeteries can be healing because there’s a confrontation with death. I still love walking around them and wish they were more accessible on a daily basis. I think we could all benefit from being confronted with death more frequently.
Thank you for sharing all this. You’re gonna have me going down a cemetery rabbit hole now. Do you have any books you recommend?
I wanted to talk about specific perfumes you’ve made and better understand your approach to making them. Obviously some have specific conceptual underpinnings, and some are collaborations with others. Annabel’s Birthday Cake is one that people definitely know you for, and it’s funny thinking about that after learning of the cotton candy fragrance you had as a kid. I’m curious if you could talk about working with astrologer Annabel Gat on that perfume.
It’s easier for me to make a perfume when the idea or inspiration is not my own. I’m not sure why. I think it’s because my ideas tend to be the same (laughter). Like I told you, I like old-fashioned perfumes, and I would make them for the rest of my life if I could. With Annabel it was great because it was very different from something I would make on my own. I didn’t have to evaluate it myself, and she would tell me what she liked and didn’t like. It pushed me in a different direction. I worked my ass off on that perfume (laughter). For like 20 mods she was like, “There’s this weird grape bubblegum note.” And I was like, “I know, that’s what I like about it!” And I appreciate that: I like to be challenged.
It definitely requires active effort to go outside of your own comfort zones nowadays, especially with the way social media works. It really has to take someone else to expand what I can appreciate, or I have to stumble upon something, which is not as common as I’d hope. I wanted to ask about your fragrance Petrichor. Obviously that’s a whole industry. How’d you decide to approach that?
All the perfumes in the Garden Collection were from my own preferences around certain smells. One of my formative fragrances was Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens, which is just the most orris-forward fragrance ever. That was kind of the inspiration for petrichor. But there’s something about Iris Silver Mist where if you have a heavy overdose of orris, it can smell kind of barfy—sweet in a barfy way. With Petrichor, I wanted to take that orris overdose but make it earthy instead of sweet. The smell of petrichor is cold to me, like cold earth. For a lot of people it’s warmer and woodsy, but I’m like, no, it’s like the smell of cold rain on cement and dirt.
So Petrichor is a cold scent, which is a little off-putting for some people. I went to this perfume store in Paris and they were thinking of carrying my fragrances and she was clearly not into Petrichor. She was like, “I don’t understand why you thought this was the smell of petrichor.” And I was like… we just have different understandings of it. And I think everyone does based on the environment they’re in and the way they experience rain and nature.
That’s a good point because that’s what I love about perfume. Everyone’s experience with perfume is unique to their context and their understanding of the art form. With perfume I feel like there’s an innate understanding that people are experiencing it differently, and it’s a nice reminder. I don’t think people approach film or music or visual arts to that extent. There’s a totally different vibe from reading reviews on Fragrantica versus Letterboxd, for example.
There’s a similar language in perfume as with music—notes—and a similar emotional language too. With smell, we borrow from feelings or colors and I think something similar happens with music. There’s also something inherently more radical with non-visual art forms. I read somewhere that visual art is meant to kind of divide—we’re supposed to be discriminating. With non-visual art, there is more room for confusion. I think that’s beautiful and that we should embrace confusion more in general. With smell, it can just kind of exist and we all don’t have to agree on anything. There are no wrong interpretations of a scent—that is my opinion.
I get what you’re saying about perfume and music. What I love about music is that it isolates your sense of hearing, and perfume is great because it isolates your sense of smell. That reduction to a single sense reminds you that there’s more to it—and more to your body—than you realize. You take it for granted.
Interestingly, during the pandemic I sold the most perfumes because I think people were interested in having these different experiences with their bodies while remaining in isolation. Perfume is one way to do that.
I know that you had this collaboration with Yummy Colours called Notes where you imagined albums as different fragrances. It was crazy when I learned about that because ever since I got into perfume, I always paired fragrances with albums. My whole thing as a music critic is that I want to experience an album in as many ways as possible before writing about it, and I think one way to expand my understanding of a record is by pairing it with different perfumes and seeing what I can learn through that lens. Is there anything you want to speak of with regards to that collaboration?
I wish I could take some credit for that project but that idea was all from my friend Diego Marini. I know to this day that it’s his passion project—he did that because he wanted to—and he still wants to make that project real. He would love to do fragrances for albums. Music videos are certainly an example of adding a visual component to an auditory experience, and I think it was FKA twigs who launched a perfume or something. And obviously Britney Spears has her fragrance empire. Did you know that Brian Eno has written extensively about perfume?
Oh wow, I didn’t know about that.
He has tinkered with perfumery himself and has this profound obsession with it.
I’m going to look into that. And yeah, it would be great if people incorporated scent into their art as it’s a whole dimension that often gets ignored. I’ve seen some smaller musicians package their albums with perfumes, but honestly all the ones I’ve smelled have been so bad that I got offended. Like, okay, this person does not know how to make perfumes. Which is fine, but god, it makes your album seem worse.
Yeah… with perfume, it’s one of those things where you can be an underground, DIY perfumer, but there’s so much technique involved with learning perfumery. Years and years. My background is actually in classical ballet so I know this very well—in order to break tradition, it’s helpful to master the technique first. I fully support and promote all DIY perfumers. Would I wear their fragrances myself? Mostly no.
I can’t believe you did ballet! Tell me about that.
I haven’t done ballet for about 10 years, but I started dancing when I was really young, in elementary school. I almost became a professional dancer in my early 20s and moved to China to dance for this company—it was a modern company that incorporated Kung Fu—but I got sick and didn’t go. I decided to go back to school instead. I actually started pole dancing about six months ago, so I’ve been dancing again, but not ballet.
Ballet is so structured and disciplined and I resented that when I was younger because I had a teacher who hit my butt with a ruler. Not to say there’s no pleasure in that (laughter) but it was hard. I’ve had some students come to me, wanting to learn perfumery, and I tell them what they have to do every single day. You have to smell the raw materials, every single day. You have to blind smell and memorize. You have to first learn basic accords before you can formulate an entire fragrance. It took years before I started formulating a fragrance, and they just don’t wanna do that. And for me, it’s almost disrespectful to the craft. I just think as a collective we have a very short attention span these days, likely due to our phones, but it’s really not conducive to learning perfumery… I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon (laughter).
I get that—with the immediacy of everything now, it’s hard to have that sort of mindset. It’s just a reality that with everything in life, if you want to do something well you have to put in the time, and it’s a lot of time. I know you’re also a poet. Earlier you mentioned that you’re a sensitive person, and I can see that in how you’re really open to all these different artistic mediums. I really appreciate that. How do you feel like all these different experiences have impacted not just your perfumes but the way you live your life?
If I’m just writing poetry and not dancing then I’m not embodying myself as fully and in the same way as when I’m doing both. I think for a lot of perfumers, perfumery is intellectual. For me it’s not at all—it’s busy work. I use my hands a lot, it’s trial and error, I’m compounding at my little lab here. It’s really not something that requires a huge deal of thought, it’s more trial and error. You have to try it out to see but it’s not this great intellectual exercise for me—it’s more of a physical practice. Writing poetry is more intellectual for me, while dancing is an act of letting go.
The three of them all ground me, and they all nurture different sides of me. If I’m not doing those three things, I’m not doing great! I injured my arm the other day on the pole and I haven’t been able to dance for like a week and I feel so horrible (laughter).
I get what you mean by it not being a rigorous, intellectual process. I think that’s similar to how I feel about cooking.
Yeah! I often compare it to cooking.
Have any of the perfumes you made been particularly challenging to make?
Yes, Imperia La Divina. I worked on that perfume for like six years (laughs). I actually started it when I was at the company that I worked for. I tried to recreate Paris by YSL—the original one that came out in the ’80s—just from blind smelling it. It’s one of my favorite perfumes, the original Paris. It was done by Sophia Grojsman, who is a perfumer icon for me. Basically, Imperia La Divina is a modernized version of Paris by YSL, and because I’m so attached to Paris, it had to be good enough to even compare. It had to honor the original in some way, it had to do her justice.
I could not come to a mod that I was happy with for years, and that’s why the Redamance Collection launched a couple years ago with just one perfume—I didn’t want to release the others because I didn’t think they were ready. I think because they’re more explicitly meant to represent real people, I felt more of an obligation to get them right. Whereas with the Garden Collection, I was less obsessive about them. La Divina was the most obsessive I have been with a perfume, and to be honest it paid off because it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever made.
It’s really good! And I love that you’re saying all this because it goes back to what you were saying with regards to having a respect for the art form.
You’re scenting The Pink Bedroom, Portia Munson’s exhibition at the Museum of Sex. What can you tell me about that?
Portia’s work, to me, always feels very exploded, like an exploded femininity—so it’s like my perfume and maybe perfume in general. I'm honored to be a part of it.
There’s a question I always like to end my interviews with: Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
I would have to say it’s my resilience.
Is there a recent moment where you were like, god… good thing I’m resilient.
It’s more cumulative. In my only memory of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, I remember Kris Jenner going on about how whenever somebody told her no, she just turned around and found somebody who said yes. If there’s one lesson in my life, it has to be that. People will always say no, and as I’ve said, I’m a really sensitive person, so for a lot of my life I would just hear no and take it at face value.
Eventually, I started looking around for more yes’s. And you will find people who say yes to you, but it’s also about not always asking for permission. This will sound kind of woo-woo but I do believe in divine timing. Things will happen when they’re meant to happen. I’ve had a lot of major setbacks in my life. I did not even think I would live past 35—I was told by a doctor that I wouldn’t. When I turned 35 I was like, I can do anything now (laughter).
More info about Marissa Zappas and her perfumes can be found at her website. Her scent for Portia Munson’s The Pink Bedroom exhibition can be experienced at New York’s Museum of Sex from January 27 to July 26.
I asked Marissa to create a list of her ten favorite perfumes. Her list is presented below.
Shalimar by Guerlain
Apre l'Ondee by Guerlain
Yvresse by YSL
Nahema by Guerlain
Nuit Etoilee by Annick Goutal
Willow World Oil from Enchantments NYC
Chanel no. 18 by Chanel
Oronardo by Xinu
Holy Hell by Universal Flowering
Iris Nazarena by Aedes de Venustas
Thank you for reading the sixteenth issue of Tune Glue. Honor the art you love.
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