I'm sure I'm not alone in that many of my strongest memories are associated with smells. I just need to walk past a stem of lavender to be transported straight to my first year of high school, whose playground was adorned with masses of the purple scented flowers...
Similarly, passing a woman wearing Viktor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb takes me back to my first visit to Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City, when it seemed to be sprayed liberally across your body as you entered the store, whether you liked it or not. (Thankfully, I loved it.)
There’s a fragrance that reminds me of my mum, of my grandmother, of my aunt, of my best friend.
Up until now, I wasn’t quite sure what scent would remind people of me. If I were thinking optimistically, I’d say it would be of that delicious new baby smell. More realistically, it could be a mix of smeared Vegemite with an undertone of Dettol. (Surely the markings of any mother of children of toilet-training age.)
Now, however, thanks to Johanna Monange of Maison 21G, I can tell you that my signature scent will be of orris and tuberose. Johanna – a leader and a powerhouse in the perfume world, having been a key nose in the fragrance industry for over 20 years – has brought about a new approach to perfume.
With the creation of Maison 21G, Johanna allows us all to create bespoke fragrances based on our personalities, mood or preferred ingredients. Completely tailor-made, either via survey online or in one of the stunning boutiques in Sydney and Singapore – each personalised perfume is encapsulated in a 21-gram customisable bottle (representing the weight of our soul).
Incredibly high quality, sustainable, natural and cruelty free, the eau de parfums are also made with the highest level of perfume concentrate in the industry (21%, naturally).
We spoke to Johanna about her approach fragrance and how she’s built this quiet revolution while raising three boys between two cities. Whatever Johanna’s signature scent is, we’d like to bottle it.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background in fragrance?
I have been working in the perfume industry for 20 years. I trained as a nose then became a creative artistic director where I guided noses to develop fragrances for big brands, such as Proctor and Gamble, Jean Patou, Lacoste, Hugo Boss, L’Oréal, Lancôme, Armani, Viktor and Rolf, Puig Group who own Paco Rabanne, Nina Ricci, Prada. I created a lot of products for them whilst working for IFF Firmenich.
What was the impetus to go out on your own?
I decided to break free about 5 months ago because I think the perfume industry is losing creativity, passion and handcraftsmanship. Large fragrance companies try to fit everybody with one scent, and it is becoming more and more difficult because not everyone is the same.
I think we stopped putting the consumer at the heart of the experience. We were trying to push an already made fragrance on them and I want to go against that and do the opposite. I want to put personality and desires at the heart of the experience to help find every individual find their scent identity, that’s important to me and that’s why I decided to break free and create my own company.
What is the vision behind Maison 21G?
The vision is to bring transparency and education into the perfume industry. Today, fragrance has become monopolised by big groups that have no interest in educating people on fragrance. They keep the industry very opaque so they can price products as they want and they can push the same kind of product to everybody.
I want to explain to people what ingredients they have inside their product, I want to help them find what they like, what fits them. Like when you go to a restaurant, you know what kind of cuisine you like and what your tastebuds want. I think it should be the same in perfumery, you should be able to identify what you like. I want to guide people to design their own fragrances on their own, empower people and in return, I would love that the community gives me new ideas about things they want to try, it has to be a partnership between consumer and my brand.
It’s so exciting and interesting to design your own fragrance. Can you tell us about the beauty behind the sense of smell?
The sense of smell is the most difficult sense because you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, there is no colour, there is no shape. I always compare it to the soul, your soul says so much about yourself and the scent is the same. The first thing you do when you’re born is smell, you smell your mother with your eyes closed and create an instant bond. It’s a very animalistic instinct and we use it less and less, so I would love to put the sense of smell back into the heart of your life.
We remember 35% of what we smell and only 5% of what we see. We are a very visual society, and I think we need to bring back the sense of smell because it can enrich your life, give you more sensation and give you more depth in what you do. It’s proven that the only part of the brain that decreases is the part that identifies smell and it’s because we don’t use it anymore. This is such a shame, so I’m here to reopen the sense of smell for everybody and educate them about diversification and the importance of integrating scent into your life and to connect with other senses, with food, art photography, it’s a holistic experience, understanding the sense of smell.
What are some of the most popular scents people select? What about some of the most unique?
In general, the popular scents are what big brands have released, floral-fruity scents, that has been popular for years. At Maison 21G, the most popular scent depends on the country. In Australia, people love notes with depth, like sandalwood. Women love frangipani, a very soft floral. People are starting to love the smell of cannabis, but I think that’s more trend-based. They also love rhubarb which is a completely unknown smell. Mimosa is also a very appreciated flower and muguet – lily of the valley.
My most unique scent I think is the tobacco scent. Most people are afraid that it will smell like cigarettes, but no, we use the natural tobacco leaves and it has such a complex aroma of dried fruit and walnut, it’s very complex. We have turned it into a beautiful scent. I’m also very proud of the vanilla that I’ve made because we use the vanilla bean extract. You will find that natural vanilla is the opposite of the synthetic vanilla, it has a lot of complexities. It’s a beautiful ingredient that has been massified by the food industry and cheap products, but it’s beautiful.
How can we go about defining our signature scent?
It’s all about your personality and your DNA where you have grown up and how you want to position yourself in society. Do you want to be outstanding and distinguish yourself, or integrated and smell elegant and fresh. Different people have different agendas and the level of motivation you want to put into yourself. Whether you’re traditional and stick to what you know, or if you’re more adventurous and you want to try new things. It depends on your personality and value of life. Also the ‘why’, what you want this fragrance for. It’s very important. What is your DNA, culture, where you come from, what is your value in life, how do you want to position yourself in society, and why do you want to create this perfume.
How do you make the juggle work with three boys, a thriving business and life in two cities?
It’s very difficult. You have to make some sacrifices. My boys are very independent. They see the value of work and they see the value of dedication, so they know what I’m doing. Now that I have the boutiques, they see my product, they even come by after school with friends. As long as you explain to your kids what you do, they can picture your life and they can be part of it. Sometimes they help me with advertising, they have really enjoyed the journey and are sensitive to scent. Of course, I spend little time with them, so the time I get with them must be very qualitative. It’s hard to combine everything, but women today need to be everything and I’m doing it!
Why are Sydney and Singapore your first markets? Where next?
Singapore was my first market because my career has been a mix between Europe and Asia. I spent half of my career in Asia, I love the culture and the history of Asia, however they are also developing and fastmoving, whereas Europe is a bit stuck in tradition and it’s difficult to bring new things into Europe. Singapore is the heart of Asia and it was the best place to open a start-up.
Australia really made sense to me as well because it’s all about nature, sustainability, the concern of making a better world and this part of the brand is connected to Australians. They are also open to new concepts that are true and authentic.
Next would be in a country that can understand the value of tradition, so we’re thinking of Japan or Korea and eventually the middle east!