One of the more interesting independent brands to spring up has been Zoologist Perfumes. Owner and Creative Director Victor Wong evolved from perfume lover into perfume creator. One thing I have remarked upon is in all of the releases Mr. Wong has been choosing some of the best independent perfumers to work with. I was considering this had to be a unique relationship as most of these perfumers are used to working on their own. How different was it for them when taking input from a creative director? I had the opportunity to explore this with Mr. Wong and the independent perfumer Dr. Ellen Covey on their collaboration for the fifth Zoologist release, Bat.
The story begins in April 2015 when Dr. Covey approached Mr. Wong to ask if he was interested in pursuing a “Bat” perfume. Dr. Covey is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington. Mr. Wong had not included bat on his list of animals for Zoologist. Dr. Covey’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the animal convinced him to add it in. Then they went to work.
Dr. Covey told me, “First off, I would like to say that Victor has been a joy to work with from start to finish. He gave me free rein to initially develop the basic direction of the fragrance as I would have for my own line, with modifications thereafter, in collaboration. He did not give me a budget, so I was able to use the materials I needed, like real sandalwood.”
Mr. Wong was thinking about the concept in general, “But what should Bat smell like? Metallic notes of "blood" and gothic roses came into my mind. Dr. Covey disagreed, "What I envision for Bat is not a 'bright and cheery' fruit salad, but rather a dark musky fruity note that's like the bats' own odor (which is pleasant to humans) along with damp, earthy-mineral limestone caves and tropical vegetation scents. There might also be just a hint of the ganja smoke that I associate with observing bats in Jamaica. I'm not into doing yet another American pop mythology goth-girl perfume. There have been more than enough of those.”
As Dr. Covey would recall the distance between Washington and Toronto became an issue, “The biggest difference in working with a creative director in another city was the long lag time as each round of mods were shipped and slowly made their way through customs before I could get his feedback. When I’m working on my own, this feedback process happens immediately and almost unconsciously.”
Upon receiving the first trials Mr. Wong relates, “I received my first "mods", or perfume mockups in little 5ml sprayer bottles. I think there were 5 or 6 of them; while they all smelled interesting, none of them struck me as I was smelling a "Bat" perfume. Well, except mod #5. When I first sniffed it, I literally laughed out loud, because it smelled exactly like a cave. The olfactive association was so startling that I almost lost it: a scary hollow cave that's earthy, vegetal, moist and full of minerals. Wow. I told Ellen I really loved #5, but I worried that no one would want to wear it. My friends who also had smelled it thought it was interesting but no one would want it. But I trusted my gut instinct that I had something really unprecedented and unique that was worth developing further. (I might add that Zoologist is such a small indie perfume house it should take some risks.)”
Focusing on Mod # 5 the ebb and flow of ideas continued. Dr. Covey was open to showing Mr. Wong what effect some suggested changes could have, “I’m sure Victor won’t mind my saying this, but a few of his suggestions resulted in my sending “caricature” mods to show what would happen if I implemented them in a literal way, thus subtly nudging him in the direction that I thought things should go. He did have many excellent suggestions, all of which I happily implemented.”
One of these ideas from Mr. Wong was to make it darker which would be the final suggestion which pulled Bat together, “At one point I told Ellen that the revisions lacked "darkness", and the vetiver in the base was the last scent to go away and it smelled very fresh, which I thought was not very bat-like. We had some discussions of what ingredients could be added to make it smell "darker". At the end, we added myrrh, which complemented the earthiness of the perfume, some leather and furry musk to make it more animalic, and suddenly the scent came alive.”
Of course coming to a decision that you are done is always difficult and both Dr. Covey, “By the time we got to the last set of mods, I felt like any further suggestions would lead to muddying of the fragrance at worst, and diminishing returns at best. In formulating any fragrance, the trick is to know when to declare it finished. I’m glad we could both agree on when that point had been reached.” And Mr. Wong, “I will be honest with you, deciding which revision is the final product is the hardest thing to do. It is particularly hard when Bat is nothing like anything out there. The decision finally came easy when I told Ellen that I found a particular mod "addictive". I just couldn't stop sniffing it. We both agreed, and I launched that scent on New Year's Eve of 2016.”
The final word on this collaboration comes from Dr. Covey as in a few words she answers the question I posed at the beginning of this, “In the end, I was pleased with the result, and I think Victor was, too. It’s hard to say how different the fragrance would have been if I had done it on my own, because now I can’t envision it any other way. I had fun working on Bat and feel as if I’ve gotten to know Victor as a friend even though I’ve never met him in person.”
My thanks to Victor Wong and Dr. Ellen Covey for being so gracious in allowing me a look behind the curtain at the work it took to create Zoologist Perfumes Bat.